Finding the Line

Author’s Note: Happy New Year! This racing-themed one-shot first appeared in the 2019 NaruSaku Zine, featuring all AU fics and art.

When the orange race car finally stopped rolling it was upside down, roof dented in, with a crack across the windshield like a bolt of lightning. Beyond it, a jet-black car sped away toward the finish line. The momentary pulse of blue flame from its exhaust was a message: Loser.

Naruto pushed the door open and crawled out. He was unhurt, but he was livid. He had driven harder and faster than ever. But he still lost. Naruto only had five days before his next race. Five days to get his car repaired. And five days to figure out how to beat Sasuke Uchiha.

Naruto had been chasing the Uchiha since before came to Konoha Race Track, when he’d only heard about the racing prodigy. Back when he stupidly thought they might have been friends. The top-slotted driver even greeted the newcomer with a friendly smile. Until he pointed to the leaderboard. “See that Uzumaki? Only one winner. But there’s always room for another loser. Welcome aboard!”

From that moment on, Naruto made it his mission to beat him. When he drove, he gunned for the black car. When he practiced laps, he pictured the black car beside him, racing him as he tried to beat the Uchiha’s times. He’d imagined the start — roaring off the line and watching the Uchiha’s frustrated face in his rearview mirror — so many times it felt like it was going to happen…. But it never did. 

He burned up the five days before the next race focused only on the Uchiha. He tore around the track for hours on end, getting there earlier and staying later, trying to figure out how to beat him. He used the older track cars to try to work out the course and shave off milliseconds. He dive-bombed the curves and gunned it down the straightaways, even setting those old beater cars to rattling so much his teeth hurt. 

He could drive anything, and he knew it. They all did. That’s how he got a slot on the team. Raw power and sheer determination.  But for the first time, he thought maybe that wasn’t enough. Maybe he wasn’t enough. Because even on his best day he hadn’t been able to beat the Uchiha’s time.

The night before the next race, it was no different. He had been waiting hours in his empty garage for his car to be brought back. The time preyed on his mind. He paced around his garage, his mind running the same unending race, until he settled on a new thought. What if the prodigy wasn’t really a prodigy after all? What if it was something else helping him win?

Voices passed by outside, one of them familiar. He needed an edge. And by sundown, with no car in sight, he was just desperate enough to go to the one person who might hold the key. 

“Hey!” The clutch of female drivers turned, surprised at the sound from the empty garage. But only the pink-haired one slowed in recognition of the voice. “It’s H-Haruno, right? Can I ask you something—“

“See you later,” they said when they realized she was actually going to hang around and talk to the new guy.

Naruto swallowed and screwed up his courage, the same way he had when he’d talked himself onto the track, oozing confidence and asking for a chance to drive, just one lap and he’d blow them away. He didn’t give up, and it worked. But he had a weakness where Sasuke’s mechanic was concerned. She unnerved him. 

She waited, peering at him in the setting sunlight, holding him in her green gaze, making him nervous all over again. 

He ran a hand through his hair, grasping for that old confidence. “So I was wondering if you could just uh…give me some pointers. About the Uchiha, you know? Something he’s doing that I’m not?” He turned on the charm and leaned in, smiling. “I mean, I know we’re all supposed to be the same, to make it fair. But c’mon. You can tell me. You’re his secret weapon right?” She smiled and he laughed, and he saw his opening and went for it. “No, but seriously. It’s got to be the engine right? He’s running something different right?” Her smile vanished. He swerved. “Aw, it’s no big deal,” Naruto lied. “I was just curious. I know he’s doing something different than the rest of them. He can’t be that good!” His laughter thinned. She narrowed here eyes and looked past his shoulder into the empty garage. His laughter died out. “It’s okay. You probably can’t tell me anyway, since you’re the Uchiha’s mechanic and all—” She frowned sharply.

“Sai hasn’t brought your car back yet?” He looked away. A single light bulb buzzed in the emptiness. “And you race tomorrow, right?” He ran a hand through his hair, the nervousness coming back. He glanced at her, and she was watching him, seeing it all. 

She was perceptive, just like the first time he saw her, sliding out from under the Uchiha’s engine, a smudge of grease on her cheek and a dirty jumpsuit with a name patch spelling it out: Haruno. She just smiled while she waited for him to catch on. She was the Haruno the heard so much about. She was the best mechanic on Konoha’s track. She was the one permanently linked with the Uchiha at the top of the leader board. 

He was driver without a car, standing in an empty garage, being scrutinized by the best mechanic on Konoha’s track. It made him even more nervous than facing the Uchiha on the starting line. He knew that’s why he never worked up the nerve to speak with her for too long. Even now in the dim light, with the sleeves of her jumpsuit tied around her waist, her pale shirt underneath, and her pink hair pulled loosely to the side, he felt like he couldn’t look directly at her. She saw through him, and it made him feel like an impostor. She worked so hard, she knew every nut and bolt of every car on the team. She could listen to an engine and tell you what was wrong. All he did was drive faster than everyone else. He didn’t even have to try, it just happened. That strategy worked, until now. 

He was chasing the Uchiha, but the truth was they were both out of his league. He had been joking before, but maybe she really was his secret weapon. He wouldn’t be surprised. “Listen, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked— “ 

“Come on, I want to show you something—“ Naruto blinked, but she was already walking away. “Come on,” she nodded back at his empty garage. “Got something better to do?” Naruto laughed and followed her.

Naruto followed her to a garage in the storage area for junk and parts vehicles. It was far from the pristine aisle where the Uchiha’s multiples bays were. Keys jingled. She flipped back the lock and pushed up the rusty door. Inside was the front end of a tarp-covered car, angling out of the darkness. She walked in confidently, reaching up for a string to a single overhead light. 

“I feel like going for a drive.” She ripped back the tarp, revealing a matte-black car with shimmering pink petals rippling back from the tire wells. The flew up the sides and wrapped the back trunk, flickering in high-gloss against the flat surface. In the half-light, the black of the car disappeared, making the look like a frozen upswell of cherry blossoms. He was sure the effect was even heightened by speed.  

It’s beautiful,” he breathed. 

“You think so?” 

“Yeah! I—“ He had agonized over the right shade of orange paint, but this— He never dreamed a car could look like this. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“Good!” Her voice turned suddenly firm. “Now get in.”

She started it up with a huge rev, gunning the engine a few times in the empty space and letting it roar around them. For the first time there was a hint of a smile in her voice. “Put your seatbelt on—“

Naruto reached back when the car shot out of the garage, back wheels spinning wide at the lethal combination of speed and a narrow turn. Naruto hung onto the seat belt till the car straightened out, then slipped it on, glancing over at Sakura who was now shifting gears and getting the engine up to speed. Her expression was confident. And he understood her in that moment. Racing had always made him feel like he could do anything. Looking over from the passenger seat, it was clear she felt the same way.

At the turn to go out onto the track, Naruto’s body unexpectedly lurched the opposite way. She turned instead toward a rarely used security entrance, and then they were out of the compound. Sakura shifted gears and pushed her foot all the way to the floor. The red tail lights tore away from the darkened race track and disappeared into the wooded hills around the complex. 

She drove higher and higher, following the ribbon of road up the mountains. It looped out, with only a thin guard rail, and Naruto could see huge views opening up before him.

He liked this, this kind of curved-road driving. Not racing, but just enjoying putting the car through the paces. They got to the top. There was an enormous vista. Below were pockets of towns, scattered like clusters of stars in the blackness beneath them. 

Sakura was impatient to go. She revved the engine again, and when he looked back with a nod, only to see that she was now wearing black racing gloves and her hair was pulled back and she looked as fierce as her sleek red car in the glow of the dash lights—

Naruto was suddenly flung back into his seat when Sakura shot out of the parking lot. She hurtled down the road gaining speed and careening toward the first big curve when Naruto’s stomach flipped and he knew they were going to plummet over the side—

But at the last second, Sakura jerked up the hand brake and the car slid sideways through the curve. Naruto was disoriented, pinned to the seat. He glanced out to see only the view of the sky filling up window, and more panic set in. The car spun around as if tethered to a pole in the front. He heard gravel from the edge of the road echo off the low guard rail, proving just how close they were. 

They rounded the arc, Sakura eased off the brake and Naruto felt the car coming back to a safer speed. The clench in his stomach began to ease…. 

Sakura punched it again, hurtling toward the next corner. Naruto held his breath and forced himself to keep his eyes open, telling himself she obviously knew what she was doing, even as the got closer and closer, past where he thought she’d brake until the road disappears and gravel flung off the side and he gripped the edge of his seat waiting to be thrown out into the void—

When she pulled hard on the brake, sending the back-end sliding and forcing the car into an even sharper sideways slide through the curve. She held on to the wheel hard, fighting for control, gravel ricocheting around them. Her lights shined up into the trees off the road as the went down enormous curve almost sideways. It was nearly a perfect circle.

She stopped and smiled. Naruto breathed and let go of his seat. He swallowed. His mouth was dry. “You’re a drifter!”

Sakura chuckled. “I’ve seen you drive. I knew you could handle it.” His smile widened. 

She started up again, this time talking while she threw them through the hooked curves. 

“You drive fast. And that’s good. But you’re not like Sasuke, so you shouldn’t drive like him. You should stay focused on your goal—” 

“I am!” His argument was silenced when she threw the car into the next curve. He gripped the seat, but she never looked at him. 

“Then it’s not enough.” Her voice was as tight and controlled as her steering. “Get a new goal.” The next curve was silence. Sakura focused and Naruto frowned.

“It’s like this,” she said, nodding to the brief straightaway. “I don’t follow the yellow lines or even the shape of the road. If I want to have a good turn, then I have to be thinking two curves ahead. I have to find my own line and stay focused on that.”

And then, just like that, she was dive-bombing the next curve, holding the wheel and kicking up smoke and dust around them.

“Find a goal. Carve out your line. Don’t lose focus. Ever.” She caught him with a side glance. “And you can’t do that if you are watching the driver beside you.” She shot him a quick grin before concentrating again. 

He smiled and relaxed into the seat, trying to think like her, trying to feel when she threw the car into the curve and when she exited. This time, he saw how she was already planning for the next curve, downshifting and braking and spinning the car until it looked the world looked like starlight around them. 

When they pulled up to his open garage door, Sakura’s lights bounced off Naruto’s car in the garage. He flipped on the light. Instead of a screaming orange beast, it was like hers. Flat black, but instead of petals, there were glittering orange flames ripping up through the black. When in motion, it was meant to look like the car is setting the road on fire. He is speechless.

Sakura smiled. “Sai does a good job.” 

“D-Did you know?” 

Sakura shook her head. “No, but I told him if there wasn’t time to paint it then give it a wrap like mine. Something…you know…fast. Something that looked like you.” This time Sakura smiled and looked away. Naruto felt the tips of his ears going warm. 

There was a keychain on the table. It was just like Sakura’s as well, except with a swirl and cherry blossoms, this was a swirl and fire, and a stylized fox was in the center of it.

“Haruno, I—“

She stopped him. “Call me Sakura.”

Surprised, Naruto took in her hair and her whole face. He’d never known anyone like her. She was a beautiful mixture of extremes, and her name, which he guessed she didn’t tell many people, just made her even prettier in his eyes.

“Sakura,” he said softly, “I don’t know what to say—“

“Then don’t. Just win.” She opened her car door. “And just so you know, I’ve checked the engines myself. They’re identical. You and Sasuke are evenly matched.” She got in, closing the door, leaving him to consider her words.

The window rolled down. “And one last thing. Don’t call me Sasuke’s mechanic. I’m the lead mechanic. I only work on the number one car. So…if that’s something you’re interested in….”

She fixed him with that perceptive gaze, and smiled, letting him fill in the rest. She was thinking two curves ahead. And he was finally beginning to catch on….

“Good luck, Naruto.”

Naruto waited at the start. The black car rolled up beside him, but he shut it out. Instead he concentrated on the low growl of his own car, felt it rumble beneath him. He stayed focused on finding his line, on winning the race…and on those pretty green eyes…. He had a new goal now.

Red clicked to green. The pedal hit the floor. The Kyuubi roared off the start. To the driver in his rearview, the brilliant orange flame from the exhaust made Naruto’s car look like it set the road on fire.