Okay, well, I've never actually written a Naruto/Sakura fic before, and I suppose it wasn't the smartest thing to write an AU as my first fic for them. Oh well. Personally, I really like this, though that could just be it's so different from my usual style, for the most part.

So, I guess I should explain this story a little. Problem is, after you read this you'll know about as much as me. I haven't the slightest clue how I came up with this, and I mostly made things up as I wrote. The basic idea is that it's not very canon (I'm not even sure if they're still ninja in this) but it follows very basic ideas, such as Sasuke leaving the village and Naruto having the Nine-Tails within him. I think because of the AU-ness of this, Naruto's character is rather different from canon, but I hope I still pulled him off well enough. Really sorry if I didn't and it bothers you. Naruto is my favourite character of all time, so I'm not trying to disrespect him or anything. Nor Sasuke, if it seems like I made him out to be one of those characters that's there just so it progresses the story, then gets kicked out. This was just an idea I came up with, and I wrote it.

Well, I guess that's all I can really say. This is by far the weirdest and most confusing fanfic I've ever written. Who ever heard of an author who doesn't understand what they wrote? Me, I suppose. Anyways, despite the confusion and the likely OOC-ness, I hope you like it.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

A Fox in the Forest

The soft earth parted as she laid her feet down one by one, in the same continuous pattern of left, right, left, right...With downcast eyes she couldn't see where she was going, much less care. There were trees. And some animals. A forest, probably. She was walking on a dirt path—wait, there was dirt everywhere. She must have strayed from it some time ago. She hadn't noticed the change. She didn't care. So long as it wasn't back in the village, she could end up in the middle of the ocean. Just not back home.

"Don't leave me!"

She flinched; she felt the sting of her fingernails as her arms shifted even tighter around her, shielding her from anything that might hurt her. Not that it mattered anymore. She had already received more hurt than she could have ever imagined, a little more wouldn't make a difference.

"I'll scream, and—"

Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth as her teeth bit down hard on her lower lip. A single tear slid down her cheek and mixed with it, falling to the ground in a small, swirling red pool. A second later her sandal unknowingly crashed down upon it, lost forever within the thick, dark earth beneath her feet.

"...Thank you."

A sharp intake of breath, but this time the girl otherwise managed to control her reaction. For the first time she looked up, her green eyes scanning her surroundings and coming to the quick realization that she hadn't the slightest idea where she was. She supposed it didn't really matter anyway; if she wasn't able to find her way home, it was no loss to her.

Her knees suddenly wobbled, and she found herself unable to bear her own weight much longer. She leaned heavily against a nearby tree, but she quickly slid to the ground as even with the tree's assistance gravity called to her too strongly to resist. It tugged at her eyelids, forcing them shut as she drifted into an uneasy sleep fraught with numerous versions of the nightmare she had lived only hours ago, all ending the same way.

- X - x - X -

She woke up some time later to something moist touching her face with gentle prods. She twitched, and a brush of air ruffled her hair as the moist-something poking her face shifted away. Thinking it ran away, she felt almost sad for a moment as she felt abandoned for the second time in less than a day. She quickly brushed the feeling off as she scolded herself for being so stupid, and opened her eyes.

Bright blue eyes were staring back at her.

She squealed, jumping up into a half-crouching position, and the creature mimicked her to an extent as it let out a high-pitched yelp and backed up several feet, so she could see its full appearance.

It was a fox; a younger one, she assumed, from its smaller appearance and somehow childlike look. Its bright blue eyes were the feature that stuck out most, compared to its bright orange fur. Along the muzzle were what almost looked like black scars; three on each side, almost like a second set of more visible whiskers. It had the typical black paws and white-tipped tail that all foxes had, but she almost felt as if the fox were different somehow, like it had some unique quality to it that set it apart from the other wild creatures of its kind.

She scolded herself a second time, again for being stupid. It was just a dumb fox. Her teeth clenched.

"What do you want?" she demanded of the fox. It just continued to watch her with its wide, blue eyes. She glared hard at it, hoping to scare it off. It blinked slowly.

"Tch, fine, do whatever you want," she snarled, more to herself than the fox, as she slumped back against the tree and pointedly stared anywhere the fox wasn't. The fox continued to watch her, much to her irritation, before taking a step forward. She froze, before glaring at it again. The fox took another step forward. Another glare. Step. Glare. The pattern continued so naturally that she didn't notice how close the fox was getting until it stood inches from her face.

It was only when the fox was so close to her that she realized how meaningful its gaze seemed.

At first it had been staring at her as though curious, and interested in watching the only other living thing within the vicinity that moved. But with its twin blue orbs a mere foot and a half from her own, she saw that its gaze seemed to almost be speaking to her...

Finally, with the pressure of recent events and the fox gazing intently at her nearby, she relented. She told the story of how she was in love with a young man. How he was so focused on revenge that nothing else seemed to matter to him. How she was madly in love with him, and how foolish she now felt as she realized there had been no chance for her. Lastly she told of how he left, and how, in her misery, she had come to the forest.

Throughout the fox had made no small sounds or movements, barely even the blink of its eyes, the blue eyes that had held her gaze intently the entire time. After her story had finished, the fox's eyes seemed to have lost the strange desperation in favour of something akin to approval. Had the fox actually sensed her grief, and understood her explanation...?

She had to admit, she felt a little better. The fox seemed to sense this and tilted its head in a fashion that seemed to represent a smile. In return her lips had curled into a small smile before she realized what she was doing.

"Thank you," she murmured, reaching out to pet the fox. It squirmed slightly, seeming almost embarrassed. She giggled, something she hadn't done in a long time. She closed her eyes for a moment as memories flooded over her.

She stood slowly, much to the confusion of the blue-eyed fox. "Well, I guess I should go back." She still didn't want to return home, but after her encounter with the fox she realized she had to go back. She started walking in the direction of home (she hoped), and paused once to look back at the fox, sitting with a forlorn appearance.

"I'll come back," she promised, before she could realize how ridiculous she sounded. The fox perked up slightly, and she smiled. For some reason seeing the fox sad tugged at her heart in a way she had never felt before.

"My name's Sakura, by the way," she added. Then with another few steps she was gone.

- X - x - X -

True to her word, Sakura visited the fox many times. When she was happy, when she was sad...the fox saw the many sides of her, and the things she often bottled up when she was with others. But talking to the fox was consoling. It was very possible that she found comfort in the fox because it could not speak nor judge, but Sakura felt that there was another reason entirely.

She walked through the forest with a cheery gait, far different from her first visit, eager to see the fox again. But as the tree which had become their meeting place came into view, she noticed a young boy standing there instead of the fox. He had bright blonde hair and wore an orange jumpsuit.

"Um...Who are you?" she called out hesitantly, stopping a safe distance away. The boy turned around, and Sakura went rigid as she saw the boy's bright blue eyes. They looked so familiar...

He looked confused at first, but upon seeing Sakura his whole face lit up in a wide grin that stretched the odd whisker-like marks on his cheeks. "Hey, Sakura!"

"How do you know my name?" She was uncertain of what to think of him. The boy was a complete stranger to her, but somehow a combination of his cheerful demeanour and odd blue eyes made her want to trust him.

"Don't you remember?" he asked; she wasn't sure if he was insulted or teasing her, or if it was something else completely. "We've been meeting here almost every day for the past few months."

The past few months? Sakura hadn't ever met with anyone here but the fox...Unless he was the fox. But then..."Weren't you a four-legged animal a few days ago?"

As if the statement had insulted him, the boy grew solemn. "...Yeah..."

Sakura felt that familiar feeling as she once again saw the fox—well, boy—looking upset. "I-I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."

"You didn't," he said quickly. "It's just...Well, it's a long story."

Feeling bold, Sakura took several steps forward, so she was within arm's length of the boy. "I've got time."

The boy smiled faintly; his gratitude for her unspoken agreement to listen. "By the way, I'm Naruto."

- X - x - X -

As it turned out, Naruto was actually a boy who had been cursed with a demon inside of him. His father had fought the Nine-Tailed Fox, a vicious beast that had terrorized his home. In order to protect everyone else, his father had nullified the fox's powers and gave his life to seal the powerless beast into his son. At first it had seemed like nothing had happened, like Naruto didn't have the beast that had nearly destroyed their home sealed inside him. But soon the fox had emerged, holding onto the little power it had left, and cursed Naruto to remain in the form of a fox, "Until the last flower blooms" as his riddle stated.

"So...I still don't quite get it," Sakura admitted, carefully aware of her tone so she didn't hurt the boy again. "If the 'last flower' has 'bloomed', or whatever, and you're human again, then why is it so bad?"

They sat side-by-side below the tree where she had first encountered him. It felt strange to her to be meeting there again, this time with Naruto as a human. But it was a good strange. She watched as Naruto stared at what he couldn't see beyond the dense trees surrounding them, gathering his reply. His sparkling blue eyes seemed to be filled with regret. Sakura didn't understand what he had to be remorseful for.

"The Nine-Tails...Its curse turned me into a fox. It said I would be free when the 'last flower bloomed'. I'm not really sure what it means, but it obviously happened."

"...I'm still not getting the bad part to this."

Naruto turned to face her, and she was terrified by the look of self-loathing he displayed. "...There was a second part of the curse. When I ended up free...so would the Nine-Tails."

Sakura blinked with shock. "The Nine-Tails is free?"

"Yeah...and it's all my fault." Naruto picked up a nearby rock and threw it at one of the trees. It made a slight indent in the wood as the rock hit its target, then fell to the forest floor.

"But how is this your fault?" Sakura asked, hesitantly reaching out to rest her hand on his shoulder. He tensed slightly, but otherwise didn't respond.

"I was the one the Nine-Tails was sealed within, and therefore its life was linked to mine. If only I had killed myself earlier, this wouldn't have happened and—"

"Don't say that!"

Naruto looked over, taken aback by her outburst. Sakura had to admit she was rather surprised as well. The amount of emotion she felt when she thought of him, a boy she had only met a few months ago and had known as a fox until that day, killing himself, was overwhelming. But she couldn't stop, as the words were already pouring out of her mouth.

"It's not your fault! So what if the Nine-Tails was sealed inside you? You weren't the one who wanted to destroy your home, the fox did! So don't go around saying that you should be dead, because you should be alive just like everyone else and live just like everyone else and enjoy life like it's supposed to be!"

Tears were pouring out of her eyes at that point, and she hiccupped with sobs every few seconds. She felt like a blubbering mess, but she just couldn't stop. She couldn't stand the thought of him giving away his life like that for something that wasn't his fault.

"Sakura..." he murmured.

"I-I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me. I just can't stop crying, and—"

She was cut off as his soft lips were pressed against hers. She couldn't conjure up the brainpower to comprehend what was happening, let alone respond, but he didn't seem insulted. In fact, his expression was rather pensive.

"'Until the last flower blooms'..." he murmured. Sakura looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to clarify, but he didn't explain further. "So I guess I'll be going now."

She was thrown off by the sudden change of topic, so it took her a moment to comprehend what he said. "Wait...going where?"

"It's my responsibility to stop the Nine-Tails," he said gravely, standing up with a swift stretch. It was clear that he wasn't about to stop blaming himself, even though it wasn't his fault.

"Fine," Sakura stated, and Naruto looked at her with confusion, surprised she had agreed. "But I'm coming too."

"No," he said sternly. "You're staying here." He turned to leave, but Sakura was quick; she grabbed his arm and stopped him.

"There's no way I'm letting you go alone," she persisted. She was going whether he wanted her to or not. "I'm coming, and that's final."

Naruto looked as if he would refuse again, but after staring at her for a long moment, one that for some reason made Sakura blush, he relented. He gave her a grin, a real one, and she returned it with a small smile.

"You ready?"

"Yeah," she answered.

He extended his hand to her, and she took it.