I haven't forgotten about my X story, "The Season of the Witch." And I do plan to finish it. But for certain reasons I have put it on a temporary hiatus. It is mostly because the story is getting very near the end and it's getting really hard to write. It's also because I started writing this Naruto story!

As the title indicates, this story is very Sakura-centric. So if you hate Sakura or are looking for shounen-ai, you should go elsewhere. This story will contain hints of the NaruSakuSasu love triangle as well as some LeeSaku… and probably some other pairings, too. But it is primarily meant to be a drama, not a romance. If you leave comments, please be kind.

Sakura and the Prince of Flowers

By Miss Angel Maxwell

Chapter 1: "She's Going to Hate Us, You Know"

"Well, looks like another job well done, boys," Haruno Sakura announced triumphantly, wiping sweat from her sizeable brow with the back of her gloved hand.

"You said it," Naruto agreed with a self-satisfied grin on his face. "That mission might just go down in the history books as Team 7's finest performance!" Their third teammate Uchiha Sasuke rolled his eyes, and the blonde quickly added, "Well, it was definitely our finest performance to date."

Sakura beamed an irrepressible smile towards them. She loved her boys, loved their team; a team that had been broken for so long but was now one and whole again. Sasuke's return nearly two years ago had ushered in a golden age for Team 7, and the happiest time Sakura could remember in her seventeen years of life. Once they were reunited it hadn't taken long for each of the three ninja to achieve the rank of jounin, full-fledged shinobi. Moreover, in the past couple of years, Sakura's two teammates had undergone considerable physical growth and both were now over a foot taller than her, Naruto having about a one-inch lead over Sasuke. It didn't matter. Both were tall, handsome, and immensely talented ninja. Though Sakura's body had filled out in the most feminine way, she remained petite. Rather than resent her body for its lack of size and shear strength, however, she relished it for its speed and grace in combat. Sakura was truly happy, happy with herself, happy with her team, happy with her life. And, as the three of them walked back to Konoha under the orange glow of a setting early-summer sun, she liked to imagine that things would never change.

Passing by the bank of a lazily gurgling stream, Sakura got an idea, which she immediately shared with the guys. "I think I'll go soak my feet, maybe splash some water on my face. That okay with you boys?" Then she flashed them a smile she knew they couldn't say 'no' to, coupled with her most charming wink.

While Sakura splashed merrily in the clear, shallow stream, Sasuke and Naruto opted to sit on the shore on a large rock, dangling their feet in the cool water as they watched their pink-haired teammate frolic. Sasuke's sparkling black eyes and Naruto's blue, fox-like ones were fixed longingly on Sakura, though neither seemed to notice that the other was staring until several minutes had passed in silence. Feeling the awkwardness of the situation, both young men turn cautiously towards each other.

"She sure seems happy," Naruto chuckled nervously, raking his fingers through his straw-colored hair.

"Yeah," Sasuke muttered, nodding vaguely.

The two best friends stared intently at one another for a long minute, both feeling the churning sparks of a slowly growing rivalry that had nothing to do with ninjutsu. Five years ago, when their little team first formed, the situation had been quite different. Sakura had poured all of her romantic energy upon a then disinterested Sasuke, while a somewhat less mature Naruto pined hopelessly after her. Nowadays Miss Haruno had a lot more respect for Sasuke as a teammate and friend, and he had a lot more interest in her as a woman. And while she still seemed to harbor some more-than-platonic feelings for the handsome Uchiha, it was undeniable that she had also grown a lot closer to Uzumaki Naruto while Sasuke was away. Despite their history and the strength of their longstanding friendship, Sasuke and Naruto were both in love with the same woman, and that made them feel increasingly uneasy around each other, and around Sakura.

Just as the boys were feeling they couldn't sit there not saying what was really on their minds any longer, Sakura emerged breezily onto the stream bank. Her rosy hair stuck to her cheeks and dripped water onto her already wet and clinging red blouse, a detail that didn't escape Naruto and Sasuke's attentions, though they tried not to show it.

"I suppose we should go now if we want to make it back to Konoha before dark," she chirped as she slipped her sandals back on. All the two young men could do was swallow nervously, exchange a quick look, and then follow after their friend who had already danced herself far ahead of them.

The sun had just dipped out of view casting a red glowing ribbon across the horizon when Team 7 arrived in Konoha. Sakura was already feeling her eyes start to droop and, although they weren't sore, her muscles felt tired from the day's work. So she stretched her lovely arms behind her head and drew in a deep refreshing yawn, then she said goodnight to both Naruto and Sasuke and headed back to her home. As they watched her sillouette vanishing down the dusk-lit street, the boys hardly registered the tall figure that had approached them from behind.

"Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto," addressed the battle-scarred young man who, from his uniform, appeared to be a runner from the missions department. "I know it's late, but I have been given direct orders from the Hokage to share information with you regarding a very critical mission. I was told specifically to seek your team and only your team, so everything we discuss tonight is to be kept private."

"Understood," Sasuke spoke calmly, trying to ignore Naruto, whose fists were clenched and eyes were sparkling with excitement.

"Oh wait," the man said with a pause. "I didn't realize we're one person short. I should probably wait until your whole team is present."

Before the messenger could extricate himself from the situation, however, Naruto interrupted him impatiently, "Don't worry about it, we'll fill Sakura in on everything tomorrow. Please, just tell us about the mission!"

After taking a long pause to consider what had just been said, the man closed his eyes and reluctantly sighed, "Alright." And he went on to give the details of the mission. "Over the past several months about a dozen people have been attacked and killed in the woods in the southern peninsula. We have significant evidence to suggest that these killings were all perpetrated by the same individual… and that the individual is not human."

"N-Not human?" Naruto stammered. "What sort of evidence do you have to indicate that?"

Without saying a word, the man pulled out an envelope from his bag and placed it in the impetuous young ninja's hands. Naruto reached inside and pulled out a small stack of photographs while Sasuke watched intently over his shoulder. As he flipped through the photos, both his and Sasuke's facial expressions grew increasingly horrified.

"I should have warned you," the messenger nin told them, "these pictures are extremely graphic. But, as you can see, the bodily damage done to the victims is unlike any shinobi weapon and is also inconsistent with any known jutsu. The ragged edges of the wounds and the deep tissue damage look like the work of…"

"A monster," breathed Sasuke.

"That is what we assume," the messenger said slowly and deliberately. "And that is what your team will try to find out. This is primarily an investigatory mission. You two, and the other member of your team, will leave at dawn's light tomorrow. Your goal is to get as close as you can to this predator and to gather as much information as you possibly can." He paused briefly. "There is a good chance you will have to fight this thing, so the decision to accept this mission should not be taken lightly."

"We'll do it," Naruto replied, uncharacteristically serious, and Sasuke nodded agreement.

"Very well. I wish you good luck." With these words and a respectful handshake to each boy, the messenger took his leave.

For several minutes afterwards, Naruto and Sasuke stood in silence, not because they were contemplating their dangerous new mission, but because Naruto had flipped to a photograph that stole both of their attentions. It was a photo of a teenaged girl, decapitated, the surrounding flesh torn to ribbons, her lifeless body splayed on the red-stained grass. The young men looked at each other, knowing that they had the same thought on their minds.

"She's going to hate us, you know," Naruto sighed.

"I know," Sasuke answered softly. "But it's better than the alternative. I'd rather Sakura hated us for not including her in this mission then to lose her."

"But she's gotten really strong these past years," Naruto reasoned. "She's really in no more danger than either of us are. And she's an excellent medical nin, we'll need her. Shouldn't we just let her decide for herself if she wants to come?"

"She won't turn down this mission if we tell her about it," huffed Sasuke. "I have no problem gambling with my own life, but not with hers. I won't let Sakura end up like that girl in the photograph."

The horrifying image of Sakura's body, headless and mutilated assaulted Naruto's mind and a small croak escaped his throat. "You're right Sasuke. We can't tell Sakura… But we will tell Master Kakashi."

"Yes," the Uchiha agreed. "And we'll tell him not to let Sakura go out looking for us… Even if he has to say things that will make her hate us." He could tell from his friend's expression that he was feeling as anxious and guilty as himself, but he reassured himself that Sakura's life was at stake. "See you at dawn, Naruto?"

"Yeah," Naruto answered, even as he had begun to walk home. "See you at dawn, Sasuke."

To be continued…