A/N: I know it's been a long time. Basically, on top of a period where I just wasn't able to write much at all, I've been in an emotional slump of sorts all this time, too. The problem is that, unlike my other currently-ongoing story, First Contact, this story is "inspired"/fueled by emotion, especially with regards to relationships (not romantic, to clarify) and interpersonal connection. The other story is fueled by philosophical and intellectually based emotion and intrigue, which I've been feeling in abundance for the past couple months. Thus, even when I've been in the mood to write, I've just been unable to do this story justice and write what this story is really about.

So that's the bad news. Until I get out of this slump, I just can't really write this story at all. But the good news is that I'm trying to get out of that slump, and I'm too attached to this story to let it die without a fight. Also, I do have this tidbit from before I fell into the slump, to hopefully this will hold you over somewhat until then.

Obviously, I'm still very interested in feedback and constructive criticism. Ideas are very welcome (though please leave anything about pairings out of it; the only way "pairings" will factor into this story is platonically).

Lastly, this story (and, well, my writing in general) hasn't been up to the standards I set for myself, but a significant portion of that failure is tied to this slump (both the major, immediate one, and the lesser, long-term one). Thus, I'd like to at least give you guys something to read until it's resolved. Without further ado, enjoy.

Chapter 9: Bugging a Dragon

Kushina had recently (at least in her mind) told her husband that the thought of surviving to be with her new family would have made her "so happy."

She felt embarrassed, now, for putting it in such simplistic and inadequate terms.

She'd never felt this content—though Kushina certainly had plenty to be upset about, those things paled in comparison to this "Uzumaki sandwich", as she called it.

It was too profound a name for Minato to comprehend, obviously. She told him as much when he laughed at it.

Naruto slept soundly between them in the bed, looking utterly adorable in a way Minato couldn't pull off even on the best of days.

They'd been awake for at least an hour, quietly admiring their son and enjoying their time together.

"He's such a heavy sleeper," she whispered, lightly brushing the back of her hand over Naruto's cheek.

"Yeah, I wonder where he gets that from," Minato whispered back, pointedly ignoring her glare with averted eyes and a knowing smirk.

She seemed to have jinxed it somehow, because Naruto slowly awakened. She and Minato smiled at him, anticipating the moment when their son became aware of his surroundings.

They weren't sure how he would react—he'd been far more subdued than normal ever since they'd reunited—but when Naruto started tearing up, they reacted instantly. Embraced by them both, Naruto sobbed lightly, overcome by the emotion of a lifelong fantasy becoming reality.

"Good morning, Naru-chan," Kushina said, using the pet-name she'd thought of before he'd been born, for the first time.

She didn't know exactly how it came to her, but she suddenly understood the reason behind Naruto's recent odd behavior: the constantly energetic and confident attitude he normally projected was something Naruto forced, to hide his many insecurities. Though he was undoubtedly a very active person with a short attention span, he When put in a situation where he either didn't want to or was incapable of forcing it, his less-than-enthusiastic side began to show.

They were going to do something about that, in more ways than one.

"Why don't we go get some breakfast, Naru-chan?" she softly suggested after a while. It was time to truly start the day. While she and Minato both acknowledged that there were very important things to discuss, they decided to put that off for a little while, for Naruto's sake as much as theirs.

Sakura could have recited the Academy rule against showing genuine shock to one's opponent verbatim, but it was far easier said than done.

Kakashi-sensei had a knack for setting up extremely predictable patterns that he would later completely shake up without any warning whatsoever. But what truly frustrated her was that Kakashi-sensei didn't do that to teach lessons or set examples—he did it because he would randomly come to some realization out of nowhere and act very differently the next day.

"We're going to what?" she asked, half-wishing she had actually misheard him.

Kakashi's dull stare matched his blank face perfectly. "Spar. Against Team 8, sans Hinata, because she is still recovering."

And his blank voice, too, she mentally added. Then the true implications of the situation hit her, and she started to feel very nervous.

Sasuke-kun was good—great, even, but it didn't matter if Sasuke won the fight singlehandedly. Her status as the obvious liability would be clear to everyone present. She was always a liability. Every battle, she was the one who stood out of the way so Sasuke, Kakashi-sensei, or even Naruto saved the day. Because she was weak. Because the best she could hope for was effectively not being there in the first place.

A small part of her protested against her depressed resignation, and images of her fights against Ino and that Oto genin team flashed through her mind's eye.

"Remember," Kurenai-sensei instructed, "you're trying to avoid serious injuries. These fights are not about proving strength or skill," she said, pointedly looking at Kiba and Sasuke in turn. "In the end, you are comrades. Never forget that."

It only eased her mind slightly, but it was just enough to lift the depressive haze from her mind. She might embarrass herself, but at least this wouldn't be a serious competition with pride on the line.

"Positions," Kakashi-sensei called out.

She automatically dropped into the basic Academy fighting stance, wracking her mind for some kind of strategy. With half of her inner voice devoted to panicked swearing, it was a bit more difficult than usual.


Kiba blitzed her, probably hoping to take her out of the equation straight away. She had just enough time to realize the Inuzuka heir was coming at her to freeze.

Sasuke, having dodged Shino's shuriken, intercepted Kiba's attack, shoving him aside with his body.

Some instinctive part in her realized that distancing herself from these superior opponents was a good idea, and she chakra-jumped back. At least this way, Sasuke wouldn't have to worry about her in addition to himself.

Kiba quickly recovered in the time that Sasuke took to stumble back into balance. The two quickly engaged in a taijutsu brawl; Sasuke's skill superiority was matched by Kiba's strength, durability, and synergy with Akamaru.

It took a moment for Sakura to realize that something was definitely off. Shino casually stood to the side, hands in his pockets. Though the Aburame rarely spoke in the Academy, she knew enough that he wasn't a stickler for honor or fair fights. So why was he just standing there?

He turned his shaded gaze towards her, and she shuddered. Fear surged within her—she'd seen what Shino had casually done to that Oto genin, and with bugs, too.

A loud grunt drew her attention. Sasuke had actually taken a hit and withdrew slightly to recover. Slight panic flooded her mind at the sight of Sasuke losing against Kiba, even if only a little.

A green blur in her peripheral vision shifted her mind back into her own predicament. Shino was taking advantage of her distraction to attack her directly. However, this time he was far and slow enough for her to react.

Maybe it was the fact that this was just a spar, or maybe it was a gesture of exasperation with herself, but she threw caution into the wind and chakra-dashed right into Shino, fist extended.

For a moment, she thought she'd done much more damage to herself than to Shino, who doubled over in pain. Her arm throbbed intensely, and she hissed in pain as it hung limply at her side. She had never broken her arm before, but she'd bet her next mission's pay that that was no longer the case.

Through the pain, she reveled in the small accomplishment. It may have hurt her more than it hurt him, but Shino's temporary incapacitation proved that she wasn't a complete deadweight.

And that's when she started to notice that something felt off, and it wasn't her mangled arm. At first, she couldn't even figure out what kind of "off" it was, but then Sakura narrowed it down to a physical feeling, and then to a significant itchiness on her upper back.

Though she felt quite drained as it was (her crazy attack must have been the blame for that one), she used her remaining functional arm to check out the itching.

At first, the texture of the bumpy surface confused her—and the anomalies were oddly squishy. Then, as Shino returned to her attention, she finally made the connection.

Sakura screamed louder than she ever had before, running around in some kind of desperate panic, more psychologically disturbed than when she saw Orochimaru tear off part of his artificial face.

Her reaction was so intense that Sasuke and Kiba immediately stopped sparring. Once Sasuke caught on to Sakura's plight, he realized that he shared it.

To his credit, he only yelped a little at the realization before slipping his stoic mask right back on. The bugs were right in the area of the back that his arms couldn't effectively reach, but he managed to at least kill the damn things with his fingers soon enough.

Fighting his disgust and discomfort, Sasuke noticed Kakashi and Kurenai snickering. Shame and anger simultaneously flooded his mind, but strategic side quickly reasserted dominance when confronted with the question of how those bugs had gotten there in the first place.

Ten seconds later, he arrived at the only logical conclusion. Shino had covertly sent the bugs towards them through the grass well before the spar even started. The bastard.

A/N: I've pretty much said it all in the A/N above. Feedback and constructive criticism are appreciated, as well as all non-pairing-related ideas. Thanks :)