Race to the Finish...!!

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Because of extraordinary circumstances, Kakashi had obtained permission to leave the Jōnin Standby Station early to start setting up for the fūinjutsu ritual, so he could be ready to perform it as soon as possible. He was in the middle of carving the first in a set of two concentric circles into the floor of the room that the Hokage had set aside for the event, when a very familiar Anbu agent appeared before him. Kakashi steeled his nerve and glanced up at the other man. "What is it, Tenzō?"

"Your team has been located, Sempai..." the male ninja in the cat mask with intricate green and red markings reported. Kakashi's expression remained even, but Tenzō noticed how his grip tightened almost imperceptibly on the kunai in this hand. He knew how much Kakashi valued his comrades, and these kids were clearly important to him. It would be best to cut to the chase. "Every single one of them, is alive."

Kakashi's eye widened slightly, and he exhaled the breath he was holding, relieved beyond words. They were alive, all of them. It was more than anyone could have hoped for. "Their condition?"

"All of them were conscious and able to walk on their own, with exception of April Starr... But she appeared to be under the effects of the exam's seal," Tenzō replied. "They should wear off in time."

"!" Kakashi's eye went wide. He was surprised to hear that Sasuke was already coping so well, but it was a relief. Because of Orochimaru's threat, they couldn't afford to interrupt the exam or appear to be interfering, so they couldn't treat him until he and the rest of the team reached the tower on their own. He frowned and furrowed his brow when he thought about what kind of effect the seal must be having on April. 'So, she accepted it after all...' he thought, closing his eye. Of course she did. It was easy to guess what must have happened. Against an opponent like that, with the others' lives threatened right in front of her, she must have been desperate. Especially after what happened to her parents. He could understand that. The pain of watching someone you cared about die right in front of you, that was something that never went away, no matter how many years passed. You would do anything to avoid feeling it again. That worried him, but for now, it was enough to know that she would survive. They would all survive. The test wasn't over yet, but he knew they could make it. 'You guys did well...' he thought, picturing their tired, smiling faces. 'Thank you.'

Two days later, Sakura was rudely awakened at the crack of dawn by Naruto's attempts to make Sasuke get up and go with him to pee, because they weren't nearly quiet as he thought they were being. Given everything that had happened since the start of the second test, they had decided it was safer to move in pairs. After the boys left, Sakura was about to go back to sleep, when she heard a quiet moan, and she looked over and saw April stirring.

"Mm..." April groaned and slowly opened her eyes, feeling sore all over.

"April-chan!" Sakura gasped, scrambling closer. "You're awake!"

"?" April blinked and stared up at her. She could tell the others had found the bruise cream she kept in her pouch, because all of her and Sakura's bruises were completely gone. "Looks like it... How is everyone? What happened?"

"Everyone is alright!" Sakura reassured her. "Even Sasuke-kun. Naruto's just as noisy as ever, too," she added, earning a small smile.

"Sakura... I'm sorry..." April said, frowning a little when she looked at her younger teammate's short hair and the faint cuts on her face. From the little April saw during their fight with the sound ninjas, it was obvious that Sakura had been fighting alone to protect them before the others arrived. The angle of the way her hair had been cut before indicated that she had done it to herself. She had fought until she was black and blue to protect them. "And, thank you..." April said, giving her a grateful smile.

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