Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto and various companies. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Note: This is a potential future that's canon-compliant up through Naruto's return to Konoha after the timeskip. It diverges at some point thereafter, mostly because I started writing before the Gaara-and-Akatsuki arc ended and didn't want to make assumptions about what would happen. Please assume, therefore, that Gaara was kidnapped, but the rescue attempt went a bit differently. (Sakura didn't find out about Sassori's spy, and Kakashi didn't get hospitalized; any other changes are left deliberately vague.) After that, Naruto, Sakura, and Kakashi went to kidnap Sasuke from Hidden Sound. The current arc with Sai and Yamato never happened.

"Tides" is a character-heavy story without much action or grand plot, but I did manage to fit in a fight scene. I also seem to have stuck in quite a lot of random theories about the way Kishimoto's world could actually function, but I can't seem to help doing that sort of thing whenever I play around with somebody else's world.

And now, I'll let Sakura start us off.

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Tension, Before
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Seeing Sasuke again after all these years is strange, and Sakura's not quite sure what to feel.

Anger, yes, there's some of that. Actually, there's a lot -- what was he thinking, leaving them behind and running off to the Sound? True strength isn't curse seals that twist your body until you're barely human anymore. True strength isn't being alone with no human ties to slow you down.

True strength is knowing that your friends keep you sane, that your friends give you a reason to keep fighting, and that your friends will lend you their own strength whenever you need it. Even if they're complete idiots the rest of the time.

So yeah, Sakura's angry.

But she's also limp with relief -- Sasuke is still Sasuke, still the one in charge of his own body, not just a flesh puppet for Orochimaru to wear. She's thrilled that their rescue mission worked, that she and Naruto and Kakashi got the drop on him during his stint as a gate guard, that he's back in Konoha and safe. She's worried that Sasuke won't want to stay when he wakes up, or that Kakashi won't be able to spin his reinstatement in Leaf-nin ranks as a clever psychological strike against both Orochimaru and Akatsuki (in the person of his brother... and why didn't Sasuke ever tell them about Itachi?) and the council will execute him as a traitor.

And deep down where she won't admit it to herself -- she's so over that crush, and she can see now that he never loved her back, not that way -- Inner Sakura is drooling over his face and his hair and his body... slim and tall and covered with tight muscle, and she'd bet a month's salary that Sasuke's even more flexible now than when he was twelve...

She's pretty sure nobody but Tsunade would take her up on that bet, and everyone knows that if Tsunade has any luck gambling, something's very wrong with the state of the world.

"Sakura-chan? Hey, hey, Sakura? Sa-ku-ra!" Naruto waves a hand in her face and Sakura blinks at him, still surprised that she has to look up an inch or so to meet his eyes. "Oh, good, you're awake. I thought maybe you passed out with your eyes open."

Sakura's about to bash him reflexively for insinuating that she'd fall asleep before Sasuke wakes up, but then her conscious mind catches the genuine concern in Naruto's voice and the not-quite pain in his blue eyes and she lets her hand fall harmlessly to her side. "Not until Sasuke wakes up, and we know what the council decides."

"Yeah. I hope the old geezers hurry up." Naruto huffs out a deep sigh and shoves his hands into his pockets, staring at Sasuke. Their former teammate is strapped to a hospital bed in this barred and warded room, and fresh rings of black symbols wrap around his bare shoulder, containing the curse seal. To Sakura's trained eyes, the three marks pulse with muted but malevolent intent; for the moment Orochimaru's power is quiescent, but she doesn't trust it to stay asleep. Neither do Kakashi and Jiraiya-san -- which is why Naruto is in this room. If Sasuke breaks loose, if he can draw on the curse seal even through the wards, nobody but Naruto has the power to stop him.

Sakura's here because she refuses to let Naruto face Sasuke alone. If things go wrong, if Naruto has to play executioner, she's going to be right here beside him. She won't let him carry that guilt alone. Besides, she has warding scrolls in her pockets; even if they won't stop Sasuke for good, they should hold him long enough to give Naruto a clean strike.

Neither of them really wants Sasuke to suffer, not even if he's warped himself enough that he might not be their Sasuke anymore.

And if Sasuke comes to his senses, if he listens to their arguments and offers of help, if he's willing to stay, there's no way on earth Sakura's going to let the boys have their reunion without her. Nobody's going to leave her behind anymore. Naruto knows that now. He's seen her fight. He's seen her heal. Sasuke will learn that soon enough.

If he wakes up and he's their Sasuke, then even if the council decides against him, they won't let him go. Before Kakashi and Tsunade left for the council meeting, Kakashi reminded them that ninja who don't support their comrades are lower than trash, and Tsunade stretched and commented idly that Akatsuki was probably Konoha's number one enemy these days, and she really hoped someone would think of a way to strike at them.

Sakura knows that even if they take Sasuke and run, no Anbu or hunter-nin will chase them. Naruto's still uneasy about leaving Konoha without official permission -- he loves the village almost as much as his small collection of precious people -- but he hates Akatsuki more than Sakura thought he could hate anything. Itachi is part of Akatsuki. Itachi thinks of Naruto as a thing, as a container for the Kyuubi. Itachi thinks of Sasuke as a thing too -- as an experiment of sorts, as a catnip mouse for a bored tiger. Itachi thinks Sakura is even less than that; to him, Sakura is nothing.

Sakura and Naruto will be more than happy to help Sasuke kill his brother, if he'll accept their help. If he's still their Sasuke. If they can reach him through the tunnel vision, the curse seal, and the years of Orochimaru's influence. If not... well, they'll kill Itachi anyway and bury his eyes in Sasuke's grave.

But Sakura hopes it won't come to that. Sasuke has so much to live for, if he'd only open his eyes. He has her. He has Naruto. He has Kakashi. Maybe he lost his birth family, but he can build a new one the way Naruto has. She'd like to be part of his family.

...As a sister, she tells herself, smothering a blush and pushing Inner Sakura back into the depths. She's over him, she really is, and she couldn't ever go back to making Sasuke her whole world anyway. She couldn't shut Naruto out anymore.

"Wake up already, bastard," Naruto mutters, but the insult lacks any bite and his eyes are worried.

Sasuke groans. His eyelids flutter.

Sakura inches a bit closer to Naruto and waits for the shape of her future to come clear.

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AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.