Finally! I can't believe how long it took to write this rather short chapter. I struggled quite a bit with the beginning, and with making the dialogue sound believable. I'm still not quite satisfied with it, yet at the same time I feel it's the best I can manage at the current time.

I originally planned to have this chapter and the previous one as a single chapter, since they were both kind of short, but I wanted to maintain the cliffhanger a bit longer :)

As always, big thanks go out to my girlfriend Natasja, and to all you people who continue reading my story despite the huge delays between every chapter :) You guys keep me going!

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto

Chapter 27: A Knife to the Heart

Shikamaru felt a chill run down his spine as he stared up at Tayuya. This had not been a factor he had taken into any of his plans. She had not made any move yet, but he was not stupid. His brain processed every bit of information; her expression, her posture, the way she clenched the sharp kunai in her hand. It all led to one and only one conclusion. Desperately, he tried to fish in her expression, searching for something, anything which might signify that she had not betrayed him. He couldn't find it. She stood behind him as he kneeled on one knee in the wet grass, still as a statue. Just when he was beginning to wonder when she would make her move, she lifted her left hand, reaching out for him.

Even if Shikamaru had had any strength left in his body after his lengthy fight with the swordsman, he would still not have been able to resist Tayuya. As she reached down, her fingers grasped the collar of his jacket in a steel grip, and he felt himself being pulled to his feet. His legs felt weak, tingling not only with fatigue and weariness but also a sense of complete helplessness. Tayuya held him up effortlessly, her strong grip once again reminding him of the physical strength belied by the frail appearance of her physique. Shikamaru swallowed as he stared into her eyes. Her chestnut orbs were unreadable like a murky pond, bereft of the spirited beauty she had displayed in the past few days, and he was reminded of the first time he had seen her eyes while in prison. He could see hints of the same pain and desperation he had seen then, covered by the same thin layer of determination and feigned strength, veiled by an unwillingness to show weakness before others. She was as lost as he was, he realized, and he wondered if this was how she was planning to survive when backed into a corner; by severing all bonds that she had made and survive on her own.

Tayuya's lips trembled as she opened them to speak, and he could see the hesitation in her eyes as the veil of steely determination momentarily slipped from her gaze. "This is the only way," she muttered, as if trying to comfort herself with the words, and as Shikamaru lowered his gaze to the kunai in her hand, he saw her knuckles white with strain. Suddenly, her arm stabbed up towards him. Shikamaru's eyes widened with shock as he watched a splatter of blood arching through the air before his eyes, courtesy of the weapon in the redhead's hand. He stared at her, wide-eyed, not quite believing what she had done. "Tayuya…" The girl in question had a pained expression on her face, as she withdrew the kunai, the tip stained in crimson blood. Shikamaru tried to say something more, but the fierceness inhabiting Tayuya's brown eyes silenced him, her determined gaze strangling his words before they had even left his lips. "Don't." she warned him with a quiet hiss, before she let go of the fabric of his jacket and left Shikamaru's body in the grasp of gravity.

Shikamaru landed on his back in the soaked grass. Droplets of cold water struck his face as he stared up at the girl he loved, her red hair in wet cascades around her granite face. The rain graced her facial features, and Shikamaru thought for a moment that the cold droplets of rain water running down her cheeks looked like tears. Despite being completely worn out, his muscles screaming with exhaustion, he tried to get up. He had almost managed to sit up fully, when a sandaled foot trod roughly on his stomach, pushing him unceremoniously back down again. He felt the air leave him as the foot applied more force, and a sharp stab of pain in his injured side made him wince. He stared up at Tayuya, who was the one who had stepped on him. She held him down with her left foot, the same way she would have held down an injured enemy in preparation for the coup de grâce. He almost expected her to do it. But she didn't show any signs of preparing a killing blow. She just pinned him to the ground, while seemingly considering what her next action would be. Then, she spoke again, her voice quiet. "Just stay down, Shikamaru, and don't make this any harder than it needs to be," she said, and her expression softened slightly, letting him see the concern that resided in her chestnut eyes. "Please." At that moment, it dawned upon him that no matter what she was going to do, she still cared for him.

Lifting her foot from Shikamaru's gut, Tayuya gave the boy a final, lingering gaze. As much as Shikamaru tried, he could not decipher the intentions in her clear, brown eyes. It was like trying to judge the facial expression of a person he could barely see through a thick mist. The connection between their eyes lasted several moments, before the redhead closed her chestnut orbs with a visible effort of will. She didn't look back as she walked the short distance towards the man who would take her back to her former master.

Katsu had been watching the incident with a smile on his thin lips, his body relaxed ever since Tayuya had moved behind Shikamaru. Now he stood before her as she walked up to him, like a father welcoming a long-lost daughter. He smiled down at her, standing a good head taller than her. "It's good that you finally made the smart choice, Tayuya," he said, his confidence soaring at her surrender.

"You were right, after all," Tayuya said, a weak smile on her lips as she looked up at the tall, muscular man standing before her. Katsu stared at the redhead standing before him, her drenched, crimson hair framing her smiling face as she gazed at him. Her smile aroused within him the same feelings he had felt the day he had saved her, back when she was just a child. Now she stood before him as a young woman, the same smile of appreciation on her face. He felt his chest flutter at her proximity, and he knew that he had finally triumphed. "This is the only way it can end."

Katsu smiled with satisfaction as the realization of his success sank in. He had managed to convince the last remaining Sound Elite to come back willingly, a feat which Orochimaru had believed to be impossible. Now his master would undoubtedly be very pleased with him. Getting down on one knee, Katsu looked at his blade as his hand reached for the hilt. But as his fingers wrapped around the dark leather grip, he suddenly stiffened, his crimson eyes going wide. Slowly, he raised his gaze to the young girl standing in front of him, his own impressive height leaving their gazes nearly level despite the fact that he was kneeling. Tayuya was no longer smiling, her eyes cool like morning dew and her expression hard as steel. Her right arm was stretched out towards him, and as Katsu's eyes followed the slender limb down towards her hand, his gaze was drawn towards the glint of metal that was held between her fingers. Her knuckles were white as she clenched the kunai tightly, its sharp tip embedded in the center of Katsu's chest.

For a few, tranquil moments he felt nothing. Katsu simply stared at the weapon that had pierced his flesh, watching as his lifeblood slowly seeped out from the wound, tainting the dark gray metal with a thick, crimson hue. His shirt turned darker around the kunai as his blood stained the gray cotton, and he could feel more warm droplets trickling down his chest and stomach. He didn't feel much physical pain from the wound. What pained him, however, was staring as the redhead's cold expression as she held onto the kunai embedded in his chest. He had truly believed he had finally convinced her to join him, and that she had finally returned what he felt for her. The emotional pain was greater than any physical agony could ever equal.

"W-why?" he choked out slowly with obvious effort, a thin trickle of blood slowly oozing from the edge of his lips as his trembling gaze focused on the young teenage girl standing before him, staring defiantly back. Her eyes were filled with loathing, not for him, but for the greater force he represented. "You can't protect me from Orochimaru," Tayuya said, consciously stopping herself from adding the "-sama" which had been near-literally beaten into her head from a tender young age. "Even if he would listen to you, the knowledge I possess poses a threat to all his fucking operations, and he knows that my loyalty to him is compromised from my stay in Konohagakure," Tayuya continued, her voice much calmer than she felt. The man who stood before her had raped her in the past, and as much as she hated him, her hate for his master, her own former master and mentor, was so much greater that it overshadowed the crimes the swordsman had committed against her younger self.

"Besides," Tayuya added before hesitating slightly. She turned her head, her wet hair glistening in the trickle of sunlight which begun to pierce the dark clouds. Her brown eyes found the body lying in the grass a little distance away, and her expression softened slightly. She was sure Shikamaru could hear everything she said, even if she made no effort to raise her voice for him. "Even if I could go back, a part of me would die. When I'm with him, I feel like I can be the real me." She made no point in detailing who the person she talked about was. They all knew who the person she was referring to was.

Katsu had listened quietly to Tayuya's words, the trickle of blood from his chest and from the corners of his mouth having intensified as the moments lingered on. His breath was heavy, and Tayuya knew it would not be long now. The kunai had done its cruel work. She slowly withdrew the knife from the kneeling man's chest, her fingers relinquishing it as soon as the tip was free. It landed before her feet, the crimson blood staining the rain-heavy blades of grass.

The memories had come back in frightening clarity the longer she had spent in the presence of the man before her. She remembered the first time she had seen him, and the initial happiness of seeing someone who would fight for her. How he had saved her from the men trying to rape her, and then how he himself had done the same thing, shattering her trust like glass. She could recollect the pain and fear as his large body moved above her own frail figure, how she had tried to struggle and fight against him. Her resistance had borne no fruit, and eventually she had given up, resigning herself to lie back with tears in her eyes and let him carry on. True, he had been gentler than most who had raped her, but it had been rape nonetheless. In the wake of the deed, he had even held her close as he fell asleep in the grass next to the road where he had encountered her. Tayuya, however, had not felt like having an afterglow-cuddle, and had slipped away at the first opportunity. Since then, she had not seen him until he came to kidnap her from Konohagakure today, seven years later.

Tayuya turned her eyes to her former rapist, her brown eyes filled with disgust towards him. "I'm now a shinobi of Konohagakure, and I'm cutting my ties with that bastard Orochimaru and his fucking village for good," the redhead declared fiercely. Okay, so maybe she wasn't a shinobi of the village just yet, but that was how she felt. Her loyalty was not as much with the village though, as with the boy who was lying in the grass a little distance away, listening to what was being said.

Katsu coughed, blood splattering over the grass in front of Tayuya's feet as the man tried to expel the crimson liquid welling up from his throat. He stared at the girl standing in front of him, his eyes desperate. "I…I remember…the day I," he began, before he coughed again, more blood leaving his mouth to colour the soaked ground. "…the day I met you… I…saved you," the words were passionate despite the strain of forcing them out amidst the blood. Tayuya shook her head slowly, her chestnut eyes hiding the sadness she felt behind a thin veil of determination. "You didn't save me, you asshole. You raped me."

Katsu's eyes widened, and Tayuya could see him visibly struggling to deny her words in his mind. "No. No no no." he stammered, his words interrupted by another cough and more blood leaking like a faulty faucet past his lips. He was breathing harder, his sharp teeth visible past his lips as he stared at Tayuya, a wild yet pained expression on his face. "I saved-." Another violent cough, wet and hacking, cut his words short. Crimson droplets spattered on Tayuya's shorts, but she paid it no heed. "I…I lo…loved.." Tayuya waited for the rest of the words, but Katsu couldn't speak anymore. For a long, painful moment, his crimson eyes stared into hers, pleadingly. The blood in his throat choked the life out of the last words he wanted to speak, and as the crimson fluid filled his lungs the tall, muscular man slumped sideways onto the grass, like a puppet with its strings severed.

Tayuya stood still before the fallen body. Her legs were trembling, her knees all but shaking. Facing one of her rapists down like this had been a huge mental taxation on her, and even staring at his body now she felt almost sick. His eyes were still open, staring up at her, but those crimson orbs were now devoid of life. With a surge of will, she tore her gaze away from the lifeless eyes, and turned. She ran, not once looking back, over to where Shikamaru was still lying in the soaked grass.

"For a moment I actually believed you were going to kill me," Shikamaru said as Tayuya reached him, a small, appreciative smile on his face as she kneeled next to him. The surge of relief made him feel light-headed, and the expression of elation on the redhead's face told him that she felt the same. Tayuya quirked an eyebrow at his comment, returning the smile as she ignored the feeling of cold rain water seeping through the knees of her pants as she kneeled on the soggy ground. "You didn't believe I was going back to that snake bastard, did you? Just goes to show how much of an idiot you are." Shikamaru couldn't help but chuckle at her playful taunt. The fact that she could still joke in a situation like this filled him with confidence. It was almost as if none of this had happened. She was still the same old Tayuya, and he was happy for the fact.

Tayuya placed her right hand under Shikamaru's neck, helping him sit up, concern tainting the smile on her features as she looked at him. "Are you okay? Can you sit?" she asked as her eyes wandered over his body, trying to judge if he was seriously injured, but Shikamaru interrupted her as he took hold of her left wrist and lifted it. "Tayuya, your hand." Tayuya looked puzzled, as she lifted her hand, letting Shikamaru see the place where she had stabbed herself to fool Katsu. Blood was pouring from the wound, running down Tayuya's wrist and past Shikamaru's fingers. He fixed her with a concerned look, but the redhead just smiled and shook her head. "Don't worry about me, I've had worse than this. You're the one who needs help," she assured him with a smile.

It had been necessary to stab herself, Tayuya told herself. It had been a ploy to get close to Katsu, by making him thinking that she had finally made the 'right' choice. As she had hoped, he had not noticed that the blood on her hand was her own, but had instead jumped to the conclusion that it was Shikamaru's. As she had hoped, he was not careful enough around her, a mistake which had given her the chance to plunge the kunai into his heart. Her hand throbbed dully with pain, but it was a pleasant agony. Every pulse was one which confirmed their triumph. She had finally severed the bond that connected her with her former master. For better or worse, she had tied her fate to the person she held in her arms now. And it felt good.

The smile on her lips quickly disappeared as she looked down at Shikamaru's side. The shirt he was wearing was slowly turning darker, and as she removed her hand from underneath his lower back, it came away bloody. She stared at the crimson fluid on her hand, her mind slowly processing the fact that it wasn't her own blood. Shikamaru too was looking down at his own side, his expression puzzled. It seemed like he had equal problems processing what he was seeing.

Strangely, Shikamaru didn't feel much pain from his side. The wound had obviously re-opened despite the healing he had received, and yet there was only a minor physical discomfort. His vision suddenly felt blurry, and he now realized the light-headedness he had felt the past few minutes was the effects of blood loss setting in.

As his vision darkened and Shikamaru slipped into unconsciousness for the second time that day, he was only faintly aware of more chakra presences arriving, and of Tayuya shouting something he couldn't quite decipher. The only thing he could properly make out was the panic in her voice.

To Be Continued…

Oh noes! Will Shikamaru be okay? And what about the rest of the Konoha team? Are they all all right?

This marks the beginning of the end of this particular fanfic. Tayuya and Shikamaru have bested their strongest enemy so far, and the only question now is where their road will take them next :) As always, comments and criticism is very welcome! :D

Until next time, stay tuned!