"K-kurenai... what was...?" But before I can speak any more, her lips are again covering mine. She kisses me deeply and I can only return the kiss, unsure of what I ought to do in this situation. I wonder what's going on here. I wonder why Kurenai is suddenly interested in me. I wonder if she planned this; if she invited me over to have sex, or if it just happened. In the end, I decide it doesn't matter. Kurenai is broken, and so am I. She invited me here, I know for sure, because we're both suffering from the same gaping hole in our hearts, and she thought maybe if we could just be together with similar feelings, the pain would subside enough to be tolerable. If this is what she needs to maintain some semblance of okay, or even to get there in the first place, then it doesn't really matter if its sex that's doing it and it matters even less whether she meant this to happen.

I shift her under me, kissing deeply down her neck, pulling blood to darken just under her skin. She squirms beneath me, breathing quickly. It dawns upon me as she moans out an "a" sound, that she's never really meant to be with me anyway. Its Asuma she wants. He's the one she's seeing in me. She's gotten spirited away in the delusion that I am my sensei. And I don't have a leg to stand on to begrudge her the pretend games; at this point, I'll do literally anything just to make the constant ache in my heart bearable. She wants Asuma, so that's who I'm going to be. Besides, I owe her this much. It's my fault he's gone in the first place. If I'd done better, she could be happily with Asuma right now.

I move her clothes away and momentarily run my hands over her sparsely scarred breasts and stomach, then set one to rest on much more sensitive skin. I make Shikamaru as unobtrusive as possible, remaining silent as to not give her a difference in voice, and she assists by tightly closing her eyes to this world, living purposefully in the past instead. As I slide a finger gently inside her, Kurenai's face relaxes, and her pain fluctuates to a lesser level. As I make her moans louder, being silent myself, her face contorts in pleasure. I am flooded with relief; the guilt that's been burning my stomach releases the slightest bit. For the past month, it's been my fault she's hurting every waking moment. Now, it's my doing that she's wriggling in pleasure, experiencing something simply pleasurable. I realize now, I could, through this, atone for the misery I've caused. I switch positions again, using my mouth to assist in this, making sure not to make her realize I'm present. Kurenai gasps and her noises gain an intensity that I've not heard before.

I tease her, patiently testing each sensation, noting and applying her reactions. At the same time, I craft a plan to get her to agree to something long term. I work out what to say, what to do, all to extend the charade that is my salvation. After I've worked out everything I need to do, both to give Kurenai the greatest pleasure possible and to fix her despair, I intensify, pulling several moments of gratified screams from her lips. At the peak of her arousal, I give a somewhat violent thrust of my fingers, and, tumbling over the edge into orgasm, she cries out "A-su-ma!" My heart stops. I was not anticipating her actually crying out Asuma's name. That could change my entire strategy. But, before I have even a split second to reformulate a plan, my face is pressed into her chest as her arms crush me to her, and she's bawling hysterically, tears flowing freely down her heated cheeks. "I'm sorry" she sobs, desperately clinging to me. "I'm so, so sorry" This deepens my uncertainty for action, so I simply bring my arms up to hug her too. Finally, she lets go and lays me beside her. Her cheeks are still soaking, and her body still shakes with sobs as she sits up and pulls her knees in to her chest. I'm hoping I haven't messed up irrevocably; I was only trying to care for her.

"Shikamaru," She begins "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have…. I just….." Kurenai sorts her thoughts for a moment, her sobbing becomes less frequent, but tears still leak consistently from her eyes, and she begins again "Okay, that wasn't how I should have acted. I'm sorry, Shikamaru. Most importantly, I want to make sure you didn't feel coerced. Did you?"

The question gives me a split second of pause. I know Kurenai would never treat me differently if I'd stopped that, but I must admit to myself, I had no choice in this matter. I owed her that, and so much more. I owe it to her to ease her suffering; suffering I caused with my failure to take care of Asuma. So, while it's true that I didn't feel pressured by Kurenai, I plan to leave out the detail that I am not only pressured, but obligated by my own failures to do anything I have to in order to diminish her grief; Anything, up to and including of saying "no," regardless of the truth.

"No, Kurenai. That was beautiful. I know you'd never want to hurt me." The relief on her face is beautiful, but sadly, totally eclipsed by her sadness and the tears still overflowing her eyes.

"Are you sure? I know I'm higher ranking than you, and I'm" another sob and an anguished tightening of her face "I mean, I was close with your teacher. I don't want you to feel like you have to" Kurenai is completely genuine. She'd never in the slightest try to manipulate me, and just having my implicit rather than explicit consent is giving her this intense guilt.

"I know you don't want to do anything with me that I don't want to." The phrase is honesty, unlike the small fake smile I accompany it with. I don't want to overdo it by seeming suddenly cheerful, and in any case, I'm not exactly able to put aside the agony I'm in enough to pretend to be happy.

Kurenai thankfully buys into this and puts a hand on my cheek "Thank you, Shikamaru. I'm still sorry."

By now I've reworked the plan. This can and will be my salvation; how I atone for making her lose her most important person. "Why?" I ask softly, curiously.

"Because it still wasn't my place to do that to you. I should've been more appropriate."

"But," I begin a calculated lie "That was wonderful. It" and I pretend to falter "I mean…. it made me feel better. And I knew you wouldn't make me"

"I…." Kurenai seems to think for a bit. "Well, alright….. I suppose, then, I'm not sorry." She looks slightly uneasy, so I don't press the point just yet, instead pulling her very gently to lie beside me, her head resting on my arm. She's content, for the moment to cry into my chest, clinging tightly to me as I pet her back soothingly.

The wailing that accompanies her tears reestablishes itself and this form of comforting, I'm more than happy to be a part of. This contact, I'm not in the slightest opposed to. I hold her more firmly, letting her skin rest on mine, not minding being soaked in salt water. I let her cry, and we share the unbearable agony, simply by holding each other, we share the grief and it's easier to handle.

"I know" I whisper softly to her. "I know it hurts. Missing him. It hurts me too." And I comb my fingers gently through her hair.

"It just doesn't stop" she cries to me "I just want the pain to be bearable, that's all. I wouldn't even ask it to stop" She settles her flooding crimson eyes on mine. "Why is that too much to ask?"

"I know. I know how you feel. I'm sorry" There's nothing more I have to offer than my understanding in the way of conversation. The best I can do is to follow through on the plans I've made. Kurenai makes it perfectly clear that there's much more comforting to be done by wordlessly wailing, clinging to me, and I pet her softly. Eventually she falls silent, adding one more to the number of times she's cried herself to sleep. Once she's deep asleep, it's clear she's dreaming the same delusion that facilitated the sex earlier. She's for once relaxing, and my arms, protectively around her, my chest where her face is buried, my hands, still combing her hair, are all Asuma's to her. Her face is blissfully relaxed, still swollen and tired from crying, but she's getting more than she would ask for, an entire night of deluded relief. If all goes well, she should have a lifetime of this relief ahead.

As my eyes begin to close themselves in the exhaustion, I try to speak. "I'm taking care of her, Asuma. Am I doing it well enough?"