Warning: Minor bashing of characters ahead. (Ino, Gato, Jiroubou...I think that's it for this chapter, at least.) If you are offended by me doing so, please accept my apologies, a virtual cookie, and please be on your way. (I don't actually hate Ino- she's one of my favorite characters in Naruto, but for the sake of this story let's just pretend she's a whore. Sorry!)

DISCLAIMER: Characters (c) Masashi Kishimoto/ Plot (c) Sophie Jordan

So think of it like this: the characters are the chocolate. Was it invented by me? No. The plot is milk. Was milk my creation? No. The heat is my friends. Did I invent heat? No. All three together is hot chocolate. Did I make hot chocolate? HELL YEAH.

Lady Tenten Oto stared out her bedchamber window, her eyes following a lone carriage as it rattled down the dark, silent street. A great lumbering beast, it crawled through the fog, inhabitants unknown, destination unknown, yet she wished she were on it, sheltered within its depths.

The evening wind tossed the curtains at the carriage window in a taunting farewell. She splayed her hand over the glass, cool and lifeless against her palm, watching as the carriage turned the square and disappeared from sight. Her stomach churned as the clatter of hooves faded into the night.

Gradually, she exerted more pressure, pressing harder, as if she could break through the glass and transport herself away from here- outside, far from Gato and Haku and her three silly nieces who delighted in heaping abuse upon her.

A shaky laugh spilled from her lips, filling the silence. Unreasonable expectations. A year well past mourning, yet here she was, a glorified servant in the home she had once managed.

The door opened behind her with a soft creak. She jerked from the window and spun around, fearing her thoughts had conjured forth demons to stop her night plans, to put her back in her place- back in her cage. Her pulse beat furiously at her throat and her hand flew to her neck as if she could still the beating.

Tsunade stepped inside the room, her middle-aged face wreathed in a smile. Tenten dropped her hand and drew a calming breath, the thud of her heart quieting in her ears.

"Mr. Kiri has left for his club and Mrs. Kiri has retired to her rooms for the evening." Tsunade paused, her great bosom lifting with excited breath. "It's time."

Tenten nodded, her heart loosening inside her chest with the knowledge that Gato had gone, that the same roof did not cover their heads. No risk of running into him in the corridor, of suffering his lecherous, insolent stare.

Nothing would stop her. Nothing barred her tonight from seizing a night out, a evening of freedom. Tonight was hers. Even if the rest of her life did not.

Tenten pressed a hand to her stomach to still the dance of butterflies there. "Heavens," she breathed, "you would think I've never attended a ball before."

"Well. It has been quite a long time," Tsunade replied with a wry twist to her lips.

Tenten turned to the full-length mirror to inspect her appearance one final time. The pale blue gown had been buried in the back of her wardrobe behind all the mourning rags she had had to wear. She hardly recognized herself in anything besides the dismal black crepe and paramatta.

"It's good to see you in color again." Tsunade stroked her chin thoughtfully. "But something is missing."

Tenten lifted an eyebrow in question.

Tsunade opened a small lacquered chest sitting on top of Tenten's dressing table. Few items filled it. Her husband had not been one to lavish her with jewelry. At least not for her.

She possessed only one item of value. this, Tsunade now pulled from a black velvet pouch, the stones sparkling as though lit from within. "Here you are."

Tenten brushed her fingers over the necklace, smiling in fond memory of her grandmother who had left it to her. Her fingers caressed the lustrous stones. If possible, they seemed brighter than she recalled. The canary diamonds felt warm, almost electric. Their age worn surface glided seductively against her palm and the gold chain winked in the light. As a girl, she had believed that any woman wearing it could only look beautiful.

"Very well." Turning, she lifted her hair, the tendrils smooth and wavy. Tsunade had pulled back the heavy mass with to jet-studded combs and arranged it to fall along her back. Usually coarse as a horse's mane and wound tightly in a bun, her hair felt like it belonged to another woman.

"There now." Tsunade stepped back to survey her handiwork. "You aren't a crow anymore. "

Tenten eyed herself in the mirror, stroking the diamond weighing heavily at her throat. Her fingers moved from the necklace to the blue sleeve of her dress, rubbing the satin between her fingers. "For a night a least."

"You'll wear color again," Tsunade vowed in a voice hard with resolve, her eyes glittering.

Tenten forced herself to nod. Gato's leering face flashed across her mind and her stomach dipped. If her brother-in-law had his way, she would never wear anything colorful again, nor would she rejoin society.

A deep sigh welled up from her chest. One year, four months, and ten days had passed since Jiroubou's death, but Gato remained as determined as ever to sequester her from Society, to keep her running back and forth to the demanding needs of his wife and daughters...and staring at her with what she had come to consider the look.

The look reminded her of a gorilla she had once seen at a zoological exhibition. The beast had swayed behind its bars, his eyes liquid pools of yearning, eager to break loose and devour her.

Tsunade interrupted her musings. "Come now. Your friends are waiting, and you have an evening of dancing ahead."

Dancing. Tenten wondered if she remembered how. She had not been much of a dancer when Jiroubou had lived, spending most of her time on the edge of ballrooms with dowagers long resigned to each other, and matrons preferring each other to the husbands they suffered at home.

Shaking off the cheerless realization that her state of widowhood had not greatly altered her social patterns, she moved to the door, determined to thwart her insufferable relations if only in this small act. Tonight was an exercise in rebellion. To prove, if only to herself, that she was no one's prisoner, that she alone controlled her life.

"Do try and enjoy yourself. Forget about those little monsters down the hall." Tsunade settled Tenten's cloak around her, giving her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "You deserve some happiness."

Happiness. Tenten let the word roll around in her head, testing it. She had ceased hoping for something like happiness long ago. For now, for tonight, freedom alone would satisfy her.

The house was silent as she followed Tsunade down the stairs. Her feet moved quickly on the steps.

"I'll see that the door remains unlocked. Here, don't forget this." Tsunade thrust a black domino into her hand as they reached the back door.

On impulse, Tenten hugged the old nurse in the shadows. "Thank you," she murmured, wondering what she would have done without at least one friend within these walls. Tsunade had kept her sane during those miserable days when her marriage first crumbled. Nineteen, new to Town, new to her role as Lady Oto, she had been unprepared for the life her husband introduced her to- a world of glittering hypocrisy that slapped down anyone failing to sparkle. Jiroubou had been the first to deliver that lesson.

Tsunade tapped her gently on the chin. 'No frowns. I expect to hear you danced and flirted with every gentleman in the room."

Before Tenten could reply that flirting was the last thing on her mind- especially as she had no clue how to flirt- and that tonight was purely an exercise in freedom, Tsunade pushed her out of the house into the night. Like a bird thrust from its nest, she blinked against the thick mist and hovered on the back stoop for a moment, staring down the worn stone steps and wondering if she should perhaps return to the safety of her bedroom.

Where you will stay for the rest of your days.

The bitter thought barely enough time to root before she hurried next door to the massive stone edifice. Having no wish to be seen at such a late hour, she burrowed deep into her cloak, hiding from the soft glow emitted from the street's gaslights as she mounted the steps of her friend's mansion.

The front doors flung wide before Tenten even lifted her hand to knock. The Duchess of Subaku stood there, silhouetted in the great foyer's chandelier light, the pale strands in her dirty blond hair glinting like gold. "I was beginning to fear you had changed your mind," Temari announced.

Just beyond the duchess, her butler shifted from foot to foot, looking chagrined at her commandeering of his duties.

Beyond him stood the Duchess of Ame, a vague smile that could mean anything at all fixed to her face as she leaned against the marble balustrade.

Squaring her shoulders, Tenten lied, "I never considered it."

Temari ushered her inside, sweeping Tenten's cloak back from her shoulders even as the butler melted from the foyer, no doubt sensing activities were afoot that need not bear his witness.

Tapping her lip, Temari assessed her gown with a martial light in her dark green eyes. Turning to the Duchess of Ame, she asked with heavy seriousness, "Konan? What do you think?"

Konan shrugged. "She looks like any other matron out for the evening."

"My thoughts precisely." Temari met Tenten's gaze squarely. "You cannot wear this."

"You only said that I should not wear black," Tenten reminded her, feeling a little annoyed.

"For the purpose of tonight, you must attire yourself in something more-" Temari's nose wrinkled- "suitable."

Suitable. Tenten strongly suspected that Temari had wanted to use a different word. Gathering a fistful of her pale blue skirts, she asked, "How is this not suitable?"

"It is not-" Temari stopped, sighed, then tossed a beseeching look to Konan.

Konan flicked her careless gaze over Tenten, her face mild and unlined with expression. "You're not sufficiently sexy."

"What would you have me wear, then?" Tenten demanded, then gave her head a small shake. "It's of no account. I cannot risk returning to change anyway. Hokuto is a light sleeper. It's a wonder I did not wake her when passing her bedroom."

"A swift bludgeon to the head would take care of that," Konan suggested, eyes unblinking, expression cold as ever.

Temari shot Konan a glare and propped her hands on her hips. The act opened her ermine-trimmed cloak wide and Tenten gasped at her low-cut lavender gown. The dress hugged her curves indecently.

She pointed speechlessly to Temari's gown, then looked at Konan who, with a shrug, parted her own cloak to reveal a sheer light blue gown equally shocking.

"I understand the hostess's chef makes the most delicious lobster pasties," was all Konan explained.

Food. As usual, everything came down to food with Konan. It was the one thing her friend openly enjoyed.

"Fear not," Temari assured. "I have the perfect dress for you."

Tenten looked back and forth between their scandalous attire, wariness creeping over her. "What kind of masquerade is this?"

Temari and Konan exchanged looks and Tenten's uneasiness deepened.

"Who is the hostess?" She stared hard at her two friends, compelling one of them to answer.

Not surprisingly, it was Konan. She lacked the ability or inclination to be more tactful. "Madame Yamanaka," she stated.

"Madame Yamanaka?" Tenten was well acquainted with the lady's name. All of Town knew of the famed courtesan. "Why would we wish to attend such an affair? It's bound to be-" she stopped, groping for the right words. Scandalous. Outrageous. Sinful. A strange little thrill coursed through her at the very idea. Functional-proper-widow-Tenten would never dare to attend such an affair, an insidious little voice whispered in her head.

"I could learn of only one masquerade tonight," Temari explained. "Besides, I've always been curious about these legendary masques of Madame Yamanaka. It's bound to be an experience."

"Yes, Deidara was a patron of hers." Konan's lips twisted with derision. "Why not see where my devoted husband spent my dowry?"

Tenten had no doubt all their husbands had patronized Madame Yamanaka's. That their husbands had been less than faithful-had in fact been renowned libertines before and after taking their vows- from the start.

"What if we're recognized?"

Swinging her silk domino, a flutter of violet in the air, Temari insisted, "No one shall know us. We will simply be three masked women among countless others." snatching Tenten's hand, Temari dragged her up the carpeted stairs. "You were quite ready for adventure when we discussed this a few weeks ago."

"That was before I knew where we were going," Tenten grumbled.

"Adventure carries risks." Temari's gaze skimmed Tenten again as she pulled her into her lavish bedchamber. "Now, you will never blend in wearing something so modest."

Tenten bit her bottom lip, feeling herself relenting. "I suppose I wouldn't want to draw attention to myself."

"Can we hurry up?" Konan questioned. "It's almost midnight. All the best food will be gone."

Tucking Tenten's hand in her elbow, Temari led Tenten into the dressing room. "You shall see. It will be a grand adventure! Who knows? Perhaps some charming gentleman will sweep you off your feet and carry you far away from your wretched relations."

Konan snorted.

Tenten's heart fluttered with panic at the mere idea. She didn't want to marry anyone. Once had been enough. And she wasn't the sort to engage in a casual dalliance. Especially with the type of men likely attending a courtesan's ball.

In fact, she couldn't understand widows who took lovers. She had never found anything particularly exciting about the marriage bed. On the contrary, it was rather disgusting.

And as for love...

Well, she had never been that fortunate.

Neji Hyuuga, the Earl of Shukumei, stood rigidly at the edge of the crowded ballroom, hands folded behind his back. His nostrils twitched against the overpowering aroma of perfume, longing for the scent of sea and wind as he watched Madame Yamanaka approach, hips swaying in a manner that brought to mind rolling waves. Her welcoming smile below her peacock-feathered domino faltered when she caught sight of his face.

She stopped abruptly in the middle of the ballroom, her heavily rouged mouth sagging a bit. Her startled expression, followed quickly by a look of pity, was all too familiar.

Neji growled. Bloody hell, how he loathed that look.

For a fleeting moment he wished for a mask of his own. But he gave the thought only a moment, forbidding it to root in his head, to weaken him. Forcing his chin higher, he better exposed his face to the light.

The courtesan recovered and resumed her smile with a finesse that he would expect from one of her legendary reputation. Stopping before him, she brought with her the sweetly sick bouquet of gardenias, roses, and a dozen other floral fragrances he could not distinguish. Acrid as gunpowder, the scent of her stung the inside of his nose. Yet he was glad to see her. Whores didn't judge.

She pressed close, granting him a view down the stiff brocade of her bodice, revealing that she wore nothing underneath.

"It's been too long, mon cher, why have you not come to see me sooner?" she purred in an accent that was decidedly not French.

"I arrived in Town only yesterday."

He had departed his family's estate to accomplish the inevitable. At twenty eight, he owed it to Hinata to marry and provide an heir. His sister needed family. Someone other than himself.

Ironically enough, he had survived pirates, war, pestilence, disease in foreign lands- survived only to return home and find his brother dead. From fever, no less. No doubt his father cursed that quirk of fate from the grave.

It had been no secret that Neji's father purchased his commission in the hopes that he would never return. Rotten luck that his brother had died, leaving the wrong son to marry and bear responsibility for the family.

Precautions had to be taken to assure his cousin, Ao, would not get his claws on Shukumei Priory- or his sister- again. If something befell Neji, the right sort of wife would see to that. The right sort of wife would safeguard his sister against villains like Ao. And the darkness. Neji fought to swallow the sudden sourness coating his mouth. He would protect Hinata from the darkness that engulfed her. The darkness Neji had created. He owed her that much.

He needed a bride unlike the female that he had let creep beneath his skin years ago. A female not revolted by the sight of him. If such a lady existed.

Shaking off his musings, he returned his gaze to her face.

"Hmmm, I like this fierce face of yours," she purred. "My very own pirate." She trailed a long nail down the white ridged scar that slashed across his face and cut into his upper lip.

He shied away, unused to the contact, but bemused that she would think he resembled a pirate when it had very nearly been a pirate to cut his face to ribbons. Half a breath to the left and the Portuguese slave smuggler would have had his eye.

Ino lifted her brows meaningfully. "I know just the thing to celebrate your return. What I have in mind may take hours. Days. Weeks."

"I'm afraid I cannot linger in Town. I've an errand to dispense and then I'm off." Errand. An adequate description of his task.

"To rusticate in the wilds?" She made a pffing sound. "You mean you're not interested in renewing old friendships?" Her eyes shimmered with a wicked light. Only five years older than him, she had aged remarkably well. Although her hair was an improbable shade of blonde, her face and body were as tight and smooth as the first day they met.

"I'm confident I can provide you with a reason to linger." Her eyes locked with his, hot with promise, gleaming with a desire that had quite undone him as a lad.

And yet little moved him now.

"It's been a long time, mon cher," she continued, "and you've grown into quite the man." Her heavy-lidded gaze held his eyes, hot with lust.

"I'm as ugly as sin and you know it." If she didn't make her living stroking the egos of gentlemen, she'd react as all other women did and steer clear of his menacing mien.

Her skinny, bejeweled hand brushed the front of his trousers, challenging his words.

"What are we waiting for, then?" he asked.

Determination had brought him to her. Determination to feel something, anything. He may want nothing to do with tender sentiments, but sex was something else entirely. Especially with a partner who did not have to close her eyes as he leaned over her.

Sex could make him forget. Make him feel again. Even if only for a short while.

His gaze flicked to the many alcoves surrounding the ballroom. Moans and cried floated from behind the scarlet damask drapes, mingling with the music of the orchestra. He doubted there was a room in the house not already occupied. Even the dancing couples seemed to be more in the midst of fornication than waltz. Distaste filled him at the dissolute scene, oddly echoing the feelings he had after a battle, standing aboard ship and looking out over the carnage.

"Mon cher, give me but a moment." Her eyes raked him hungrily.

Neji's lips twisted into a smile. The scar at his lip tightened and pulled, and he quickly released that smile, letting his mouth fall into a mild line. Grasping her fingers, he raised them to his lips, watching for a sign of revulsion to cross her face. Ino lifted herself eagerly towards his hand.

"It would be a delight," he murmured, aggravated at the halfhearted tone of his voice. Here stood a woman ready and willing, Why did he not feel excitement, desire? Something. Anything. Why did he not feel?

"You remember the lavender salon? It is for my use alone." Her tongue slowly traced her rouged lips. "I shall be along shortly. A few matters require my attention before I can claim the long, uninterrupted hours I desire with you." Her kohl-lined eyes slid over him in heated perusal.

He kissed the back of her hand. "It will be my pleasure."

Anything to put off returning to the thick silence of his house across town, to keep from staring into the dark and thinking about the unrelenting night that ruled his sister-the darkness that he had forced on her in the reckless days of his youth. But that was his cross to bear. One of many.

Taking a wife was the least he owed Hinata. And it wasn't as if marriage would affect him to any great degree. It was not as if he was holding out for someone special, someone to love.

He simply required a bride with expectations similar to his.

His hand lifted to stroke the scar splitting his top lip, fingering the skin puckered tear as he contemplated the nameless, faceless female with a heart as remote as his own.