Naruto had rented out a space for a Christmas party, and practically every friend he had was invited.

There were a few that couldn't make it, though they wrote back with regrets and well-wishes for the year; Gaara had duties to his country; Yomena and Murasaki, now almost permanently-partnered, were predisposed with spirit business. The chuunin exams were two months away, however, so he'd be seeing them all again, soon enough.

The Uchiha clan, however, was sure to make it. All of them.

Sasuke and Ino arrived first, having nothing much better to do that evening - Naruto was taking care of all of the food, so there was nothing for Ino to cook. She gushed about the venue he'd managed to get, but Sasuke just narrowed his eyes. Mostly in confusion, however, not anger.

"Did you really need all this space," he said to Naruto.

"Yeah, man! I invited a lot of people."

"Define 'a lot.'"

"Well… your family, and their kids, an' then Osato's family, and Sakuya's family, an' then some friends that aren't family but I wanna see 'em, so…" His face narrowed with thinking. "Like fifty people? Maybe?"

Sasuke sniffed. "Well, I suppose the space is justified, then," he said.

"Totally justified," Naruto replied, smiling as he noticed Ino bending down to help Sakuya with some streamers.

Nadeshiko and her children were next to arrive, though Ooda wasn't with them. "He's coming with your mother," Nadeshiko said to Osato, in explanation.

"Ah, yeah, he told me the transport was a little delayed, right…" Osato looked only slightly worried. She was wearing an almost princess-like gown, with a sweetheart-collar bodice in dark red, and a billowy white skirt.

It really was a little delay; he and Karin and the rest arrived about an hour later. By then, the Taki family had already arrived, Sakuya bounding into her mother's arms. Kou was minding her twin brothers - Akito was clinging to one of his legs, while Agito was pulling at his arm, wanting to immediately explore. After that, she was utterly inseparable from her sister, Yukari, who managed to give off an air of mature appraisal, despite being only seven.

He'd already spent his time with his mother, so Ooda went straight to Nadeshiko once he entered the room. His kids came shortly afterward, assaulting him with hugs, Han nearly knocking him over in the process. "Thanks so much for putting this together, Naruto-san," he said, once he had the time.

"Hey, it was nothing," Naruto said. By then, the caterers had arrived, and Kou was having a bit of a time keeping the twins and his oldest daughter in check. Dinner hadn't even been served, yet, and he had to remind them more than a few times to not ruin their appetites.

Yukari remained as composed as her father, and Karin didn't hesitate to comment, as Yuki was watching from a distance, as well. "It's been so long since Mikan sent me a picture," she said. "She's beautiful, okay. You must be proud of her."

"Oh, I am," Yuki replied. "And I have to thank you, again, for your… help."

"I hardly helped, but you're welcome," Karin replied.

(Suspecting, at that moment, absolutely nothing about Yuki's presence.)

The rest of the Uchiha clan came in, before long. Kumori and Mimei attached themselves to their respective cousins, when they came with their parents, and Inou spent too much time fussing over his husband and if the baby was comfortable in her holder and what if they needed to change her diaper later that night and all sorts of other new-father worries. Hokuto nodded and listened and ignored the worry, since he was more than prepared. Karai arrived last, with Andou - now her assistant, and not Naruto's - trailing behind. He explained that they had work keeping them from being on time, but Karai claimed she just wanted to be fashionably late.

Then, at one point in the evening, Kurunari arrived, along with his editor, whom he'd brought along as a treat for her. He mainly hung near Naruto, just another invited friend. Sakura and her family was there, as well as his student Masao, and Kakashi. Kakashi was alone for a time, before Yamato, Hashiki, and their associated children appeared later. They were held up by Kotoji, who was out with friends earlier in the afternoon - his 19th birthday had been just the day before, and he was still getting presents from some friends.

And then, Fuzan and BB showed up. Fuzan, by then, had lost his star-sickness around Naruto, and they fist-bumped upon meeting. "Oh, man, look at your girls, they're getting so big, y'know!" Naruto added, as Fuzan helped them with their coats.

"My little babies, growin' up so fast," Fuzan said.

"We're not babies, c'mon!" Aki, the middle triplet, complained. "We're almost twelve."

"You'll always be your dad's babies, hon, no runnin' away from that," BB replied.

"Oh, hey, BB, uh, how are you and Hachibi gettin' along?" Naruto asked her, lowering his voice.

"Oh, we already knew each other, so it's hardly any different," BB replied. "An' Pops is feelin' better, thank goodness."

"Yeah? I didn't know if he was gonna pull around, y'know..."

(And by all accounts, Bee should have died. But they tried a different transmission technique in the throes of his latest illness, and the vestige of Hachibi's chakra left in him allowed him to linger, and even recover quite well.)

(Naruto was more than considering the technique, if it proved to be reliable. He didn't want Sakuya to be alone and guideless, when she became Kurama's host.)

"Yeah, none of us did," BB said, helping Maki, the youngest triplet, with her coat as well. "But you know how he is." She set the girls loose with a small push. "Go on, now, have a good time."

"I should visit him soon," Naruto said.

"Yeah? Y'can stay at our place," said Fuzan. "Save you some money on a hotel."

Karin noticed, at this time, that Shingetsu was grinning like a fool. Checking in on Osato and her past week at Naruto's house had preoccupied her, otherwise, and she narrowed her eyes.

Suigetsu, with her, said something about it before she could, however. "Okay, Shingetsu, tell me what you're up to," he said, with narrower eyes.

"What? Who says I'm up to something?" he said. He was twenty-four, now, with his hair cut fashionably long and, to his father's frustration, a great many numbers in his address book from girls he'd met when he was supposed to be tracking bounties.

"When you smile like that, you're planning something," he said, and crossed his arms. "Tell me what it is."

"Oh, well… Osato, am I up to something?" he said.

"Nope! And I don't know a thing about it, either, all right!" she said, far too brightly to be convincing.

"And Naruto is not at all involved," Shingetsu added, and his smile curled further.

Through the din, the door to the hall opened, and Yakata haltingly walked in. "Uh, am, am I on time…?"

Nadeshiko felt his presence, his voice pricking immediately at her ears, and she went to greet him. "Hello, you. You're not late at all. They haven't even served dinner, yet," she said.

Karin felt his chakra, as well, and with her mind and her eyes seeking out Naruto, she noticed Kurunari. His usually-distant chakra was almost humming through her body.

But it wasn't just him that she felt nearby.

And it was then that she realized that they were all here.

Ooda with his wife.

Kurunari with Naruto.

Fuzan attempting to mingle with Ooda, and BB smoothing things down.

Kiine with her children, near the food.

Yuki chatting with Inou's husband.

Yakata at the door.

Asaoto, with his father, talking to Sasuke in a quieter corner.

Kotoji with one of Nadeshiko's children, the one she had helped create.

And Osato, already at her side.

She covered her hand with her mouth, inhaling to keep from doing anything else.

Suigetsu noticed that, as well, and continued. "Shingetsu, what did you do."

"Nothing," he replied, and beamed.

"You did not," Karin said, unable to help herself, but able, at least, to pull her words in.

Naruto, across the room, excused himself from his conversation with Kurunari.

"Look, it wasn't all my idea, okay?" Shingetsu said, his smile getting squirmy. "Osato just told me that Naruto was talking about having a big party and, well, all the people he was gonna invite just gave me an idea and that's it. Man, back me up on this!"

Naruto had appeared, but rather than chime in, he put a hand on Karin's shoulder. "It's just a Christmas get-together. But I thought you'd appreciate having some... extra friends invited, y'know?"

"It's… well, it's done, I'll just try and stay out of the way, okay," Karin replied. Her face was put-upon, but she was overflowing with unexpected gratefulness inside, and Naruto gave her a small hug in response.

(Ooda, later in the evening, seemed to finally notice the strange coincidence of the guest list. He asked Naruto, instead of his mother, about it, and he responded much like Shingetsu did: grinning and confirming absolutely nothing, words-wise.)

(Hardly anyone else noticed, even the ones who knew the children. Inou's curiosity was pricked a little, as was Sasuke's, but since nobody seemed to be aware of it, and nobody was saying anything about it, they assumed it was just a coincidence. Naruto was friends with all of them in some way, after all.)

There was another arrival at the door, a girl with hair that wasn't clearly blond or brown pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. "Were we late?" she asked Yakata, nearby.

"No, we're, we're right on time," he replied.

"Oh, who's this?" Nadeshiko said.

"Oh, well, um… Nadeshiko, this is my, my girlfriend, Nami," Yakata replied, gesturing shyly.

A rare expression of surprise filled Nadeshiko's face. "Is that so."

The girlfriend, Nami, nodded. "Yakata already introduced me to his parents, so he thought to bring me along to introduce me to the rest of his…" She trailed off, her eyes growing wide. "Is that - is that Takada Ooda?" she said, nodding in his direction.

"Yes, that's my husband," Nadeshiko replied.

"You're his-?" Nami turned to face Yakata. "Did you know he would be here?!"

"Well, I, I figured he would be, I, I guess I forgot to mention…" He rubbed the back of his neck, stooping. "He's a, a friend of mine."

"Holy - wow…!" Nami was laughing a little, now. "You are just… full of secrets, Yakata."

"Not, not really…" Yakata replied. His face was growing red.

"Here, I'll introduce you." Nadeshiko took a few steps, then turned back. "Well?"

"Uh… 'well' what?" Nami said.

"I'm going to introduce you to my husband," Nadeshiko replied. "If you would please follow me."

Nami gave Yakata a disbelieving smile. "Any other secrets you should let me know about?"

"Really, I'm, I'm not that mysterious," Yakata said, managing to laugh.

(She knew he was a clone, already. Everyone knew that. Being surprised about that fact would be as ridiculous as not knowing about Hashiki.)

(Time had a good habit of watering down sensational news, especially when said news was quiet and humble in nature.)

Dinner managed to begin before everyone else in the Uchiha family could smother Nami with questions, thank goodness, and Yakata was significantly calmer as she got used to all the famous faces in the room. Ooda being typically gracious to her, and handing her a signed business card, certainly helped things.

(Two Hokages, an Asuka winner, and a best-selling author?! Just what kind of people did Yakata know?!)

Strange and wonderful meetings and friendships came together, that evening. Yuki happened to get to know Inou and his husband Hokuto very well, over the course of the appetizers and meal, since they had similarly-conceived daughters in common. Yuki and Hokuto especially had anecdotes to swap, and advice for each other.

In the heavy, after-dinner-before-dessert period, Osato took it upon herself to keep the younger kids occupied, leading a few games of charades and hide-and-seek while the adults unwound.

Fuzan continued trying to talk to Ooda, after the meal, but was interrupted by Kiine stopping by to introduce herself and recognizing him a little. "I... can't remember your name for the life of me," she said, laughing awkwaardly, "but your girlfriend... BB?"

"My wife, now, actually!" Fuzan said.

"Really! Good for you, I liked that girl, yeah," Kiine replied. "And, uh... I remember Yuki not likin' you too much."

"Oh. Uh. The... one I thought was a girl?" Fuzan's shoulders rose. "I still feel real bad 'bout that..."

"Hey, it's no big deal," Kiine said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'll keep him from causing trouble." she winked. "Oh, and, hey! Awesome work in that last movie. What's next on your plate?"

"Oh, me?" Ooda blinked a few times from the sudden address - being treated like he wasn't even in the room was... a very unfamiliar feeling, to say the least.

"Yeah, you. I see no other actors here, yeah," Kiine said.

"Well, hm... Nothing, yet, but I looked at some scripts before the holidays began," Ooda said. "I am a bit interested in trying out for the new Kiseki Pictures movie that's coming out..."

"No way." A very juvenile, slack-jawed expression had arrived on Fuzan's face. "Who do they want you to be?!"

"Um... someone named Aruto-ron," Ooda replied. "A robot of some sort. Apparently, they want me for my voice, but..."

Fuzan grabbed Ooda's sleeve with his best arm and stared him, very intensely, in the eyes. "You need to take that role. You need to take that role. Do it."

Ooda's smile was plastic and frozen, for lack of any other, appropriate reaction. "Well, that'll influence my decision, I'm sure..."

(And, later in the year, he did indeed get the part. And Fuzan would feel, forever, like he had something to do with it.)

Ino deemed that Yakata's new girlfriend was just the loveliest girl, after talking with her a while, and learning all the details that Nadeshiko didn't ask for.

Truly, everything about her was overwhelmingly... normal. She was pretty, but not beautiful; she had a genin certification, but went into library science; Yakata had met her after a careless step sent her and an armful of books to the floor. Their hands had touched as he tried to help pick up. Everything else was a story anyone could else could tell. They were a fine fit.

And Naruto, curiously, was going around and taking pictures. Of people by themselves, or with unrelated friends. Every family got a picture, however, posed and smiling or jumbled and almost candid. How he managed to get Sasuke to smile, when it was his turn, was a tiny spark of a miracle.

And then the night ended, and the guests dispersed, and returned to their homes and hotels. Sakuya and Osato still had their rooms at Naruto's house, but they each opted to be with their parents, and Naruto couldn't fault them for that.

The New Year came and went, and the party faded into a small, warm memory for most.

Karin received a large envelope in the mail, some time later. In it was a letter, and a small bundle of photos.

It doesn't matter to me who knows or doesn't, or how much you say you care. These are for you.
- Naruto

The photos were of the children. Beaming and laughing, with families and loved ones of their own. All of them healthy and well.

She gave only a small card of thanks in return, remaining impartial and professional. The photos were put into a neat, thin album, and tucked into her bedside table, out of the way but within reach.

Out of all her medical breakthroughs, her discoveries and awards, that book contained her most precious creations, and she always kept it near to her, from that day onward.