[I was hoping to get this up for Halloween, but I didn't make it. Oh well! This is set shortly after Yashameru is sent to assassinate Gaara and is killed. Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro are sent away for a short time while their father and the village decide whether they can really risk letting Gaara grow up.]

The house beyond the edge of town looked unspeakably foreign. It was of a strange design, all gables and porches and mysterious little stairways on the outside. The garish pink paint was cracked and peeling, and the once white railings were gray with neglect. Here and there were cracked windowpanes and shutters with hinges rusted solid.

"Geez, what a dump," said Kankuro, voicing a mutual feeling.

Beside him, Gaara didn't even look up but stared at the back of Temari's seat.

"There's some guy on the roof doing exercises," said Temari, "What kind of loony bin is this?"

"All right," said the shinobi who had driven them there, "Everybody out."

"What are we going to do for food?" Temari demanded. "That town we drove through is miles away!"

"Someone will bring you groceries weekly. Get your bags."

The older two pulled backpacks and suitcases out of the car while Gaara stood still in the muddy grass, scowling at the house and hugging his teddy bear tightly.

"Come on," Temari snapped, stamping towards the house. The boys followed her in silence.

Inside, their temporary home didn't look any better. The apartment was cold and damp, paint and wallpaper peeled in the corners and the linoleum was cracked and worn. The rooms were furnished with odd, Western furniture which was in much the same shape as the rest of the house. A general exploration revealed a kitchen, living room, and study on the first floor, and two bedrooms on the second. From the upstairs window, they watched the shinobi drive off down the rutted lane.

"He could have told us he was leaving," Kankuro grumbled.

"I'm just as glad he's gone," said Temari. "See if you can figure out how to turn on the heat. I'll see about some dinner."

"I hope he left us something to eat."

"I brought a whole bag of food with us, remember, stupid?"

"Yeah, yeah."

As they went down the stairs, Gaara heard a further, muttered conversation.

"You two can have that bedroom, I'll take the other."

"What?" Kankuro sounded upset, "Why do I have to sleep in the same room with him?"

"Someone has to keep an eye on him!"

"No way! I'm sleeping downstairs."

Gaara sat down on the dusty floor. The ancient house was silent all around him in the chilly grey twilight of this cold, distant place. After a minute, he noticed tiny footprints in the dust. It was probably mice. Gaara stared at the prints for a while, then wiped them out with his sand.

Sometime later, he heard Temari shouting up the stairs.

"Gaara! Come on down and eat!"

There were lights on in the kitchen, but it didn't seem any warmer. Kankuro had his tools out and was grumbling again.

"It's not my fault the furnace is taking forever," he protested, "It's probably as old as the house. It took me half an hour to even get it lit!"

"Then tomorrow you can fix it properly."

"What?! I am not spending all day fixing a furnace! I've got to fix my puppet so I can get back to training."

"Furnace first, toys second."

"Puppets aren't toys, they're ninja tools!"

"Oh?" Temari dumped the contents of a frying pan into a bowl and set it on the rickety table, "I thought you just liked to play with dolls."

Gaara tried a forkful of Temari's concoction while the argument raged. He couldn't help making a face; Yashameru had done most of the cooking since their mother died, and Temari had never bothered to learn before. In a tiny way, the argument was comforting–at least Temari and Kankuro were still the same. I just wish… No! Gaara pushed the thought away. They didn't love him, and he didn't love them either. He would never love anyone. He was alone and he always would be.

In fact, Gaara was not the only one feeling lost. Yashameru's death–and their father's true attitude it had revealed–had thrown the older two siblings into confusion and disarray. Up until that point, they had been able to believe that their father had a plan for Gaara and that the attacks he arranged really were only to train and test the boy. But finding that he really wanted Gaara dead left a terrible gap in things–if Gaara wasn't working as a weapon, then their mother had been killed for nothing. Their family, their way of life, had been disrupted for nothing. Their mother and uncle had died for some mistake or miscalculation, and their little brother, the result of that mistake, would have to be killed as well. Their uncle's death had left all three siblings with no one to believe in, for if their father would so easily dispose of Yashameru and Gaara, who knew if he wouldn't someday decide they were also unnecessary?

It was a hard place to be in, especially for children who were just starting to find their places in life. Temari had just completed her training to become a genin and Kankuro was still a student. After Yashameru's death, Temari had tried to pick up the task of cooking and housekeeping with only moderate success. Now, on top of everything, they were temporary caretakers of a sullen jinchuriki.

Kankuro claimed the study for his training. He had brought a small practice puppet with him since his teacher had warned him he'd better come back showing some improvement if he wanted to graduate. Temari had a tall stack of books she was assigned to read and was making up for this hardship by grumbling constantly. Gaara, left to himself, wandered outside to look around.

He found a garden behind the house, all curving grey stone walls and cracked pavements, with nothing growing but coarse brown weeds amid the bracken of many untended years. The only bright spot of vegetation was an unkempt bush by the gate, which was a mass of dark, blood-red leaves. For some reason, Gaara found the color attractive. He'd found that something in him seemed to like the color of blood, seemed to crave it. He'd always found it frightening but now, as he considered the future from the perspective of a small, bitterly disillusioned boy, he thought it might not be so much of a problem. After all, if it was what he was meant to be, then he should embrace it as a reason for existence. If he was to have such a reason, it must be something beyond what other people thought of him. He picked a handful of the leaves.

A narrow path wound away up a brooding hill, and Gaara followed it. As he walked, he heard faint rustling noises as though something was following him off to one side. The noises stopped behind a pile of rocks; Gaara looked at them for a second, then walked on. If something was following him, it would have to look out for itself.

The shinobi had warned them about an old well on the property, and Gaara perversely decided to go in search of it. The path led through an orchard of ancient trees and finally to an odd little clearing with a ring of mushrooms in the middle. Gaara looked at the curiously; he had never seen plants like that before. This grey, damp world was so different from the harsh, blinding desert he had gown up in.

There was a strange whirring and clattering from the hill above and he looked up to see a fantastic apparition bearing down on him. It resolved itself into a black-clad figure with glowing green eyes riding some kind of bicycle. After the initial moment of surprise, Gaara scowled at the oncoming figure and stood still, watching the approach defiantly. Sand stirred the leaves at his feet.

As the bike came tearing towards him a stream of sand shot up, knocking the bike aside and sending the rider tumbling across the ground. Gaara noted in some puzzlement that his sand seemed to be responding a little slower than usual, and its color was a darker brown. It felt... heavy. He wondered why.

The figure was struggling to his feat, pulling off a helmet with glowing lights attached. It revealed a boy about Temari's age.

"Woah. What was that? Atmospheric conditions aren't right for dust devils. Must have been some kind of freak air current. Lemme guess, you're from Texas or Utah, someplace dried out and barren, right?"

Gaara only scowled at him.

The boy had a nervous, almost lopsided air. The rustling in the grass came again, and a mean-looking black cat came out of the grass to rub against the boy's legs. Gaara's eyes narrowed.

"Is that your cat?"

"Well, he's not really my cat, he's kind of feral, you know, wild. Of course I do feed him every night and sometimes he'll come to my window and bring me little dead things."

Gaara's scowl didn't change. "There's supposed to be an old well around here."

"You're standing on it."

Gaara looked down. He was standing inside the circle of mushrooms, and now that he thought about it, the feel of the ground beneath him wasn't right. He moved to one side; the strange boy knelt down and brushed the dirt from the spot, revealing a battered metal cover, which he banged on.

"See? Supposed to be so deep that if you fell to the bottom and looked up, you'd see a sky full of stars in the middle of the day." He took a stick and pried up the cover so Gaara could see down into the hole.

"Surprised she let you move in, my grandma. She owns the Pink Palace. Won't rent to people with kids."

Gaara looked at him interrogatively.

"Oh, I'm not supposed to talk about it. I'm Whybie. Short for... Whyborn. Not my idea, of course. What'd you get saddled with?"

The young ninja turned to look at him; a breeze blew the red hair aside, exposing the mark on his forehead.

"Gaara."

"Gary what?"

The younger boy scowled again.

Whyborn didn't seem to notice. "It's not real scientific, but I've heard that an ordinary name, like Gary, can lead people to have ordinary expectations about a person."

In the distance, an elderly but powerful female voice could be heard raised for distance.

"Whyborn!"

The nervous boy flinched.

"Well, great to meet you, Gary. Oh, and you might not want to pick any more of those leaves. They're poison oak."

Whyborn rattled off on his bike in answer to the distant summons.

Gaara looked down at the leaves for a second, then scattered them slowly over the well cover. They looked like drops of blood.