Gaara can’t sleep.
He sits down on the bed, then spends some time selecting a position to lie in. None of the ones he’s tried so far seem natural, and he’s pretty sure he’s exhausted the possibilities, even when you include pillows in the equation. He picks one at random, then closes his eyes and waits for something to happen. He tries switching positions whenever he feels especially uncomfortable. He tries staying absolutely still. He tries light covers, heavy covers, and no covers.
The result is always the same: some time late at night or early in the morning, he manages to doze off. Then he’s jolted awake, body rigid, heartbeat speeding, certain that something terrible is about to happen. It takes several seconds before he remembers that he’s not in the middle of a battle, that Shukaku isn’t loose, that Shukaku isn’t devouring his personality. That Shukaku isn’t there any more.
He checks the hourglass, and is dismayed by how little time he spent sleeping, and how much is left before morning. Then he closes his eyes again, and waits for the next shock of awakening.
If it was up to him, he wouldn’t bother. But without Shukaku to augment his chakra, sleep is a biological necessity. Without Shukaku, the effects of sleep deprivation— exhaustion, irritability, headaches, body aches, slowed reactions, lapses in concentration, hallucinations— are no longer physiological background noise, but interfere with his ability to perform as Kazekage.
He experiments with the fake sleep jutsu, but his aides all suddenly acquire urgent missions that must be performed at dawn, so he has to ask Kankurou to come in and slap him awake. His brother seems happy to oblige. But it turns out that fake sleep only drains his chakra and makes him even more tired.
He goes to Sakura to request sleeping pills, but she points out that anything strong enough to knock him out will hamper his efficiency if the village is attacked in the middle of the night. She gives him some lavender oil to apply to his pillow. But it turns out that Gaara is allergic to lavender.
After disposing of the pillowcase and everything it touched, Gaara goes to the person he should have asked first: Naruto. Not because he thinks Naruto has ever had insomnia, but because Naruto is his touchstone.
Naruto scratches at his whisker-marks. “Maybe you’re not tired enough. Why don’t you train with Gai and Rock Lee in the evenings? I’ll go too. And then we can get ramen afterward!”
Gaara thinks that this is a typically excellent idea of Naruto's. As Kazekage, and especially with Shukaku gone, he needs to get stronger anyway. Supposedly invulnerable defense or no, it was a terrible oversight that he was never taught taijutsu, and one he's been meaning to correct for a while.
Gaara gets stronger. In the brief time they have together before Naruto leaves with the rest of the Konoha group, he even develops a taste for ramen. But he still can’t sleep.
After a particularly lengthy night, he descends upon his brother at the crack of dawn. Somewhat to Gaara’s regret, he isn’t early enough to wake Kankurou up, but Gaara does catch him putting on his makeup.
“Fake sleep jutsu didn’t work out?”
Gaara shakes his head.
Kankurou outlines his left eye, then his right. Gaara looks over his shoulder. Two pale, shock-haired, raccoon-eyed faces hover beside each other in the mirror.
“Well, personally,” says Kankurou. “That is… well… it’s sometimes relaxing to…”
“Think about someone you like a lot. And.”
Kankurou’s face is no longer pale, but as scarlet as the second-most poisonous type of desert scorpion. It’s a striking effect. Gaara thinks that his brother has just found his next new look.
“Take a hot bath.”
“Think about someone I like, and take a hot bath?” Gaara repeats, wondering if he’s missing some essential context. But Kankurou’s suggestion would presumably seem logical if Gaara had grown up sleeping like a normal person, and is really no odder than Naruto’s parting advice to count imaginary tadpoles.
That night Gaara sits in the bath and contemplates Kankurou, Temari, Naruto, and Sand village as a whole. As a sleep aid, it works about as well as the tadpoles.
Gaara hits paydirt with Temari, who, it turns out, is also prone to insomnia.
She rattles off remedies: “Drink a glass of warm milk. Train in the afternoon— not in the evening— then meditate for half an hour before you go to bed. Take a hot bath. Drink a cup of herbal tea with honey. Imagine something peaceful. Don’t keep checking the hourglass, that’ll only make you obsess about how long it’s taking to fall asleep, and that’s the worst thing you can do. Wrap yourself in a blanket and drink a mug of cocoa. Leave your windows open so you get a breeze. Or close them if the wind is too noisy.”
“Temari. How can these all help you sleep? What do they have in common?”
“They’re relaxing, or comforting,” she explains. “Of course, not everyone is comforted by the same things. Say, you don’t still have that old teddy-bear you used to carry around all the time, do you? Because maybe— uh, never mind, forget I said that.”
“I don’t still have the teddy-bear.”
“Right. I didn’t think so.” Temari laces her fingers together and cracks her knuckles. “Look, Gaara, this might take a while. Just try one thing at a time, and sooner or later you’ll figure out what works for you.”
That night he ignores everyone’s advice. With no advance preparation, he stretches out on the bed and watches the sand sift through the hourglass on the bedside table.
He’s not even sure what “comforting” and “relaxing” really mean. For Naruto, comfort is a bowl of ramen. For Rock Lee, relaxation is five hundred push-ups.
There was a time when Gaara found comfort in killing. He wonders whether visualizing some of those episodes would bring him comfort now. But what if it did? He left those times and that Gaara behind by looking forward, not back. He can’t go back now just for a moment’s solace. Not after he’s come so far.
Sand trickles slowly through the glass, forming an ever-shifting hill at the bottom. It seems as if the top is as full as when he first turned it over, but by morning it will be empty. Once there was an emptiness inside of Gaara. He tried to fill it with blood, but it was like pouring water into a sieve: it was only full as long as you kept pouring. Then he met Naruto, and began to devote as much energy to keeping other people alive as he once had to killing them. He hadn’t imagined that he would ever feel whole; it just seemed like the right thing to do. But he’d never felt quite as hollow since.
Sand pours down, and Gaara realizes that he doesn’t feel hollow at all. Had that happened after he’d chosen to protect the village at the cost of his own life? When he’d been alone on the barren plain, and Naruto had called him back with a hand on his shoulder? When he’d opened his eyes on the grassy field, and seen everyone who’d come running to save him? Or had it been this last week, when he’d gone to the people he cared about to ask for their help, and they’d automatically given him their best, albeit useless, advice?
Sand grains bounce at the bottom of the glass, and he decides that it doesn’t matter. He’s whole now, however long it took. If it takes him years to learn how to sleep, well, he’s mastered more difficult lessons before. In time, he’ll manage this one.
Sand flows down, and down and down. It’s a thread, a rope, a river.
Gaara sleeps, and dreams of the shifting sand.