Learning to Sleep
Sleep had become an untrustworthy creature over the past half-century. Sometimes it whispered promises of comfort into the ears he didn't have anymore, luring him down, down, down into corners or the dusty embrace of bunks that hadn't been slept in for years, and there it would cradle him and creep up through all the cool air that filled the space where his body should have been and then it would turn the world dark and take away all the horrible things he couldn't stop seeing -
Sometimes it did that. Other times it was cruel, and let the horrible things follow him. Sometimes it was cruel simply because it ended. Sometimes he couldn't tell when it had ended, or if it had ever begun. Those were the worst times, in ways even his well-trained voice could not express. Not that he really wanted to tell anyone. He didn't. He found it astoundingly easy to say all sorts of things nowadays, but there was really no easy way to tell someone you might be mad.
After they'd given him back his shadow, he had to learn to sleep all over again. Those first few nights on Thriller Bark he'd been afraid to sleep at all, even though the giddy shock of daylight and voices and faces and people left him almost too tired to stand or think when the rush finally faded. Watching the Strawhats and the ship-island's other freed prisoners sleeping huddled in their blankets that first starry night, he'd been transfixed by the terrible thought that this might be as much a dream as every time his captain and his crew had ever smiled at him again. Perhaps Sleep - that tempting woman with her promises and her soft, heartless smile - had decided that those other faces didn't fool him well enough anymore, and had decided to invent new masks for herself.
It had been an awful thought, and he wasn't sure how long he'd stayed awake with it whispering through the little empty spaces in his head that even the old dearly loved shell couldn't entirely fill. If he was dreaming...going to sleep in a dream would mean he'd wake up, wouldn't it? And he knew, with an exhausted, trembling certainty, that if he woke up from this he would immediately throw himself over the side of his ship and finally let the sea silence his waking moments forever. Maybe it was a silly thing to fret over, not knowing if you were asleep already, but sleep had become an untrustworthy creature indeed, and no one, no matter how much they had to cling to things like life and promises, could endlessly endure that sort of cruelty.
Eventually he did sleep, even though he hadn't meant to do it. It frightened him in those first few disoriented seconds of being awake and realizing what he'd done, but the sun was up and the air smelled like breakfast and Miss Nami was scolding someone for something. Everything was still the way he'd left it. (He might have said something along those lines on one of the following mornings on the island, or at least Doctor Chopper gave him an odd look once while checking on his injuries but didn't press for an explanation. That was for the best.)
Then he became a pirate again, with a place to sleep among other pirates on a pirate ship. It was wonderful. He was terrified. He was terrified because it was wonderful, because only dreams were wonderful. That was a rule he'd clutched tightly in his fleshless fingers for most of his life now, and during every hour when he was no longer sure of himself he'd tried his best to remember it. The rule was a heavy thing, stagnant and sad, but it was real, and if he let sadness drive him away from trying to remember what real was he would never be able to do anything but let them all down forever.
Now that the rule wasn't helping anymore, it proved surprisingly difficult to loosen his grip. Jumping down from high places and from one high place to another didn't bother him in the slightest, but this was a leap of faith that would break him far more than physically if it turned out he was wrong.
So it was perhaps no surprise that for much of his first night aboard the Thousand Sunny, he slept either strangely or not at all. That tiny spectre of uneasy uncertainty hovered around the edges of the world, never speaking but never quite gone. In his sleep he heard the sea where it touched the ship and in his sleep he was suddenly seized by fear that it was still the other ship the sea was touching after all, and the fear always woke him. It was a small blessing that he didn't seem to be waking up screaming anymore, at least. Instead he only found himself tensed in the dark (he didn't have muscles but somehow he could still feel tense and it was best not to think too long on that), trying to soften his own ragged breathing so he could hear the other men breathing around him. But even this did not comfort him every time. He'd been hearing things on his ship in the dark long before anyone else aboard this ship had even been born.
He wasn't sure how many times he'd dozed off again before he was suddenly awakened by something that wasn't dreams or the sea: something that landed heavily across his body with a muffled thump. The tenth of a second the impact took to jolt him awake was one of the most wrenching tenths of a second of his long wrenching life. It had finally happened - he'd fallen asleep on deck somewhere - he'd been snoring against rotting-wood furniture again - something had broken - he'd fallen over - he didn't know what had happened anymore except that he'd woken up at last -
Several seconds passed in which he stared at nothing and did not breathe. He could not tell if he'd been the one to make that muffled choking animal sound or if something else had made it in his dreams, but slowly he began to realize that someone was snoring and that, he was pretty sure, wasn't him. He was also pretty sure he really wasn't hearing things in the dark this time, because even his dreams never quite managed to have proper weight, or warmth, and he could feel both warmth and weight pressing down on him through sheets and sleep clothes.
Warmth, weight, and snoring.
"He does that." Zoro's voice, in the bunk on his left. The words were quiet and unruffled - how long had the swordsman been awake? "If he starts getting on your nerves, just shove him off. No big deal. He bounces."
It was strange how a man could lack a heart but still feel the echo of something hammering in a panic at the inside of his ribcage; strange, too, that the sensation even slowed and quieted in the way he dimly remembered hearts behaving as the fright faded. "Ah...of course."
The quiet room breathed. Luffy mumbled sleepy little half-words into his side, shifting clumsily against him before unceremoniously shoving an arm under his spine and throwing the other over his middle. Brook only barely managed to not yelp like a goosed woman when rubbery fingers pressed into his loose-fitting shirt and hooked around the hard curve of his rib bones, for all the world like a little monkey clinging to a fence. Apparently content again, Luffy settled down and resumed the all-important task of snoring quietly on his new old musician. (It occurred to the skeleton far too late that this boy would snap him like a twig if those arms tightened without a waking mind to restrain their strength. That realization didn't bother him as much as it probably should have; there were worse ways to go.)
Though the men's quarters were too dark to see much of anything, his careful fingers managed to find and awkwardly ruffle Luffy's hair, touch light as a ghost. He wasn't exactly sure why, anymore. It just seemed like something he should do. Maybe it was because he thought, albeit fondly, that their young captain was a little foolish to be where he was - even with a layer of clothing and bedsheets in the way, Luffy could not be particularly comfortable right then. Brook had forgotten how to be aware of a lot of things, but he was still aware of that much.
Or maybe it was because...well, just because.
"I haven't got any nerves, you know. To get on."
For a fleeting instant it sounded like Zoro was smiling. Did Zoro smile? Well, hopefully. "Yeah, we know."
The quiet room breathed.
Dreams had no weight and held no warmth. If he still needed a rule to help him remember the difference, surely this would do as a replacement. It was true, after all, and because it was true - because Luffy was warm and snoring against him...well then it followed that the Sunny absolutely could not be a dream at all, didn't it? And if the ship wasn't a dream then all the rest absolutely couldn't have been a dream either, because all the rest had been how he'd ended up on this real and solid ship to begin with -
The tiny spectre of uneasy uncertainty faded without a word, and from that moment until dawn Brook slept like the dead.