When their son cries out in the middle of the night, it's Leia who wakes up first, alert and aware, her senses keenly attuned to the boy's in that spooky way that Han could never hope to achieve. But after an ongoing series of late-night scares, they know it's his father the boy wants.
Leia says pointedly that it's because Han was gone for a whole week, and Ben gets clingy when he doesn't see someone for awhile. Han thinks privately that it's because Leia makes too big of a fuss over the nightmares and Ben finds it annoying. But whatever the cause of the kid's preference, Han knows his duty, and no matter how groggy he is, there's nothing that would stop him from fulfilling it.
It's no different tonight. Leia's already upright in bed before the sound of muffled sobbing even reaches Han's ears. When it does, he drags himself up, grumbling, and tosses the blankets aside. “You just rest, sweetheart. I'll take care of him,” he tells her.
Leia rubs her forehead and flops back down on the pillows. “I know you will,” she says, her voice heavy and thick with exhaustion. She sounds even more tired than Han feels.
Han hurries barefoot down the hall, as fast as his weary body will allow. The sound of crying gets louder, filling his ears and wrenching at his heart. He's never been able to stand the idea of his son in pain.
The door draws back with a whoosh as Han steps into the room, and the lights flick on automatically, one after another. Oddly, it's only then that the child's sobs turn into cries of true fear, and he's kicking at his blankets, throwing his hands up to shield his face from the light. All that's visible of him is a riot of dark hair and a pair of clenched fists.
“Hey, hey,” Han says in low tones, crossing the room in two long strides. He scoops the boy up, blankets and all, holding the small, shaking body against his. “It's all right, kid. I gotcha. Shh, Ben. It's all right.”
The cries subside almost at once, turning into hiccups. Ben wraps his arms around Han's neck and clings to him like a mynock, sniffling. Han smooths his son's hair – or tries to, anyway, it never really cooperates – and hums tunelessly, an old Corellian lullaby. Okay, so it's not a lullaby, it's a dirty song, but he's not singing the words so what's it matter? Besides, Ben loves it. The boy relaxes at once in response to the familiar tune, and buries his face in his father's neck, his flushed cheeks still sticky with tears.
“I was scared, Dad,” he says in a confessing tone, as though even at four he feels he shouldn't be afraid, that he should somehow be bigger and better than all the things that scare him. And he is bigger, is better, is brighter than any dark thing that could possibly be haunting his dreams. Han just doesn't know how to tell his son that in a way that Ben believes.
“I know, kid. You just had a nightmare, that's all. It ain't real. Nothing to be scared of.”
Ben pulls back, fingers knotted in the shoulders of his father's nightshirt, and looks up into Han's eyes, sleepy, but skeptical. “If it's not real, then why am I scared of it?”
Han's too tired to have a good answer to that. “Well, look, kid, everyone has nightmares,” he says finally.
Han is firm. “Everyone.”
Ben narrows his brown eyes at his father. The boy has Leia's eyes and sometimes, eerily, they wear the exact same look of exasperation at Han's words. This is one of those times. “Even Mom?”
Watching her home planet explode, leading a rebellion at nineteen, and finding out that her birth father was one of the most evil people in the whole galaxy? It's a wonder that Leia doesn't toss and turn more often, honestly. “Even Mom.”
“Even Uncle Luke?”
He isn't sure, but what the heck. Luke may be a Jedi Knight, but he's also a human being, and he's had his share of suffering, which no doubt translates into his share of sleepless nights. “Definitely Uncle Luke.”
“Even you, Dad?”
This gives Han pause. It's hard to call what happens to him nightmares … compared to the night terrors that occasionally plague Leia, compared to his little boy waking up sobbing in the dark, they're nothing. More memories than dreams, more shadows of the past than true fears. Just old sensations that follow him around in his sleep, or nag at him in dull moments during the day. The feeling of being swallowed up, forced into hibernation, and emerging blind and shaking and weak, unable to protect himself, let alone the ones he loves. It's hard to explain how things that happened years ago and ought not to be able to touch him anymore can still seem so real and frightening sometimes. He wouldn't explain it to a four-year-old anyway. He and Leia have already decided that they're going to do their best to protect Ben from the darkness of the past, just focus on giving him hope for the future. But he's not going to lie to his son, either.
“Me too, Ben,” he says at last. “Sometimes.”
Ben is very quiet, taking in the new information, trying to reconcile it with what he thinks he knows about his father the pilot, his father the general, his father the hero. There's a moment where Han fears the kid isn't going to be able to reconcile it at all, that by this admission, meant to comfort, he's actually lost something in his little boy's vision. But then a sparkle comes into Ben's eyes, replacing the last of the tears and setting Han at ease. “What about Chewie?” he asks in a tone that clearly says I've got you now, Dad. “I bet Chewie doesn't ever have nightmares.”
Han snorts incredulously. “You kidding me? Ben, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other and I've never met a bigger fraidy-cat than Chewie. Awake or asleep.”
“Really. But, uh, don't tell him I said that, now.”
Ben giggles then, eyes warm with humor, crinkled at the corners, his smile splitting his little freckled face. “I won't, Dad. Don't worry.”
“Good,” Han says with feigned relief. (Okay, so his relief isn't entirely feigned). “It's late, little prince. You think you're ready to go back to sleep now?”
“What am I the prince of, Dad?” asks Ben, who is too young to understand about Alderaan, as he always asks when his father calls him that.
Han grins and answers the same way he always answers. “My heart, of course.”
Ben cocks his head and beams up at his father. “Okay, whatever you say, Dad.”
“So. Sleep?” Han prompts.
Ben's smile turns into a pout, but it's less unhappy than thoughtful, considering the idea. “I guess I could try … if it would make you happy.”
“Well I ain't gonna lie, Ben, it would be nice. You know, if you don't get enough sleep, you won't ...”
“... grow up big and strong. Yeah, I know.” Ben once more grins up at his father, and Han's stomach flips over. His little boy is so strangely serious that sometimes it can take real effort to draw a smile from him. This grin, this moment of shared laughter, the warmth in those eyes, the way that Ben trusts him – him, Han Solo, pirate, swindler, and smuggler, to make everything right - this makes everything worth it. All the late nights, the long hours, the worrying and the stressing, the dirty diapers and whining demands for sweets and the sticky fingers clinging to his shirts … Han often grumbles under his breath or longs for a moment of peace and quiet, but in the end, he wouldn't change a single minute of it. He loves this boy, with a love as bright and lasting as any star. He feels the weight of that love now, sitting heavy as the human being he holds in his arms, and yes, love is a heavy thing, and sometimes it hurts him, but he knows that there isn't any amount of sleep he wouldn't sacrifice for Ben. There's nothing he wouldn't sacrifice.
He's always known this, of course, but it's such a strong realization in him now that it makes him choke up a little, and he has to cover it up by kissing Ben on the top of the head. Then Han takes his sleeve and wipes the sticky remnants of the tears from his son's face, sets him back down in the small bed and tucks the blankets around him.
“Will you stay with me, Dad?” Ben asks him beseechingly, using those big brown eyes in a way that no one is able to resist, least of all his father. “Until I fall asleep?”
“Absolutely, little prince.” Han nudges Ben and crawls into the tiny shred of space left on the bed, his feet hanging over the end of it comically. Han makes a big show of trying to fit and finally giving up, and Ben favors him with more laughter before settling back against his pillows, his rumpled black curls a fall of darkness against the white of the sheets.
“I love you, Dad,” Ben mumbles as he closes his eyes.
“Love you too, Ben,” Han says huskily in reply, kissing his son's forehead soundly and curling up beside him.
After a while, Ben's breathing evens out and his dark eyelashes flutter, and Han thinks he can sneak away. But when he stirs, Ben whimpers and reaches out to grab his arm, eyes opening in something like panic. “Dad?”
“I'm here, kid,” Han tells him, laying the palm of his hand gently against the boy's cheek. “I'll always be here for you.”
“Thank you,” Ben says in a whisper, and he falls back asleep in seconds. This time, he stays that way. Han watches him sleep for a little while, his own sleepiness all but forgotten.
He tiptoes when he leaves the room, and looks back to make sure that everything's okay.
“Is Ben all right?” Leia asks, when he slips back into their room.
“He's good now,” Han tells her. “Sleeping like a baby nexu after a big meal.” He throws himself down on the mattress and tries to steal the blankets from Leia, but she holds fast and he gives up, only taking his fair share.
“You sang him that dirty Corellian song again, didn't you?” Leia says dryly.
Han makes an innocent face at her. “So what if I did? It's a classic!”
“A filthy classic.”
“Hey, don't worry about it. I won't teach him the words until he's at least ... five.”
Leia laughs, clearly against her own wishes, and then sighs. She lies on her side, hands folded under her cheek as she looks at Han. “I'm worried about him,” she admits, and bites her lip.
“Don't be.” Han hastens to assure her, reaching out and tangling his fingers through hers on top of the blankets. “They're just bad dreams. Everyone has 'em.”
Leia nods slowly, considering. “You might be right.”
“That has been known to happen.”
“Occasionally,” Leia allows, a playful light glimmering in her eyes. But it fades before Han can really enjoy it. “Han, about the nightmares ...”
“Shh,” he says. “He's fine, Leia, I promise. Let's get some sleep and talk about it in the morning, okay?”
She must be as tired as he is, because she doesn't argue at all. “All right.” Leia kisses him, softly and sweetly, and curls into his shoulder, eyes closed.
Han closes his eyes too. Sweet relief. Maybe they'll be able to get about two hours of sleep before Ben comes charging in to wake them up for breakfast.
“He really will be okay, Leia,” he mumbles, but his wife is already asleep, and as Han follows her into the gentle oblivion of dreams, there's a part of him that wonders.
After all, surely it's not normal for a four-year-old to have so many nightmares.
Surely it's not normal for a child to be scared of the light.