Leia wonders if Poe remembers the first time they met.
She almost hopes that he doesn't, since the memory might embarrass him. It was three or four years after the Battle of Endor, which would have made him about six, and it was the only time she visited Yavin 4 after the war, a thing she still regrets because it was the last time she ever got to see Poe's mother, Shara Bey.
Poe had wanted to show three-year-old Ben the Force-sensitive tree that grew behind his parents' house. No climbing, Kes Dameron had warned them, but of course, being children, they'd had to. Or Poe had, at any rate; Ben was still too small to reach the lowest branch, not yet strong enough to shimmy up the trunk.
Someone should have been keeping an eye on them. But they were engrossed in their coffee and their war stories and, even at six, Poe was a smart, responsible child. Not ten minutes after the boys went outside, they all heard a crash and a sickening thud. By the time Ben started wailing Moooooom they were all on their feet, running.
With their longer legs, Kes, Shara, and Han made it to the base of the tree first, and while they stooped over Poe - who lay amid the roots, moaning, which meant he was alive, at least - Leia scooped up Ben and clutched him to her heart. She still remembers the way he squirmed in her arms, kicking angrily at her stomach while he tried to turn around and watch what was happening to Poe. Is he dead? he kept asking. Is he dead? He sounded more curious than frightened, Leia remembers.
She also remembers sitting by Poe's bedside later with Shara and Kes, after Han put Ben to bed. She remembers the curious ache in her chest as she watched them caring for their son: checking his bacta patches every forty minutes or so; gently stroking his hair, careful of his bruises; singing to him in soft, soothing tones when he began to toss and mutter in his sleep. Leia felt like an outsider, an intruder, but she couldn't make herself leave, even though Han probably wondered where she was and when she was planning on coming to bed.
She couldn't say why she lingered, watching the Damerons, soaking up their love. She wanted - still wants - to believe that she was trying to be helpful, and, in fact, she did get up to fetch things for them - a pot of tea, Kes's sweater - so neither of them would have to leave Poe, even for a minute. She doesn't think that she was trying to avoid Han and Ben, at least not intentionally.
Now, with the wisdom and hindsight of more than twenty-five years, she thinks that perhaps the scene reminded her of the aftermath of certain battles - though most of those hadn't involved children - and that she had a premonition.
Leia feels like an intruder now, as once again she finds herself watching over an unconscious Poe Dameron. She knows that she doesn't have to do this: his vitals are strong, and there's a medical droid on hand, who'll know in an instant if he starts to crash. But she doesn't want Poe waking up alone, and there's simply nobody else: Shara is long dead, and Kes is far away on his ranch on Yavin 4. It's night on this side of D'Qar, and the men and women in Poe's squadron - those not away on reconnaissance missions, that is - have been ordered to rest. A battle is coming; Leia isn't the only one who can feel it.
Anyway, she doesn't mind keeping vigil. As she ages, she finds that she needs less and less sleep; the time is better spent thinking, strategizing. She has her best ideas when it's quiet, when the hum of activity in the base is low. As it is right now.
But she can't think about battles, or countermeasures to whatever the First Order might be cooking up, or even what she's going to do if they ever manage to get hold of the map that will supposedly lead them to her idiot brother. Poe's injuries claw at her heart. The Keshian who brought him in - an old associate of Han's, who happened to owe the Resistance a few favors - described finding him on Jakku in the company of some Teedo scavengers, suffering from blood loss, heat exhaustion, and a concussion. Injuries consistent with a shuttle crash and a couple of days spent lost in the desert. But there are other injuries too, and they speak of something else: crusted blood under his fingernails, cuts and bruises that strike both Leia and Dr. Kalonia as being just a little too … precise. And something more, which only Leia, with her link to the Force, can detect: a pain that isn't physical, that hangs over him like a cold mist even while he sleeps.
She's going to have to ask him exactly what happened, and she's dreading it. If, as she suspects, he was captured by the First Order and tortured for information…
It's a thought she can't complete, not right now. Later, she tells herself. She'll deal with all of that later. At least he doesn't seem to have given away the location of the base.
Ignoring the stiffness in her back, Leia reaches over and brushes aside the strands of hair that cling to Poe's forehead. The skin beneath her fingertips still feels warm, but his fever has definitely gone down. He'll be all right, Kalonia assured her before going off-duty for the night. Fluids, bacta patches, and solid rest, and he'll be ready for the next crazy adventure you send him on.
Yes, thinks Leia tiredly. The next crazy adventure. And - assuming he survives - the one after that. Because she will send him out again. And again. It's what she does. She'll use him and risk him and, in all likelihood, there will come a day when doesn't return. And it will kill her, but there's nothing she can do. He's here by choice, and if she started treating him any differently, he'd never forgive her.
And, oh, she would like to believe that all of the men and women under her command can claim an equal portion of her heart. But it's not true. This deep into the night, and this alone, she can admit to herself what she will never say out loud to anyone: that she cares deeply for every sentient being in the Resistance, but this one is special to her. Perhaps it's because she knew him as a child, however briefly. Perhaps it's because she knew his parents, fought alongside his mother during Operation: Cinder. Perhaps it's because of the way he looks at her sometimes, as if she wears all the hope in the galaxy like a mantle. Perhaps, she thinks, it's because he's close in age to her own son, and there's a certain superficial similarity - or so she imagines, because she hasn't actually seen Ben in fourteen years, and who knows what he looks like now. Dark hair, dark eyes, though Ben would probably be much taller…
No, Leia thinks as she strokes Poe's hair. It's wrong to compare them; it's profoundly unfair to both of them to wonder if Ben might have grown up to be more like Poe - easy to love, eager to be loved - if not for Snoke.
And she can't only blame Snoke. Somewhere along the line, she and Han, and maybe Luke too, must have failed Ben deeply. Which is one of the reasons she feels like such an intruder now.
Poe is not her son. She doesn't get to claim him just because he lost his mother and she lost Ben. He's Shara's, and she has no right, no business claiming the space that Shara left when she died. It doesn't matter that Leia loves him; she doesn't get a do-over just because he needs her, and his real mother isn't here.
But he does need you, a gentle voice reminds her, and Leia starts, her eyes suddenly hot with tears because the voice belongs to her adoptive mother: in truth, the only mother she can remember without the aid of the Force. Queen Breha of Alderaan, thirty-four years dead. And you needed me. You were much smaller, but the need doesn't go away.
"No," says Leia, watching Poe's face. "No, it doesn't."
And I never minded, says another voice, and now the tears do begin to spill down Leia's cheeks, because this is the voice of Padmé, the mother she never knew, but who was always there, hidden away. In fact, I was glad.
Leia swipes at her tears with a rough knuckle. She doesn't dare look behind her. She knows there's nobody there, no shimmering Force apparitions. Breha and Padmé were not Jedi; the voices are in her head.
But they're real enough.
She tucks a stray lock of hair back behind Poe's ear, and smiles sadly. They're right, of course, these voices from her past. They're not exactly making her feel better, but they're right.
She forgets all about them when Poe's brow furrows and his head starts to move restlessly against the pillow. Startled, concerned that she might have woken him, Leia sits back, holding her breath. But his eyes remain closed as he mutters, "...can't control it. We're gonna… Finn, eject. Eject. Finn…" His voice is weak, but there's panic in it. He's going to wake himself up, and Kalonia said he needed rest.
"Shhh." Leia curls over him again, her hand finding his - the one without the IV line - and squeezing it. "It's all right. Shhh."
"Did he get out? I couldn't find… I lost him too, didn't I?" His face starts to crumple.
"No," Leia whispers fiercely. She has no idea what he's talking about - was someone actually with him when he crashed? - and for the moment she doesn't care. "--He'll be all right. It's all right. Quiet, now. You're safe. I'm here." She kisses his cheek, then his forehead, her fingers gripping his. She would have sung to him - she remembers a few lullabies from Ben's childhood and her own - but he's suffered enough, she decides. After a moment, his expression relaxes and he starts to breathe evenly again.
Despite the ache in her back, in her neck, Leia stays right where she is.
He isn't hers. If he were much younger, perhaps, or if his father wasn't still very much alive on Yavin. If she could believe that there wasn't still some good left in Ben, wherever he is. If she could sift through the years and figure out exactly where she and Han went wrong, so she could learn, and be sure that she'd never fail another child.
But Leia had a son, and she lost him; she doesn't get to claim Shara Bey's, no matter how much she loves him, no matter how much he needs her.
Or maybe she's the one who needs him.
In any case, all she can hope to do is honor Shara by watching over him now, and by making sure her cause is worth the fight, worth his life.