There are children.
Leia has always known this on some level, of course, has heard horror stories that are too many and too similar to all be fearful whispers born of hatred and hearsay. She has heard of babies torn from their parents' arms, of entire villages slaughtered because they would not turn over their children without argument. There are too many such stories to be counted, too many hollow eyes and empty arms, and every time she hears of another such atrocity she thinks of the child she once held in her arms and wishes she still had the freedom to weep.
Then she meets Finn, Finn who has never had a mother or a family or even a name, and all of a sudden the continuing tragedy has a face that is not that of her long-lost son who has been stolen from her by the First Order as surely as any of the countless children taken away from their homes. She tries not to think about it too much, not because she tries to deny the truth of their war but because she has to lock some of it away or she won't have the strength to face another day of this, another day of facing enemies who were never given a choice.
The first time they find a training facility, her resolve very nearly breaks. There are three hundred of them there, the oldest one of them not yet ten, three hundred helpless hopeless children they find locked away in the barracks once the main forces have been taken down.
They were fortunate, Finn tells her later, in that quiet tone of his that he often takes when discussing the things he'd rather not remember. Fortunate that the children were locked away, thought too unreliable to fight yet, or each one of those three hundred would have been another enemy they had to kill or be killed by. Except these aren't soldiers, not grown men and women she might at least pretend have a choice in drawing their weapon and pulling the trigger, these are children who know nothing about the world except that disobeying an order means you are taken away and never brought back.
He tells her the facility is small, almost doesn't believe her when he hears the numbers. It must have been new, he tells her, perhaps awaiting new shipments. He has never seen a training facility that did not count its cadets in thousands.
He tells her that those who are taken away never go too far. Tells her there is likely an incinerator somewhere on site, for disposing of waste. The First Order does not believe in wasting resources in salvaging something that has been found wanting, certainly not something that fails so early in the process.
Leia looks at the youngest one they had found, who the doctors tell her is perhaps four and will never truly lose the scar on her back that Finn tells her is evidence of standard punishments, and for the first time in years she very nearly throws up.
Finn spends the next day walking around the base with a datapad, asking everyone and anyone he encounters what they think are the most beautiful names they know. He does not stop until he has a full three hundred, does not stop until he has matched each name to one of the designations they found in the data files at the facility. If he then enlists the help of a few pilots to print out and distribute small name labels for each of their little not-quite-prisoners, well, Leia isn't going to stop them, not that she could. It seems Poe Dameron is not the only pilot who will do anything Finn asks of him.
It has been a fascinating process to watch, really. At first some people on base were suspicious of Finn's loyalties, enough so that she had a guard posted outside his medbay door for his safety rather than that of others, not as trusting as she would have wanted to be but knowing Finn was the less dangerous one. By the time he had recovered enough to actually sit up and have visitors he had managed to charm very nearly everyone who set eyes on him, somehow managing to turn even the most dubious ones to his side with nothing but his smiles and words and personality. It's almost impossible not to like him, really, even Leia herself feels somehow drawn to him, and she has met some of the greatest diplomats in the galaxy. Others say it almost seems like magic, often amid fond smiles and fonder words.
Leia thinks of what he has heard of the adventure on Jakku, how a stormtrooper on his own for the first time in his life took a direction in a featureless desert and ended up at the nearest settlement, and wonders.
It's not only the pilots who are drawn to him, now, or the other people on base. The children are gathering around him like moths swarming to light, demanding to know if the stories are true, if he was just like them, just like the soldiers they were supposed to have become. He has seemingly infinite patience for them, sitting down surrounded by curious eyes and ears, never showing any fear of what he himself has pointed out are already trained fighters even in his weakened state.
The smallest one, the one Finn himself has called Yavin for the green tint of her hair with an easy confidence that made Poe splutter and choke, sits on his lap as he tells them the story of how he fled from the First Order and was given a name. It seems like a small part of the story to Leia, but it seems much more important to these children, who demand that he tell them again and again how Poe so easily gave him a name instead of a designation, a name just like those they now have stuck to their little black undersuits that are their only clothes for now because a Resistance base does not have uniforms in child sizes.
Leia thinks of her own child, the one who had a name that he then rejected, and does not weep.
Some of the children come to her, only a day or two after they have been brought back to base, asking her what their assignments might be. She is confused only for a moment before she remembers Finn's words. They know nothing but obeying, his tired voice speaks in her ear, and if you do not obey you are useless. If you are useless, you are taken away and never brought back, and any child who has survived the training this long knows better than to be useless.
She will not have children fighting for her, not even if that were their only hope. Instead, she sets to work to arrange for a proper school. There have always been some children around, born to parents working for the Resistance, but never in such a grand scale, never so many who could not be sent to stay with relatives in other worlds for at least part of the time. By the time they settle on the location of the new base, one that is not known to the First Order, she has everything planned out. The children have helped, taking her request for their aid as urgent orders, and while she would much prefer to tell them just to do whatever they wish Finn assures her that would only cause them distress so soon, and so she has them noting down everything they already know and everything they would like to learn and tries not to feel sick as she sees the results. No seven-year-old should look her in the eye and proudly tell her she knows how to dismantle and rebuild every model of blaster the First Order uses, no eight-year-old should shyly look away as he admits he heard one of the pilots talk about cookies and would rather like to know what it means.
A few of them still ask her if she will let them fight, because it's the only thing they know. Them she directs again to Finn, Finn who has been raised and taught to be a soldier and a killer just as they have been, Finn who is an excellent marksman and Finn who had part in destroying Starkiller Base and Finn who has quietly told her that he will help her in any capacity he can but is not sure he could kill again even if she asked him to. She knows many of them will not agree with him, that even those she turns away now will come back to her later, in five years, ten years if this war of theirs has not yet destroyed them all. She tells them that if they return she will reconsider, because she does believe in choice, but they do not yet know enough about the world to know what choice they are making.
Finn may not want to kill again, but he does want to help, and as they finally relocate he has little time left for the children as Leia continues to question him for any and all information he can give, tries to subtly teach him the ways of strategy and diplomacy that dominated her own youth. She does still occasionally spot him around them, though, especially when Poe is away on a mission and Finn finds himself at a loss as to how he should spend his spare time without his constant companion, and if he is sometimes quiet and withdrawn afterward he will still not stop going to them.
Leia watches as little Yavin proudly shows him the first drawing she has made in her entire life and swears this fight of theirs will not be in vain.
Then Luke finally shows up, of course, because he always has to appear just when it's the least convenient and yet most helpful, and makes Leia's personal life the chaos she has carefully been trying to avoid for far too long. He will not speak of Ben, barely mentions Han, but he cannot mask the guilt and sorrow in his eyes from her and she is grateful that he doesn't even try. He speaks of training, then, how Rey is old by the usual standards but then so was he, how he cannot fight this side of the battle alone but he might not have to. He then asks about Finn, about the stories he has heard of luck and intuition and charming everyone without even trying, and Leia shuts him down immediately. She has promised Finn he will not have to fight again unless it is in self-defense, that she will not take his choice away again, not after everything he has done for them.
Luke touches her arm and speaks of old days, when being a Jedi did not always mean raising a sword, and when he speaks in his calm tones she almost finds herself believing him. It is not her he has to convince, though, it is Finn and increasingly also Poe, because he has a choice now and he has love and she will not see either of them robbed away from him.
She asks Luke if he wishes to see the children, to find out if any of them have the sensitivity. The pain is raw in his eyes for a moment before he says he will not teach any of them until he can guarantee they will be safe under his tutelage.
Leia wonders if it is Ben or himself he is thinking of as he speaks of danger.
Finn agrees, though with conditions, as she had suspected he might. He allows Luke to test him, agrees to train alongside Rey for the basics, for the things Leia herself might be capable of if she turned her mind to it. She is no weaker than her brother, after all, she has just chosen to wield her sensitivity in another field, and when Finn tells her he wishes to be like her she can hardly tell him no. Finn trains with Rey, then, learns to manipulate matter and minds, and for all that she knows Luke can be a strict teacher he never calls after Finn when he chooses to walk away. Leia continues to teach him, for her part, teaches him all the tricks and traits she has learned long before she realized there might have been a reason she always found it easy to convince people, and is not surprised at all when Finn takes to it all like a fish to water.
She really should not be surprised when he decides to use his new-found abilities to fight against the First Order in lives instead of deaths. How the message gets passed around, she is not sure, but the next time they raid a facility some of the personnel are waiting for them with arms raised and weapons dropped, the rest lying dead on the floor.
As those surrendering are escorted away Leia hears whispers of a Namer, of a Defector, and wonders if Finn knows how they speak of him or not, wonders which option is the more frightening one.
They cannot trust them immediately, of course, cannot just take their word for it. She even had people watching the children until she could be sure that they will take her orders rather than those of their former superiors, she is hardly foolish enough to trust the adults any easier. This is when Finn points out he is far enough in his studies to detect a lie, and volunteers to screen every last one of them, to see if they truly wish to be free or are simply trying to find their way in.
By the time he is through he cannot even sit up for his exhaustion and Poe seems seconds away from yelling at Leia for allowing him to do such a foolish thing, but Leia knows even without asking Rey is going around the base collecting a list of beautiful names, even longer than before.
She gives them all a choice, to fight with them or be found other tasks. She hears a grown man who must be six feet and a half of pure muscle shyly ask if it's true they have a school for the children and if he might learn something too, sees a woman burst into tears of relief when she hears working in the kitchens does not require her to continue with active battle training, and for all that she was dubious of Finn's intentions at first she does not doubt him anymore. It is not just the children who were robbed of a childhood, she finds.
There are many more lists before they are done, lists of people gained and people lost, and more and more of those lists become one in the same as new defectors start taking their names from those who fell fighting against their comrades. Leia should probably find it morbid but somehow it seems fitting, symbolic even, the way any death the First Order can deal to them will be returned many times over in lives stolen away from their grasp.
Finn only takes to active battle once, when Poe is thought lost, fights through half a base to find his pilot and fights through all of it again to bring him back out. This time it's Finn who spends his every spare moment at the side of Poe's bed, telling him about the battles they've won and information they've gained and what the children are learning at school, and for all that he is patient she can tell he is also even more tired than before.
Leia sees little Yavin in his lap a few times, chattering away about how Poe the Namer should wake up already because he's making Finn very sad and how her hair is long enough for pigtails now and Poe promised to braid it, and she doesn't wonder how Finn can hold onto his patience.
Poe wakes up, and hears the bad news. The problem with being the best pilot in the Resistance is that everyone knows he is the best pilot in the Resistance, and the First Order does not believe in repeating its mistakes. A pilot might make his way out once, but a pilot without eyes will not, and this time Finn was just a little too late to save him. She sees her best pilot weep from unseeing eyes for the sky he will not see again, and turns away before she might join him. It is not her moment to intrude, anyway, he has Finn there for that.
They win, in the end, though with all the death behind them it feels like a hollow victory. The First Order crumbles, Snoke falls at the blade of Rey's lightsaber, and Kylo Ren stands at the edge of a cliff long enough to tell her he's sorry before flinging himself off, madness in his eyes as he finds himself left without an escape. She is not naive enough to leave it at that, not anymore, she sends people to make sure of his death, and what she sees brought back is the broken body of her sweet Ben, forever lost to her now.
Leia weeps at last that day, locked away from everyone else, and she can sense Luke hesitating outside her door but never entering.
There is still work to be done, more ends to clean up and resilient cells to wipe away. She has a new strategist now, Poe Dameron finding his vengeance in flying around entire squadrons instead of just his own jet, and there are names and there are names and sometimes when there are children she sees Luke taking a few of them aside. It is not safe yet, but it might soon be, and while the grief in her brother's eyes has grown much greater she imagines she can see the guilt starting to lift at last.
The next children are not from a training facility or a transport ship, they are not counted in the hundreds, there are just a dozen of them and a few adult troopers who speak through exhaustion and fear about commanders who would die rather than surrender even in the face of defeat and a ship they managed to steal away. They have been told the defectors never live, that Resistance will kill them rather than trust a traitor, and she can see in their eyes that they have believed every word, yet they stand unarmed before her and ask that she spares the children at least.
Leia tells them to get food and rest and come to her in the morning, and in their eyes she sees hope that she suspects has not ever shone there before.
The children are tired as well, quiet and subdued even more than she has found is usual for the young cadets, and as they are shuffling along behind a pilot who has promised to find them beds one of them catches her eye. He's a young boy, maybe six or seven, with dark skin and hair like midnight and a look of wonder in his eyes as she tells them their standing orders for now are to rest and recover, and when Jessica Pava comes by later to ask her for the most beautiful name she hears her own voice saying Ben.
She doesn't think they would even consider her suggestion, knows it is too much and too soon and her pain is her own, until two days later little Yavin runs up to her. Even with the scar that will never heal she is one of the best recovered, which Leia suspects is because she's had the longest and was the youngest. Children that young will bounce back from almost anything, and this little girl who snapped to attention and saluted when Leia first saw her is now giving her a toothless smile and telling her she's getting a brother, because the war is over now and she gets to have a family and a home and she will never have to fight in her entire life.
Leia watches some weeks later as little Yavin Dameron runs first into the ship that's going to take her to the planet she is named after that neither she nor the one naming her have ever seen, watches her fathers following her in with BB-8 rushing ahead to make sure there is nothing Poe can unknowingly trip over, Finn carrying young Ben Dameron with the hair like midnight and a look of wonder in his eyes, and for the first time in far too many years she knows beyond doubt that their fight has not been for nothing.
There are children, and the children have a tomorrow.