War Orphans

by Amy L. Hull

o~o~o

Written for magnetgirl/pixiedane/politicalpadme in the JediFest's AlienApril 2018 exchange.

Many thanks to gondalsqueen, oldtoadwoman, and Wiliqueen for betaing and cheerleading.

o~o~o

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hera rolled her eyes. It was the kind of half-formed excuse her boys would make.

Would have made.

She swallowed. Walked faster.

This corridor was empty. No footprints all the way to the dead end.

It was supposed to be some kind of briefing room...eventually. Seemed an awfully long way from the docking bay to be good for pilots' briefings. Maybe a High Command conference area, then.

Her comm crackled.

"Spectre-2, anything?"

"Not yet, Spectre-4. You?"

"Nothing. Just snow and ice. -Ow!" Zeb yelped, then growled, "And tunnels with low ceilings."

Hera couldn't help a chuckle, but her heart rate was speeding up. They'd been at this for nearly 30 minutes.

Command, the princess's quarters, the mess, the dead-end tunnel Gold Squadron had claimed and was making hooch in... Nothing. The pilots were prowling outside the base now, though the duty officer insisted that nothing could have slipped past him.

Hera had rolled her eyes at him, too.

That was a man who had never spent time around a toddler.

The idea had been expedient. Convenient. Easy. Suggested by the princess herself.

Hera'd been tapped to lead a raid on an abandoned outpost in the next system for supplies, and then, if all went well, do practice maneuvers on the return flight.

Easy. Normal. Day in the life of a rebel.

But, on their return, Princess Leia and Jacen had not been waiting for them in the docking bay. Hera had been surprised. Surely anyone watching her son would be ready to hand him back at the first opportunity.

She should not have underestimated Leia Organa.

Sith, no one should underestimate Leia Organa.

"Zeb," she said into her commlink, "I'm going back to the Ghost to start over."

"Copy, Spectre-2."

The open hangar was more frigid than the smaller tunnels. Hera shivered.

"Nothing is wrong until it's wrong, Hera," she scolded herself.

Glubb-buh-buh-bah-bah-buh!

"Yes, Chopper, I know-"

Wub-Wup!

"Wait, what? Why didn't you say so in the first place?"

Buh! Buh-bup-bup-buh! Bup-bup-wup.

"Riiiight. You were still in the X-wing. And we all know you can't comm from there."

Woop-woop! Woop-woop-WOOP!

"Lead the way, then."

Chopper trundled off.

"And don't think we're not having a talk about you chipping my child without telling me."

Buh-buh-bup-wup!

"I'm sure it seemed like a good idea."

Bwup-BWUP!

"Yes, it seems like a good idea now." Hera clenched her teeth as Chopper burbled. "So help then. Move faster."

The temperature didn't fall here, it plummeted. The Rebellion-issue coat Hera had thrown over her flight suit was barely keeping her from shivering, even with the banded fleece pouch cradling-and tickling-her lekku. The vibration in her belly was fear. No one seemed to know this corridor even existed, and, if Chopper was to be trusted, the two smallest people on base were down it.

The walls here were rough-hewn, incomplete. The walkway was still covered in chunks of ice that crunched under Hera's boots.

Bah-buh-buh brr-brp. Chop rammed a larger clump of ice and jerked a pincer forward.

Hera nodded. "I hear it." She drew her blaster and moved faster but more quietly. The soft keening was a lower pitch than Jacen's usual cry.

Rounding a bend, Hera saw orange fabric lit from inside like a decorative Ryl-Lumen. Warmth from it touched her face. The sound definitely came from the small shelter.

Chopper rammed the pile of ice again and whistled.

Hera gestured him back. "Stay here."

Buh-buh-BUH!

She shushed him and peered into the small shelter.

Jacen was draped across Princess Leia's torso, head on her shoulder, dead weight. He was snoring slightly.

Across the floor, battle markers were scattered amidst a 3D printed Ghost, Millennium Falcon, and several X-wings. To the side, Jacen's favorite stuffed Loth-cat stood guard...or lay guard where it had slipped from his hanging arm.

Princess Leia's face was splotched with red and white. The neckline of her snowsuit was damp enough that it was clear she'd been crying for a while.

Hera's stomach tightened. She was supposed to have been back hours ago. Had Jacen been difficult? Said something upsetting? Had a small child been too much for so long?

Hera had needed Zeb and Shara Bey on the mission, and Luke was off with the Rogues, who usually fought over who got to play with Spectre-7 first. Princess Leia had overheard the debate about what to do with Jacen, and had volunteered to take him. Hera had agreed, had been grateful.

Had she overlooked a difficult anniversary? Hera checked the date. It wasn't near any birthdays Hera knew about, and the commemoration for Alderaan, along with Jacen's third birthday, had passed a couple of months ago. Even so, the unflappable princess was sobbing in a tunnel.

With a child.

A child who, like all children his age and younger, would never see Alderaan, would only know it as a legend, almost a fairy tale.

Hera knew the suffocating sensation she got every time she met someone who had not, and never would, know Kanan. She felt alternately unmoored or weighed down when Jacen did something Kanan would never see.

And here was Leia, Last Princess of Alderaan, with a child born after the destruction of her world. Was that it?

Hera slipped through the opening of the shelter. "Princess?"

Princess Leia jumped. Jacen sighed. The princess stroked his back, swiped at her cheek. She gulped, her breathing ragged. Jacen squirmed and the princess shushed him, swaying slightly. She was fighting so hard, lips pursed, trying to stop her chin's quiver, gulping air while putting on her public face.

She wore that mask all the time...that one that daunted anyone who might consider asking how she was.

Hera knelt and reached for Jacen. If he was why she was upset, Hera wanted to relieve the princess of her child. This was a military base after all, and she knew better than anyone that a child-especially this child-sometimes carried more weight than his own mass. "You don't have to...I'll take him."

Before she even touched him, the princess pulled him away, holding more tightly if anything. "I've got him," she snapped.

Hera was at a loss. She couldn't just go off and leave her kid with Princess Leia, but she knew the princess hated for anyone to see her appearing weak. Hera scanned the space and sat next to the princess so that Jacen's head blocked her view of the princess's face. She could offer that much privacy at least.

"I'm so sorry-"

"Don't."

Hera stroked her son's dangling hand. The fingers didn't curl around hers anymore. Hadn't for a long time. Now those fingers curled around poles and pipes and ladders, helped this child-who was every bit both her and Kanan-to climb anything he could see.

Hera finally said, "I didn't mean to intrude on so much of your time."

"It was no trouble. You had important work to do." Leia swallowed audibly. Breathed. Breathed again. She gestured to the scattered toys. "He's going to be a great general, like his mother and grandfather. He planned an entire assault on that tooka of his." Her voice grew less damp with each word.

"Princess, I can take him if…" Hera left the offer hanging.

Leia tightened her grip on Jacen. "It's Leia," she said, voice even. Her small, gloved hand stroked Jacen's back. "I got him to call me Leia. You should too."

Hera nodded "Are you both all right?"

Leia hummed. "We're warm and fed, and we had a pleasant day."

That was a terrible dodge. Hera narrowed her eyes. "Then what happened?"

Leia peered around Jacen's head then leaned back. "Your son led his troops to victory over his tooka. Then he held up three X-wings told me, 'These ones died fighting the Empire. Like my daddy.'"

Hera's chest and throat tightened. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. Kanan was so clear in her mind's eye-young and brash with a rakish grin, wiser with his serious beard and milky eyes, so young-looking as he Force-pushed their transport clear of the blast engulfing him. No matter how she remembered him, he was always looking directly into her eyes.

"Why would you tell him that?" Leia demanded.

Hera blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Why would you go off to fight the Empire after telling your child it was how his father died?"

"I hardly think-"

"And why would you tell him-" Leia took two measured breaths. "Why would you...how...how dare you tell him about...my life?"

"Prin- Leia, what did Jacen say?"

"After he said his father died, he said, 'Like your daddy.' Why would you tell him that?"

Hera could not move. Even the thumb tracing circles on Jacen's hand stilled. "I am so sorry," she breathed.

Leia shoved Jacen at her. It wasn't smooth, but it was quick, and Jacen dangled, boneless and warm against her shoulder, breath damp on her neck.

Leia was kneeling, back to Hera, already fumbling with the shelter's opening.

"I didn't tell him anything," Hera said. "It's possible someone else did, but I think it was you."

Leia turned, her eyes flashing and dangerous. "I told him nothing of the kind."

"I don't think you," Hera paused, bit her lip. "I don't think you told him on purpose."

"You think I just accidentally let slip to a toddler that the Empire blew up my entire planet before my eyes?"

They'd made her watch, Hera realized. Because of course they did.

It had never occurred to her to think about it. She'd been on Lothal. She'd only seen the Death Star over Scarif, hadn't gotten to fly that trench run because she was having a baby. She'd been...preoccupied and so had never thought about the between Princess Leia's escape on the Tantive IV and her return to Yavin.

"No. I don't think you let it slip at all. I think he saw it in you." Hera kept her voice even. "The same way Luke would."

Leia scoffed. "Luke doesn't even know that. I never told him. And he says he can't see into people like that."

"Kanan could."

Leia scoffed. "If Darth Vader couldn't get something out of my head, I doubt-"

"You had to protect yourself from Vader." Hera had no idea how Leia-a kid Ezra's age-had managed that, but apparently she had, and without the Force. Hera shook away the thought. The well of feeling there was too deep. Focus, Hera. "Not many people feel a need to protect themselves from a 3-year-old."

Leia chuckled mirthlessly. "If you heard High Command, you might see otherwise. When Shara Bey's son was born, you'd have thought an acid lizard had got loose on base."

"I wondered why Shara and Kes had her father watching after their boy."

"Well, that, and we're at war. If you die, this little boy will be an orphan." The edge in Leia's voice could cut transparisteel. "He knows it, too. After he mentioned my father, he said, 'Like your mama, too.' He asked me if his mama was going to die fighting then flung himself at me and cried himself to sleep on my shoulder."

Hera tried to swallow, but her throat was full, and tears ran down her face. Hera pulled her coat around Jacen's soft torso and rubbed her cheek against the hair on his warm little head. He smelled of sweat and ice.

She kissed her boy's forehead, pulling herself back into control. A swallow and a breath later, she managed, "I...I didn't know he knew. He's so young."

"He knows." Leia sat back down, shoulders sagging. She met Hera's eyes. "He is so afraid, General."

"Hera. You should call me Hera," she said softly.

Leia looked away, holding her face tightly neutral.

Hera wondered how much it cost Leia to maintain that facade every day. Jacen wasn't the only one afraid or the only one alone. Two years ago she'd found Leia alone in the mess on the anniversary of Alderaan's destruction. She'd hoped Leia was less lonely now, but it seemed not.

Hera watched, silent, as Leia gathered toys into a box. First-name basis didn't mean she was invited to ask about things Princess Leia absolutely did not speak of.

"It's a difficult thing, being a child during a war."

Leia paused, then added another X-wing to the box.

"I spent a lot of time in the tunnels after Ryloth came under siege in the Clone Wars. Those tunnels were dark, and damp, and when a barrage started, clumps of the ceiling would fall." She caught Leia's eye. "I was afraid. So afraid. I thought I would die, alone and buried in the dark, while my father fought. Afraid that one day, like my mother, he wouldn't come back."

Leia placed the last toys in the box one by one. Moving, moving. Of course the princess kept busy. No wonder the rumors said she only slept when she dozed off in Command.

"I lost my father to the war," Hera continued, "because it consumed him. Then he hated the way I joined it. Your father was proud to have you by his side. I'm giving that to Jacen."

Leia stared, her lips a tight line but her face more open than Hera had ever seen it.

Hera hitched Jacen up her shoulder. She gave a wry smile but kept her voice soft. "None of that makes it any less terrifying for either of us."

Leia's jaw hardened. "Don't you dare die." Her eyes bored into Hera's. That glare was sharp in a way that reminded Hera of Kanan.

Hera nodded.

"Just...don't you dare. I promised him I wouldn't let you die."

"I always fly to come home." It had to be enough. It was all she had.

Leia nodded, her movement slow. Her expression softened ever so slightly, and the grief in her eyes was so deep, so raw, it was all Hera could do to hold Leia's gaze, knowing they were mirrors in that moment.

Chopper, with impeccable timing, screeched.

Hera rolled her eyes. "Well, if your motivator is freezing up, then go back," she called. "We'll meet at the docking bay."

Chopper continued grousing. Hera ignored him.

"Jacen called it our special bunker." Leia smiled. "If you step out, I can collapse it."

Hera shifted to her knees and cradled Jacen's head as she stood, stooping in the shelter. Leia held the entrance and Hera slipped through.

"Just set that box on Chop." Hera grinned. "He's been so eager to help."

"Wup wup BRUP! He waved his arms at her, but didn't spin and knock the box to the ground.

Leia activated the compression function, and the shelter folded into a neat rectangle that fit right on the toy box.

Wuh-wuuuh-wuh!

"I know you're happy for a chance to serve, Chop." Hera chuckled as Chopper let out a stream of profanities. She hoped the princess didn't fully understand binary, but Leia chuckled, so at the least, the tone was clear.

They headed back, Chopper charging ahead, pincers holding his cargo in place.

Hera switched arms. The child she had grown in her body was, unbelievably, big enough to be heavy. "Once I get him in bed, I've got to talk to my droid about putting a locator chip in my child."

"So that's how you found us." Leia laughed out loud. "Droids never seem to share the kind of relevant information you'd think they would."

"That's for sure." The Ghost was in view now. "Thank you again for today, Prin- Leia."

"Just doing my bit for the war effort."

Hera laughed.

Leia kissed one of Jacen's hands and stroked his hair and back once more. Hera placed a hand over Leia's on her son's back and squeezed.

Leia stepped back then turned toward Command. Over her shoulder, she said, "Fly safe, General Syndulla. Don't make me a liar."

~~end~~