I know, I know, no "Candles" chapter. Shame on me. But this is long, and mushy, and complete! Perhaps it will tide you over 'til next week?

Title: Priorities
Author: Laura of Maychoria
Rating: G
Timeframe: JA (Obi-Wan is 14)
Category: Random Mush . . . er, Angst/Drama
Characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu
Summary: Qui-Gon takes on a big, important project, and is soon completely absorbed and stressed out. Obi-Wan, dealing with a problem of his own, has a very hard time catching his attention.
Author's Notes: I needed to write something a bit fluffier between all the angst and drama. The plot's been done, I'm sure—this is just my particular flavor.
Disclaimer: Yes, I own Star Wars, as evidenced by my million-dollar home and eight cars . . . which bear a striking resemblance to a room in my parents' basement and an '89 Honda Civic. Go figure.

Priorities

"Mace, I'm not sure this is a good idea."

"Oh, c'mon, Qui-Gon! You'd be a great organizer for the Padawan tournament! You know everything there is to know about it."

The two Masters stood leaning against the railing of the Grand Staircase, watching the many Jedi passing them in both directions and milling in the atrium below. It was a restful, relaxing sight, many different species all wrapped in the traditional cream and brown garments, an image of both solidarity and diversity. The very air hummed with peace and purpose.

Qui-Gon frowned, stroking his short beard. "That's not the point. The question is not whether I can, but whether I should. The council has given Obi-Wan and me a month here at the Temple in order to relax and recover, and catch up on some training. The past year has been far more stressful than anyone anticipated, especially for a new Master/Padawan team."

"But you came out of it stronger than any pair I've seen in the last twenty years," Mace said, attempting to be soothing, while something much more like excitement surged beneath his voice. "It's just a one-day event. It happens every year. You don't have to work from scratch—just put things together."

"You're asking me to shift my priorities. It's rather a large favor."

"I know, but I really need your help." Qui-Gon could almost have laughed at that hint of pleading in his old friend's voice. "I'm very bogged down with Council business right now. Have you heard about that new bill in the Senate? Wanting to restrict Jedi to Republic worlds? It's a nightmare! And it will be even worse if it passes, by some evil twist of fate or the political process."

"It's a ridiculous bill. No one with any sense or compassion would support it."

Mace snorted. "And how many politicians have you met who are strong in those two areas?"

Qui-Gon tilted his head, conceding the point.

"Please, Qui-Gon. Please. I'll make the case for giving you and Obi-Wan an extra two weeks—extra month! I'll duel with you in public and let you kick me across the salle. I'll paint my head bright purple and refer to myself in the third person for an entire day."

Qui-Gon was actually a bit tempted by that last one. "Really?"

Mace backed down, his face twisting in chagrin. "Well, maybe not. Not if I'm needed to speak in the Senate that day. Any other time, you've got yourself a deal."

Qui-Gon sighed. Those dark eyes were far too large. "Oh, very well. I'll do it. But only if Obi-Wan has no objections. He deserves much more of my time than he's been getting recently, and will get if I take this on."

"Great!" Mace broke into a brilliant, white-toothed grin. "I knew I could count on you, you old softy. I'll download all the pertinent info to your comm, all right? You should be able to put things together from there. Any questions—you know where to reach me."

"Yes, in the Council Chambers," Qui-Gon grumped, unhappy that his friend so automatically assumed that this was now inevitable. But then, when had Obi-Wan ever objected to anything that involved a lightsaber?

"Thanks, Qui-Gon." Mace clapped his shoulder and bounded up the staircase, no doubt late for a meeting or something.

Qui-Gon huffed and crossed his arms across his chest, watching him leave. Why did he keep letting himself get talked into these things?

X

"Master, I think it's a great idea!"

Qui-Gon smiled slightly, watching his apprentice shovel food into his mouth as if he had never seen it before. It always amused and astonished him, how the boy was able to practically swallow his meals whole, yet still remained as slender as a 'saber blade. They ate in the refectory for noon meal, and the Padawan had chosen to sit with his Master today instead of with his friends.

Obi-Wan paused long enough to swallow dramatically and grin back. "Really! I think you'd be a wonderful organizer for the tournament. In past years it's been a bit random and haphazard, but I know with you at the helm everything will run smoothly."

"Obi-Wan, has there ever been something that you thought I couldn't do?"

The boy hesitated, considering this. His hands actually fell still for a moment, blue-green eyes glazing. "Well . . . there was the time . . . no . . . but then . . ." He looked up at his master a bit sheepishly. "No."

Qui-Gon took a bite of bhillen stew and smiled at his Padawan.

"But I know you'll do well," Obi-Wan went on quickly. "Everyone knows you're one of the best swordsmen in the order, and all the Padawans know who you are and will trust your judgment, and people will do what you say. That's everything a good organizer needs."

"So knowledgeable you are, my young apprentice," Qui-Gon teased gently. "Have you done this before?"

Obi-Wan scoffed, waving a hand in amusement. "Me? A fourteen-year-old Padawan just recently off probation? Are you sure too much meditation hasn't skewed your perception of reality, my Master?"

Qui-Gon grinned. It had taken them a lot of time and effort to grow this comfortable with each other, to the point that each could tease the other and take pleasure in the play of words and emotions, rather than questioning their relationship. It was good to have the foundation so firm beneath their feet. "Nonetheless, my Padawan, this is going to take a great deal of my time and energy. We won't be able to spar every afternoon the way we have been."

"That's all right. I ought to be sparring with others my age, if I'm going to prepare to fight against different styles in the tournament."

"Very wise, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon nodded, and the boy turned his attention back to his food. He still wasn't convinced that this was the best idea, but his Padawan's confidence in him did much to bolster his own.

X

One week! Mace left all this to be done in only one week? Force curse the man's procrastination!

Qui-Gon ran a hand through his hair in agitation as he studied the information Mace had commed over. Already he could feel a small pounding in his temples as he realized all that needed to be accomplished in the next seven days. It was a long list.

Reserve the main salle, find out how many Padawans will be in the Temple on the date, get the salle equipped with bleachers and emergency healing supplies, have a Healer standing by in case of bad accidents, get the word out and have visitors register, appoint judges and intermediaries and referees, assign positions in the tournament bar, find suitable prizes, convince somebody to officiate, convince somebody else to open, convince somebody ELSE to hand out awards . . .

All he had to do was put it together. Yeah, right.

Movements jerky with haste and irritation, Qui-Gon pulled out a sheaf of flimsy and a stylus from his desk and made a list of people he might be able to delegate some of this to, others who would be good judges, referees, and officiators, and a few that might possibly be willing to speak. Then he began making comm calls.

The light coming in the balcony window angled as the afternoon wore on. Gradually the light tilted, colored, and faded into gray Coruscant night, incessantly lit by holo-boards and way-lights and the lamps of the streams of air-traffic that only thinned to faint trickles or broadened to mighty rivers, but never vanished entirely. Obi-Wan wandered in, tried to start a conversation, and wandered amiably out again when the Master's replies came in absent monosyllables. Qui-Gon noticed a plate of food at his elbow, no doubt prepared and set there by his thoughtful Padawan, and took a few moments between calls to eat. It was quite good—the boy's skills in the kitchen had improved since they had settled in the Temple for their month off and he started hanging out with Bant and Tahl.

Qui-Gon reflected, with an odd glow of warmth in his chest, that while it was very nice to have someone to care for and take care of again, it was also pleasant to have someone who was willing to take care of him. No doubt about it, the Force had blessed him immeasurably when it insisted that Obi-Wan Kenobi become a part of his life.

Strangely satisfied and comforted, he turned back to his list.

X

Five days remained until the tournament. For evening meal Obi-Wan had set out sandwiches and soup. He didn't even blink when Qui-Gon merely picked his up on his way into the next room, two datapads and several sheets of flimsy jammed under his arm. This was the way it had been going for days now. But the Master paused for a moment in the doorway, looking back at his Padawan sitting quietly at the table.

"How are you doing, Padawan? I know we haven't had a chance to talk much lately. Are you all right? You look tired."

Obi-Wan smiled and stretched broadly, demonstrating the wiry strength of his arms. "I'm fine, Master. Just a bit tired. Been training hard."

Qui-Gon frowned, prodding at the bond a little. Not all was as well as Obi-Wan projected, he sensed. "Are you in pain of some sort?"

"A few aches from falls during sparring. They'll be gone by morning."

"Are you sure? Perhaps I ought to take you to see the Healers . . ."

"No!" Alarm widened Obi-Wan's eyes, showing white all the way around. "They're just bruises! I'm fine, Master, really."

Qui-Gon smirked. "Bruises in a compromising portion of the anatomy, are they?"

Obi-Wan stared back at him, expression carefully blank.

The Master shrugged, though he did not like the way the apprentice's hand was gently, absently probing his side, as if checking a wound there. "Eat your soup, Padawan. I'm sure it's delicious."

Obi-Wan grimaced and picked up his spoon, turning back to his barely-touched food. "You haven't tasted it yet."

Qui-Gon grinned and strode out, his mind already traveling back to the information on the datapad under his arm. They still hadn't found a suitable award for the nineteen- to twenty-two-year-old category . . . . He didn't notice Obi-Wan sigh with mingled relief and worry as he left.

X

Two days to the tournament. Mace had managed to scrape up a free hour between council and senate meetings, and he and Qui-Gon sat at noon meal, attempting to organize the many Padawans into a double-elimination tournament tree. They wanted to give each contestant at least a chance of winning one match, which was extraordinarily complicated. Even within the different age categories, there were widely varying levels of accomplishment and skill. It would be unfair, for example, to place a Merin Kandalo against an Obi-Wan Kenobi. That would test neither, and the match would be over far too quickly for the judges to accurately evaluate their abilities.

Qui-Gon rubbed his right temple steadily and reflexively, trying to erase the stress headache that had set up permanent residence in his skull. "What about Bant Eerin? She could hold her own against Kandalo, but she's too kind to beat him without at least giving him a chance to show his skill, mediocre as it is."

"That might work," Mace said thoughtfully, using his stylus to switch a pair of names on the screen of the datapad they bent over. "Now these two, over here . . . I'm not sure they're well-suited, either . . . ."

They continued working, aware that time was flying all too quickly. And they had an awful lot of Padawans to go through . . . .

"Excuse me, Master?"

Qui-Gon reluctantly looked up at the diffident query, and found Obi-Wan, looking uncharacteristically shy and uncomfortable, standing with his hands clasped behind his back. "Yes, Padawan? Do you need something?"

"Well, I'm sorry to bother you, but I needed to ask—well, I guess it's more tell you, actually—that I'm, uh . . ."

"Obi-Wan, is this urgent?" Qui-Gon asked, trying not to sound impatient and out-of-sorts. It was not his apprentice's fault that he had too much to do and too little time to do it in. Despite his efforts, a hint of irritation came across in his tone, and Obi-Wan winced.

"Um, no, Master, it's not urgent," he answered meekly.

"Can you tell me tonight, then? Master Windu only has a few more minutes before he has to leave, and we're in the middle of a rather difficult project right now."

"Oh, right. I'm sorry, Master. Just forget about it, then."

Qui-Gon opened his mouth to assure the boy that what he had to say was important and he did want to hear it, but Obi-Wan scurried off before he could say a word, looking far too much like a weary, scolded pup rather than the bright and eager young Jedi he was. The Master stared after him for a moment, troubled, but Mace quickly caught his attention again.

"Now, here's a sticky case. Indala Berkon. Who do we have who can even touch her in that age group?"

Qui-Gon turned back. "Perhaps we should make an exception, move her up to the next category? She's almost nineteen, isn't she?"

"Yes, just a couple of weeks off. But should we really make an exception for anyone? That sets a rather dangerous precedent. We don't want anyone complaining that the tournament was unfair."

It didn't take long for more pressing concerns to erase from Qui-Gon's mind the image of his Padawan hurrying away as if he'd been stung.

X

Doomsday had arrived. Well, in a manner of speaking. This was only the first day of the tournament, which would probably go on for two or three days, unless all of the duels were finished quickly, which never happened. Qui-Gon looked himself over in the 'fresher mirror and tugged down his dress tunic to straighten it. He nodded in satisfaction, then headed to the kitchen for some tea.

Obi-Wan stood leaning against the counter, sipping slowly at a glass of juice. He had set out a plate of poli and muja fruit cut into bite-sized chunks. Qui-Gon scooped up a handful of fruit pieces and began popping them into his mouth, moving to set the kettle on to boil, then realizing that it was already there. Just as he reached the stove it began to whistle.

"Thank you, Padawan," he said as he set a cup to steep. "You have been extraordinarily helpful this week. And patient, as well. Perhaps you could consider it part of your training?" He was half-teasing, but even as he spoke it occurred to him that Obi-Wan had been extraordinary, for a fourteen-year-old boy always eager to be in the middle of everything. He had accepted being shoved to the sidelines with amazing grace and maturity.

Obi-Wan shrugged. "No big deal, Master. It was the least I could do."

Qui-Gon paused to really look at his Padawan for the first time in days. He had expected a teasing response, not that quiet, acquiescent murmur. He frowned suddenly, disliking the shadows under the boy's eyes. "Aren't you going to eat?"

Obi-Wan took another sip of his juice. "Not hungry. My stomach hurts."

"Nervous?"

"A little, I guess." Obi-Wan finally raised his eyes to meet his Master's. "It's my first tournament as a Padawan. I missed last year's."

"That's right. We were on Sylelius, weren't we?"

Obi-Wan smiled nostalgically. "It was worth missing the tournament. That certainly was a mission to remember."

Qui-Gon smiled back. The rest of their short meal was spent in quiet reminiscences and speculations on how their Sylelian friends were getting along now. Then they hurried to the main training salle, joining the streams of Jedi heading that way.

Had Qui-Gon not been a Jedi, born and raised to this part, he might have wondered at the quiet of that crowd. This—one of the most exciting events of the year, centered on youthful vigor and skill and attended by nearly every sentient at the Temple who was able to walk—was not attended with shouts and cheers, nor even with over-loud conversation. Friends met and mingled, discussing the upcoming matches with animation and sparkling eyes, but all was done with an underlying calmness that mystified the rare visitor brought in to view the ritual tournament. It could have been an academic symposium for all an outsider could see. Yet the air here was far more charged than at any other event in the Temple. Adventure, excitement—a Jedi craves not these things.

Obi-Wan moved over to join his age-mates at the sidelines, and Qui-Gon strode unhurriedly to the judgment bench. The Jedi he had chosen to oversee the tournament nodded their greetings, aware of the honor of this task and calmly determined to do their part to make the tournament a fair and beneficial event for all. Each judge was hand-picked, called from dozens of his or her fellows to serve in this most revered role, and each was grateful for Master Qui-Gon Jinn's trust.

Mace Windu gave the traditional opening speeches—Qui-Gon had roped him into taking on at least that much of the responsibilities—and Adi Gallia announced the first matches in the twelve and under category, a relatively small group. Four pairs fought at once in marked-off sections of the floor, each with three judges watching. Eight lightsabers ignited in a staggered chorus of snap-hisses, and the tournament began.

Qui-Gon was in the group of judges in the north quadrant, where the most skilled youths were assigned to fight. Gradually, as the fights wore on without mishap, he felt himself relaxing into the role, enjoying the play of blade on blade, the crackle and hum of tightly-controlled energy. The skills of most of these young ones were nothing to comm home about, but the potential . . . the potential was incredible. Even without a strong connection to the Unifying Force, Qui-Gon could sense destiny buzzing in the room, laying paths that might be followed and might be shunned.

The judges made notes on the datapads each held. When the match was decided, they evaluated the Padawans' performances, praising expertise and creativity, pointing out mistakes and suggesting ways to improve. It was a great honor, to receive the teaching of three of the mightiest Jedi Masters in the order at once. The youngsters accepted their critiques with wide, shining eyes and calm expressions, nodding dutifully at suggestions for improvement, smiling shyly at every scrap of praise. Qui-Gon very much enjoyed this part of his job—if only he could have avoided all the organizational poodoo and stepped in only for today! Never again, he vowed. Never again.

In due time the champion of the twelve and under group was decided, and the first matches of the thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds were called. Qui-Gon briefly regretted assigning himself to the north quadrant—of course that was where Obi-Wan would fight. Not that there would be any recriminations or accusations of prejudice in judging. He wouldn't be much of a master if he couldn't objectively evaluate his own Padawan. He just didn't know if he'd be able to pay any attention to Obi-Wan's opponent.

He had only a few moments to speak to his apprentice before the match, just like the other Jedi Masters. Obi-Wan seemed calm and focused, and he held his lightsaber hilt steady in his fists, but Qui-Gon didn't like the almost translucent pallor that had suddenly appeared on his Padawan's young face, nor the way he bit his lip as if fighting an unseen enemy.

"Nervousness better?" he murmured close to the youngster's ear. "How's your stomach?"

Obi-Wan glanced up quickly, relief in his brilliant eyes. "My stomach quit hurting a while ago," he said softly, gratefully. "Maybe I'll actually be able to eat something after the tournament. I hope I do credit to your training, Master."

Qui-Gon smiled and gave his shoulder a warm squeeze. "You've never done otherwise, my Padawan."

Something about the boy's relief bothered the Master, though. It seemed too acute and overwhelming for a momentary pain—more like the relief of having a heavy burden lifted after days of toil and struggle. Was something at work beyond a nervous stomach-flutter? Once again he vowed to talk to Obi-Wan as soon as this was over. It had been too long.

A sharp call to attention, two blades blossomed from metal hilts, and Obi-Wan's first match began. His opposite was a young Dralanik, extraordinarily skilled, but not quick on his feet. Obi-Wan beat him fairly swiftly with a simple but creative combination of moves. Qui-Gon and the other judges delivered their critiques, and the Dralanik acquiesced with grace.

Obi-Wan's next match went on quite a while longer. Qui-Gon was surprised to see a sheen of sweat on the boy's face only a few seconds into the fight. He did not sense any distress from his apprentice, but something about his performance was slightly off: a bit sluggish, a shade less graceful than usual, as if he had to expend far more effort than usual for this, his favorite activity in the galaxy.

Then there was a tightening of the Force, as Obi-Wan drew his focus in closer. Qui-Gon was pleased—the Padawan was learning to rely on the Force more and more. Obi-Wan jumped and whirled in an acrobatic move from one of the higher katas, and Qui-Gon blinked. He'd forgotten they had studied that one. The Shistavenen Padawan was obviously unnerved—she backed up a step, blinking, and barely managed to block the next blow. After that the match was more of a psychological test than anything else, as Obi-Wan intimidated his opponent with successively flashier and more complex moves until she accepted the touch to the throat with barely a struggle, signaling the kill.

As the officiator announced Obi-Wan's next opponent—Siri Tachi—Qui-Gon felt a tug on his sleeve. He turned toward the interrupter, drawing in his calm with only slight difficulty. "Yes, Mace?"

"They want you in the south quadrant. Some sort of dispute."

"And they wouldn't accept your mediation, oh great councilor? I noticed you've been floating uselessly around without helping anybody."

Mace grinned. "Hey, I'm not the one in charge here—you are. I've been 'floating around' to make myself available for such a time as this. I'll judge here while you take care of the dispute."

Qui-Gon grumbled, but handed Mace his datapad and went, tipping Obi-Wan a nod as he passed. The boy nodded gravely in return, busy wiping the sweat off his face as he waited for his opponent. Sorry, Padawan. Can't even seem to stick around to watch you fight. Not the way I want it.

The dispute at the south quadrant turned out to be an irate Master convinced that the judges were conspiring against her Padawan. The Padawan in question stood quietly to the side, cheeks flaming with embarrassment. Qui-Gon sensed the answer there, but did not turn to the boy immediately. Instead he listened to what each judge had to say, as well as the two Masters involved, and the opposing Padawan. He asked clarifying questions, drawing out innumerable details that would otherwise have remained unvoiced.

Then, at last, he turned to the silent boy. "Do you have anything to add?"

The Padawan nodded slowly, his eyes on the ground. "It was me. I did cheat with the power modulator. I didn't mean to—it was sort of a reflex."

"A reflex, you say?" Knight Nik'lai Hayde, one of the judges, asked incredulously. "Meaning that you cheat on a regular basis?"

The boy nodded, obviously unable to speak.

The three judges looked to the boy's Master. "And you did not notice this? In all of your spars with your Padawan, this escaped your sight?"

The Master backed up hastily, obviously alarmed. "Of course not! He must have learned deception, to hide it so well."

The boy shifted from foot to foot in agitation. His voice heightened in betrayal ."But, Master! You're the one who taught me how . . . "

Qui-Gon had heard enough. This was now a matter for internal investigation. Either the Master or the Padawan was unworthy, but in any case they did not belong at this tournament. He made the appropriate calls to have them both put under supervision, then made his way back to the north quadrant, letting internal security take care of it.

To his dismay, Obi-Wan was not there. "What happened?" he whispered to Mace as he stepped up alongside.

"Siri beat him," Mace replied, tilting his head toward the blond girl who was currently holding her own against a male Padawan who probably weighed half again as much as she did. "He's down on the lower level of the elimination tree now, no doubt struggling to avoid another splattering."

Qui-Gon let his eyes briefly roam across the salle, and spotted Obi-Wan in the east quadrant, fighting . . . Merin Kandalo. Well, that should be a quick match, then. Obi-Wan still had a chance to battle his way up through the ranks and at least place, if not win. The Master turned his attention back to the north quadrant. With a light growl, he took the datapad back from the councilor so Mace could continue his "floating."

But Obi-Wan did not place. A couple of matches later Mace floated by again to inform him that the Padawan had been eliminated and was now in the locker rooms cleaning up. Qui-Gon could not suppress a slight swell of disappointment. He had always been impressed by and proud of his apprentice's precocious 'saber skills, and while he did not need more proof, it would have been nice for the boy to get some of the recognition he deserved.

It might also help with the self-confidence that Obi-Wan occasionally struggled with. The boy simply could not believe that he had done anything well—every accomplishment was passed off with a scoffing "average" or "normal" or "I still could have done a lot better." He continually looked ahead to what was next, and while this eagerness to learn was endearing, Qui-Gon still wished that his Padawan could take the time to rest on his laurels once in a while. At this rate he would burn out before he was twenty.

Well, no use crying over spilt muja juice. Qui-Gon worked to keep his attention on the moment. The Padawans currently battling deserved just as much attention and recognition.

Siri began her fifth match without a hint of tiring, her face as smooth and impassive as ever, and Qui-Gon felt another tug on his sleeve.

He turned with a bit more impatience than last time. "Now wha . . .?" And he stopped. It was not Mace. It was little Merin Kandalo, his dark eyes frantic with worry.

"Master Jinn, it's Obi-Wan! I, I don't know what's the matter . . ."

"What?" Qui-Gon barely managed to hold himself together as panic suddenly spiked through his heart. "What happened? Where is he?"

"In, in the locker room . . . he just collapsed, I don't know why . . . I think he's in pain!"

Qui-Gon was already hurrying toward the locker room, Kandalo trotting to keep up. Somebody called his name, trying to catch his attention, and he ignored it completely. He couldn't believe his foolishness. He had known something was wrong, he had sensed it, and he hadn't done a thing! If Obi-Wan . . .

Now he pressed determinedly at the bond, as he should have from the beginning. Obi-Wan was tightly shielded (and why hadn't he noticed that before this moment?), but even as he walked toward the beacon of his Padawan's presence, he pushed them gently. The shields trembled, and abruptly collapsed, as if they'd already been riddled with cracks and ready to fall at a touch. Qui-Gon gasped, his stride faltering as he was flooded by intense waves of physical pain. He had to erect his own shields in order to block some of that out and keep walking.

Qui-Gon burst into the locker room, the door fairly flying away from his outstretched palm, and all but ran down the row of lockers. Then he halted, catching himself against a locker to keep from falling as his heart lurched into his throat, choking him. Obi-Wan lay on the floor, curled up in a tight, sweat-covered ball, shaking violently with uncontrollable agony.

"Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan!" He knelt by the boy, feeling his own body begin to tremble with shock and fear. "Talk to me, Padawan. What happened? Where are you hurt? Come on, little one, don't do this to me!"

Obi-Wan did not respond. Qui-Gon touched his shoulder and almost jerked his hand back as the heat of the boy's body seemed to burn him through the thin tunic. A quick Force probe revealed no serious 'saber wounds—just light grazes from the duels, barely worth noticing. It seemed more like some kind of illness or disease. But Qui-Gon did not understand how it could have gotten this advanced this quickly.

"I, I called the Healers already, Master Jinn," Kandalo quavered, standing uncertainly at his elbow. "They ought to be here soon."

"Not good enough," Qui-Gon said. "We don't have time to wait."

Without another word he scooped his shaking Padawan up in his arms and strode toward the outside door. Kandalo scrambled to follow. Obi-Wan moaned close to the Master's ear, and he instinctively pressed the boy closer.

"Thank you for your help, Padawan Kandalo." Qui-Gon managed to jerk out a nod for the young boy. "Please tell Master Windu to step in for me. I am needed elsewhere."

Kandalo nodded, still impossibly wide-eyed, and scurried off. Qui-Gon walked briskly down the hall, his long legs eating up the distance, and used the Force to press the button for the turbolift.

Obi-Wan managed to uncurl enough to wrap his arms around Qui-Gon's shoulder and neck, gripping the fabric with desperate intensity, pressing his face against the Master's chest as if trying to hide from the pain. Qui-Gon tightened his own grip, hoping that it helped somehow. "Obi-Wan?" he asked gently. "Can you talk to me? Tell me what hurts."

Obi-Wan whimpered, tried to nod, decided against movement for the time being. "Stomach," he squeaked out, voice muffled by Qui-Gon's tunic. "Hurts bad."

"I gathered that." Qui-Gon tried for a joking tone and failed miserably. The lift was moving far too slowly. He watched the numbers crawl upward, urging them to move faster. "It's going to be all right, Padawan. I'm here now. Everything's going to be all right."

"I know," Obi-Wan whispered, clutching the Master closer, fingers digging into his flesh as another spasm of pain pierced him.

Qui-Gon held him tight and poured in waves of the Force, trying to block off as much as possible. It seemed that a wide area of the boy's abdomen was affected, but he did not have the medical knowledge to diagnose the cause. Obi-Wan relaxed a little as the Force wove through him, though his grip on Qui-Gon did not loosen.

At last they reached the Healers' ward. The Jedi at the reception desk jumped up as Qui-Gon entered with the Padawan in his arms. It didn't take great Force-sensitivity to tell that something was very wrong here. "Back this way," the young man said quickly. "A small team is still here, holding the fortress while most of the staff attends the tournament. I'll fetch Healer Miju immediately."

The receptionist swiftly led them to an exam room, and Qui-Gon moved to set his apprentice down on the table. Obi-Wan uncurled at last, letting himself lay flat, but when the Master began to straighten he would not let go of his shoulders, still clutching desperately. Qui-Gon was distressed to see tears of pain trickling from tightly-closed eyelids.

"P-please, Master," the boy begged between harsh gasps for air. "I, I know the tournament is more important, but p-please stay for a little bit? D-don't leave yet, please."

Qui-Gon froze, sudden pain ripping through his chest. "More important? Obi-Wan, no!" He knelt down by the table, tall enough that he was still on level with his apprentice, and slipped one arm under to pillow the boy's head, the other wrapped securely around his chest. "Nothing is more important to me than you are. I'm not moving a centimeter, Padawan, I promise."

Obi-Wan relaxed slightly, more tears running down his hot temples. Qui-Gon tenderly wiped them away, keeping as much of himself in physical contact with the boy as possible. Not only because it seemed to give the Padawan great relief, but also because it reassured the Master.

Healer Miju bustled into the exam room with her scanner and datapad, pert Bothan ears uplifted alertly. "Well, what seems to be the problem?" she asked, already running the scanner and probing with the Force.

"He said his stomach hurt this morning, but then it stopped." Qui-Gon fought to keep his voice at its usual level of calmness. "He seemed all right, but tired. Then the pain suddenly returned in force. He also has a fever."

Miju touched the boy's knee. "How long, Obi?" she asked gently.

Obi-Wan mumbled something neither could make out. His breath continued to come in harsh pants. Qui-Gon looked questioningly to the Healer.

"Acute peritonitis," she said, one finger poking at her datapad. "To put it simply, his appendix has ruptured. He's probably been dealing with abdominal pain for several days."

Qui-Gon gaped at her. "But he said it stopped hurting!"

She nodded briskly, eyes on her pad. "That was when the appendix ruptured. Brief relief, not worth the complications to follow. We need to operate immediately." Miju hurried out, already calling for her colleagues.

Qui-Gon turned back to his Padawan, unbelieving. "Is this what you tried to tell me the other day? Your stomach was hurting?"

Obi-Wan nodded tightly, his eyes still squeezed shut. Qui-Gon sighed and pressed his forehead against his boy's, damp with sweat and burning with fever. "I am so very, very sorry, my dear Padawan. I made you feel that you weren't important to me, that what you had to say didn't matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are my first priority, now and always. I was distracted for a time, but that's over now."

Obi-Wan smiled tremulously, which Qui-Gon more felt than saw, and slipped one arm around the Master's neck to lock him in place. Qui-Gon didn't mind at all. This was where he needed to be, wanted to be.

All too quickly—but not quickly enough—Healer Miju returned. "All right, Denil's back. Apparently someone commed for a team to be sent to the male locker room off the main salle, but when they arrived no one was there." At the sight of the Master and Padawan she made a face that was half tender smile, half sardonic smirk. "We're ready to operate now."

Qui-Gon carefully extricated himself from the sideways embrace with many gentle pats and touches and much smoothing of damp reddish hair. "I'll be right outside waiting, Obi-Wan. It will be over soon."

Miju nodded briskly. "It's not a long procedure, even with the complications of the perforation. Maybe an hour or so. It would be enough time for you to return to the tournament to fix up whatever loose ends you've left, though."

Obi-Wan's fingers tightened in Qui-Gon's tunic, and he shook his head, tenderly prying the fingers away one by one before touching them to his lips. "I'm not going anywhere."

Miju rolled her eyes. "Yes, you will be so much more useful pacing a groove in the waiting room floor."

Qui-Gon pressed a kiss on his boy's forehead as he stood. "Being useful has nothing to do with it."

He found Mace Windu waiting in the lounge. "Qui-Gon! I had everyone take a break while I find out what's going on."

"Oh." Qui-Gon blinked at him. He'd never heard of a tournament "taking a break."

Mace shifted impatiently. "So, what is going on?"

"Obi-Wan is very sick. I should have noticed it days ago. I'm not stepping foot from this place until I can take him with me."

"What about the tournament?"

"You take over. You've done it before." He pulled the datapad from his belt and held it out. "Everything's right there."

Mace reluctantly accepted the pad. "Who should take over as the third judge in the north quadrant?"

Qui-Gon's gaze flicked absently to the door that led to the operating theater. "Pick someone." It did not occur to him that three days ago he had agonized over that question, even spending time in meditation seeking a suitable answer.

Mace muttered something, and finally sauntered away when it became clear that Qui-Gon couldn't hear him.

X

Healer Miju was saying words like "dehydration," "IV infusion patch," "antibiotics," and "drainage tube," but Qui-Gon barely heard her, every ounce of his being focused on the small, beloved face that reclined against the pillow. The pallor had lightened, he was glad to see, and pain no longer creased the smooth forehead.

". . . should wake up briefly in half an hour or so," Miju's voice faded back into his awareness. "But he'll need to sleep then, so don't try to start any heavy conversations."

Qui-Gon looked at her. "Is the pain gone?"

"He'll be sore and tender for a few days, and will probably need a week before he can resume normal activities. But we were able to clean out his abdominal cavity without too much trouble. I don't anticipate any problems, as long as the infection drains normally and he completes the antibiotics course."

The Master nodded. "Thank you for everything you've done."

The Bothan Healer merely smiled and took her leave.

Qui-Gon sat by the bed and took his Padawan's hand, marveling at how it disappeared within his own. A small lightsaber burn on the forearm had been treated with bacta, and he lightly trailed his fingers over the bandage, and up, avoiding the IV patch. Obi-Wan no longer felt hot to the touch.

The boy stirred, lips parting slightly, and a tremor ran through his body. Qui-Gon leaned closer. "What is it, Padawan? Something wrong?"

Obi-Wan tossed his head. His lips were moving, but Qui-Gon heard no words. He touched the bond, lowering his shields now that the pain was under control, and gasped as a feeling of intense desolation swept through him. Wherever the boy's mind was, he was alone there.

Gently, he assumed his former position, cradling the Padawan's head in one arm and wrapping the other about his upper torso, bending his head close. "I'm here, Obi-Wan. I'm here. You aren't alone. You're never alone."

Gradually Obi-Wan stilled, responding to the physical and mental touch. His head slowly turned toward his Master, until their foreheads touched again. A fluttering of ginger lashes, and Qui-Gon found himself gazing into sea-green depths. "M . . . Master."

Qui-Gon smiled. "I'm here, my Padawan."

"You're here . . ." The green eyes suddenly widened in horror, and the slim body tensed beneath his arm. "You're here! You're not at the tournament! Master, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to cause problems . . . ."

"Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan, hush, shhhh," Qui-Gon tightened his grip, pressing their heads closer together until the boy closed his eyes with a swift, deep inhalation. "Do you really think any of that matters to me? Don't apologize. None of this is your fault. It is mine, for treating you so thoughtlessly. The tournament means nothing. This is where I want to be."

"Truly?"

The boy's voice was so small and young and hopeful that Qui-Gon smiled, even while he thought his heart might break. "Truly. Oh, so very truly, my Padawan."

"You want . . .?"

"I want to be here."

"But what about . . .?"

"None of that matters."

"Not even . . .?"

"Not even a little bit."

Obi-Wan sighed, a soft sound voicing both weariness and contentment, and lifted one hand to clutch his Master's tunic once more—not in desperation this time, but in easy security and childlike trust. And he slept.

X

The next day Obi-Wan was physically stronger, though he still seemed emotionally shaken by his ordeal. He couldn't quite believe that Qui-Gon wouldn't rather be at the tournament, and kept apologizing for very silly things. Qui-Gon refused to accept these apologies, and continually assured him that this was where he wanted to be, determined to repeat it until the boy was convinced.

The Master didn't mind, really. The reminders were good for him, too. He would never neglect his Padawan like this again—it had done far too much damage in a very short time. And that in itself was troubling, as it pointed to deeper psychological wounds that needed tending. It bothered him that it had taken so little to erode Obi-Wan's faith in his place as Qui-Gon's apprentice. Or perhaps the boy had never understood that he was the most important person in the Master's life. In either case, the foundation obviously was not as firm as he'd thought.

Later Miju let them raise the bed to a reclining position so Obi-Wan could sit up without straining his abdominal muscles. Qui-Gon sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, and they played Hide the Idiot and Mad Masters with the sabbacc deck the older Jedi had produced from somewhere, muttering about immature friends and gag gifts. It was manifestly obvious that Obi-Wan would rather play with a lightsaber or a starship or anything, really, but he accepted this pale substitution with a shy, pleasant smile.

The boy laid the Master of Flasks on the discard pile, his eyes gazing beyond it all, to some dark void populated erratically with sparkling stars that reflected in his eyes.

"What suit?" Qui-Gon asked.

"Oh." Obi-Wan blinked and studied his hand for a moment. "Coins."

"Sithspit." Qui-Gon started drawing. He had to take quite a few before he found the Two of Coins.

It was good to hear Obi-Wan giggle as the drawing went on, and on, and on. But the boy quickly stopped with a slight wince, leaning his head back against the pillows piled behind him. Qui-Gon gave him a concerned, searching look as he finally laid his card.

"Obi-Wan . . ." he began softly, hesitantly. "Why didn't you tell me? Or anyone else?"

Obi-Wan took a couple of deep, careful breaths, both delaying and working up an answer. He laid his cards in a neat face-down pile on his thigh and folded his hands. "Well . . . I thought it was nothing, at first. It started out as just a little ache. But then it got worse, and I couldn't eat. I thought it was probably just nervousness about the tournament, though I'd never been that worried before. I didn't want to bother you, Master—you were so busy, and so tired, and you had enough to deal with." Blue-green eyes suddenly became sharp with concern. "Did you sleep at all last night? I know how you are when these things happen. You need sleep, Master. You haven't been getting enough all week. Is your headache gone, finally?"

"I'm fine. It was just stress and too much to do. Once the tournament started, the burden was off me. And yes, I slept last night." Qui-Gon refused to let this turn into a discussion about him. "I don't understand how you managed to fight in the tournament at all. You must have been exhausted from pain and lack of food. You did amazingly well, all things considered—won four matches and lost two others, didn't you?"

Obi-Wan nodded. "I had been using the Force to block the pain for a long time. I know that's dangerous, but I truly thought it was nothing. And like I said, it stopped before the actual matches began."

"When your appendix finally ruptured." Qui-Gon grimaced. "And then your entire abdomen became infected and inflamed."

"Is that what happened? It hurt a lot . . ."

Qui-Gon almost smiled at that gross understatement. "I know. I felt it."

Obi-Wan stared at him in sudden horror. "Oh, Master! I'm so sorry! I thought my shields were strong enough . . ."

"Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan, stop." Qui-Gon dropped his cards and grabbed the boy's hands, which were shaking. "Don't apologize. Your shields were very strong indeed—too strong, really. If I had known earlier that you were in such pain, I would have done something about it. I would have recognized that it was too much for simple nervousness. Don't hide from me, my Padawan. Please. Don't try to shield me. It is my job to protect you, not the other way around."

Obi-Wan flushed and dropped his gaze. "I'm sor—"

"Don't apologize." Qui-Gon smiled gently and squeezed the smaller, shaking hands within his own. "We both made mistakes. It is enough that that time is over now, and we both learned from it. We will be stronger for this experience, I promise you."

Obi-Wan's lips quirked in a sideways smile. "Though perhaps it would be nice to learn things the easy way, for once, instead of always going through something like this."

Qui-Gon chuckled lightly. "Yes, that would be nice, wouldn't it? But highly unlikely, I suspect. We both are far too skilled at attracting trouble."

The cards had gotten irreparably scattered. Qui-Gon began to gather them up to shuffle for a new game. Then he heard Obi-Wan's tiny gasp and glanced up to find those blue-green eyes wide and incredulous with shock, staring at something over Qui-Gon's shoulder. The boy's mouth dropped open. "M . . . Mas . . Master . . ."

Qui-Gon didn't even have to look. "How's the tournament going, Mace?"

"The tournament is going well," their visitor said grumpily. "Only the presentation of the awards is left. Some of the judges have expressed the opinion that you should do it."

"Ah, but how do you feel about it?"

An exasperated sigh. "Mace thinks that you should hand out the awards. You are the organizer, after all, and Mace only stepped in at the last minute. Mace is also peeved beyond belief that you would choose today, of all days, to hold him to his agreement."

Qui-Gon felt a huge grin spread across his face, threatening to crack it. He winked cheerfully at Obi-Wan, who slowly closed his mouth. "A Jedi's word is his bond, Master Councilor. There's no Senate meeting today. And you did say, and I quote: 'Any other time . . .'"

"Mace didn't mean for you to take that so liberally!"

Qui-Gon shook his head, and finally pivoted where he sat to look at his old friend, holding the sabbacc deck in one hand, the other clasping his knee. "My, my, purple really is your color, Master Windu. And not just in 'saber blades."

Qui-Gon had known what to expect, but it still nearly knocked him off the bed. He wondered where in the galaxy Mace had found that particularly virulent shade of violet. If the councilor had had hair in a suitably ridiculous cut, he would have looked like a street punk from the lower levels. As it was, his head closely resembled an unusually colored, highly polished smashball, and it simply screamed to be mocked.

Mace blushed horrendously, which looked perfectly awful, shading his bright purple cheeks to a sort of deep pink color. "Mace prefers the word 'amethyst,'" he said prissily.

"That's because Mace likes to read fashion holo-zines in his spare time."

The purple-headed councilor sputtered and spit, finally managing a strangled version of, "That is absolutely, wholly, completely, totally, entirely, and unequivocally untrue!"

Qui-Gon just grinned at him. "Do you truly think I would make such an outrageous statement without the evidence to back it up?"

Mace straightened his shoulders and narrowed his eyes. "Why did you pick today?"

"Justice. You talked me into that thing, making crazy promises, filling my ears with a lot of sweet nothings. Now you can bear the consequences. Also, I thought it might cheer up Obi-Wan to see our favorite councilor in such a get-up. And I figured it would encourage you to think more carefully the next time you start to make a rash promise."

"Always the teacher," Mace grumbled, rolling his eyes, which seemed an even darker brown beneath newly-purple lids. His eyes softened as he looked at the silent Padawan, who regarded the proceedings with round, half-believing eyes. "Well, did it cheer you up?"

"Very much, sir," Obi-Wan said gravely, giving a councilor a respectful nod. "I can't laugh right now . . . hurts my stomach. I'm laughing on the inside."

"Mace supposes it was worth it then." Neither Master nor Padawan was sure if this was sarcasm or not. He looked back to Qui-Gon. "Will you present the awards?"

Qui-Gon looked at him soberly for the first time since he entered the room. "I already told you, Mace. I'm not stepping foot from this place until I can take Obi-Wan with me. Thankfully the Healers say that will probably be tomorrow. The miracles of bacta."

"Master," Obi-Wan protested, leaning forward slightly to catch his sleeve. "You don't have to do that. I'm fine. You shouldn't have to miss the best part of the tournament just 'cause I'm stuck here."

"But I want to, Obi-Wan," the Master said simply. "The best part of the tournament, for me, was watching you fight. I'm done with it now." He looked back to his purple friend. "You'd be welcome to join us, though, Mace. Hide the Idiot and Bigger Fish are pretty pointless with only two people."

"Mace couldn't possibly . . ." The councilor hesitated, looking at his old friend, and the hopeful face of the convalescent boy. "Oh, very well. One game." He pulled up the chair nearer to the bed, and Qui-Gon grinned and began dealing.

None of the three were particularly surprised when Mace ended up holding the Idiot card at the end of the game.

X

Home again at last. Qui-Gon sighed with contentment as he led his Padawan into their familiar apartment, one arm wrapped around the boy's shoulders. The short walk from the Healers' ward had tired Obi-Wan to a troubling extent, though he had not made the slightest hint of complaint. The drainage tube had been removed and he'd been allowed to begin eating solid food again, but his abdomen was still very sore, and Qui-Gon could tell that every step tugged painfully at newly-healed wounds.

"Come sit on the couch, Padawan."

Obi-Wan sank gratefully down as Qui-Gon moved to the kitchen to make tea: marjili with cinna, Obi-Wan's favorite. With brief regret, he remembered the last week, how Obi-Wan had prepared every meal, even anticipating his need for late-night tea. All without venturing a word about his increasing pain. And Qui-Gon had not once tried to stop him, had in fact, in the last few days before the tournament, all but forgotten that another person lived in these rooms. Never again, he vowed. Never again.

The computer had automatically lowered the heat in the rooms when they failed to return in twenty-four hours, and Qui-Gon returned to the living room to find the boy hugging himself and shivering lightly, his eyes gazing into that void again. The Jedi Master set the tea on the table beside the couch and grabbed the blanket draped over the recliner. He wrapped Obi-Wan snuggly, set a teacup in his chilly hands, and settled down beside him, cradling his own cup in one hand and curling his other arm around the boy to keep the blanket in place.

"All right, Obi-Wan?"

The Padawan sighed softly and leaned into the Master's warmth. "Yes, Master. I'm glad to be home."

They drank their tea in silence for a few moments. After a bit Qui-Gon could feel the air warming, and Obi-Wan no longer shivered beneath the blanket. Still, he did not remove his arm.

"What are you thinking about, Master?"

Qui-Gon looked down at the blue-green eyes that regarded him with such gravity. "Just that perhaps I might have enjoyed seeing the last day of the tournament after all."

Obi-Wan's eyes dulled with dismay, and Qui-Gon chuckled sadly and inclined his head to let his cheek rest on the spiky head for a moment. "You didn't let me finish. I was just wondering how everyone reacted when the awards were presented by Master Mace Windu, the amazing purple-headed councilor."

"Oh." The boy's voice was soft. Then a sparkle of mischief lit bright eyes. "He was very shiny. I can imagine the lights of the main salle gleaming on that brilliant 'amethyst' dome—probably blinded a few people."

"I can just hear him talking, too. 'It is Mace's pleasure to present you with this award . . .'"

The Master and Padawan paused for a moment to consider that, then collapsed into a fit of nearly-silent giggles. Obi-Wan stopped almost immediately with a muffled moan.

"Oooh. Don't make me laugh, Master, please. At least for a couple of days."

"Sorry, Padawan." Qui-Gon stilled his chuckles and tightened his grip, pulling the boy against his chest. An afterimage of carrying his sweating, agonized apprentice through the halls made him set down his teacup and wrap his other arm around the youngster, too, holding him close. "I'm very sorry, Obi-Wan. This should not have happened."

"Mmrmph," the boy protested, and Qui-Gon loosened his grip immediately.

"Sorry . . ."

"No." Obi-Wan pulled back a little to look up him. "Stop it. Don't apologize. I'm all right. I'm going to be fine." He leaned his head on the Master's chest again, completely at peace.

Qui-Gon sighed. The boy seemed unable to finish his tea—he took the half-filled cup and set it aside without disturbing Obi-Wan's position. "Can I get you anything?"

"No, thank you, Master."

"Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Mmm . . . this is rather nice, actually. You could keep it up."

Qui-Gon smiled gently and did as requested. For a time they drifted in comfortable silence, safe in a harbor of calm and rest. Qui-Gon meant what he'd said—they would be stronger for this experience. He had taken certain elements of his life for granted, and he would not do so again. Obi-Wan would never again have a reason to doubt his commitment, if he could help it.

"Master?"

"Yes, Padawan?"

"Did you mean what you said earlier?"

Qui-Gon blinked. Had the boy's thoughts been paralleling his own? "About what, Obi-Wan?"

The Padawan shifted slightly. "About . . . about your priorities."

"Ah." Qui-Gon rested his chin on the top of his boy's head. "I did. You are my first priority, my Padawan. Now and always."

"But what about . . . what about when we're on a mission? Doesn't the mission come first?"

Qui-Gon frowned. He didn't like where this was going. "Not necessarily. If you are sick or injured, you should not try to shield it because you think it will distract me. Your health will always be my responsibility, and I will take care of you, or make sure others will. Our focus must be on the mission, yes, but not to your detriment. Nor mine, for that matter. We can't help others if we do not help ourselves."

Obi-Wan nodded, accepting this. Still he hesitated, and Qui-Gon could feel the questions lingering.

"Something else, my Padawan?"

"What if . . . what if you have to make a choice?"

Qui-Gon drew in a deep breath, and refrained from turning this into a lecture about keeping one's focus on the here and now. Obi-Wan's questions were pure speculation, not Qui-Gon's forte, but they still deserved to be heard and answered. "What kind of choice, Obi-Wan?"

"If you had to choose . . . between me, and someone else. One life, or a dozen. Or a world, or the galaxy. What then?"

The Master was silent, struggling within himself. A deep weight flooded his chest, dragging him down. Force, it hurt to even think about having to make such a hellish decision. Could he do it?

Obi-Wan's shoulders tensed, as if he was bracing himself. "I would not want you to choose me over others," he said firmly. "I would rather die, than live knowing that you shouldn't have saved me."

Qui-Gon sighed, letting his tension flow away. "Then I won't," he said gently. "But in all likelihood, I'll never have to make such a choice. Let's not worry about something that will probably never happen, all right? For now, and until you are knighted, you are my first priority. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Let the Force guide our future. It will not lead us wrong."

"Yes, Master." Obi-Wan relaxed against him, loose-limbed and silent. He was content, a few well-chosen platitudes having laid his questions to rest.

But Qui-Gon stared at the opposite wall, seeing only the void that Obi-Wan had been examining so avidly in recent days. Had the boy been catching glimpses of the future in that empty place? Force, he hoped not.

He trusted the Force—would not be able to live if he didn't. He would always follow that inexorable will, knowing that it was the only way. But with these new questions he could find it in himself to pray and beg.

Don't ask that of me. Don't command me to sacrifice his life, or his well-being, or even a scrap of his happiness. Take me first. Don't ask that of me.

Because he knew, to his overwhelming bitterness and despair, that he would do it. If the will of the Force commanded that he make Obi-Wan miserable, or crippled, or dead, he would do it. But he would die in the process.

Qui-Gon looked down at his Padawan, this precious young one who had brought such joy into his life, and saw that he was asleep. Gently he shifted the boy in his arms, cradling him like a small child, aware that Obi-Wan would protest it if he were awake. In a little while he would carry the apprentice to his room and tuck him into bed.

For now he would sit here, cherishing these fleeting moments of peace. Whatever was to come, he prayed that this time, these few years of Obi-Wan's training, would make it all worthwhile. He had nothing else to offer the boy. Perhaps it would be enough.

THE END