The Meaning of Friendship Rating: G
Iella

This little story is set about a year after the JJK series. It's a response to a challenge to incorporate "a Japor snippet" in a story that also includes both Anakin and Tahiri. I've wanted to write an early A/T story for a while - so decided this was the time to do it.

Anakin Solo was feeling very pleased with himself, but he tried not to let it show - busying himself instead by watching the orb that was Coruscant growing steadily more recognisable, and slowly filling the front viewport. Every now and again he gave the package in his pocket a squeeze, partly to check it was still there, but mainly out of sheer glee at having managed to acquire it. His friend Tahiri was not going to believe her eyes.

"Glad to be home, Anakin?"

The voice jolted Anakin out of his thoughts about his friend and her possible reactions to his little surprise, and he turned towards the speaker. It was kind of a difficult question to answer, he thought. If he answered too emphatically, then she might think he hadn't enjoyed going on the trip to Tatooine, which of course, he had — tremendously. But if he sounded too casual, then she might think he was being disrespectful to his parents, or that he was trying to act staunch — which would be dishonest because he was always glad to see his family.

The woman's warm brown eyes crinkled at the corners. "It's okay — we won't take it badly if you say yes."

Anakin studied her for a moment curiously. For a person who, as far as knew, had no Force ability whatsoever, Tendra had the amazing ability of apparently seeing into his head. It was a bit of a mystery — one he might have to ask his Uncle Luke about. He expected people like his parents and his siblings, and also Aunt Mara and his teachers at the Jedi Academy, to be able to sense his thoughts and feelings — but Tendra! That was not something he could explain at all.

He heard a deep chuckle, and turned towards its source — the tall man sitting in the pilot's seat. "Nah, of course not — we'll just take Jacen or Jaina next time."

Anakin grinned. Lando was almost as good a joker as his father — almost being the operative word. And fortunately, this meant that he'd had plenty of practice at bouncing the jokes back.

"You could — but you'd probably regret it. You'd either get bored to death with descriptions of Zekk's lovely green eyes or end up with the Lady Luck crawling with bugs. I reckon I'm kind of low maintenance compared to them."

The cabin rang with joint laughter, and Anakin grinned again — as much from the friendly, comfortable atmosphere as from his satisfaction at the riposte. He kind of enjoyed being able to hold his own against Lando, and he knew also that his father liked that he could, too. It was hard to explain why exactly, but Anakin sensed it was something to do with either pride or competition, or maybe a bit of both. Or perhaps his father just wanted him to be able to stand up for himself, like he'd always had to. He considered that idea for a moment and would have pondered it further, but the sight of his home planet filling the forward screen channelled his thoughts away. Home was a good place to be, but that was not to say he didn't enjoy getting away sometimes. And the truth was that he was going to be going away again — soon. The very next day he was going to return to Yavin 4.

******

"What is it?" he asked, peering amongst the twigs and bark peelings in the container Jacen had excitedly brought into his room to show him. "Or actually — where is it? I can't see anything in there. Are you sure it hasn't escaped?"

"Gosh — I hope not," his brother replied, startled. "They're pretty hard to find because they can camouflage themselves . They retract their legs up into their abdomen and they have these kind of fleshy bits that can hide their eyes — so they end up looking like bits of wood." He began poking gently with one finger amongst the wood and leaves he'd assembled lovingly for his latest "pet" — in this case a tiny lizard-type creature Winter had found hiding in her husband Tycho's kit-bag on his return from a recent trip. Jacen had searched his extensive collection of files on animal life to discover it was in fact an unusual species of miniature Agamarian salamander.

"Oh I see it," said Anakin gazing fixedly at Jaina's collar. "Wow! It has quite big fangs hasn't it? Is it poisonous?"

Jaina went rigid and for a moment it looked as if she might scream, but she caught the sly glint in her little brother's eyes.

"Oh, ha ha, very funny. Yes, of course salamanders have poisonous fangs — not!" She threw Anakin a glare that suggested later reprisal, but he didn't miss the slight shudder of relief or the quick glance down just for reassurance. "You're getting far too cocky for my liking, little bro'. Hanging around Lando is obviously rubbing off on you in a bad way."

"I wouldn't call it hanging around," Anakin countered. "And anyway — I spent more time with Tendra than Lando. She's a good cook."

"Well there you are," said Jaina, determined that she wasn't going to let Anakin win the point — there'd been a disturbing trend lately towards him gaining the edge in their various interchanges. Her mother said it was normal for twelve-year-old boys to suddenly become weird, and at times obnoxious, but Jaina didn't really accept that analysis. After all, Jacen hadn't — and she was sure Uncle Luke had never been anything other than the nice calm and respectful person that he always was.

"You've been hanging around the galley stuffing yourself with food and having everything done for you. Maybe I should suggest to Uncle Luke you need to go for some long runs when you get to Yavin 4."

Anakin shrugged. "That'd be okay. I —"

"I found him!" announced Jacen gleefully, holding his latest acquisition carefully on the palm of his hand.

Anakin stared at it curiously. "Wow," he said.

Jaina was surprised. She had fully expected him to scoff at the little creature — because it was, to be fair, pretty unspectacular. It barely moved; it was probably about the plainest animal she'd ever seen and it made no noise whatsoever. In fact it was about as interesting as a piece of wood — which, in fact, it closely resembled.

Although she was still annoyed at Anakin for his cheek, she was inclined to forgive him for — for once — showing a bit of empathy towards Jacen and his enthusiasm for the galaxy's animal life, no matter how humble. She studied Anakin's face carefully in case the "wow" was just the precursor to some smart comment, but he appeared to be genuinely surprised and ... there was something else in his expression she couldn't quite fathom ... almost as if his thoughts were elsewhere.

Maybe he was thinking about all that good food Tendra had cooked for him.

She sighed. Who would know? Anakin WAS her little brother and she'd always been reasonably close to him — still was, even though he sometimes made her want to strangle him. But when he had that distant look in his eye, it brought it home to her that there were things about him that would probably always remain a mystery.

"He's great, isn't he?" said Jacen.

Anakin nodded — still with the strange thoughtful look on his face. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Not bad, Jace. Hey, um — I guess I'd better unpack and everything before dinner — okay?"

"Yeah, sure." Jacen failed to get the hint. He rarely did if there were animals involved. "I just thought you'd like to see him. They're not all that common you know, and he was real lucky to pick Tycho's kit-bag to hide in. If anyone other than Winter had found him he'd probably have been flattened."

"Yeah — I guess. Or eaten."

"Ewww." Jaina wrinkled her nose. "Put me off dinner won't you?"

"He probably wants your share," Jacen grinned as he waited patiently for the salamander to climb back into its container. He looked up to see his father's face peeking round the half open door.

"Dinner's ready, troops. Get yourselves cleaned up. And you'd better keep that lizard out of sight, Jacen — there's going to be a Hutt at the table tonight."

"Really?" Anakin's blue eyes widened.

"Yeah," Han nodded seriously — and then reached over to ruffle his hair. "You're back, Mr Eat-like-a-Hutt. Welcome home."

Jaina couldn't help the smile of satisfaction. It would be a while before her little brother could better their father when it came to teasing.

Thank goodness.

"Actually, dad. It's a salamander not a lizard," Jacen corrected. He went to pick the plastene container up, but caught his father's frown.

"I know you're excited about it, Jacen, but I don't think we need it at the table. Your mother's gone to quite a bit of trouble tonight, which unfortunately means she's got Threepio into one of his flaps. He'd probably go into protocol overdrive if you introduce an animal into the equation."

"Oh, okay." Jacen considered taking the salamander back to his room, but the aroma of something delicious filtered in from the corridor. He set the container down on Anakin's desk, and raced out to catch up with the others.

********

As soon as he was allowed to leave the table, Anakin hurried back to his room. He knew it was silly, but he wanted to check up on the little package he had in his bag — the one he was going to give to Tahiri. It wasn't that he thought he might have left it behind; it was more that he wanted to look at it again — his tiny Japor snippet. There was something compelling about the way Lando had described it when they saw it in the market in Mos Espa — how it was a reminder of a tree that had once flourished in the sandy soils of Tatooine. As soon as heard that, he knew he had to get it for his friend, because in a way it was kind of similar to her. She, too, was a surviving chip from a larger organism she'd once been a part of — in her case her family and later the Tusken tribe that had adopted her. It was difficult to put his thoughts into a coherent explanation, but in his heart it felt right, and even if he couldn't explain it to Tahiri she'd probably understand it. She always seemed to be able to make sense of his verbal efforts — but there again words were her hobby.

And even if she didn't see the same connection as he did, she would no doubt be pretty pleased to have a reminder of her home world — especially one that was quite rare. Or that's what Lando had said anyway. And he'd certainly had to pull out all the stops when he was bargaining with the seller in the market. It was just as well, thought Anakin, that Lando hadn't expected him to come up with the full amount he paid for it, as it cost a bit more than either of them had expected. But he suspected Lando considered the fun of haggling payment of a kind.

He balanced the piece of Japor wood on his hand and studied the smooth surface and the faint vein-like lines that marked the grain. Years of erosion by the desert sand had bleached it to a colour almost like that of his skin. It was kind of kidney-shaped, and it felt warm, as if somehow it had captured the energy of Tatooine's twin suns. He closed his eyes and pictured the tree that Lando had shown him a painting of in a catalogue on the hypernet. It was good to think that it hadn't disappeared completely, even though the world it was familiar with had.

He placed it gently on top of his clothes chest. His mother had suggested, somewhat pointedly, that he might like to take a shower before he went to bed, as they were going to have to leave first thing in the morning. She was off on yet another diplomatic visit — this time to Almania — and as it wasn't going to be too much of a diversion to stop off at Yavin 4, she had decided that he should go with her instead of with old Peckhum, as previously planned. Anakin was pleased, as he liked travelling with his mother. It also meant he would get to the Academy sooner because his mother would be travelling in one of the Senate shuttles, which were definitely more streamlined than Peckhum's battered old freighter.

After his shower, he would grab another bundle of clean clothes and then go and find some kind of little container for the precious snippet of Japor. The last thing he wanted was it getting damaged while in flight.

He grabbed a towel and was just about at the door when he saw the salamander's container on his desk. He picked it up, and noticing the lid was a little loose, he pushed it on more firmly, before heading down the corridor to his brother's room.

"Oh, there it is!" came his brother's voice from behind. "Thank goodness. I was trying to remember where I left it."

"What kind of things do they eat?" Anakin asked curiously as he handed it over. "Some salamanders are carnivorous aren't they?"

"Some are," Jacen nodded. "This kind isn't though — it's strictly vegetarian. And they spend quite a lot of time in a state of semi-hibernation. Something to do with having really slow digestive systems."

"Not exactly the kind of pet you can train to do tricks is it?"

"I'd say that would definitely be a challenge," his brother agreed.

"Well — I've got to get cleaned up for tomorrow," said Anakin. "So I guess I'll see you at breakfast."

"Yep. That's how it is when you're a Solo — no sooner are you home then you're away again. Jut as well you're used to it."

"I don't mind," Anakin shrugged. "When are you coming back to the Academy?"

"In a few weeks I think. Try not to eat all the supplies before we get there."

"I'll give it a go," Anakin grinned. "As long as Tionne keeps Tenel Ka on cooking duty, I'd say you have nothing to worry about." And he dashed away laughing before Jacen could come up with a suitable rejoinder.

******

"Kid's getting too big for his boots," Jacen grumbled to himself as he closed his door. He lifted up the lid of the salamander's home a little and peeked in to check that it was okay. He lifted it a little more, and then pulled it off completely — but there was no denying the facts. The salamander was gone.

"Blaster bolts!" Jacen said loudly.

"What's wrong?" called Jaina from the corridor.

Jacen stomped out from his room and back up the corridor toward Anakin's. "That little so-and-so! He's hidden my salamander somewhere."

"Are you sure he didn't just escape?" suggested Jaina diplomatically.

"Don't you start," her brother growled.

"What are you going to do?" she asked hurrying to keep up with him.

Jacen paused at the threshold of Anakin's bedroom. "Look for him, of course. Now if you were Anakin, where would you hide a salamander?"

"I wouldn't have a clue. You still have to convince me he did actually hide it. I got the impression he was more occupied with his trip with Mum."

Jacen considered that for a moment. It was true — Anakin had seemed rather focused on returning to the Academy.

"Okay — let's assume you're right and the salamander did somehow escape. Where would it be most likely to go?"

"Where did you leave the container?"

"On the desk I think."

They searched the desktop, lifting up the datapad carefully and leafing through the tottering stack of datacards in the corner. They opened each drawer in turn — checking to make sure the creature hadn't wedged itself down the back — and were about to give up when Jaina gave a little whoop of triumph. Jacen followed her pointing finger to Anakin's clothes chest where to his relief he saw the salamander nestling on a sheet of soft coloured flimsi.

"Thank goodness!" he murmured gratefully. "Hey, look Jaina. He's gone into stasis — just like it described in the article I read. Isn't that incredible?"

"I dunno," she replied making a wry face. "He's even more boring than before — if such a thing is possible."

"Well, I think it's amazing," he replied, a little snappily. "It's what makes them such good survivors. Do you know that some salamanders can live for hundreds of years?"

"They don't exactly have much fun though, do they? I mean what's the point of living if you spend most of it looking half-dead?"

Jacen rolled his eyes. "I can see this is going to be one of those pointless conversations."

"Well, I am entitled to my opinion. And I did help you find him."

Jacen nodded. "True — and thanks. But I'd have to say that although he may seem a bit boring, he obviously gets the occasional urge for some excitement — which means I should probably make him a more secure home. Want to give me a hand making one tomorrow?"

"Don't see why not," Jaina smiled. She knew her twin knew how she loved using their father's tools.

Jacen grinned in reply. And happy that they were both happy again — they headed off to bed.

********

Anakin frowned. He was sure he'd put the piece of Japor on top of the chest, but it definitely wasn't there now — and that was very odd. Unless, of course, someone had been in his room. Maybe his mother had brought in some clean clothes and accidentally knocked it off when she put them away. His eyes slipped down to the drawer, which was indeed slightly open. He pulled it out slowly, and smiled. There it was. It had fallen down amongst his underwear.

Relieved he rewrapped it loosely in the soft flimsi and placed it inside the little box he'd found in the store cupboard.

"Perfect," he murmured, and placed it carefully in the middle of his bag where it was protected on all sides by clothes.

********

"What is it?" Tahiri asked excitedly when Anakin handed her the little box. He had devised all sorts of interesting ways of presenting her with the gift — but in the end his anticipation at seeing her reaction got the better of him. No sooner had he arrived at the Academy and sat down to dinner, which was just ready to be served, than he was telling her about the surprise.

"Open it!" He grinned and watched while she extracted the package from the box and slowly unwrapped it ... and screamed.

Somehow the Japor snippet had grown legs and eyes, big bulging eyes that gaped back at the green eyes staring horrified at them.

"What the —?" He almost fumbled the catch as Tahiri thrust the alien-looking creature at him.

"Anakin, I can't believe you'd do this. And I thought we were friends!"

Anakin cringed as if she'd hit him. But before he could even try to understand what had happened, let alone explain it, she had stormed off, upset and angry. He gazed at the salamander. And then slowly the pieces of puzzle began to fit.

************

"Uncle Luke! I need to talk to Jacen."

Luke stared up in surprise. He had just settled down on his floor to perform some meditation exercises, when his door had burst open and his nephew — looking rather wild-eyed — had lurched in waving some kind of lizard at him. What in the name of the Emperor was going on?

"Anakin, do you have any idea of what time it is? You should be in your room thinking calm thoughts — not racing around like a wild bantha poking reptiles in people's faces!"

"One — with all due respect Uncle Luke — banthas don't have fingers so they can't poke anything at anybody," replied Anakin, who couldn't avoid getting the facts straight no matter how dire the circumstances. "And two — I HAVE to get hold of Jacen. There's been a terrible mix-up and Tahiri thinks I'm playing tricks on her and I wasn't. I found a little snippet of Japor in a market on Tatooine and Lando helped me buy it for her because I thought she'd like to have something to remind her of her home." He sucked in a huge breath and before Luke could stop him he was off again, the words tumbling out in a way, Luke noted with a certain wry amusement, far more characteristic of Tahiri.

"But Jacen got this salamander, and he brought it into my room to show it to me and somehow the thing must have escaped. And I thought Mum had knocked the wood snippet into my clothes drawer but really it was the salamander hiding amongst my underwear — which is a bit scary when you think about it, although apparently Jacen says it's vegetarian, but I reckon you never know with animals. And so I packaged up the salamander thinking it was the piece of Japor ... which means —"

"Jacen has your Japor and is probably wondering where his salamander has gone," Luke finished.

"Exactly."

"Would it interest you to know it's been very quiet here for the last few months?" said his uncle matter-of-factly.

"I'm sorry, really I am."

"That's okay, Anakin. I just wanted to bring that observation to your attention, in case you'd like to think about it. And as far as contacting Jacen goes — one, we do have to consider communication costs here; and two, I had a message from your father two days ago when you were on your way here. He said that as old Peckhum was heading out this way, he would be bringing both your brother and sister as well. I hadn't expected them for another two weeks, but I have a feeling from the tone of your father's voice that Jacen had approached him with a similar story to the one you've just told me."

Luke managed to resist chuckling over his last statement. In fact, Han's somewhat frenzied message had begun with such an explosion of Corellian vernacular and dark suggestions for what Luke could do to the twins when they arrived, that Luke had had to hastily tweak down the volume so as not to terrify poor Tionne who was standing beside him.

"Whew. That's a relief."

Luke nodded towards the salamander. "You know what would be a good idea, Anakin? As you will have to look after your brother's pet until he arrives, I suggest you do some research about them so you can hand the poor creature over in good condition. Maybe you could ask Tahiri to help you?"

Anakin looked grim. "I don't think Tahiri wants to see me let alone help me with anything, Uncle Luke."

"Well," said his uncle. "I think she will. Wait until tomorrow morning to ask her, and I think you'll find she'll be only too happy to help."

Luke grinned inwardly at the dubious look Anakin threw him. Teenagers always seem to think to think they know everything, he thought. Little do they know what goes on behind their backs.

After Anakin left, suitably calm, Luke went to look for Tahiri.

***********

"Oh, wow!" Tahiri's emerald eyes were as wide as the glittering ocean. "How did you ... I mean where did you ... I mean ... well, just wow!"

"I gather that means you like it," Anakin prompted. The whole concept of Tahiri being lost for words had unsettled him a little, and he wanted to make sure he had read her reaction correctly. Sometimes she could be a little unpredictable.

"Like it? I love it — it's just so ... it's such a surprise!"

"Whew!" Anakin sat down and mopped his brow. "Well you'd better make the most of it. I don't think I could go through anything like that again!"

"Well, as Master Luke says — sometimes the best plans go awry — but it's the fact you went to so much trouble that counts."

"Uncle Luke is very wise. I'd like to be able to come out with things like that one day."

"You will, Anakin. You don't exactly say much and you probably never will, but at least most of what you say makes sense. And yes, I'm definitely going to make the most of this. In fact I think I'll get a special little case made for this so I can keep it on my shelf to look at. Now I have two things to remind me of my home — my thumbprint necklace and my Japor snippet. That makes me very happy." She smiled at him.

Anakin smiled back. "I can help you make the case for it," he said. "I can adapt the design I made for the salamander's cage, only I'll use clear plastene so the colour of the wood will come through."

"Okay. And maybe we could find a small picture of a Japor tree that we can put in the background so I'll always know where the wood came from, just like I'll always know where I came from."

"I can find you one," he said remembering the one Lando had shown him. "Come on."

**************

"I see the storm's over," Kam said to Luke as the two young Jedi hurried past.

"That one, yes," Luke smiled. "No doubt there will be others."

"You know, I would never have matched those two up as potential friends. Funny the way things work out, isn't it?"

Luke chuckled. "The Force moves in mysterious ways, Kam."

Kam nodded. "Indeed it does. I wonder if it would ever consider allowing our Jedi candidates to skip their teenage years. I'm sure we'd all live longer if it would."

Luke patted the older man consolingly on the shoulder. "I'm afraid, Kam, that all we can do is grab what solace we can when we can. In other words, we'll just have to content ourselves with the medicinal attributes of coffeine. Speaking of which — how does a steaming cup of coffeine sound to you?"

"Very good, and I believe we have cake on offer today, too."

The two walked companionably for a while enjoying the pleasant morning, until strangely both began to slow down. Eventually Kam caught Luke's eye.

"Do I recall Tionne saying Tenel Ka was on baking duty this week?"

Luke nodded solemnly, but then his eyes brightened. "I wonder if salamanders eat cake?" he asked.


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