Acknowledgements: I owe more than I can describe to llaras for her steadfast encouragement and support while I was writing. Thanks also go to her for her beta work, as well as to jebbypal, Cassie E. and Dark Emerald. They were wonderful and insightful. I also thank kernelm, for his patient help with the translations and skripka, for listening to me whine and saying the right thing to help me come up with the two lines I needed.
I dedicate this fic to janeeyre17 in honor of her birth and in gratitude for her many observations on Inara over the years, without which this fic would not be possible.
This story is a sequel to "Least Said, Soonest Ended," which can be found here: http/ Reading it isn't necessary for understanding this story, but it is recommended.
"O the clear moment, when from the mouth
A word flies, current immediately
Among friends; or when a loving gift astounds
As the identical wish nearest the heart;
Or when a stone, volleyed in sudden danger,
Strikes the rabid beast full on the snout!
Moments in never..."
Robert Graves, Fragment of a Lost Poem
Bizui: Shut up
"You say you know this man," said the first fed, who had dark, almost pupil-less eyes and dark hair, as he slid a picture across the table.

The informant twitched, eyeing the gloved hands of the two men sitting in front of him with unease. "Sure, I know him."

"What about these two?"

"Naw, I never saw 'em before."

"Tell us what you do know."

The informant took a drink. "Cobb ain't a man to cross lightly," he said.

The third man, who had piercing blues eyes and red hair, finally spoke. "Tell us what we wish to know, and we'll make sure you never have to worry about 'Cobb' again."

"Money up front? That's what you said."

The red-haired man slid a communicator across the table. "An account has been opened in your name at the Bank of Osiris. Go ahead and check."

The man tapped a few keys and whistled. "Well, thank you very much, gentleman." He smiled broadly. "Cobb's name is Jayne. He runs with a fellow called Malcolm Reynolds. Reynolds is strictly small time--thief, smuggler for hire."

"He's a smuggler?"

"Yeah, he's got a beat up old Firefly."

"A Firefly?" The dark-haired man asked while exchanging a look with the red-haired man. "What is the name of this Firefly?"

The informant took another drink and snorted, "I don't remember, something stupid."

"And how do we find this Reynolds?"

"He gets a lot of jobs from a guy named Badger, based outta Persephone."

The dark-haired man raised a brow at the red-haired man. "Out of Persephone," he restated.

The informant gulped the last of his glass and glanced at the door. "Yeah," he confirmed.

"Anything else?"

"That's all I know," the informant answered with a shrug.

"Thank you. You've been very helpful." The dark-haired man pulled a thin metal wand from his breast pocket.

Inara bit back a curse as the wrong note issued once again from the dulcimer. There was no reason she should have such difficulties concentrating. She took a deep breath and tried to again to center herself, though a voice deep within told her it was a vain hope. Only one other time in her life had she felt like this. This time, she had even less idea about how to fix the muddle she found herself in. As she returned to her dulcimer, she almost missed the soft, hesitant knock on her door. She was no longer used to listening for such things. Her ear had grown accustomed to the sound of her door flying open followed by the bouncy step of a cheerful mechanic, or the defiant tread of a blue-eyed captain ... She shook herself, and rose to open the door.

So polite the crew on this new ship, she was never going to get used to the knocking. "Mr. Poe," she said with a weary smile as the youth blushed and goggled at the parts of her shuttle he could see. She suspected they were not going to get used to her either.

"S-Sorry to disturb you, ma'am," he said. "Cap'n sent me to tell you that there's a call for you."

"Thank you," Inara said. "I'll take it in here." The boy nodded; Inara closed the door. She had decided to maintain a professional distance on this ship; it had seemed the correct decision at the time, but now she wondered if she wouldn't have been better served by getting to know the rest of the crew. There were times when she felt alone.

The screen beeped; the call was coming through. Inara sat down before the panel. "Emmy?" she questioned as a familiar face filled a screen.

There was a reluctant, achingly polite nod. "Inara." Inara could not imagine what the call could be about. "Inara, it is time for you to come home."

Inara lowered her eyes and sent up a quick prayer for patience. She returned her gaze to the screen. "Emmy, while I'm gratified that you miss me, I--"

"Inara," Emmy said with sniff. "I do not miss you. Of course I believe that your return to House Madrassa would be in your best interest. You seem to be picking up dreadful habits. I can actually see irritation on your face." Inara's nostrils flared, but she said nothing. If she argued, she would just prove Emmy correct that she was starting to allow her emotions to show. "However, that is not why I called you. I have called you to tell you that Jin-Mei is ill and asking for you."

"Ill?" Inara whispered.

"She's dying," Emmy stated baldly.

Inara blanched. "Mother?"

"She has violated one of the Guild's most sacred laws. She no longer deserves the title of companion."

"This situation has made it quite clear that her work as a companion can be very useful to our cause. We may need her assistance again. At the very least, publicly shunning her would endanger her, if it became known that she was the one who--"

"Then she leaves. We don't want her here."

"Where will I go? I have lived all my life on Sihnon."

Jin-Mei thumped her cane on the floor and stood. "There are never enough companions to serve on the rim," she said heavily. "I am sure there are plenty of Independent sympathizers there for you to spy upon."

"Perhaps there is one here," the senator suggested with a warning in her voice.

Byrne gasped and stood. "You dare accuse Priestess Jin-Mei of treason!"

But Jin-Mei only waved him back down. "Thank you, Byrne," she said. "But you forget your training. I am sure the senator meant no insult. She knows better."

"Of course," the senator said, nodding stiffly.

Jin-Mei turned to Inara. "If you must remain a companion," she said. "Then I suggest you do it far from here."

"Mother, I--" Inara's voice trailed off. The plea died in her throat as Jin-Mei turned and walked away, leaning heavily on her cane. Inara thought to herself that she would never forget the sound of that cane thumping against the hard floor.

She had been right.

Inara entered the mess. "Excuse me, captain," she said. "I must return home as swiftly as possible. My mother is ill."

"Mother," guffawed one of the crew members as she wiped down a gun with her feet propped up on the table. "Surprised you lot even know who your mothers are," she laughed.

"Bizui," the captain said, cuffing the other woman on the arm. "Mother is what they call the woman who is house priestess when they first start their training." She turned to Inara. "We'll be near to Boros in about two days, Miss Serra. You ought to be able to pick up passage there to the core. 'Bout the best we can do for you, I'm afraid."

"Thank you," Inara said. "I appreciate the effort."

Inara landed on Sihnon at night. An ocean of light stretched before her and she swallowed hard. She had never thought to see it again.

Sihnon was a core world, accounted one of the most beautiful in the verse and a popular vacation spot for wealthy people the core over. Beneath its pleasant facade lurked an extensive working class on whose backs the ease and comfort of core life depended. Thus, the great planet had its factory settlements, its tenements, its charity homes and all the other less savory places necessary to maintaining its double life. One such place was located in a non-descript building on a forgotten corner of the great city itself: the Double Seventh orphanage, where the children of the dead poor could only dream of new beginnings.

There was no great meeting room in the orphanage so all the boys and girls of a certain age had been shepherded into the hallway for unknown to them. "Don't fidget, children," the home warden snapped in exasperation. "Oh, please, do try to look your best. This is a great opportunity for all of you. You can't imagine how difficult it was for me to even convince her to come here to look you over." Somewhere in the horde a girl wiggled uncomfortably in her cheap white mourning dress. The coarse fabric chafed her skin and the glossy dark brown hair that cascaded down her back ended in a frightful tangle for it was longer than her short arms could reach. A door chime sounded in the distance and the children were left in the gloomy windowless hallway while the warden left to answer it.

Inara squirmed, trying to give herself more space as she stood wedged between the other girls and boys near to her age. The white mourning dress the home had given her was too tight; she felt suffocated. "Why are we here?" Inara whispered to the girl beside her.

"We're not allowed to talk in the hallway," the girl said, turning pointedly away.

"I know that," Inara replied. "But has this ever--ow!"

The girl had turned and pinched Inara viciously on the arm. "Leave me alone," she ordered.

A short time later, there was movement at the end of the corridor. The young girl strained eyes that were still adjusting to the dark to see who was coming. The house warden approached with a tall, middle-aged woman with a lined face and erect bearing. This new person was quite possibly the most beautiful woman the girl had ever seen. The girl recognized the woman as a companion. She had seen several once at a town festival. She remembered the silk clothing they wore, and what her mother had told her about the different styles.

"Hmm," the companion muttered, grabbing one girl by the chin and gazing into her eyes. She shook her head, "No." She walked up one side of the aisle and down the other. Seemingly at random she picked out girls and boys from the group, grasping their chins and sharply yanking them upwards. Inara hoped the woman wouldn't choose to touch her. It was apparently a vain hope. When the companion came to Inara, she grasped her chin without preamble, yanking it upwards and staring into her eyes. Inara squirmed in her grasp. The woman let go, and Inara rubbed at her chin, glaring resentfully at the woman. "Is this all you have?" the companion said disdainfully to the home warden.

"Of the age you asked for," the house warden said nervously. "I realize that--"

The other woman cut her off with a sharp gesture. "Very well, tell me about this one," she said, indicating Inara. "The others are unsuitable."

The home warden turned to the children. "Inara, please wait out here while this lady and I talk. The rest of you may return to your activities." The other children scampered off, relieved to escape the gimlet eye of the companion. The home warden turned to the companion and gestured through an open doorway. "If you would come into my office," she said.

The two of them swept out, leaving Inara to sit on the bench in confusion. She hugged her arms to herself. What was it she was suitable for?

"Inara is one of our newest arrivals," the home warden's voice drifted through the open door. "As you can see she is still in mourning."

"Disgraceful dress, hardly worth the cost of the cloth."

"We are an orphanage, Madam."

"No relatives, then?"

"Her parents are dead. There is an aunt, but she left on a settler's ship for the rim. We haven't been able to locate her."

"How long ago was that?"

"Three years."

"Very well."

Inara was kicking her legs along the bottom of the only seat in the hallway as they came back out.

The house warden knelt down before her. "Inara, do you know what a companion is?" Out of the corner of her eyes, Inara saw the companion roll her eyes impatiently.

"Yes," Inara answered, hiding a smirk.

"Inara," the companion said. "Would you like to be one?" In answer, Inara's stomach rumbled. "When did you last eat, child?"

"This morning."

"And what did you have?"


"And last night?"


"And before that?"


The woman sniffed. "I had rice, hom bao and stir-fried vegetables for my evening meal."

Inara studied the woman, one of the most beautiful she had ever seen. Inara's own mother had been beautiful, but she had had a pinched, thin look. The companion was rounded and well-toned; she had surely never had a hungry day. But the thing that most caught her eye was the woman's dress. She reached out a hesitant hand and stroked it. "Look Kaew," she whispered.

The companion's eyes widened. "You know silk patterns?" she asked.

"Ma worked in a silk factory. She brought home scraps to tie my hair back. I miss the feel of it. Will I--" she broke off, not knowing how to frame the questions.

The companion knelt down and looked at Inara very seriously. "You will never miss it again," she replied. "Only scraps?" she asked. Inara nodded. "How would you like an entire dress of silk?"

Real food, and a silk dress. Inara let go of the dress and looked up at the house warden. "I want to be a companion," she declared.

The cane was nowhere in sight in Jin-Mei's large and airy suite. Inara had always expected to have something like this for herself someday. Jin-Mei lay on the bed, propped up on pillows, regal and beautiful even as the life slipped from her. Inara clasped her hands together and bowed low. "Mother Jin-Mei," she said.

"Come sit," replied a gravelly, quavering voice. She leaned her head back against the pillows and closed her eyes. Inara wondered what had happened to cause her to age so fast, but she knew better than to ask.

Inara hesitated. "I was honored that you asked me to come," she said quietly.

Jin-Mei's eyes snapped open. "I haven't forgotten what you did."

Inara lowered her head. "No, I did not expect you had." There was a catch in her voice.

Jin-Mei sighed. "Inara, child, what have I told you about crying?"

"I'm sorry, Mother."

"Still so sensitive." She shook her head. "It can be a great gift for a companion, but not I think, in your case. I should have left you in the orphanage." Inara pressed her lips together to keep a painful moan from escaping. "But," Jin-Mei said, taking Inara's hand in hers, "we all make mistakes."

Inara couldn't keep the tears back then. She buried her face against Jin-Mei's chest and wept. The old woman wrapped her arms around her. "Oh, my daughter," the woman breathed. "Why did you do it?"

"He was selling weapon designs. We were at war."

"But to betray your client's trust--to share things you learned from your private time with him. It goes against everything we believe in."

Client confidentiality was one of the Companion's Guild's most stringently enforced rules. There simply were no extenuating circumstances. "It seemed like the right thing to do." If it had been anything but weapons, machines to kill and maim, she might have held her tongue. Instead she had gone straight to the authorities and lost everything that had ever mattered to her.

"And now?" Jin-Mei asked, studying Inara's face carefully.

Inara could not mask her uncertainty. "I do not know what the right thing is anymore."

"Yes," Jin-Mei said. "We doubt so much with time." Jin-Mei took a deep breath. "Many years ago, when I first became house priestess, one of our companions became pregnant. She refused to give the baby up. She was like a little sister to me, but that didn't matter. The rules are clear so I--"

"Ordered her shunned?"

Jin-Mei nodded. "Yes. She died a few years ago and I was contacted by her lawyer. She had asked in her will that if anything happened to her, I would look after her little boy. It happened right after your betrayal. It seemed then that I was destined to be betrayed by those I loved so I did nothing. How dare she ask me for help?" The old woman sighed. "But now I am dying. So I look up her little boy. He is in bad trouble, Inara, and I don't have enough time left to help. I need you to help him for me."

"What can I do?" The woman pressed a button next to her bed and a vid screen lowered down from the ceiling. She tapped the screen a few times and called up a picture. "This is her little boy," Jin-Mei said.

Inara stared in shock, her mouth opening in surprise. "Mal."

A phantom ache ghosted along the place where he'd been stabbed the last time he'd been here on Persephone. Mal ignored it. "Kaylee," he called. "Pay the dock fee, and get us some passengers." He put his hand up. The sun beat down, blinding him.

"Does it seem a mite bright to you?" Mal asked Zoe as they started to walk into the crowd together.

"No, sir," she replied.

Kaylee cleared her throat and studied the screen as she typed in their willingness to take on passengers. "We need a new synchronizer," she said.

"Ain't got the money," Mal said, barely pausing.

"I've put it off as long as I can," Kaylee pushed. "We don't get a replacement soon, we're going to be on the drift."

"Put if off longer," Mal snapped.

Kaylee looked helplessly past Mal at Zoe. The older woman nodded imperceptibly. Kaylee breathed a sigh of relief and went back to typing. "Get a good deal," she chirped as they all walked past her.

"We don't have the funds," Mal snapped.

Zoe nodded placidly. "Won't hurt to look around, see what's available."

"Gorram sun seems harsher than I remember." Mal grimaced. "Place seems to be a mite smellier too."

"I hadn't noticed," Zoe said.

"Now, what in the rut is that supposed to mean?"

"I'm just saying, sir, that maybe you're noticing a difference that--" Zoe broke off, looking past Mal's shoulder.

He was too busy arguing to notice. "Zoe, I'm telling you. Everything about this place is changed."

Behind him came the whine of a charging gun, and a cheery accented voice. "Malcolm Reynolds."

Mal turned slowly, raising his hands. "Badger," he sighed. Clearly, some things hadn't changed.