Disclaimer: See chapter one.
A/N: And we come to the end of it.
Inara always enjoyed spring, particularly if she managed to experience it while on a world that had more plant life than simple desert scrub. She loved the new flowers and the soft, warming rains, and the thick growth of new grass. And yet, though it was a particularly lovely day, she felt unsettled as she wandered the gardens of the training house. Sheydra caught up with her near a small koi-pond, and simply watched in silence as Inara tossed a small handful of compressed fish-food into the water, one pellet at a time. "Did you need something, Sheydra?" Inara asked, tossing the last pellet at a smallish fish near the back of the pond.
"Yes," the older woman replied. "We've much to discuss, Inara. Perhaps you would join me for brunch?"
Inara knew it wasn't a request, and so she followed Sheydra to where a light meal consisting primarily of various fruits and tea was laid out on a table on the veranda. The pair discussed trivial things – the weather, the girls and boys in training – while nibbling. It was only civilized to put off serious matters until after the meal. When the only tray remaining contained simple tea, Sheydra beckoned to her bondsman. He stepped forward and handed over a small package. "This arrived for you," Sheydra said. "May I inquire as to whom you know on Three Hills?"
Inara's forehead furrowed. "As far as I know, I don't know anybody from Three Hills." She reached for the package. "But," she thought she knew who might have sent it to her, "Serenity does business there every so often. It's probably from Kaylee."
Sheydra let go of the paper-wrapped box. "I don't believe so. The label is decidedly a masculine hand."
Inara looked at it, noticing it was labeled in Chinese. "So it would seem." Curiosity blossomed. It wasn't Mal's handwriting – she honestly didn't recognize it – but Sheydra was right, it was definitely a man's writing. She slit the tape along one end with her fingernails and slid the box out of the paper. She opened the box and forgot to breathe. Inside the box, nestled among dried hay and resting atop folded pages of a letter was a decorative comb, carved from lavender jade, and sporting a stylized lotus-blossom.
Sheydra couldn't help herself, she leaned over and had to look. "It's beautiful," she murmured. "Early Southern Song Dynasty, unless I miss my guess," Sheydra said. "That's a very valuable trinket, Inara, and definitely not something I would have expected from anyone living further out than Osiris." Her tone clearly asked, 'who would have sent that to you?' with a light underpinning of 'would you consider donating it to the house treasury?'
Inara chose to ignore the older woman's implied questions. "It is beautiful," she agreed, carefully sliding out the letter that came with it. The scent of gun oil, cheap whiskey, and cigar smoke clung to the paper and her curiosity kicked up another notch. She only knew one person who smelled like that. "Jayne?" she whispered, unfolding the papers.
The letter was, indeed, from Serenity's mercenary, and written entirely in Chinese, save for names.
It feels strange, writing this to you when everyone else is just down the corridor from me. They'll know long before you get this letter, interplanetary postal service being what it is, but by the time it reaches you, I'll likely be buried next to my wife and our children.
I can almost see your face at that. Yes, you read that right. I was married a very long time ago. Kaida and I had a little boy named Morley and a baby girl named Adelaide. Morley would have been about the same age as River, and Addie would have been only a few years younger had they lived. They meant everything to me, and though I wish every day I could have had more time with them, I'm just grateful they were in my life at all. You always reminded me of Kaida, particularly when you were bickering with Mal – she had that same stubborn streak, that same inner fire. She needed it, being married to me. If you ever find yourself on Silverhold, you ought to look up my mother, Radiant Cobb. She'd be right tickled that her boy knew a Companion and she'd be happy to tell you more about Kaida. I simply don't have the words for it.
You're probably wondering what I'm going on about. I'm sure there's better ways, more appropriate ones, to say it, but I don't know them, so I'll just say it and be done – I'm dying. Came down with ruby fever. I don't have much time left. I would have liked to see you in person one more time, but I have to go home. I have to tell my mother it's over. You should ask Zoë what I mean, it's not something I can put in a letter.
The comb belonged to Kaida. She wore it in her hair on our wedding day. I want you to have it. I know you'll take care of it and probably get some use of it, too. Kaylee would love it, I know, but it isn't exactly something suitable for working on the engines, now is it? Kaida swore up and down that it was made from jade and came from Earth-that-Was. Now, I admit I'm not the smartest man in the universe, and I sure as hell am not calling my wife a liar, but isn't jade supposed to be green? Even if it is just plastic, I still want you to have it.
I don't have a whole lot left to say, only that if Mal actually listens to me for a change, do yourself a favor and try not to get mad at him when he comes to see you. I shouldn't have to tell you this, since you're supposed to know all about menfolk already, but we tend to be right stupid, particularly to the girls we like. If you find yourself getting mad, you should do what Kaida always did and count to ten. If you're still angry, then do it again in as many languages as you know how. By the time she passed, Kaida knew how to count to ten in sixteen different ways.
Take care of yourself,
Sheydra watched Inara read the letter, her face showing surprise, curiosity, sadness, and faint humor in rapid succession. "That… hundan," Inara muttered, folding the letter and tucking it back into the box with the comb, and though the word was harsh, it was said with honest fondness.
"Pardon?" Sheydra had never heard Inara curse before, let alone in such a puzzling way.
"An old friend," Inara explained, surprising herself at how well the word fit. "Not a client – never a client. He works for Captain Reynolds."
Though Sheydra dearly wanted to know more – Inara hadn't spoken much about the rest of the crew on Reynolds' ship – it wouldn't have been seemly. So, instead of pressing for more information, she simply said, "You should tell me more about him sometime." Sheydra refilled their tea cups. Afterwards, she allowed the requisite amount of time to pass to allow for a complete change of subject. Once her inner clock chimed, she spoke again. "You are not happy here, Inara."
"I enjoy working with the trainees, and it's beautiful here. Comfortable and fulfilling," Inara argued. She wilted a little at the stern gaze from the older woman. "But I suppose you are right. I'm not happy here." Sheydra stayed quiet, letting silence do her work for her. It worked. Inara continued, "But I was miserable there!"
The corners of Sheydra's mouth twitched up. "Who said happiness and misery were mutually exclusive states?" At Inara's confused expression, Sheydra sat her tea cup down. "Xiao meimei, you should always follow where your heart leads."
Sheydra held up a hand. "No buts, dear. I've known this was never going to be a permanent place for you. Of course, you are welcome to stay as long as you like, and will forever be welcome to visit, but I think we both know where you belong." Sheydra paused, letting her words sink in. "Before you start with the inevitable questions, let me see if I can guess what you're already going to ask. 'But what will I do? He doesn't approve of my being a Companion!'" Sheydra mimicked the whiny tones of a petulant teenager, managing a small smile from Inara. "I checked your standing with the Guild. You paid off your training debt six months ago. You owe the Guild nothing."
"You mean retire?"
Sheydra nodded. "Why keep on with it? Most Companions find a personal appointment by the time they're your age, and those that don't are either true-born teachers, taking positions at training houses like ours, or they retire and pursue other interests. You wouldn't be the first, and you won't be the last, to retire because those other interests happen to include a particularly perplexing person."
Inara had to smile at Sheydra's alliteration. "That still doesn't answer what I'd actually do."
"That part is simple – you live. If you're worried about money, you shouldn't. Transition over to the mediator's guild, or take the additional classes to become a psychotherapist, or take up macramé and sell it on those little moons your pirate is always frequenting. There are always ways to earn a living."
"No buts! You know I'm right." Inara did at that. But she didn't know if she was ready to retire, and managed to say as much. Sheydra sighed. "It's something you really should do, Inara. Otherwise, you're going to be asking yourself if you did the right thing for the rest of your life. And that other question I see burning the back of your mind – 'Why do I have to give up my career and he doesn't?' – isn't so much a problem. You know how to manipulate. We taught you how to do it so that the man in question doesn't even realize it. Would it really be that difficult to swing his business ventures around to the legal side of transporting?"
Inara had to admit she had a point. Sheydra stood. "Think on it, Inara. I believe you'll find I'm right."
Inara sat at the table for several long hours after Sheydra left her, caught in the same circular reasoning that had her hiding at the training house to begin with. Eventually, her eyes landed on the package from Jayne. The postmark was over a month old. He died and I wasn't there. He said he would have liked to see me one more time, but… I wasn't there. He and I were never close. How much worse would it be – will it be – if I wind up getting a letter like this, only about Kaylee? Or Mal? Sheydra's right. I don't belong here. Serenity's home. Not just the shuttle, but the people, infuriating though they might be at times. She wondered where they were.
She drifted up to her rooms and looked up lodgings on Persephone.
A/N2: There ya go. All done. And no, I don't believe I'll be writing a sequel. Jayne's my favorite character and I don't think I can do a Firefly story without him.
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