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The night before Inara receives her Guild certification from House Madrassa, she visits Nandi in her quarters in the Training Hall.

"Are you really leaving?" Inara asks. Nandi's quarters are nearly empty, most of her belongings packed neatly into storage boxes stacked along the wall of the corridor. The question is ridiculous, childish, and at this point in Inara's training, beneath her. Nandi is leaving. The entire House knows this and has known for weeks. And yet standing here in Nandi's bare room, Inara feels like she's walking up the House Steps for the very first time again, voicing every inane and obvious thought that crosses her mind. Inara takes a deep breath and asks the question she truly wants answered. "Why?"

Nandi sighs. "Because I'm tired, Inara. I know you don't understand that now, but you might in ten years."

Inara doesn't understand. Tomorrow she will walk down the massive staircase of the Great Ballroom in the most delicate golden slippers. Her hair will fall in soft waves down her back and over the rich brocade of her gown. She will write her name on House Madrassa's member scrolls with the same brush her teachers used to write their names, and their teachers and the teachers before them. Her retinal scan, thumbprint, and DNA will be entered in the Alliance's registry of legal Companions, and when Inara leaves that ballroom, she will have finally become the person she imagined all those long years ago when her training began.

"Tell me anyway," Inara says. She doesn't think that the best teacher in the House and one of the most sought after Companions on all Sihnon would forsake her calling lightly. Nandi must have a good reason for leaving, and Inara needs to know why before Nandi abandons them all.

But Nandi just smiles. "Come here, mei mei," she says, and Inara tucks into her side, rests her head on Nandi's shoulder. "I'm not abandoning you."

Inara blushes and wishes that she had not; she ought to be able to control her physical responses to a greater degree, but Nandi's uncanny ability to pluck a person's thoughts from the ether unnerves Inara just as much today as it did on the day Nandi chose to mentor her.

"I will wave you so often, you'll tire of hearing from me in no time," Nandi says and kisses the top of Inara's head. "Tomorrow will be a whirlwind, and you will have no time to spare for anything beyond the Certification Ceremony. I would say goodbye to you now, properly, with hands and lips and body instead of mere words in your receiving line said for all to hear."

Inara tilts her head up into Nandi's kiss and tries not to believe that it will be their last. Inara takes control of the kiss, and Nandi lets her, relinquishing her authority as teacher in a way she never has before. Inara cannot help but feel this moment is more significant than the life changing vows she will make in the morning.

Nandi's skin smells like a freshly broken stalk of lemongrass when Inara runs her tongue down the graceful line of Nandi's throat, when she sinks her teeth delicately into the lobe of Nandi's ear. Nandi's breasts are heavy in Inara's hands, her nipples hard points in Inara's palms. She makes a ragged sound low in her throat when Inara pushes the drape of her gown aside to take one in her mouth.

When they are both naked on Nandi's bed, Inara settles between Nandi's legs and spreads them wide. She licks up one trembling thigh and then another and then between them, flicking her tongue across Nandi's clit until Nandi is writhing in pleasure. Inara makes Nandi come quickly--once, twice, three times--and then she gentles her mouth until it is barely moving, warm and wet and slippery, the drag of her bottom lip across Nandi's clit almost imperceptible. Inara can maintain this pace for hours, heightening pleasure until the slightest pressure of her tongue causes orgasm.

But Nandi is impatient. She takes her pleasure a fourth time, and then she pulls Inara up beside her. Her fingers slip inside Inara, her thumb stroking Inara's clit. "I won't forget you," Nandi says when Inara comes. "I won't forget you," she whispers into Inara's sweat-damp skin.

The next day, after the ceremony is over, after Inara has accepted the congratulations of every dignitary on Sihnon, after she has danced and eaten and drunk her fill of wine, after she has touched palms with her new sisters, Inara watches Nandi walk down the Steps of House Madrassa for what she knows will be the last time. Nandi walks lightly as she leaves, and she does not look behind her, not even once.