Exaggeration and Blank Verse
Ghosts
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Mal Reynolds doesn't believe in regret.

He tells himself that at least once a day, and it's a lie. He knows it's a lie, but it's the kind of lie that feels good, that eases tension in a man's heart and mind and stomach, the kind of lie that lets him get out of bed every morning and go about the business of living. The kind that keeps him from eating his gun.

He doesn't regret shooting Tracey; no, the kid was stupid and arrogant and careless, and worst of all, he thought that Mal was the same things.

One problem with making stupid assumptions- you don't always get the chance to say you're sorry and correct them. And now Tracey's going all cold and stiff in a jagged hole gouged out of the frozen soil of St. Alban's, and his mama's crying, back at the little house on the edge of the settlement...and half of Mal's crew is back there with them, sitting out the belated wake; Kaylee and Inara because they're kindhearted, Jayne because there's booze and free food. Simon's visiting people in the village who are down with some kind of midwinter fever, and the Shepherd's with him, ministering to the gorram afflicted; River's tucked away in her bunk, and Zoe's off with Wash, taking comfort from someone who loves her.

And Mal's alone at the table, staring at the wall, thinking about ghosts. He refills his glass.

He has no regrets.

He doesn't believe in regret.

It's still a lie.
***
The worst part is remembering Tracey as he was, the smart-mouthed kid who couldn't shoot straight (he never could shoot straight, and who the hell passed him out of basic anyway?), who was always smiling, who took Zoe's condescending nickname of "Little One" with unfailing good grace. Who laughed off his mistakes; which, in retrospect, kept everyone from noticing just how many of those mistakes there really were. Lots. Too many to be out in the field. Tracey was dangerous, a walking time bomb, even back then.

But nobody noticed that, down in the trenches. You noticed that he could crack a joke and get the whole platoon laughing just when they were about to go nuts from the tension and fear and start pulling their guns on each other. You noticed that he could sweet-talk the commissary out of just about anything, and make parties out of nothing. You noticed that he made the mind-numbing tedium and soul-destroying horror of it all just about bearable.

Everybody in the platoon liked the kid, is the point. Every damn body liked him, even Zoe, who hid it better than anybody else. They proved it by saving his life all the rutting time. Tracey'd grin and say thanks, and whoever saved his ass that time would roll their eyes and tell him to be more careful next time, and he'd grin and promise, and nobody would believe it...

But they all got used to it. Saving Tracey became the platoon game.

If just one of those long-ago bullets had gotten through, it would've spared Mal's crew a whole mess of trouble today. But that's not why Tracey's ghost is hanging around right now, grinning that way and watching Mal kill the bottle. Saving a fellow soldier's life isn't what Mal...doesn't...regret.

He liked Tracey. They all liked Tracey. It was gorram near impossible not to like Tracey. So on one of those shocking occasions when the battle actually went their way, when they gave the purplebellies what for and sent 'em running back to their shiny floating fortresses to regroup...when everybody was flying high on adrenaline and exhaustion and the fact that blood was still pumping in their veins...of course he sat up straighter and smiled a little when Tracey came stumbling over to his side of the campfire.

Dead-drunk Tracey, off his ass on good booze charmed off of some poor fool. And the whole platoon was happy and wound-up enough to fuck anything that moved- hell, Mal had been giving serious thought to propositioning Private Terris, who was as bald as an egg and had some kind of weird rash- so it wasn't entirely surprising or unwelcome when Tracey scooted over close to him and squinted sleepily at his face.

"Y'know what you're always tellin' us, Sarge?" he asked, giving Mal a healthy hit of ninety-proof breath. "About how we gotta win the war, 'cause we're just too pretty to die?"

"Yeah, I know, Private."

Tracey sat back a little and took another sip from his bottle. "You really believe that?"

"Wouldn't say it if I didn't." Mal's eyes wandered back to Private Terris, whose rash probably wasn't all that catching anyway...

"Works for you too, Sarge," Tracey said, leaning in close again. "You're awful pretty."

"Thank you, Tracey," Mal grinned, snatching the bottle out of the kid's hand and taking a sip.

Tracey's eyes brightened, like he'd just stumbled upon the best idea in the verse. "Wanna fuck?"

Mal thought about it for a minute, but what was there really to think about? They'd won the battle for once, they were all alive and kicking and in a position to prove it. Tracey was rash-free and awful pretty himself and right gorram there.

"Sure," he said, dumping the last of his drink out and dragging the kid to his feet. "You got a place in mind?"
***
And that's not what's bothering him now either, not really. It's not like a battlefield fuck however many years before meant a damn thing, and nobody was pretending that it did. Tracey sure as hell would've brought it up when he was scrambling to save his life, if he'd thought it was worth anything.

Maybe it's the smile that's haunting him, he thinks, staring down into the dregs at the bottom of his glass. That crooked, confident, I've-got-the-verse-all-figured-out smile that Mal saw across the post-battle campfire, and when they got dressed the next morning, and this very day when Tracey told them his organ-swapping story. That damn smile. Mal thought he was fighting a war to make the verse safe for things like that smile, once upon a time. So maybe that's what he would be regretting right now, if he believed in regret. Snuffing that smile out.

"You waiting up for us, Captain?" he hears, a sweet and sleepy voice, and he looks up to see Kaylee standing in the doorway, her hair damp with melted snow. Inara stands behind her, water drops sparkling on her cloak like diamonds. "That's awful sweet of you."

Jayne pushes past them down the corridor with no more than a casual glance into the dining room; he knows that whatever reasons Mal has for waiting up half the night, it doesn't have a damn thing to do with him. Mal feels a sudden flash of irrationally mixed anger and envy toward the man and the way he doesn't dwell on things. Tracey was alive and a threat, and now he's dead and a nothing, and that's that as far as Jayne is concerned. He doesn't have ghosts hanging on to him and driving him half crazy in the middle of the night. Mal isn't sure if he wants to throw the man off his ship just on general damned principles, or ask him for lessons.

"You see the doc and the preacher?" he asks, pleased at how steady his voice is. Inara can tell- he sees it in the flash of sympathy in her eyes, the way she draws her cloak tighter around her shoulders- but Kaylee doesn't notice, and Inara won't say anything embarrassing in front of Kaylee. "Are they on their way back?"

"They're staying overnight," Inara says. "Simon promised to be back at first light so we can get going."

"Doubt anybody will be moving quite that early," he says, glancing at the empty bottle with a wry smile. She gives him another sympathetic glance, and for a moment he considers asking her if she'd like to stay and talk for a while- just a little bit- it might be nice, to have somebody sitting there and listening, somebody besides Tracey's damned grinning ghost...

But Kaylee stumbles over and plants a solemn, sleepy little kiss on his forehead. "G'night, Captain," she says, and when he can see the door again, Inara's gone. "You should get some sleep."

"You too," he says, looking up at her pretty, smiling face, remembering seeing it pressed up to the barrel of a gun. "Go on now."

She disappears off to her bunk, and he sits for a few more minutes, turning things over in his mind.

"That's enough of you," he says softly, addressing the mocking spirit sitting on the other side of the table. "I'm sorry, but you made me do it. You didn't leave me no room for choices. I ain't worrying about the whole verse anymore, just this little corner of it. Keeping it safe for my ship and my people. That girl's smile, not yours." He closes his eyes for a minute. "I'm right sorry that I'm the one who had to carry your bullet for you. But it's over now. You go on to your grave, or back to your family." He pushes his chair back and leaves the room as fast as he can, with firm strides, not looking back even though he can feel ghostly eyes on his neck. No need to look. He's got no regrets.

He doesn't believe in regret.

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