It was the smell that woke him.
After an instant of disorientation, he sat up, staring into the dimness of his cabin and trying to damp down the shudders. He knew that the odor his dreaming mind conjured up had only a fraction of the intensity of the real thing, but...
It's the associations. With the routine brought by years of repetition, he pushed the memories back down into the depths of his mind. The screams and explosions, the thunder of the big gun beneath his feet and hands--and that persistent link to memory, the stench of death and terror and rage.
He rubbed his face with his hands, smearing away sweat and inhaling the innocent scent of clean skin and warm cloth. His muscles started to unknot as the grip of the dream faded, but he was now thoroughly awake.
Mal sighed and got out of bed. The best way to hope of recapturing sleep tonight was to refrain from chasing it for a while. He pulled on the pants and shirt he'd discarded earlier and stuffed his feet back into grubby socks. The chill of the decks always pulled the warmth right out of his soles, and he couldn't see how River stood it. But who knows what goes on with her? Poor kid.
There was no one about when he emerged from his cabin, which didn't surprise him. His steps were silent as he wandered up toward the cockpit. He knew that too would be empty, but still his mind half-expected to see Wash there, leaning back casually in his seat, confident in his control of Serenity. Mal looked over the boards, automatically noting the calm blink of the lights at station-keeping. He glanced out the window, but suddenly found the cockpit too confining, even with no one else there, and headed back out.
If I have to be awake, I might as well take a look 'round. He paced up stairs and down, looking into the humming engine room, making sure the corridor lights were working, idly rubbing at a bit of grease on one of the airlock doors. He slowed outside the 'lock leading to Inara's shuttle, but didn't stop. And just what would I say? "I can't sleep, so I thought I'd wake you too?" He snorted softly at himself.
A faint cry reached his ears as he neared the quarters assigned to River and Simon, and he flinched inwardly in sympathy. He wasn't the only one afflicted with nightmares tonight, it seemed. Then Simon's deeper voice said something Mal couldn't catch, and the cry faded under his soothing tones, and Mal passed on.
He ended up in the common area. Shepherd had forgotten his book; Mal flipped it closed and left it on the table without glancing at the contents. He briefly considered making himself a cup of something, and discarded the idea. He wasn't in the mood for a soothing drink.
The blackness outside the window caught his eye, and he leaned up to look out, ignoring the faint chill that hovered around the window. The stars looked back, remote and splendid, an impossibility of glory that was still all but overwhelmed by the darkness. Emptiness and a spattering of light.
Mal traced a random pattern on the window with one finger. He felt as empty inside as the darkness outside, lit within himself with only a few sparks of loyalty and anger. His ship was hollow too, but at least it held life. Serenity.
He smiled a little at his faint reflection in the window. He'd gone from noncom to officer, sergeant to captain, with the purchase of a ship and the hiring of a crew to run it. He'd gotten used to the rank eventually, but for a long time it had felt odd. At least Zoe never had a problem with it. She still called him "sir," even when the rest of the crew had no such niceties. In the end, Mal thought, he preferred the casual camaraderie that his crew shared. If they didn't like what he ordered, they said so...and then did it anyway if he insisted. Better than blind obedience, by far.
Mal blinked and muffled a yawn. Sleep was beginning to stalk him. He retreated to his quarters, where the nightmares seemed to have abandoned the shadows, at least for the moment. His bed looked quite inviting, and ship's morning would come soon enough.
He stripped off his clothes, laid down, and dragged the blankets up. Sleep, and Serenity, wrapped around him.