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Curtain's Fall: Opening Night

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As Giles slipped between the cool sheets of their bed, he found himself doubting that sleep would be possible tonight with all that awaited them in the morning. Ethan was clearly thinking along similar lines; he rolled over and played a hand over Giles' chest, saying, "I feel like we should have taken a stack of worthy periodicals and snack food into bed with us."

Giles smiled faintly, covering Ethan's hand with his own. "I think, if it comes to that, we can find some way of distracting ourselves."

Ethan was quiet a few moments, staring at their hands, and then asked, "Do you think she'll change her mind in the morning? If I were her, I'd be three counties away by now."

"She won't run," Giles said quietly. He had seen the fear in Dawn's eyes, but he'd also seen the determination there as well.

More silence, then, "I can't really grasp it, you know."

"Knowing you have to sacrifice yourself to save the world and willingly going forward regardless? I can." Giles remembered Buffy's face back when he'd told her about the prophecy of the Master killing the Slayer, and he remembered her face when she had determined to go through with it. He remembered the expression she'd worn when he'd found her broken and dead at the bottom of Glory's tower. And he remembered what he'd felt when he'd teleported himself to Sunnydale to face Willow, knowing their only chance was to let her drain his magic and life force.

"I've been there," he finished quietly.

"Yes, well," Ethan replied with a wry laugh. "You're all cut from the same Homeric cloth. Me? I'm more like organza or a flimsy gauze." He laughed again.

"You're not as different as you would like to believe," Giles told him, tracing Ethan's features lazily with a finger. "You just never had to face that kind of horrible choice. I pray you never will."

"For the world's sake, I hope you're right. Do you want me to make sure she sleeps? Tonight, I mean. I could reach out, twist a few things..."

"No," Giles said quickly. "We can't steal this time from her. Let her spend it how she wants."

Ethan nodded, clearly agreeing. "You should let me twist us, however. If we're truly going straight from the ritual to a confrontation in London tomorrow, then we'll need all our energy."

There was logic in that, but... "I'd only dream," Giles said, feeling the certainty of that. He smiled mirthlessly. "Which would be less restful than just not sleeping."

Ethan frowned. "Will you at least let me reduce stress chemicals in you for the night? So you can meditate." Giles nodded his agreement; letting Ethan twist his pattern would help Ethan as much as himself, and not just because of their bond. "Thank you," Ethan murmured, kissing Giles' shoulder.

Giles felt Ethan's magic trickling through him for a few minutes, but he didn't feel all that different as a result of it. It was a subtle tweaking, obviously. "You've always had such a deft touch with your magic," he murmured, picking up Ethan's hand and entwining their fingers.

Ethan smiled at the praise. "I was very good too," he said, clearly wanting more of it. "I could have twisted other things."

Giles chuckled, bringing Ethan's hand to his mouth to drop a kiss on it. "Very good indeed," he agreed.

"How did your meeting go? Everybody up for a big fight? Well, a potential one anyway."

"Yes. I think everyone is relieved to actually be doing something, even if the first step means..." He trailed off, not wanting to speak of Dawn's fate any more that night. "They'll be ready to go tomorrow when we are." Ethan shifted uneasily, quietly huffing. "What is it?" Giles asked gently, even though he had a pretty good idea.

Ethan kept his gaze dropped and shifted against Giles. "Do they... Am I persona non grata now? With the girls?"

"Of course not." Giles pulled Ethan tighter against him.

"How can you know? How will they–?"

Giles silenced Ethan with a gentle kiss. "They understand that sometimes we have no choice. They're Slayers; how can they not?" Ethan mumbled something against Giles' lips. He thought he caught the word 'Buffy'. Closing his eyes, Giles sighed and pulled back. "If Buffy is going to hate anyone over this, it's going to be me."

He felt Ethan staring at him, felt his concern like something thick and sticky, coating him. "She won't," Ethan said eventually. "I promised, didn't I?"

Ethan had promised, and that helped Giles hang onto stubborn hope. They would find a way of bringing Dawn back to her human form, but still, Giles knew that Dawn was Buffy's one blind spot, much as Buffy had become the same for Giles. Much the same as Ethan was for him now. They were one thing that could not be sacrificed, no matter the situation, but he couldn't say that so he just kissed Ethan some more.

He felt Ethan's magic tingle inside him again, and this time he was more aware of his body relaxing as if from a shot of whisky. "Ian and I are as ready as we can be," Ethan said, apparently unable to leave the subject alone. "It will be quick."

"I know," Giles acknowledged. He ran his hands lightly over Ethan's skin. "I'm sorry you have to do this."

"Rather me than you." Ethan snorted quietly. "At least we know what we're doing with that part of tomorrow. The rest is anyone's guess."

"We'll manage somehow." It was Giles' turn to snort softly. "After all, that's what we're destined to do."

***

Well, it was morning. Barely light in fact, and once all this was over, Ethan intended a week or two in which he never got up before midday.

He stood in the room he and Ian had chosen for playing Judas within and looked at their scanty preparations. He looked at the Bachian crystal in its glass frame on the table at the side, and at their wide circle, drawn on the floorboards in a powder hand-ground from nacre, peppercorns, rock salt and moth-wings. He looked at the robe of unbleached silk they had found for Dawn, to preserve her modesty without interfering in the complex process. Ethan looked at all these things and felt, finally, like an evil man.

He never had before.

"Sometimes the fates are cruel," Ian said, from where he stood across the circle.

"Sometimes?" Ethan lifted an eyebrow. "The fates are psychotic sadists, dear crow."

"Not all the time." Ian gave him an odd smile. "The fates brought Derek to me, and they brought you and Rupert together. They made it so our patterns touched, however briefly in the overall scheme of things."

"Yes," Ethan said, looking down. "They gave you Derek just long enough for you to know what you'd lost when he'd gone." He winced. "Sorry. Ah... sorry."

But Ian just continued to smile that odd little smile at him as he walked around the outside of the circle to stand beside Ethan. "So... if you knew you'd lose Rupert tomorrow, and you had the chance of going back in time and never meeting him in the first place, are you telling me you'd take it?"

Ethan smiled, albeit crookedly. "Of course not. I've always taken whatever scrapings of Rupert I could get."

"So you will understand when I say that even if I'd only had Derek for a day, I wouldn't change a thing. I wish we'd had more time, of course, but what we did have was more than most people ever know, and I've never let myself forget that."

"Point taken." Ethan patted Ian on the back gently before changing the subject. "I know we don't really need them, but I brought some standard ritual items. I'm not far enough away from my old style of magic yet not to crave them when things are this serious. Care to help me light candles?"

"There's nothing wrong with a bit of ritual," Ian said, clapping a hand to Ethan's shoulder. "Sets the stage and can help elicit the proper atmosphere."

Trust Ian to understand. Ethan smiled at him and tried very hard to stop himself thinking about all the infamous human sacrifice stories he could remember, from the biblical to the demonic. Or rather, about those doing the sacrificing as he was about to join that elite little club of butchers. Sometimes he felt he was rather too well read.

Moving over to where he'd put the box, he handed a pair of fat beeswax candles to Ian. "I haven't used this stuff since my very last Chaos ritual, just before I came to Devon. Rupert's cleansed them though, so don't worry." He looked down into his box and couldn't help a cynical smirk. "That was the first time I took Rupert."

Ian raised an eyebrow. "Just what kind of ritual were you doing?"

"Just the Ritual of Abreaction," Ethan said, pulling out his old Tibetan censer from the box. "But things got a little... carried away. Well, I say 'things', but I mean..."

"Things," Ian said, nodding knowingly while crouching by the wall to light one of the candles. "And this was back before Rupert got his magic under his control, wasn't it?"

Ethan nodded, smiling sheepishly down at his mentor. "Control was the thing in short supply that night. I woke up the next morning somewhat certain I was a rapist. Rupert thought otherwise." His smile dropped. "But I'm still not that sure." Once it would have been impossible to discuss that night so easily, even with Ian, but with what lay before them it felt almost like happy avoidance to do so now.

"I think," Ian said slowly, "that in that sort of situation, the final definition of what it was is left up to the person who's being taken." Both candles lit, he returned to Ethan's side.

"My wise mentor," Ethan teased gently.

Ian chuckled, throwing an arm around Ethan's shoulders. "I only tell you things you know yourself deep down. It's just easier sometimes to hear them when they're in someone else's voice."

Ian seemed to be feeling effusive today. It was probably, Ethan thought, a reaction to the strain of what they were doing. Still, better up here in the quiet than sitting in the drawing room with the telly, watching the 24-hour news, which was how the others seemed determined to punish themselves. "Get any sleep last night?" he asked Ian, unwilling somehow to breakaway from the loose embrace to set up the censer.

"Some," Ian replied, and there was that small smile again. "You?"

"Yes, self-twisting has some advantages. I'm not sure I got any actual rest, but I did manage some unconsciousness. Rupert didn't, of course."

"He takes things so much to heart. That's a good thing usually, except in these kinds of situations."

"Not a helpful character trait for a Watcher really; at least, I'm sure that's what the Travers of this world think." Ethan moved reluctantly out from Ian's arm and set the censor down in one corner. He knelt and began the business of lighting the charcoal.

"And we all, of course, put much stock in what the Travers of this world think," Ian said, deadpan.

"I wonder what she's up to." Ethan opened the paper sachet of his favourite incense; this was purely to help him relax, get in the mood for ritual, but hopefully Ian would like it too. "Do you think we'll find her through this door we're heading to?"

Ian's gaze became a little distant, and Ethan realised he was trying to read the patterns for an answer. "It's possible, but... I don't think you'll find the same Francesca Travers you remember."

"Been taking lessons from Keri, have we?" Ethan looked up at Ian appraisingly. "Perhaps you'll be more obliging than her about telling me who'll win the Grand National this year."

"I'm afraid that's far out of my range, m'boy," Ian replied, smiling again, although there seemed to be a hint of sadness to the expression.

Ethan recognised that sadness and thought he knew what it meant, but he refused to think about Ian dying. Not just now. He looked back at his incense and didn't answer directly, saying only, "Tell me what you think of this?" as the smoke began to rise.

"Very appropriate," Ian said after taking a deep breath. "Smells like an ocean storm."

Ethan stayed crouching there for a while, breathing in the soothing smoke, his eyes closed. Dawn would be here soon. Not that he'd seen her yet today, but he'd told Rupert a time to send her up. God, he was glad Ian was here, glad he didn't have to do this alone.

Ian's hand came down on Ethan's shoulder. He didn't say anything, but Ethan could feel his support.

"You've seemed close to Dawn since rescuing her," Ethan said softly. "This can't be easy for you either."

"Truthfully? Not much of this has been."

Ethan moved his hand to rest on top of Ian's. "You don't complain much, but then, I've always been able to imagine at least some of what this must be like for you."

"For the record?" Ian said, and Ethan could hear the smile in his voice. "You're not included among the things that haven't been easy."

"I'm glad." Ethan stood, taking hold of Ian's hand as it fell from his shoulder and looking him in the eye. "You have, quite literally, changed my life, dear crow."

Ian shook his head, the smile remaining on his face. "You changed it yourself. I just helped you find your way to the path."

"I'm not saying you did the work for me, just that without you showing me, I couldn't have done it." Ethan thought back to Devon. "Do you remember stalking me through the village?"

Ian chuckled. "You walking along in a sulk with your face like a thundercloud, all but muttering under your breath about the unfairness of life."

"You doing your old man of the sea bit, trying to impress me by appearing from nowhere." Ethan laughed.

"It worked, didn't it?"

"Maybe," Ethan acknowledged with a smile. He was still holding Ian's hand, and they were standing quite close; it felt very comfortable. "I was more impressed by my first taste of your power, however."

"Of course you were," Ian said with airy confidence. "You recognised a match for the potential you had within yourself."

"Did you ever allow yourself doubts about me? After waiting all that time for me to come to you..."

Ian shook his head, suddenly serious. "Never. I've never doubted you, my dear boy, and you've never let me down. You didn't just meet my expectations, you surpassed them."

The praise burned inside him, feeling wonderful, but a little terrifying also. He grinned weakly at Ian, but then looked down. "We need to talk before Dawn gets here. I'm going to... try something." He had little choice about telling Ian as he would be able to sense what Ethan was doing.

Ian looked at him closely, intensely. "Tell me."

Ethan let Ian's hand go and rubbed his face. "I'm going to play host, preserve her pattern inside me."

For a long moment, Ian didn't react, just continued to look at Ethan in that intense, probing way as if looking for some kind of mental defect. "I don't need to tell you how dangerous that is."

Ethan felt himself wince. "It won't be for long. At least, I hope it won't. I think I can create a kind of pouch with a selective membrane, keeping the stuff of her safe from my own body's defences. I've been practicing after seeing what was possible with the ants' nest. I think I can rewrite my own DNA within the pouch to store the pattern of her mind."

Ian's eyes narrowed. "You mean to try to bring her back."

This time the wince was more of a grimace. "I promised Rupert."

He could almost see Ian's mind racing as he considered the plan. "It could work," he finally allowed. "But the complexity and sheer amount of pattern weaving involved, it's going to need an extraordinary amount of power."

"I'll find it," Ethan insisted, not letting himself doubt. "I don't have a choice here, Ian. It wasn't just a casual promise; it was a One of Three." And anyway, he quite simply didn't want to spend the rest of his life as Dawn's murderer.

Ian let out his breath. "It could kill you," he said bluntly.

"I won't let it." Ethan folded his arms and glared at Ian. "Survival is what I do best."

Ian stared at him for another long moment; then he chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, my young fox, you really are one of a kind. There's a reason why it's you and Rupert who are the ones to have made it this far."

To his surprise, Ethan rather wished Ian had kept on feeling doubtful. It was easier somehow to believe in himself when facing opposition. There was nothing quite like someone having faith in him to make his insecurity start screaming. "There are three of us in this, Ian. We want the enemy to underestimate what you offer to the cause, but don't underestimate it yourself."

Ian shook his head, wearing a sad smile. "I'm merely support. My part is to get you ready and in place. But seeing you, knowing you –and knowing Rupert– I know now why Derek and I weren't able to fulfil the prophecy. We didn't have your... strength. Your conviction."

Ethan gave his mentor an exasperated frown, "That, my dear Ian, is a load of old bollocks."

"No, it's not." There was an air of affectionate amusement now about Ian. "You don't see it, but everyone around you can, or if they can't now, they will. There's a core of strength to you, Ethan, that you're only beginning to discover, but it's always been there really. That's how you've survived this long, through all that you've experienced."

Ethan really had no idea what to make of this praise; it was going further than even he wanted at his most needy. "You're still alive too, Ian," he pointed out, and immediately regretted it. He added quickly, "And you've lived longer and been through more."

Ian reached out and squeezed Ethan's arm affectionately. "One day you'll stop brushing off compliments and believe what I've told you."

"I appreciate the pep talk. Truly. I'm fine though. I don't need you to be my mentor today." Ethan reached out and touched Ian's face lightly. "I like you best as my friend."

Ian echoed the gesture. "As your friend, I think you're an extraordinary person as well."

All right, something was wrong. Something was definitely wrong. It wasn't that Ethan thought Ian was lying, just that he'd never known the older man to speak with such open admiration before. The amount of easy affection was unlike Ian too; Ethan normally had to cajole such touches out of him. "What's going on, my black-feathered friend?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're being... odd."

"I'm frequently described as odd," Ian replied evasively.

Ethan pursed his lips. "Do I have to tickle it out of you?" And then suddenly, he knew. He felt the warmth drain from his body. "Oh. Oh Christ." Turning away in a hurry, Ethan stared blankly at the wall.

Ian touched his shoulder gently. "Every path has an ending, my boy."

"Not now though. Not now." It was too soon. Far too soon. It would always be too bloody soon.

"Not this minute, no, but very soon now." He could hear the smile in Ian's voice. "Derek's waiting."

"Today?"

Ian didn't answer, just squeezed his shoulder.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. "I've always been a selfish bugger," he told Ian with a little, desperate laugh. "Hard to let go even when I know that... that you'll be better off." Suddenly, Ethan turned around and took Ian by the shoulders. "When you see him, will you tell Derek something from me?"

"What do you want me to tell him?"

"This." Ethan pulled Ian forward and kissed him with all the strength and passion of the friendship between them.

Ian seemed a little surprised for the first second, but then recovered enough to kiss him back with the same enthusiasm. When they finally parted, he gave Ethan a lopsided smile. "I believe I can pass that message on for you, yes."

There was so much Ethan wanted to say, to beg, but none of it would be fair, and little of it would be possible to verbalise without an embarrassing scene anyway. Ethan ran his fingers unhappily over Ian's weathered face and finally managed, "I'm not ready for the training wheels to be taken off."

"You don't need them," Ian told him, once again mirroring Ethan's gesture, his fingers warm on Ethan's face. "You haven't for quite a while." Ian smiled as he switched metaphors. "Do I need to shove you out of the nest to prove to you that you can fly?"

"I know I can fly." Ethan smiled softly. "But I want to flock."

Ian chuckled. "Take a look around you, young fox. You've gathered quite a flock for yourself without me. Or should I say, a 'skulk'?"

Ethan opened his mouth to complain further, but there was a knock at the door. The reason they were here in this room shot back into place like a deadbolt in his mind. Bugger. He pulled away from Ian and stood staring out of the window, tweaking his own patterns indiscriminately to get his emotions in check.

Ian clasped his shoulder briefly before moving away. Ethan heard his footsteps cross the room and the door open.

***

Giles looked up as the door opened, and he exchanged a grave nod with Ian. Then he turned to Dawn at his side and gave her a reassuring smile, or as reassuring as any smile could be in these circumstances. Dawn managed a weak one in return.

"Ethan said you'd be ready for us by half past," Giles said, glancing around and spotting Ethan across the room, a lonely figure at the window.

"Everything's been prepared," Ian confirmed. "We've just been discussing some things while we waited."

Giles wondered what those things had been, but it certainly wasn't the time or place to pursue it. He nodded then excused himself and crossed over to Ethan, initiating contact by sliding an arm around his waist.

Ethan seemed to lean on Giles briefly, but kept his hands to himself as he turned around. Dawn was still standing near the doorway, looking small and scared. "Hello, hero," Ethan said to her in as gentle a voice as Giles had ever heard him use.

Her wide-eyed gaze flickered to Ethan, frowning slightly as if she thought he was mocking her, but whatever she saw in Ethan's face made her smile. Well, the corners of her mouth made an attempt anyway, before her lips settled back into a hard line strongly reminiscent of her sister's grimmer expressions. "Giles says it will be quick."

"As quick as we can make it." Ethan's voice was level and calm. "I'll put you to sleep and make sure you feel nothing. Bad enough you have to do this; no need to make it torture too, eh?"

"Everything's ready," Ian said, his voice also kind and gentle. "We'll start when you are." And wasn't that a horrible thing to ask the child? – are you ready to sacrifice yourself? The only thing worse would be not to give that final control to Dawn at all. Giles hated this all fiercely.

"There's a robe." Ethan gestured towards the table. "It's not essential, but may make things easier for us. If you hate the idea, we don't–"

"Glory made me wear something special as well," Dawn said, her voice oddly distant.

"Right." Ethan took an obvious breath. "No robe then. That's fine."

"Are you going to cut me? She did that too. Well, Doc did."

Giles, his hand still on Ethan's back, felt Ethan tense and straighten with the reaction to that, but his voice somehow remained soft. "When you're asleep, not before. We just need a little blood, you see."

It was difficult, how this seemed to be echoing that horrible time three years before. "Some things, unfortunately, are basic for these kind of rituals," Giles said gently, trying to dispel that spectre as best he could.

Dawn looked at the circle on the floor. "Do I stand in that?"

"The circle is where the ritual will be carried out," Ian replied, "but it's up to you whether you want to step into it yourself, or if you would rather we put you to sleep first."

Dawn shrugged and stepped over the line, standing in the very centre where she folded her arms, rubbing her hands up and down her upper arms as if cold. "I wrote some letters," she said to no one in particular. "Xander's got them. He sat with me last night."

Of course. Giles spared a brief grateful thought for Xander's presence, with his quiet competence and compassion. He took a step towards the circle, wanting to add his own comfort to whatever Xander had provided the night before, but he only got as far as, "Dawn, I..." before words fled him, and he trailed off helplessly.

Dawn gave him a little smile. "It's okay, Giles."

Ethan entered the circle, standing beside Dawn. "Whenever you're ready," he said in a low voice. "As soon as you say, we can make you sleep, but not until you give the word."

"Remember what I told you," Ian said to Dawn, stepping up to take his spot at the circle. "There's all sorts of life and all sorts of ways of remembering and experiencing."

"Hey. Three and a half years is better than one, at least." She poked Ian in the ribs in a way that would have been playful normally. "Bet you didn't think when you rescued me from Doc in Cambridge that you'd only have to... have to–"

Ethan interrupted. "Would you like me to reduce the... stress you're experiencing, Dawn? I won't do it without permission, but I'd advise you say yes. I'd say yes, anyway, if it were me." He made a grimace that Giles recognised as an attempt at Ethan's usual jaunty grin. "Never have understood these types who think it's somehow admirable to have a tooth extracted without anaesthetic."

"I... I don't know." She looked uncertainly between Giles and Ian. "Should I?

"It's up to you," Giles replied, feeling it wasn't his place to tell her one way or the other. "Ethan's very good at doing what he's offering though."

Dawn looked back at Ethan. "Just do it? The sleep thing, I mean. I'm ready. I'm not going to get more ready."

Almost as if he couldn't help it, Ethan immediately looked at Giles, his expression, just for a fraction of a moment, terrified. Giles instinctively took a step towards him before he stopped himself, instead doing his best to send wordless reassurance over their bond. It had to be wordless; Giles didn't have any words just then.

Ethan closed his eyes briefly, perhaps reacting to Giles' silent touch, and then turned back to Dawn. He moved around close behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Lean back on me, sweet thing," he instructed. When she did so rather awkwardly, he looped one arm around her waist and held her tight; the other hand he moved to her forehead. "Never forget," he murmured in her ear, barely loud enough for Giles to hear. "You're a hero, just like your sister. You are saving the world here. We won't let anyone forget what you've done. Promise."

With that, he moved his hand over Dawn's wide eyes, and she slumped in his arms. With Ian's help, he lowered her to the floor in the circle.

Giles closed his eyes briefly, but opened them again almost immediately. No matter how uncomfortable this was to watch, he needed to do so, to respect Dawn's sacrifice, to respect the difficult task that Ethan was being forced to perform.

Ian and Ethan laid Dawn out carefully on the floor, her head on a small pillow. Ethan took some time just kneeling at her side with a look of concentration. He was perhaps making sure she was very deeply asleep. "I need to bleed her now," he said eventually, but made no move to actually do it.

Silently, Ian picked up the small knife and container that had been set inside the circle and knelt opposite Ethan on the other side of Dawn's form. He handed the container to Ethan, but kept the knife for himself.

Ethan looked at Ian sharply. "You don't have to–"

"You've got enough to handle, especially with this part," Ian replied, giving Ethan a strangely intent look. "Let me help where I can."

The pair exchanged a glance so intense that, were Giles not so certain of Ethan's devotion, it would have worried him. Then Ethan capitulated. "All right. Just a few small drops, remember."

Ian picked up Dawn's hand and pressed the edge of the blade against her palm. He then moved to hold it over the small container, a glass vial really, that Ethan was holding.

A few dark red drops dripped into the glass, staining the sides. "That's enough," Ethan said tightly, standing. "I'll deal with this; you prepare her." He stepped out of the circle and walked to the table against the opposite wall where he began to do something. Giles couldn't see what as Ethan's back was to him, but he could feel Ethan's magic almost crackling in the room.

A glance back at Ian showed that he was bandaging Dawn's hand, but Giles felt more drawn to what Ethan was doing. He still couldn't see it, but it felt... important. The frizzle of magic in the air stopped, and Ethan seemed to lurch forward, sagging against the table.

"Ethan?" Giles asked, involuntarily taking a step towards him before he stopped himself once again. Ian also, he noted, had turned to help Ethan.

"I'm fine." Ethan straightened, but kept his back to them all. "Just preparing the Matrix for the Key."

That didn't stop Ian from going over and laying a hand against Ethan's back, speaking to him in tones too low for Giles to make out. Giles knew he was not involved in this ritual, that he was a bit of a fifth wheel here, but it felt odd to watch someone not him supporting Ethan.

The pair came back to the circle from the side-table, Ethan carrying the glass case with the small crystal key inside it. They knelt beside Dawn. "We're going to do it now, Rupert," Ethan said, not turning to look at him. "Is there anything you want to do first?"

Was there? Giles looked at Dawn's sleeping form, searching for anything that he should have said or done, but he couldn't think of anything he'd forgotten. So he just stared at Dawn, memorising every detail of her appearance, remembering with as much detail as he could every moment he'd known her. Then he tore his eyes away to look at Ethan instead. "Do it," he said, the words coming out harsher than he'd meant them.

There followed a long period of silence. Giles could feel the magic use; it was huge. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck stood up in response to the sheer power of it, but all he could see with his eyes were two older men kneeling to either side of a sleeping girl.

Eventually, Ethan whispered, "We've made the link, now we're going to... unravel her."

Giles watched as Ian took hold of Ethan's hands over the top of Dawn, and suddenly, it was if someone had turned the heat right up on the fire. Giles staggered under the weight of the energy the pattern mages were calling into the room, feeling alien within it and desperately craving his own orderly power.

Ian and Ethan tensed and shook as a hurricane of power built within the room. Muscles and tendons stood out on their faces and necks; their hands were white-knuckled, their lips peeling back to reveal their teeth. Then as quickly as the charge had built, it was released, with an almost audible sucking noise.

Dawn's body jolted once and then... unravelled. Just as Ethan had said. Like knitting pulled back into a single thread, which flowed rapidly through the glass of the case and into the crystal. It glowed a vivid green. Her empty clothes dropped to the floor.

"It's done," Ian said, voice thick with weariness.

Giles took that as permission to step forward and reach out a hand to Ethan, knowing he would probably need the contact as much as Giles himself did.

When Ethan looked up, Giles was shocked by how drained and old he appeared. Not since the Chaos-withdrawal in Devon had Ethan looked so ill. "Rupert, I..." he croaked, then winced. "Could do with a touch of your magic."

Giles closed the remaining scant distance between them and knelt, wrapping his arms around Ethan and pouring as much of his magic into him as he could.

He quickly found himself holding Ethan up, at least to start with, although as he fed Ethan magic, the weight in his arms became less. Ethan eventually pulled away and slumped down beside Giles, smiling wanly but looking far less ragged. "If you have any left, I'm sure Ian..."

"I'm fine," Ian broke in, and he did sound stronger than he had earlier. "You know you took more of a burden with this than I," he said to Ethan.

Ethan didn't deny it. "I know we still have a lot to do today, but I could do with a small drink."

"So could I," Giles said, finally turning his attention from Ethan to the glass case where what was Dawn now floated, glowing softly.