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Kindred Spirits

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It's getting to the point where Dawn feels just as sick of Starbucks as the library. Same people frequent both places, doing the same thing in both places, except they won't let you have powerful espresso drinks in the library. And there's music here, but she only likes it about half the time.

She's been here all morning, waiting for a seating upgrade. It's the overstuffed chair near the fireplace she's after. Dawn's lost count of the number of times she's been faked out by the girl sitting in one of the chairs. She grabs her book bag, Dawn starts gathering her own things, ready to pounce. But each time she's merely pulled out another book and continued studying.

The man in the other fireplace chair has noticed the last couple of fakeouts. He gives off an air of amusement, but he's not obnoxious about it. After her third disappointment, he checks his watch, then closes the book he's been reading and crooks a finger toward Dawn.

She pulls her books together (she's gotten good at this; the chair upgrade goes only to the swift and prepared) and gives him an inquisitive glance. He nods, smiling, and she crosses the room with her things.

The man rises and folds his trench coat over his arm. "I have an appointment, so I'll bequeath you my chair."

"Oh, thanks. I don't think I've retained anything of the last five pages I read."

He smiles, and there's a blend of sympathy and mischief that she warms to. "Don't get too comfortable, now."

Dawn thanks him again, and finds herself watching as he steps out and stands in the sheltered doorway, adjusting the collar of his raincoat before dashing out into the rain. He's way older than her, but there's something kinda sexy about the grace of his hands, the knowing smile that lets you in on some secret, but you're not quite sure what it is. She thinks about him from a purely academic standpoint, an illustration in real life to supplement Faith's lecture on Why Cary Grant Was Hella Hot.

The next couple of times she studies in Starbucks, Dawn finds herself looking for him and feeling a pang of disappointment when he's not there. Totally silly, but the guys her age who are eye candy get boring after a while.

It's another rainy day when she sees him again. She's managed to score one of the fireplace chairs, where she sits with her sock feet tucked beneath her, struggling with a Sumerian translation. A gust of cold, damp air makes her look toward the door and she spots him, rain glittering in his hair like diamonds.

He places his order and walks over to warm himself at the gas fireplace for a moment while the barista works through a backlog of triple shot nonfat half-caf lattes. Smiling at her, he murmurs, "Filthy weather," then leaves her to her studies.

She wishes he'd say more. Maybe she imprinted on the British accent with Giles, because everything sounds so much more interesting, even a remark about the weather. Filthy. Nobody around here would ever say that in their boring Midwestern accents.

He moves off to pick up his drink, then heads back out into the gusty rain.

It's a week before she sees him again. Yeah, she's been keeping count. It's actually a good thing to crush on someone so wildly inappropriate, not to mention wildly never-around. If she got interested in someone more suitable for her, and he got interested back, things would happen and then there'd be this ginormous distraction from her course work. This year is key if she's going to transfer to the Watcher's Academy. Dawn's completely aware how desperate she is for a ginormous distraction, too. At least this one's a mini-distraction, and safe.

This time the rain is mixed with spitting snow. As it gets sloppier and sloppier, people have started clearing out of the coffee bar, trying to get home before it's too nasty. Dawn's planted herself in one of the fireplace chairs, and the other one is vacant. It would be the perfect time for her friend to show up. It takes her a half hour to settle in to studying and stop looking up whenever the door opens, but once she does, she's totally engrossed

When she finally looks up to rub at her stiff neck, he's there in the opposite chair, involved in his own book.

"Oh. Hi," she blurts.

"Hello." He bends down, picks some pages off the floor. "I believe these are yours." They're covered with her densely written notes.

"Talk about filthy," she says. "The weather, I mean."

He merely smiles, and again there's that air of shared confidences and mischief.

She decides, she's not sure why, to share a small one with him. "My name's Dawn."

"Delighted to meet you, Dawn." He extends a manicured hand. "Ethan."

***

In no time at all he has her babbling about her studies.

"I thought most students these days thought Latin was pointless and hopelessly dull, much less the more obscure of the ancient languages."

Dawn shrugs. "I grew up around the kind of people who loved that stuff. I guess it rubbed off."

Turns out Ethan is a professor, which she'd suspected. Which makes him even safer as a crush, really. The university has such a tough policy forbidding student-teacher affairs that no one would be crazy enough to defy it.

"What department?"

"Oh, not here. I teach at Oxford. I'm spending some of my sabbatical here to conduct some research. Your library is brilliant, and I've found some scholars and dealers who aren't affiliated with the university but have the specific focus I need."

He's a visitor, not subject to the normal rules. Why is Dawn's stomach suddenly fluttering? "What's your field?"

"Ancient civilizations. Particularly their belief systems and mythologies."

Wow. Just ... wow. The last guy she'd dated was getting a master's in watching television.

Not that she's having a date here. Or ever will. Just indulging in a little fantasario, as her friend Valryn would say.

Prompted to say more about his research, Ethan does, and while Dawn listens to every word, at the same time some part of her merely basks in the sound of his voice. Silky and smooth, like some impossibly expensive robe she's always dreamed of slipping over her naked body. There's just enough irony -- and a hint of mockery for himself and the world at large -- to keep the smoothness from getting dull.

The conversation turns somehow to his own student days. "I confess, I was quite the tearaway in those days. So now I strive to keep the Young People of Today speeches at a minimum."

"Oh, I can't imagine you being that stuffy ever." Dawn feels a slight twinge of guilt at the word stuffy, because Giles indulges in those speeches all the time. Much as she loves him, though, he does not make her think of naked skin and expensive silk.

It crosses her mind that Ethan and Giles might actually have met each other at Oxford, or somewhere along the line in their research. The question doesn't even form in her head, though. Her family and her crush are things she's definitely keeping separate, because she can imagine the enormous quantity of crap she'd get from absolutely everyone if they knew about the age difference. And why remind Ethan of that gap?

"You'll have to tell me some stories," she says. "Being a tearaway."

He gives her that smile full of mischief. "I will. Some other time, though. I'd best be getting to my hotel before the taxis stop running altogether." He glances out the window at the sloppy street, and she follows his lead. The light turns red and a car slithers halfway through the intersection before the driver can get it stopped. "Can I give you a lift?"

Oh, but you already have. She rises and pulls on her coat, though she leaves it open. Her skin is so hot from sitting near the fireplace for so long. "That would be really nice. I'd appreciate it."

***

Dawn turns back and picks up her cardboard cup, downing the last of her hot chocolate.

Ethan laughs. "So that's one thing about students that hasn't changed since my time. You still drain the last drop of any drink you've paid for."

"Well of course. That's because we're still poor. Most of us." She drops her cup in the trash and accompanies him to the door, which he opens in courtly fashion.

The wind slices through her coat, allegedly rated to twenty below. She stands in the doorway while Ethan flags a cab, while her feet grow even colder than the rest of her. When he beckons her toward the taxi, she approaches and says apologetically, "Hey, listen. I just realized -- if Veronica Mars did this, I'd be hollering at the television."

"I have no idea what you just said," Ethan tells her. "But I know exactly what you mean. Forgive me, that was thoughtless of me."

"Not at all, I just--"

"It was. Being too forward with a kindness is still being too forward. You're wise to be cautious." He opens the back door, leans in to address the cabbie. "Driver, please take my friend here wherever she requires."

"But this was--"

"Do me an undeserved kindness and take this one. Get home safely."

***

"And then he slipped the cabfare into my hand and closed the door before I could protest," Dawn says. "Totally Cary Grant."

"Totally daddy issues," Valryn retorts. She offers the bowl of popcorn, which Dawn waves off.

"Not. I can't begin to tell you how not like my father he is."

"Because he's the anti-Hank," Valryn says. "The idealized father. The Father Knows Best guy."

Dawn flops back against the edge of the futon chair. "You wouldn't say that if you saw him. He's smart and sexy and just a little bit wicked. Not that he's acted that way, there are just ... glimmers."

Valryn chases down a popcorn that falls to the carpet. "Oh, like that's okay? What you've just described, chickie, is a geriatric bad boy. To which I say, Ick."

"Jealous."

"Deluded. C'mon already. It's been your turn for about three days."

She places her letters. "There. 'Smug.' And 'bitters,' both with a triple word score."

"Bitters is so not a word."

"It so is." She pushes the dictionary toward Valryn with her foot. "You think I'll run into him again?"

"Count on it. You're a pretty young thing who's probably beaming the worshipful vibe right into his skull. He's on sabbatical and away from his own adoring minions--" there's a word she picked up from Dawn, who appropriated it for social usage -- "You can be sure you'll see him around."

"You're a real riot. And totally wrong."

Letters clack as Valryn places them on the board. "Ten minutes till American Idol. Whoever's ahead then wins."

***

Once the city gets shoveled out, Dawn moves into the Starbucks pretty much fulltime, except when there's a book she needs that the library won't allow out of the reading room. Though she spends more time there than most baristas, she hasn't had a glimpse of Ethan.

She tells herself he's just on a research side trip. Or home to England to visit his family. (Which does not include a wife.) It's not like she's seen enough of him that he would have explained a coming absence.

She tells herself she did not scare him off with her OMG r u stalking me? performance when the guy was just trying to treat her to a comfortable ride home instead of a long wait for the bus and then a slog home from the stop. That he's not staying away to put her mind at ease on that score, which would be even worse.

She tells herself he hasn't left for good already. He had said he was spending just part of his sabbatical here. What if he's finished already, and gone?

"What's the big deal?" Valryn asks her one night over pizza and power ballads on Idol. "You had maybe one conversation with this guy. Actually, that's probably it. If you'd spent any more time with him, he'd have had a chance to bore you shitless, and you'd be over it."

Valryn probably has a point. And boredom -- that's the key word. Dawn's stuck here up to her ears in books after all those years fighting demons and vamps and fending off the apocalypse of the week. Now the people she grew up with are still doing that while she's being all ivory towery.

Two weeks later, she gives up the Starbucks vigil and accepts another date with the grad student. While he's talking over gourmet burgers about the pet theory of his mentor, all Dawn can think about is how Xander could talk this guy into the ground about any single one of the shows he's mentioned. It wouldn't be full of academic buzzwords, but it would be impassioned and funny and (though Xander wouldn't think so) smart, which this guy is missing, at least two out of the three.

At least, that's all she can think about until the sound of laughter rises above the general din of conversation in the restaurant, prompting her to glance in that direction.

And there, his graceful hands in motion to illustrate some point he's making to his companion, is Ethan.

***

Dawn loses the thread of what her date is saying as she watches Ethan several booths away. A booth full of frat boys completely blocks her view of his companion, so Dawn can't even tell if it's a man or a woman. She looks for clues in his body language. There's not much facial expression to work with: between the glass-shaded light hanging above the table and the candle flickering below, shadows on his face make it impossible to read from here.

She watches his hands. They're in almost constant motion as he talks, but they don't extend across the table to rest on his companion's arm or clasp a hand. When the other person talks, Ethan toys with his pint glass, listening intently. Several empty glasses litter the table, so clearly they've been there for a while.

Dawn's date drones on, completely unaware that he's lost her. Blah blah blah father images, Ozzie Nelson to Ozzy Osborne.

"I have to use the ladies," Dawn says as he's mid-sentence. "Be right back."

She sails past his booth on the first pass, seemingly oblivious. Having a direct look at the dinner companion would be totally obvious, plus she wants to give her hair a quick brush and do the spinach check. Inside the restroom she fixes hair, teeth, makeup, pops an Altoid -- and while she's there, she has a pee.

She lets out a breath as she approaches Ethan's booth. His dinner partner is Professor Roberts, the chair of her department. Old as dirt, sweet as pie, and gayer than all the Queer Eye guys rolled into one. He lights up as he sees Dawn coming, and gestures her over.

"Ethan, I'd like you to meet one of our star students, Dawn Summers. Dawn, this is Ethan Devereaux, who's been undertaking some specialized research here."

Ethan takes her hand, but instead of a businesslike shake, he just holds it in a way that makes her feel, as Faith would say, twelve kinds of horny. "I hope you're not wasting this young woman's talents burying her under household accounts."

Exactly what they've been doing with her.

"You know Dawn?"

"We frequent the same coffee bar."

Though frequent is not exactly the word, Dawn thinks.

"She dropped a few papers," Ethan continues. "I got a look at them as I handed them back. You wouldn't want to bore this one to tears, Iain. It would be a shame to lose her."

Still holding her hand, gazing at her. Dawn feels a sudden throb that makes her cheeks flame. What Faith calls the down-low tickle.

Ethan releases her hand. "Delighted to meet you officially at last."

"Me too. I have to -- someone's waiting. I --" She finishes all in a rush. "I hope I see you around."

Dawn flees, back to the boring safety of her date.

***

Devereaux. She likes it. He's so British, it's so not. Automatically there's a story, some dramatic tension. She wants so badly to go home and google him (and how has she never noticed how vaguely dirty that expression sounds?) that her fingers practically twitch with the urge to type.

Finally she extracts herself from her date with news of an impending migraine, but he insists on taking her to her residence hall. He tells her his mom gets them, and sometimes it helps head them off if she concentrates on making her hands feel hot. He even turns this into a lecture, telling her how it works by directing blood flow away from the head, and how his mother has this tiny thermometer she holds and can even bump it up if she concentrates hard enough.

"My mother had headaches too," Dawn says. "They killed her."

That shuts him up.

She doesn't need any help making her hands hot anyway. At least not the one Ethan held back at the restaurant. Dawn remembers the heat his touch generated, the powerful sexual buzz from such simple contact.

As they walk up the sidewalk to her building, her date asks, "Is there anything you need?"

"Thanks, no. Just to turn out the lights and lie down before the puking starts."

He tries taking her hand -- the one Ethan held -- but she slips it out of his. "Goodnight."

"Feel better," he calls after her.

On the way upstairs Dawn decides she was telling the truth about what she needs. She turns the lights off, goes to bed and does something that involves heat and her hand.

***

If things run true to form, Dawn thinks, she won't be seeing Ethan for another ten days or so. That thought curtails her interest in getting out of bed, and she's five minutes late to her first class. She has a couple of hours to kill before her next class, so she drops into the Starbucks, though she doubts he'll be there.

He is, though. Sitting right in the front window, books and papers covering his tiny table, completely engrossed in his work.

She mulls it over while she waits for her triple-shot latte. A table isn't the same as a pair of chairs near the fireplace. You can't just park yourself without an invitation. Dawn's not even sure she should go say hi, as deeply as he's concentrating. She hates it when she's pulled out of some thorny text -- there's a phrase that came from Giles, if ever there was one -- by someone asking if she's seen the latest stupid car crash movie.

Dawn turns back to the counter and adds a scone to her order, then steps aside to wait, watching Ethan. His graceful hand, capturing some thought on paper. Most guys she knows write with Bic pens; the pen snobs go for Uniballs. Even from here, she can tell it's a fancy pen, and not just a basic Cross. If it doesn't have a cartridge, it's a good replica.

The barista hands over her venti, and she looks around for a place to sit. Should she find a table first, then wander over to say hi? Skip the saying hi completely, or wait until he might look less involved in his reading? Maybe just take the damn thing to go, and find a good spot near her next class?

This is so totally stupid and junior high. Irritated with herself, she shakes her head and decides on the to-go course of action. As she's pushing through the door, she hears a tap on the window. Ethan has finally seen her.

He raises an eyebrow and taps his watch. She checks hers unnecessarily, then nods, and goes back into the coffee bar. "Ethan, hi."

He offers his hand, and she just about melts into the floorboards. "Dawn. You're just the person I wanted to see."

***

"Do you have a few moments?" Ethan asks. "You seemed very focused."

"No, I have some time." His hand and his gaze are having the same effect on her as last night, but she's completely incapable of withdrawing her hand. She wonders if it's possible for her to have an orgasm right here in the middle of Starbucks.

Ethan releases her hand. "Here, let me make a space for your coffee." He gathers up his papers and stuffs them in his book, which he tucks away in a battered leather satchel.

Dawn's too bedazzled to think of looking at the title until it's already out of sight. She stands there in a fog until he gestures toward the empty chair across from him.

"Please."

She laughs weakly. "You see why I'm so desperate for coffee." She chugs some to prove her point.

Ethan favors her with that wicked grin. "Late night?"

"No. Well, studying, but not -- no partying." Dawn drinks more coffee, convinced she sounds dumber with each thing she says. "You wanted to see me?"

"I was hoping you could advise me. I have a gift to buy, and I've no idea where to begin. For my niece, who's ten."

"Oh." Stupid to feel such intense disappointment. What did she think he was going to ask, for an opinion about his research? Or if she'd go out with him? He thinks of her as barely out of girlhood -- why would he see her any other way?

"You're an intelligent and creative young woman, and the one person I know for whom childhood isn't a long distant memory."

Okay. Young woman. That's better -- she thinks. "What can you tell me about her? What is she like?"

"I haven't the slightest idea." He offers a smile, this one more wistful than his usual. "My brother and I had a falling-out before she was born. I've been thinking lately that I'd like to repair the relationship if I can. This seemed like a safe place to begin. So. We'll have to operate on generic assumptions. Nothing too lavish. I don't want to make them nervous."

Dawn's disappointment crumbles away. He's shared something deep and painful with her, and asked her to share his hopes, too. That's more than she'd hoped for when he tapped on the glass. It's huge. "Okay, the two things I was really big on at that age were books and jewelry. I was an absolute nut for Harriet the Spy. I wanted to be her."

"Harriet the Spy," he repeats, as if this is some arcane piece of information.

"It's just the best book ever for a kid. About this girl in New York City who makes the rounds spying on her weird neighbors and writing everything down. And what happens when her best friends find her notebook and what she said about them. I used to do that too. So you could get her a cool blank book or diary and a copy of Harriet the Spy."

Ethan smiles, charmed. "Who did you used to spy on?"

"My sister and her friends, mostly. One of the neighbors until she called mom and threatened to go to the police."

"An arch criminal in your youth."

"Truer than you think."

"Do you still have your notebooks? Ever go back and read them?"

The question blindsides her. Pierces her through. Dawn looks away. "No. All that stuff got lost."

"I'm sorry. I've distressed you."

She shakes her head. "It's okay. There was a fire." It comes out automatically. This is what she tells people now. It usually shuts down the conversation, where saying she was from that town that fell into a sinkhole just leads to a billion new questions.

"Did everyone get out safely?"

She nods, because what else can she do? When you've reduced Sunnydale to a house fire, you can't say your best friend's orgasm-friend died in it, and your sister's -- well, whatever Spike was by then.

"I must apologize." Ethan puts his hand on hers. "I was prying."

"It's okay," she repeats. "Really. It comes up now and then. We've wandered off topic anyway. Your niece."

"You said your other suggestion was jewelry."

"I always loved it. Around that age I started going away from the little heart necklaces and that. I had a big bead on a leather cord -- it looked like carved ivory, though it couldn't have been. I wore that thing to death. I went in for these weird Day of the Dead skulls on a pair of earrings for a while, but that probably wouldn't really get you back in your brother's good graces."

The corner of his mouth quirks up. "I very much doubt it."

She toys with her coffee cup, looking up at Ethan through her lashes. "I got in a little trouble with the jewelry thing," she admits. It feels bad that she lied to him about Sunnydale, after his revelation about his brother. "I was a little klepto for a while. The skull earrings I stole, and that's not all."

Ethan's smile widens into that inviting just between us mischievous grin. "A bit of the rebel in you, even as a girl. I thought I saw something in you, even the first time I laid eyes on you. A kindred spirit."

Kindred spirit. That's what she's been lacking, so far from her family and friends.

Dawn offers him a mischief-laced smile of her own.

***

Ethan's so easy to talk to, so interested in what she has to say. He draws her out about her childhood in California. "We all had this rather romantic notion of California when I was an adolescent," he tells her. "We were certain every spare moment was spent on a surfboard, all the women were blonde beauties in bikinis -- the whole prepackaged vision."

"Not that blonde, not that beachy," Dawn says. "Not that I didn't curse fate for denying me my rightful blonde hair. The town I grew up in, though, I don't think it was different from that many other small towns. I'm probably a disappointment as your interpreter of the California experience."

"You're not disappointing in the least." No one else has ever favored her with a smile like he bestows on her now. It acknowledges some bond between them, recognizes something in her that no one's ever taken the trouble to see before. Kindred.

Still she withholds the information that she's from Sunnydale. It complicates her story, brings an element into it that she doesn't want clouding things between them just yet. Besides, what he's avid for is the kind of thing that could have happened anywhere. Small adventures and heartbreaks, the smell of the living room crowded with the biggest Christmas tree her father could find, the glories of the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- though the name of it makes him shudder.

"I think we're getting into some pot and kettle name-calling here," Dawn says. "Because I happen to know your people eat yeast smeared on bread, and excuse me for being forthright, but ick."

His delighted laughter rings out over the sound of the espresso machine and makes the heat rise in her cheeks.

"And the jelly thing, that's just semantics," she goes on. "You're thinking of what we call Jell-O. Think jam."

He's still dubious and she wonders whether there's a way to offer to make him the perfect PBJ without sounding all come up to my place with a subtext that's way too Lolita. While she's contemplating, her phone flutters its tune for general callers. "I'm sorry," Dawn says. "I won't be a minute." She flips the phone open. "Hello?" She gushes apologies and promises to meet her caller in ten minutes, then snaps the phone shut. "Shit." She starts gathering her things.

"What is it?"

"I do this volunteer gig. English conversation for an overseas student, so she can practice, get corrected nicely, that kind of thing. I completely spaced." What's worse, if she's late to her weekly appointment with Jin-Kyong, she's completely missed her class that comes before. "Can I leave my stuff here for a second? I'm gonna hit the ladies."

"What have the ladies ever done to you?"

In her frantic state it takes her a moment to process this, but it's just enough to derail her panic. She grins. "I just don't like the look of 'em. Be right back."

When she returns she slips on her coat and winds her scarf around her neck. "Sorry to run off like this."

"Clearly I kept you far later than you meant to stay. My apologies for being so careless with your time."

"There is no need to apologize for that, I loved every minute." She hovers there a moment, wishing he'd take her hand again. "Well. See you."

"You will indeed." The deliciously insinuating tone of his voice makes her want to drop back into the chair right now and forget about English conversation.

Pushing back the temptation, Dawn knocks back the last of her triple shot latte and pushes out into the cold wind.

***

She should never have gotten a triple shot. The taste of coffee lingers in Dawn's mouth and she feels too jittery to pay much atttention to Jin-Kyong's description of something that happened in a store. Though she'd planned to stay past their usual stopping time to make up the full hour, she cuts the lesson short, apologizing.

She hits the gym to try to work off the caffeine, but that just winds her up more. After her last class she studies past her normal pass-out point but doesn't feel tired. Taking a look at the clock, she goes to bed anyway, hoping to catch enough sleep to let her get up and make it to her early class. Half the night her mind races with school work, arguments she wants to put forth in her Roman warfare paper, a line of questioning she has for her lit prof.

The other half is even less restful. When she shoves aside the thoughts about her classes, Ethan steps right in to fill the empty space. Dawn replays in her head the stories he told her about his own childhood, letting the remembered sound of his voice wash over her. She thinks about his hands, their quick grace that she could take in forever. Well. Not precisely true. Watching only satisfies for so long before she starts thinking how much she wants him to take her hand in his.

In her imagination, he does. Just as she's standing before him in her coat with her scarf wound around her neck, he reaches for her unmittened hand. "Tell me you're not going out like this in such vile weather."

It sounds almost like something her mother might have said, but oh, not the way he says it.

"I lost my gloves on a bus." Mittens sounds so juvenile. When she looks to replace them, she's going for gloves. Leather, not the bright knitted stuff in the hippie crap store.

"We'll have to do something about that," he murmurs. Ethan holds her hand in his, gazing at her as if there's nothing else in the world, and heat suffuses her body.

Dawn gasps and he offers her that special smile that is hers alone. He feathers his thumb over the back of her hand, making little circles on her bare skin. That down-low flutter becomes an insistent throb and her breathing grows unsteady. She is standing in the Starbucks in her puffy down coat, right in the front window, letting him tease tiny gasps from her. The espesso machine screeches, covering the sound of her soft moan.

"Do you have any idea what a remarkable girl you are?" Ethan asks, but the only response she can form is a whispered "Please."

She's not sure if that means Please, not here or Please, finish it.

Ethan turns her hand in his, rubbing his thumb over her palm and the soft mound of flesh at its base. "Such a remarkable girl," he repeats, and she tumbles over the edge, crying out and not caring who hears.

Dawn wakes to the sound of her 7 a.m. alarm and her own soft cries.

***

Dawn makes it to her lit class on time, but can think of none of the astute questions she'd developed during her long, insomniac night. She has no trouble remembering other things she'd thought about in the dark.

She half expects to crash during her first or second class, but she rides a wave of energy that doesn't flag. After a quick yogurt in the student cafe, she heads to Starbucks to study.

She's almost afraid she'll find Ethan in the front table, but he's not there at all. There's an atypical lull in business, so she slings her coat and messenger bag on one of the fireplace chair and goes to place her order. Might be wise, she thinks, to have tea instead of an espresso drink to avoid caffeine backlash. Yet when the barista asks for her order, she orders a double shot latte.

Dawn stays until it's time to meet Valryn for Idol, but he doesn't show. So what's it going to be, another ten days, two weeks?

Valryn asks about "the old guy" during a denture glue commercial, and Dawn says, "Aren't you a scream."

"Well?"

"I saw him the other night with Professor Roberts and said hi, that's all."

"Ohhh," she says, like that tells everything, and Dawn could bite her own tongue. "I guess one girl's old guy is some other man's hot young thing."

"Oh, don't be gross," Dawn snaps.

"You're no fun," Val says without rancor. She drops the subject, so Dawn stays through the whole broadcast and hangs out after while Val texts dozens of votes for the worst singer.

Around midnight she scuffs back to her room in her slippers, but she doesn't bother trying to go to bed. She finishes her reading for tomorrow, outlines her paper, emails Buffy and Xander, then cleans her room.

Sometime around four she goes to bed, hoping for another dream about Ethan. But he's nowhere around there, either.

***

One more mostly sleepless night and she still hasn't crashed. After her early class she drops into Starbucks more from habit than expectation, but this time Ethan is there.

"Do you mind walking and drinking?" he asks as she approaches his table. "There's someplace I'd like to show you."

Relief gusts through Dawn. After the dream she had, just as real as standing here with him now, she'd never be able to sit across from him and be even remotely normal. Yet she has no desire to be away from him. Walking, with other things to focus on, will be just perfect. "That would be great. Where are we going?"

His smile, so damn entre nous, makes something flutter in her stomach. "Let's leave it a surprise for now. You needn't worry; it's completely public."

She thinks to say, "Oh, I'm not worried at all," but she doesn't want to sound like a careless idiot, so she bites it back. But it's true. He's proven he cares about her comfort level, that he's not going to push her in any way. "It's warmed up a lot since the other day," she says. "A walk would be nice."

Ethan gathers up his satchel -- considerably lighter today, she notices -- and accompanies her outside. He leaves his coat unbuttoned, his cashmere scarf loose around his neck. "So the conversation -- was it satisfactory?"

"The what? Oh. With Jin-Kyong."

"What do you discuss, in the interests of improving her English?"

"Everyday stuff, most of the time. Yesterday she told me about a misunderstanding she had at a store. Sometimes she asks questions about words or expressions." She glances at Ethan to determine if his interest is real or exaggerated, but he's plainly engaged. "One time she asked me what 'pick up' meant. So I launched into this whole discourse on the different ways those two words show up in American English. Y'know, 'pick up a quart of milk, get that room picked up right now, missy or you're grounded, I picked up this totally hot babe last night, hey, look at that pickup truck.' She didn't look any less confused, so I asked what the context was. She pulls out a tabloid headline: 'Cobain bio-pic up in smoke.'"

Ethan laughs, and the flutter deepens. "Proof of the dangers of learning English from the tabloids." He leads her onto a side street and halfway down the block, gestures her down a short flight of steps into a lower-level shop.

"What's this?"

"The most essential antiquarian bookseller in North America," Ethan says.

"Oh my god, how did I not know about this?"

He holds the door for her and bends to whisper in her ear. "Because it's a deep, dark secret."

Dawn doesn't know if it's the words themselves or his breath stirring the hair by her neck, but she gasps softly, and the flutter becomes a throb.

Ethan offers her a sly smile.

Deep.

Dark.

Secret.

Dawn wets her lips and steps inside.

***

She loves the shop from the second she walks inside. No stacks of glossy bestsellers, no espresso bar, just old books in a jumble that seems completely random, but somehow Dawn's sure the shopkeeper could lay hands on any book without delay when asked.

She breathes in the perfume of old books. "Wow," she murmurs. "This is just like--"

Just like the rare book closet at the Magic Box. She'd stolen and copied the key without anyone ever finding out, and she used to shut herself inside sometimes, gorging herself on the scent of ancient things. There's a buzz of power here, too, that she hasn't felt in forever. She used to feel it in the book closet, but that was back before everything that happened on the tower. She'd lost it and eventually came to believe it had just been her imagination, lost to grief and growing up.

But now it's here, that tingle of energy, stronger than she's ever felt it.

Ethan raises an eyebrow. "Just like--?"

Coloring, she smiles, shakes her head. "It's just that old-book smell. I don't know why I have a thing for it, but I do."

"You needn't explain it to me," he says. No. Kindred spirits, after all.

The shopkeeper emerges from a curtained doorway in the back of the store. "Ethan. Good to see you. James found quite a few from your list on this latest trip. I imagine you'll want them sent 'round to your hotel. The grimoire is particularly awkward."

Grimoire. That perks up her attention. She says nothing, but Ethan, so attuned to her, picks up on her interest.

"An intriguing side road my research has taken," he tells her. "Over the centuries there have been a number of magical texts that have cropped up that are quite fake. I've been collecting the different types: false translation, complete forgery --" He smiles. "I confess to a fascination with hoaxes of various kinds. An elaborate joke keeps academia from getting too dreadfully dull." He addresses the shopkeeper. "Sebastian, I'd like you to meet my friend Dawn. Speaking of the dull academic life, she's currently tormented by an endless round of '99 casks of beer on the wall,' Sumerian style."

"The extended trance mix, I think," she says.

"I have a text or two you might find more entertaining than that," Sebastian tells her. "If you'd like to see them."

Dawn looks to Ethan. "Do we have time?"

"Take as long as you like, Dawn. That's why we're here."

Dawn follows Sebastian into another room of the store, Ethan trailing behind. Sebastian reaches into a deep bookcase where the volumes are shelved two deep, producing two books of mismatched size from the hidden row. "They're a bit challenging, but I suspect any friend of Ethan's is more than equal to the task." He places them in her upraised hands as if bestowing a blessing. "Feel free to browse through them. Ethan and I have some matters to discuss regarding his other active searches."

Ethan tells her to enjoy herself, then they leave her for the main room of the shop. Dawn settles herself on the carpet and opens the top volume. "Oh," she says softly. Its yellowing pages are dense with cuneiform, some of which clicks instantly, some which eludes her understanding. She wonders if Giles would approve of her holding this text outside the oversight of the council. She doubts it, and the thought gives her a little thrill. She pages through half the book then sets it aside and picks up the other.

Its pages are similarly dense, but this time she feels an immediate sense of -- what? Belonging, maybe. Not ownership, but that this book was meant to be in her hands. She feels the same impulse that drove her to tuck charms and necklaces in her pockets when she was a teen klepto. Not that she could filch something as rare and noticeable as this. But she feels a lust for it that will hound her, she knows. Dawn wonders how much it costs, how long it will take to save up.

Greedy for whatever she can get, she settles back against the bookshelf and begins trying to puzzle it out.

The last golden light of the afternoon slants in through the windows by the time Ethan calls her name. Dawn looks up, almost woozy from the change of focus -- she's been looking at the book nonstop since she took it up. "You were so engrossed I didn't have the heart to disturb you," he says. "But I think you're probably in need of dinner soon."

She hadn't noticed, but now that he says it she realizes he's right. "Starving, actually."

"The least I can do is treat you to dinner. I know a lovely spot near here with wonderful soups and salads. Burgers, if you can't do without them."

"Perfect." Dawn rises and stretches, then retrieves the books. As she bends, she realizes she has the beginnings of a headache between her brows. She straightens and gives the books back to Sebastian as reverently as he'd handed them to her.

"You seemed very content with these," he says. "Is there one in particular that kept you so involved?"

"This one." Dawn lets her fingers hover over the book that had stirred something in her.

"It's yours," Ethan says. "Put it on my account."

"Oh no, I couldn't," Dawn says, though the words want to stick like peanut butter, just behind her teeth.

"Of course you can," Ethan says.

"But it must cost a fortune."

"A drop in the bucket compared to what I usually spend here. Please. It would give me great pleasure to give your studies a boost. You've heard of the micro-loans they're doing in developing countries. Consider this a micro-scholarship."

Take it take it take it, clamors the greedy voice in her head. What, you're worried about impure intentions? Like you don't have any. "I don't know--"

"You want it. You should have it." His tone indicates the subject is closed, and she acquiesces.

Sebastian hands her the book, then gives Ethan two from the stack sitting on the counter. He arranges for the delivery of the rest to Ethan's hotel, then Ethan ushers her back into the cold.

The frigid air reminds her of the gnawing pain in her forehead, and once they've walked a few blocks, it's developed into a full-blown skull-crusher. Dawn comes to a halt, rubbing her forehead.

"What is it?"

"I guess it's the hunger and the low light in there. I've got myself a raging headache."

"Here. Let me try something." He raises his hands to her face, his long fingers rubbing gently at her temples. Ethan's fingertips make lazy circles on her skin that remind her of the dream in which he'd stroked her hand.

She makes a helpless noise, so soft even she barely hears it.

"Am I hurting you?"

She releases a shuddering sigh. "No. It's nice. It helps." She tips her head back, her lips parting.

One of Ethan's hands drops to her shoulder, the other strokes her cheek as he leans in to kiss her.

Oh. He is as much a revelation as the books she held today, breaking her wide open and filling her with so much she'd never even dared to imagine. He tastes her, contenting himself with small sips, so different from the students she's been dating, who want everything right now. It's Dawn who deepens the kiss, teasing at him with her tongue, leaning into his body. She is close enough to feel that he's aroused, and it rekindles the greed in her.

Dawn makes a small, desperate noise, which seems to pull Ethan out of the moment.

"Dawn," he says, his voice roughened. "I beg your forgiveness."

"There's nothing to forgive." She tries to step into the embrace once more, but he takes her by the shoulders.

"This isn't right. I'm taking advantage."

The words claw at her heart. "No. I want this. I want more."

"But I allowed it to come to this. Led you on. I never meant to, it's just -- I've so enjoyed your company. But I cannot do this."

What happened to the co-conspirator, her partner in mischief? How could he be such a Victorian at heart? "Ethan, please. It's fine."

But he's already stepped away from her, is backing away.

"I'm twenty," she declares. "I know what I want. You're not hurting me, or manipulating me. Come here and I'll show you."

"This is wrong." He steps into the street and hails a cab, handing a folded bill in through the window. Ethan beckons her toward it. "I'm so sorry, Dawn."

"If you want to be sorry about something, it should be this crap." But he's already on the run across the street, and the cab driver is cursing at her for holding him up. She folds herself inside the cab, trying not to cry.

Looking down, she sees her hands white-knuckling the book that had held her so entranced.

***

When the cab pulls up, Dawn leaves the taxi without even waiting for any change. She runs for her building, desperate to make it to her room before she breaks into sobs.

She gets as far as her floor. Valryn is returning from the soda machine with her standard Diet Cherry Coke, and by then Dawn is crying so hard she can't even form words. She wants Valryn to leave her alone, but she follows to Dawn's room and tries to tease out her story.

"Is it this Ethan? He's just a creep, forget about him."

"You don't know a fucking thing about it." This, at least, she manages to make comprehensible. "Go away."

But Valryn stays, trying to make her see reason. She doesn't leave until Dawn rises and shoves her out the door.

She sobs until her head throbs and her breath hitches uselessly. For the first time in days she falls asleep before three or four. For the first time in years she dreams about Glory.

Well, not Glory, but the tower. The sway of it, cobbled together by madmen and women. The chill of the wind up there, or maybe it was just the fear that made her shiver so violently. In the dream, blood wells and drips from her forearms where Doc sliced her skin. Shallow cuts, shallow cuts. The blood vanishes into thin air, but doesn't. It's like acid, eating away at this dimension. Each drop of blood creates a little hole in the fabric of the universe, and soon Dawn is staring at an opening the size of a bucket, seething and edged with a brimstony red.

She gazes at it and her eyes fill with tears. It's the most beautiful thing she's ever seen.

***

Dawn decides she owes herself a day to stay curled under the covers and cry. The sobs have given way to quieter weeping that produces a kind of altered state as the day wears on. It's almost comforting.

Valryn checks on her in the late afternoon. Dawn doesn't throw her out, but she doesn't respond, either. She wraps herself in her comforter and weeps through Val's pep talk, and then her annoyed lecture. "What's the matter with you? You're making yourself sick over some stupid guy who doesn't even notice you." At last she leaves and Dawn locks the door behind her, curling back up in bed.

She dreams again about the tower. The seething tear in the universe is bigger now, and she wills herself to bleed faster, open it wider. When it looks large enough, she opens her arms in a kind of embrace and dives into it.

But something goes wrong and the opening snaps shut on her as she's halfway through. She's suspended between dimensions, red hot blades slicing through her where the portal has closed on her.

Gasping, she wakes, bolting upright in bed.

Her skin feels like it's on fire.

***

Val stops by to see if she's going to their first class, finds her pacing her room. The pain is all Dawn can think about.

"I told you you were going to--"

"Just shut it," Dawn snaps.

"Tell me what's wrong."

"Everything. My head feels like it's full of broken glass, and my skin hurts."

"You think maybe you have shingles?" She tries to lift Dawn's oversized tee.

Dawn grabs at Valryn's wrist. "Don't. The air hurts it worse. I don't have a rash or anything."

"Get your coat and boots. I'm taking you to the clinic."

"I'm in my pajamas."

"Like half your classmates don't wear theirs to class. C'mon."

Valryn bundles her into her coat and marches her across campus to the clinic. While they walk Val calls their prof and makes excuses for them both. "I don't feel right just leaving her there. When I'm sure she's okay I'll check in for the assignment." She snaps her phone shut. "See? Easy."

Nothing seems easy but this. Letting someone else decide what must be done and letting them do it. She even lets Val push the elevator buttons to get to the fifth floor clinic, lets her talk to the receptionist and fill out the paperwork while Dawn sits huddled in her coat.

Though Val tries to impress on the staff that things are dire, it still takes more than an hour to call her in. Actually, she leaves it up to Val to track how long they wait, too; she only knows because every fifteen minutes Val stomps up to the desk and says how long it's been.

After the third time check, she leans her head on Val's shoulder and tells her about Ethan. The whole story.

"He sounds like less of a creep than I've been thinking," Valryn grudgingly admits.

"I could stand it if he were a little less honorable," Dawn retorts.

"Don't say that."

"Why is it okay to go out with guys my age who want to ram their tongues down my throat five minutes after they meet me, but a man who's older than me is automatically a creep? He's been nothing but concerned about my feelings and sense of safety."

She doesn't get an answer to that, because a nurse finally calls her into an exam room. Valryn stays in the waiting room with a battered People.

They poke and prod and stare down her throat, but they can't find anything wrong with her. They sell her a bottle of generic Tylenol for the pain and send her off.

Val walks her home and leaves her with orders to sleep, but as soon as she goes, Dawn pulls on a sweater and jeans and heads for the bookstore. The walk there feels miles longer than two days ago. She pauses just outside to catch her breath and summon as much calm as she can.

When she steps inside the buzz feels stronger -- that sense of power she'd gotten the first time she came here. It reduces the pain in her head and her skin to mere background noise. Though she's grateful for the relief, it also puts her on guard. What would Giles say about a place like this? Why is she in tune with this energy now, after so many years of registering nothing?

Sebastian emerges from the curtained back room, at first delighted to see her, then reluctant to give up the name of Ethan's hotel. She says somehow she ended up with an envelope with his name on it that she needs to return to him. Dawn's not sure how believable her story is, but it was the best she could come up with on the walk over.

Sebastian says he'd be happy to see that the envelope is returned to Ethan, but Dawn shakes her head. "I wouldn't feel right. I mean, he trusts you so I do, but I just wouldn't feel right unless I put it in his hands myself."

The shopkeeper chews his lip, considering. Dawn takes a deep breath, trying to steady herself. The feeling of power here, of ancient mysteries, is too much for her. It grates against raw nerves, gathers in her throat until she feels she can barely breathe. She wants to reach across the counter and grab him by the shirt front.

"This is against my strict policy," Sebastian says. "But since he brought you here and introduced you as a friend, I'll make an exception." He produces a slip of paper from under the counter and writes in excruciatingly slow but perfect penmanship, while Dawn entertains thoughts about pulling his heart from his chest.

"It's just four blocks from here," he says as he offers the slip, and begins to launch into fastidious directions.

She has to get out. Dawn snatches the slip from his fingers and thanks him profusely, then turns and flees.

She knows the name of the hotel. It's not the most fashionable place, not anymore, but it's grand and expensive. Now and again when she and her friends feel like playing grown-up, they break out the pantyhose (or ties) and go for one or two pricey drinks.

Everything rebounds on her worse now on the walk to his hotel: her pain, her misery. Dawn bypasses the front desk and goes straight to the gleaming brass elevators, tears starting to flow again.

By the time she reaches Ethan's door, her breath is hitching again. There's no answer to her knock, and she raises her hand again, pounding on the dark wood with the side of her fist. For some crazy reason she thinks of first grade, how Mrs. Herschel taught her to make seahorses by pressing the side of her curled fist into fingerpaint, then onto the paper. She keeps up the pounding until she finally hears the snick of the lock and the door opens a few inches.

"Dawn," Ethan says.

She tries for a deep breath, but the sound of snuffling snot wrecks any dignity she thought that might provide. "You are stupid and heartless."

***

Ethan blinks. He looks vague and unfocused somehow, but in a moment he snaps back to his usual sharpness. "Dawn, I--"

"You like to think you're so unconventional, but you let something meaningless like a difference in ages dictate what you're allowed to want. What I'm allowed to want. And how patronizing is that? I can't be interested in you because I choose to. It has to be because you're taking advantage. How nice to be the master of the universe that way. You're big-headed and cruel and not so different from every other guy out there."

Ethan swings the door open wider. "Dawn, come inside, please."

"Because you're willing to listen, or because you don't want the other guests to?"

He offers a small smile. "A bit of both." He extends a hand to her. "Come."

Dawn ignores the hand but steps inside, through a thread of cigar smoke. Ethan's not holding one, though.

"You're right," Ethan says.

No one ever says this to her.

"I thought I was being unfair to you."

"This is what's unfair," Dawn says. "Ignoring what I say because you've got it all worked out in your head how things are."

"Yes."

"You said I was remarkable. Wait, no--" That was the dream. She gives her head a shake. "I dreamed that."

"It's true. I find you quite remarkable."

"But not enough to know my own mind and heart."

"You've changed my opinion on that."

"You mean that?" She finds herself weaving on her feet.

"Dawn, you're ill." He lays a palm on her forehead. His hand is so, so cool.

"You didn't answer."

"Of course I meant it. Now tell me what's wrong."

"I don't know. My head really hurts, and my skin -- it's like I'm on fire."

"When did this start?"

"I don't know. Sometime during the night. I mean, my head hurt before, that started when I was with you the other day. But this -- god, I feel so bad. I thought maybe I had shingles, but the clinic --" She dissolves into tears again.

"Did anything happen? Did you have any dreams?"

"I was falling. No. I dived -- dove -- dived. There was an opening between, but I got caught. God, my head --"

"You saw a doctor."

Dawn nods. "They couldn't find anything."

Ethan smoothes her hair back from her face. "I want you to sit here. I'm going to make some tea -- it will make you feel better."

A laugh escapes her that's at least half a sob. "Tea. English cure-all."

"It will help, I promise." Ethan settles her on the sofa and goes into a little alcove where he makes noises that make her think of Giles.

She rises again to pace, so uncomfortable that she wants to claw at herself, yet too miserable to put a hand to herself. She can hardly endure the slide of fabric against her skin. Again she catches a thread of smoke and sees that it's coming from a little table by the door that leads to the hallway. The cigar smolders in an ashtray before a cone of mud or clay, with cowrie shells pressed into it where eyes would be. There's a shotglass of something amber next to the ashtray. It doesn't look like Ethan's abandoned his own smoke and drink there, but that it's some kind of offering, and the table's an altar.

The smoke makes her cough, and she resumes pacing. Most other surfaces are covered in piles of books, most old, a few new. A yellow legal pad peeps out from beneath one stack, and Dawn suppresses the urge to tug it out and read Ethan's notes.

Leaning against one of the stacks of books is a piece of vellum with some kind of symbol on it. Like a Chinese character, but not quite. Like the love child of a Chinese character and the dingbat Prince changed his name to. There's something beautiful and mysterious about it, and she brushes her fingertips on the vellum. Her skin is too tender even for that contact, and she sucks in her breath.

"Dawn."

She turns to him. "I'm sorry. I can't sit still."

"It'll be ready in just three minutes. You'll have a bit of tea, and you'll feel better." He closes the distance between them and raises his hands to her temples, rubbing gently. "Tell me if this makes things worse."

Dawn sighs. This is all she wants, all she's ever wanted. His touch almost reduces the pain to background noise. She thinks she should say something, but no words will come, not until he breaks the contact. "No," she whimpers.

"I'll be right back. The tea will help, more than this."

Her breath turns ragged as panic rises in her. She focuses on the sounds from the little alcove, more Giles noises. Maybe she should call Giles. London's so far away, though, and he'll be mad at her for letting her studies slide.

Ethan's right back, just as he said, and she lets her thoughts about Giles drift away. He presses a mug into her hands. "It should be cool enough to drink. I put some ice in." He leaves his hands cupped around hers, urges them upward. "Drink. That's right, Dawn."

She takes two swallows, makes a face. "It's horrible."

"You must drink it."

"What will it do?"

"It will take away the pain. It will also make you sleep."

Dawn suddenly realizes he's scared. "Am I dying?"

He strokes her hair. "Of course not." But it couldn't be clearer that he's lying, and that scares her too.

She takes a deep breath and finishes off the tea.

"You should lie down," Ethan says.

It hits her fast, and she sways. "Yeah. I really should."

He helps her to the couch, then draws up a chair beside her.

"Don't leave me." It's so hard to stay awake.

"I won't."

"You'd be surprised ... how many say that."

Ethan strokes her brow. His cool skin on hers is so soothing. "I'm not them."

No. He's not like anyone.

"Don't fight it. You need to sleep."

She gives herself up to it, to the feel of his hand on her face. As she drifts off, she catches a few murmured words.

Never meant this.... thought you'd break your bonds.... they cut you instead....

Makes no sense.

Doesn't matter.

She sinks down.

***

When she wakes, Dawn is lying on top of a king bed in a darkened room, a throw spread over her. She breathes quietly, unmoving, testing to see if her head feels better, if the nerves in her skin have calmed.

She doesn't quite feel normal, but she feels good.

Dawn tosses back the throw, sees she's fully dressed, except her shoes. Well, of course. She'd made it abundantly clear he didn't have to roofie her if that was what he wanted. Not to mention it was damn hard work getting him to want her at all. Sitting up, she pauses again to test how she feels. Not at all woozy or ill.

Relieved, she rises and pads in stockinged feet to a door that shows a crack of light below. It leads to the suite's sitting room, where Ethan sits hunched over a book on the sofa, opened texts scattered around him on the cushions, the coffee table and even the floor around him.

"You look like a guy feeding pigeons on a park bench," Dawn says, startling him badly.

"I'm sorry -- what?"

She waves a hand. "The books. They reminded me of birds, crowded all around you." Vaguely she wonders why she came up with this image instead of thinking first of Giles and a million research sessions.

"How do you feel?"

"Good. Nothing hurts. I feel -- kind of cocooned, though. Not like the pain is gone, more like it's muffled. Extremely well muffled."

Reaching up to rub his neck, he offers a bleary smile. "It's a relief to hear that. And you're a very good judge of what's happening in your body. The tea is more a temporary fix than a cure. I'm searching for that." She wonders if the number of books scattered around him is a good sign, or bad.

"How long was I asleep?"

He checks his watch, then rubs a hand over his face. "Over six hours. Are you hungry?"

Dawn stops to consider, then nods. "That's not muffled at all."

"We can order up if you like. Great heaps of pasta, steak and potatoes, whatever you like."

She has never done room service. It seems so incredibly decadent. "Breakfast. Giant salvers of artery-clogging foods. And gallons of coffee."

Her use of the word salver makes him laugh. He picks up the phone and orders enough for at least the two of them.

By the time she showers and runs a toothpasted finger over her teeth, the salvers have arrived. She's seated crosslegged on the floor, halfway through a scone heaped with double Devon cream when she yelps, "Shit! Val's gonna freak!"

"Val?"

"My friend Valryn. She's been great -- she took me to the clinic and sat with me the whole time, and I'm sure she's going to check up on me. She'll call out the militia if I just disappear."

"We can't have that," Ethan says, and she gets the distinct feeling there's a tickle of alarm under the amused surface.

She digs her cell out of her bag. "Val, it's me."

As predicted, there's freakage.

"I'm fine. Well, I'm much better, anyway. I'm staying with my cousin. I was so freaked I called my father, all crying and hysterical. He called his cousin who lives out here in the burbs, and she came for me."

"You have a cousin in the burbs?"

"Seriously, who knew? Typical Hank. But he said he'd try to get a flight out if he can pry himself from work. Shockerama, huh? Hank steps up."

"You must have put on one hell of a freakout."

"Well, you heard me the other day. Kinda like that, but more. Anyway, I'm swanning around, mostly sleeping. Can you pass the word to my profs? I'll call you when I know more about what I'm doing, and you have my cell."

"Feel better, chica. I'll be in touch."

Dawn flips her phone shut, and Ethan directs a look at her, acute and assessing. "You gave yourself quite a bit of leeway with that tale."

Heat rises in her cheeks. "I don't know. I just rode on instinct. If you don't want me here--"

"I'm perfectly content to have you here, as long as you're content to stay."

Content. It's a word she never thinks about, never applies to herself. But she realizes that she is. "Okay then," she says, and reaches for the jar of cream.

***

"Who's Hank?" Ethan asks as Dawn starts in on a wedge of frittata.

The question startles her. "What?"

He looks up from the book he's been paging through. "You told your friend 'Hank steps up,'" he reminds her.

"Oh. Yeah, I did. He's my father. Kind of a crappy lie, actually." She pushes a stray potato cube from the home fries around on her plate.

"He's not in the habit of 'stepping up'?"

"Not so much. He didn't even bother to show up at my mom's funeral."

"How long ago did you lose your mother?"

"Six years ago."

"And they were divorced by then?"

She nods. "For about five years. I guess he divorced all of us, not just mom. Guess it never really took. Fatherhood, I mean." Sometimes, when she remembers where she really came from, she thinks it was her that never took. That the monk mojo never really stuck with him, and pulled him away from Buffy, too.

Ethan reaches forward to help himself to one of the scones, affording her a look at the forearm extending from his rolled up sleeve. The first thing she notices is the bold tattoo around his wrist, a tribal-black twist of barbed wire. It curls toward itself at his inner wrist, but does not meet. The second thing she sees is a heavily scarred patch farther up on his inner arm, disappearing under the white cotton shirt sleeve.

She can't stop herself. She reaches out too, brushing her fingers over his wrist. "Ethan, your arm. What happened?"

He doesn't pull away, but he doesn't look at her. "My work has taken me to some of the ... dicier parts of the world. I had a bit of bad luck, and was imprisoned for a time."

"That scar--"

Ethan gives her just a fleeting glance, a flicker of a smile. "It's an old story, and fairly dull."

Dawn's pushed him again, tried to take things too far too fast. She doesn't know why he seems to inspire that in her. She circles the tattoo with her hand. "And this. You got it to symbolize all of it. Imprisonment and freedom both."

Now he turns to her. "Of course you'd understand."

She doesn't quite get that, but it doesn't matter, because he leans in then and kisses her. Her response is urgent, and though she'd like to rein it in, keep from showing him just how greedy she really is, she can't hold back. He doesn't seem to mind, counters with unspoken demands of his own. When he drops a hand to tease one of her nipples through the heavy sweater, she pulls back to yank the sweater off.

"I want skin on skin," she says. "Please." She reaches back to unhook her bra, but he puts a hand on her arm.

"Dawn, we've forgotten ourselves. My priority must be finding a way to help you."

She casts a glance at all the books, apparently rejected. "And when the home medical guide doesn't cough up the answer, we naturally turn to the big pile of grimoires." Why this is only occurring to her now, she's not sure. The cocooned feeling is fading, whether from time passing or the sudden rush of blood and hormones. "I'm presuming these aren't the fake ones."

"Correct on both counts."

"Why? If I need these, somebody did something to me. Made me sick."

Ethan goes very still.

Suddenly the room feels drafty, and Dawn quickly pulls her sweater back on. "What?"

"Something was done to you," he says slowly. The sexy partners-in-crime manner has vanished completely.

"The book."

"The book enters into things, but what was done happened long before that."

She tries to think back. When she first met Ethan? It wasn't that long ago -- but how would he know about anything before that? "Cut the cryptic. How long ago?"

"Six years."

"The tower -- but how would you know that?"

"Not the tower. Before that."

Dawn's voice drops into what Xander calls the red zone (more menace than you'd think a girl could muster). "What do you know about before?"

Ethan takes a measured breath, locks his gaze on hers. "I know your history. Where you came from."

"Who the hell are you?"

"Someone who's appalled at what they did to you. Your imprisonment for all these years."

Her stomach does a dive worthy of Magic Mountain. "Imprisonment," she echoes. "I don't understand."

"Don't you think it was cruel to take the kind of force you were and hobble you by forcing you into the body and life they chose for you?"

You. He's talking to Dawn, but he's not.

"The monks, you mean?"

"Is there anyone else so arrogant as true believers?"

She recites the story she's always heard, but her lips feel strangely cold and numb as she speaks. "They had to hide the Key from Glory. Tuck it away in the last place she'd ever look. They put it -- me -- under Buffy's protection."

"Christ, Dawn. You never needed protection. Do you think a pathetic godlet like Glorificus could touch the kind of power you have?"

That's just crazy. "Then why? If I could take care of myself, why hide me?"

"They were afraid of you. They wanted to hobble you."

That word again. It makes her feel sick. Dawn shakes her head, and feels a glimmer of a headache between her brows. "I don't believe this."

"Why? Because they told you all this time you're just a girl, and you believe them. You've come to accept that your prison is all you are. Glorificus' search for you brought you to their attention, and you terrified them. Not because Glorificus wanted you. Because of what you were."

Dawn shivers. "This is creeping me out. You're talking to the Key."

Ethan makes a dismissive sound. "The Key is a mere fraction of what you are, just the way Dawn is. They limit you by saying you exist for one purpose. You're more powerful than that."

No one has ever told her she's powerful. Even when the fate of the world rested on her, she was just a tool, something to be used and cast aside. Cosmic MacGuffin, that's Dawn. Now here's someone who sees her as more. Sees her apart from everyone who's defined her till now: daughter of Joyce and Hank, sister of the Slayer, even the prey of Glory. Ethan's looking beyond all that. It unnervess her a little, feels like he's looking past her. But she knows he's not.

She gets to her feet, but all she can think to do is stand in the middle of the room, sweater cuffs pulled down over her fists, which are clenched at her side.

"What they did was intolerably cruel," he says again. "Trapping you in the body of a child--"

"I was fourteen!" she snaps. Anger flares so strongly it feels almost like it's then, and one of Buffy's friends has dismissed her. "I wasn't a baby."

"No," he says. "But it would have been less heartless to send you here as an infant. Can you think of a worse age to be, even under normal circumstances? Wanting so much that you can't have, aware of how limited you are, how much you depend on others?"

"Stop it! You make it sound like I was aware of everything. I was just me. A fourteen-year-old girl." Why is she insisting on this? Retreating into her cell, resisting the harsh, unaccustomed light.

"You hated it, didn't you?"

Tears spring to her eyes, and the headache worsens. "I'm not talking about this anymore. Just tell me what's happening to me now."

Ethan meets her gaze. "You're outgrowing your prison. But the bonds they created are too strong. They'll crush you."

"Tell me the truth, Ethan. You did this to me -- the outgrowing thing. What's happening to me now, it's your fault."

***

"Yes," Ethan says, and the admission disarms her. "And you're correct in believing the book started all this. Believe me, Dawn, I didn't mean to harm you."

"No. You just meant to change me back, to end me, the pitiful cage, and let the sparkly green ball of energy out. Thanks for asking me what I want."

"End you? Why would you think that?"

Because Willow threatened to do that. Her eyes fill as she remembers the terror she'd felt. She'd never doubted for a second that Willow would do it without a moment's thought, or that she could. Sure, Willow apologized since then, any number of times, but Dawn has never felt at ease with her.

"You're trembling." Ethan rises to go to her, but she steps back, puts up the cop hand.

"Stop."

But he already has, halted by her gesture. "Did someone try that? To unmake you?"

"Someone threatened. Someone I trusted and liked."

"And now I've come along," Ethan says softly, "betrayed you in the same way."

"Don't flatter yourself. She was a lot more important to me than you." But it rings hollow. He is important to her, has filled her thoughts for so many weeks. "I thought you found me interesting. Maybe even liked who I am. Now I find out you were just playing with the shiny wrapping paper on the package you were just dying to open."

"That isn't true." Ethan steps toward her again, and this time she doesn't retreat. He takes her hand, and she lets him. "It is true I've been pursuing what you were -- and still are, I believe. But I've grown to care about Dawn very much too."

"You mean the cripple the monks made?" The bitterness she'd meant to put in that question doesn't quite come through. So much of her attention is on her hand in his that it's a miracle she can speak at all.

"I mean the young woman I see standing before me. Who's bright and funny and warm-hearted and altogether too attractive for my own good. I admit I didn't expect that."

Her breathing grows ragged. She should pull her hand away. "You're lying."

Ethan smiles. "I'm occasionally careless with the truth, and I'm never sincere. That's why I'm bungling it so badly right now."

Oh. She can think of nothing to say to that. The response that rises in her is all physical, and it overwhelms everything else.

"What can I do to gain your trust?" Ethan asks.

Heat suffuses her skin, and down below her belly. At this moment she doesn't care about trust. She wants the feel of his mouth, his skin, wants to feel his breath tickling her neck as he whispers things that make her feel wild.

"What happens to me when you get what you want?" Her voice sounds so distant, like she's in a dream. Her words could be those of any girl afraid of being seduced and abandoned. "Do I burn away?"

She feels like she's burning now. If she does not have him, she'll turn to ash.

"Your human aspect won't be harmed. What's been locked away will be released. You'll be complete."

She feels a different kind of release gathering in her muscles and her blood. How can he do this to her, bring her to the brink with a simple touch, his gaze and the sound of his voice? He's affected too, she can see that, but not like her. She wants to cry out, let herself fall, but she forces herself to speak once more. "Something's got to be in it for you."

"Yes." He has not lied to her in all of this. This is what he can do to make her trust him, she realizes, and he's already done it. "I've been hobbled too. I want to be made whole again."

Ethan raises her hand and turns it to press a kiss into her palm. She cries out, lost.

***

Dawn lies curled up on the sofa watching Ethan, who now sits on the floor among his books. She really should care that the pile of rejects is growing, but the sight of his hands, his mouth, makes her think only about what she wants this minute. Desire buzzes through her whole body, pulses in her blood. She wants him, and it pisses her off that he's denying her.

It's the same overwhelming capital-w Want that would sweep through her just before she'd stick some forbidden object in her pocket or her bag. Didn't matter whether it was a lipstick or a cheap ring, a sweater or a charm from the Magic Box. Something would spark this greed in her, the anger that whatever it was was being withheld from her.

Greed has always been her weakness, always been the thing she was scolded for. For stealing, for wanting too much of her mother's attention, for wanting anything at all from her father. Dawn wants too much and expects too much. Everyone who knows her knows that. She's all about the greed.

It makes sense to her now. It's not the pathetic story about the girl with the father who never thought about anyone but himself and the mother who died when Dawn was much too young to deal and the sister whose problems always came first because the fate of the goddamn world rests on her shoulders. There's always been some part of her that knew something vital had been stolen from her, that knew she was caged and wouldn't let her rest. Some deep knowledge had made her greedy, insatiable, and the only response she ever got was to be scolded, lectured -- she even did it to herself.

And here she is, pressing herself into another box to make everyone happy. Studying the ancient languages (though they feed something in her, that part of her that responds to ancient things), preparing for the Watcher's Academy, trying to be everything Giles and Buffy and Xander want her to be. Everything her mom would have wanted. She's tried to please everyone -- except for Hank. She's through jumping through hoops for him.

She's done what they wanted, tamped down the greed (when's the last time she stole something? Not since Sunnydale.), redirected her energies. Been the good little girl.

She makes a small noise, rubs at her forehead.

Ethan looks up. "Is the headache back?"

"Just beginning," she lies.

He gets to his feet. "I'll make some tea."

"You mean that nasty stuff? I don't want to conk out for another six hours."

"You won't. You won't need near the dosage you required when you first got here. It'll relax you a bit, at most."

"All right then." She follows him to the little kitchen alcove, slides her arms around his waist from behind as he fills the kettle. "It's time you took a break anyway."

Dawn half expects him to tell her there's serious work to be done, time is of the essence, but he turns toward her and slips her sweater over her head, dropping it onto the floor. "Oh," she breathes.

She starts to reach back to unhook her bra, but he shoves it upward, releasing her breasts. "Dawn," he murmurs, and brushes his thumbs over her nipples, coaxing a shiver from her. "How responsive you are. How perfect." He takes them in his palms as he kisses her, teasing her with his tongue and his hands. "Tell me what you want." His warm breath on her neck makes her shiver again.

Has any man ever asked her this? "You. I want you inside. Please."

Taking her by the shoulders, Ethan gazes into her eyes. "Never say that."

"Ethan? What did I --"

"I never want to hear you say 'please' again. It's not your place to beg." He works at the button of her jeans, and the feeling of his fingers against the skin of her belly makes her arch her back. He kisses her again as he glides her zipper down, so slowly she feels like she'll die. His fingers stray beneath her panties and she gasps. "Own your desire. Your greed. Take what you want."

She pulls at his shirt, fumbles at his pants, and in the next moment they're skin to skin, Ethan lifting her in surprisingly strong arms and taking her right there against the pantry door.

"Oh," she huffs as he gently sets her down on shaky legs.

Here is the first person in her life who really knows her. Who understands about greed.

***

Ethan asks if she'd like to take a quick shower while he tends to making the tea.

Dawn grunts. "Showers require standing. Standing requires legs made of something other than jelly."

He catches her around the waist, pulls her close. "They're quite nice looking, even if they're not terribly functional at present."

"You're not helping."

He cups her cheek in his hand and moves in for a kiss.

"Oh," she says yet again.

Releasing her, he says, "Run along. Feel free to use my robe, if you'd like. It's hanging on the door." Then he's quickly gathering his clothes, pulling on his shirt.

Dawn catches a brief glimpse of scars crisscrossing his skin, a flash of the horribly burned place on his arm. She thinks about asking, but decides now is not the time.

She stands under the hot spray, lost in thoughts about Ethan's body. Wiry, not an ounce of fat, but well defined, powerful. But there's a secret history mapped out in his scars. And of course she's greedy for it, intends to know it before she's through.

Dawn washes her hair, which is just going greasy. Ethan has an amazing supply of grooming products for a straight man, all from a British maker she's never heard of, all with a scent that is sexy and deeply mysterious. She laughs as it occurs to her that the two of them will smell alike, and at the same time there's a down-low throb at the idea.

She towels off her hair the best she can and turns to the hook on the door, where she finds a silk robe in dense, dark paisley. It glides over her body, just like her fantasy about his voice, silk against naked skin. Her nipples tighten into hard buds as the robe moves over them while she combs out her hair.

When she emerges, he's looking over his scrawl of notes. He puts them aside and rises, smiling. "Satisfactory?"

"Mm. My hair's not going to dry for about six months."

The smile turns sly. "Well, do you have anywhere else to be?"

School flits across her mind for something like a microsecond. Silk flows over her skin as she reaches for him. "Not really."

She kisses him, offering and demanding. His hand drops and parts the robe below the tie. Trailing over the still-damp skin of her thighs, settling at the warmth between. His teeth nibble lightly at her bottom lip as his fingers set up a slow rhythm. A faint, helpless noise escapes her and he rewards her by increasing the pressure just that slight bit more. "What a beauty you are," he whispers. "How rare and extraordinary."

Dawn finds the hem of his shirt, lets her hand slide upward against his bare skin. He shifts his hand, changes the rhythm until her questing is forgotten, lost in the rising sensation as he brings her to release once more.

She staggers against him and he holds her steady, hand stroking her wet hair. "God, what a beauty you are," he says again. Her heart hammers against his chest. He presses a kiss to her temple and says, "Come now. Have your tea before it gets cold."

***

Dawn sits in his robe and drinks the tea. It's less vile this time, and makes her feel less druggy. It -- or something -- makes her feel bold. "Tell me about prison," she says quietly. She has the right. They've talked about her own captivity.

He goes still for a moment, hand poised over paper, pen hovering in the air. Then he looks up, meets her gaze. "What do you want to know?"

"How did you end up there?"

Ethan lays the pen and pan aside, leans back in the overstuffed chair. "Have you ever read The Count of Monte Cristo?"

"I loved that book. I cried buckets."

"Of course you did." The warmth and empathy in his voice make her tear up now. "Something in you responded to your own story."

"It's yours I want to hear. You were falsely accused?"

"Not precisely. A former friend put me in the path of people who had an interest in discovering what I could do."

"God. Was it jealousy?"

"It would be vanity to believe that, so I choose to, yes." So much pain behind the self-deprecating smile. She sees it as brave, the way she always did with Xander.

"You have the same initials. Edmond Dantes. Ethan Devereaux."

"So we do. I hadn't realized."

"They hurt you. But they damaged you, too. Hobbled you, you said."

He's unconsciously rubbing his hand lightly over the burn scar, through his sleeve. "Yes. They were interested not only in examining my talents, but extinguishing them."

"I'm so sorry."

He gives her his entre nous smile. "They managed to take very little from me. However, it is mine, and I want it back."

"How did you stop them?"

"They were true believers. That's all they understand. They had no hope of comprehending an old paradigm shifter like me, and I kept them from seeing there was more to me than they thought."

"Paradigm shifter," she repeats. She frowns into her tea. "You're a chaos magician."

That startles him. "You're familiar--"

"I've run across a lot in twenty years. Or six. Or an infinity." She leans forward suddenly, and the robe slips open. "Ethan. You're him. Ethan Rayne." She can see the wheels spinning as he tries to summon a response to that, but before he succeeds, she laughs. "Oh my god, how good is this?" She stands, the robe falling completely open, but she doesn't pull it closed as she walks toward him. "How fucking good is this? Mama, I've met my soulmate, and he's Ethan Rayne."

***

Dawn laughs again. "Guess that means I beat my sister -- and all my friends -- in the Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know Sex Partner Sweepstakes. Wow. Ethan Rayne. Heard a lot about you. Can't believe we'd never met."

"Perhaps the monks decided it wasn't worth introducing us." He's very still, wary and watchful. You'd learn that, Dawn imagines, as a guest of the Initiative.

"I bet they were sure they'd thought of everything, too. I admit you're not what I expected. That's probably why it took so long for everything to connect. From what I've heard, you seemed more into the magical equivalent of blowing up people's mailboxes."

Ethan winces. "That's a particularly unflattering way of describing it, but you'd be right. That is who I used to be, a schoolboy prankster."

"But now you've got more important goals. Something seething with power and danger. Unless you've already accomplished what you meant to, and the rest is just an impressive story to sucker me in. Maybe all you want is to send Giles a naked picture of me on your cellphone with a text saying 'I'm in ur slayer's sister polishing ur key.'"

"It's an amusing thought, but no. My purpose is exactly what I described."

"Was it prison -- and we're talking about the Initiative, right? -- is that what made you more serious about how you use your abilities? Or did you not even have serious power when my sister knew you?"

"You're a very perceptive girl."

The word girl makes Dawn bristle. She pulls the robe closed. "Don't get all condescending on me."

"That's not how I meant it. You're right. My power wasn't that impressive, and I wasted what I did have on trivia. After I escaped from the Initiative, I spent years learning to work around the damage they caused. It's true, I have more power than I did before. But I want what was stolen from me."

Dawn understands this, now more than ever. "Where does Giles fit into all this? I know he let them take you."

He holds her gaze. "Rupert is an afterthought, my dear. I have learned that the longterm goal is usually more important than momentary amusement. I haven't lied to you about my motives. Or my feelings about you. Any impulse to avenge myself is secondary to making sure you're happy."

Dawn stands over him, regarding him. He's relaxed a fraction, seemingly less convinced that she means to do him bodily harm.

"So," Ethan says softly. "What happens next?"

She doesn't know the answer until she hears herself say it. "We have sex again, now that I'm in on the joke."

***

She hadn't really thought the sex could get hotter, but she was wrong. Now that she knows who he is, there's a transgressiveness that goes beyond the older guy thing and into Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? territory. Beyond hot.

But it's not just that.

Ethan knows some things that none of the college boys she's slept with have even dreamed of.

Like the thing he's doing now. Stroking her skin as they lie together all afterglowy (they've gone traditional this time and used the bed). But it's not so much sleepy and winding down as it is heating her back up, building a slow fire that seems like it will never extingish. Right now, feathering his thumb over the pulse point at her wrist. How can this be so much sexier than the whole freshman year fling with Eric, who'd consumed her thoughts for four whole months? Ethan slows the rhythm of his thumb across her skin, which was hardly a rhythm in the first place.

She emits a soft squeak as she lets the overanalyzing go. She sinks into pure sensation, distantly noticing how the feathery stokes on her wrist create tiny ripples throughout her whole body. How her flesh tightens here and swells there, anticipating, longing.

It's like drifting into a fog, but some small part of her fights it. "If I could think at all, I'd be saying something right now," she says, just to hear her voice. It barely sounds like her.

"The legs are the first to go, then it's the brain."

"And there's nothing medical science can do."

"One hopes not." He changes the pace of what he's doing again, causing her to suck in a breath. "Good sex should take you out of your head. It's one of the things we use to achieve a state beyond conscious thought."

"'We'?"

"Chaos magicians."

"What's beyond? For you, I mean."

"Would you laugh at me if I said the sacred?"

"I thought you guys didn't believe in that."

"Some don't. It's not required. But neither is unbelief. Why not steal from every paradigm man's ever devised, if what you're after is the sacred? Why set out to find the fountain and decide a cocktail straw is the only way to get at it?"

It's the last discourse she'd ever have imagined coming from Ethan Rayne. Actually, she can't imagine anyone she knows talking about such things. The sacred. Willow uses the word sometimes, but Dawn always has the sense that she's playing a part. Usually it feels hollow, but now hearing it makes her chest feel weird. "Jailhouse conversion -- that what this is?"

His smile this time seems very private. She doesn't like the way it shuts her out. "No. It came after." He resumes the slow circling with his thumb and her whole body buzzes with wanting him.

She forces herself to focus. "So tell me -- am I just one more paradigm? Borrow me a while, like your cigar-chomping friend out there, then show me the door when you get what you want, or just get bored?"

"He hardly chomps."

"You shit."

"Dawn, I'm just beginning to realize how constantly surprising you are. There's not a chance of me growing bored with you. There's never been any person -- any paradigm -- like you." His hand and his breathing still. "Christ, I've been an idiot."

"What?"

"No wonder I can't find a way to free you. I'm looking in all the wrong places. You're the force no one's ever imagined, except --"

"Whoever wrote that book."

"Exactly. You brought your satchel. Is it in there?"

Dawn nods. "I couldn't even think of leaving it behind. It felt like death trying to walk away from it."

Ethan throws back the sheet and pulls on his trousers, then bounds toward the sitting room.

***

Dawn pulls on his robe and follows him. Ethan retrieves her messenger bag from the closet where he'd put it and her coat sometime after she arrived. "May I?"

Instead she reaches out for it, and he hands the bag to her. The moment she lays her hand on the book she feels a surge of power that blends with the sexual buzz shimmering in her limbs. Reeling slightly, she plops ungracefully onto the sofa.

Ethan teases the book from her hand. "It's too much for you right now. That's what we're trying to remedy."

"At least sit here by me," she says.

Ethan settles at one end of the sofa while she curls up by him, her head resting by his hip, a hand on his leg. The longing for him is almost unbearable, but she knows what he's doing is more important.

She loses track of time, drifting as he sits next to her, absorbed in his work. Once he emerges from his concentration enough to ask if she'd like something to eat, but she declines and he goes back to his translating without getting anything for himself.

A while later her phone rings, muffled inside her bag. Dawn wonders how many times it's rung unheard while tucked away in the closet. She groans. "It's Val."

"You should answer it then."

Sometimes he sounds so paternalistic. She scowls, but rises and digs the cell out of her bag. "Valryn, hi."

"Dawn, where the hell have you been? I've been trying to get you."

She sits next to Ethan, slouching down to tip her head against on the sofa back. "Oh, my bag got put in a closet where I couldn't hear."

"I've been worried. How are you?"

Ethan reaches out absently and caresses her leg, trailing a thumbnail lightly along the skin of her thigh.

She shivers, and when she speaks her voice sounds weak, breathy. "Doing a lot of sleeping and cuddling with my cousin's cat. She's only got crappy basic cable, but most of the time I'm too zoned out to care."

"Good girl," Ethan whispers, rewarding her with another caress.

"Do they know what's wrong with you?"

"It's some new strain of mono." Where this comes from so effortlessly, she doesn't know. "The pain thing is a little freakish and new, but that's under control. Now it's just the normal mono trauma."

"I want to come out and visit."

"Sweetie, I'd love that, but not yet. Just eating a bowl of soup and half a sandwich exhausts me enough to make me want to sleep three hours. This is as much conversation as I've managed since I got here."

Another teasing stroke from Ethan, this one higher up.

Her breathing turns ragged. "I have to go. Do not worry. I'll call when I'm ready for company, I promise." She flips the phone shut and drops it onto the sofa.

"Very well played," Ethan says.

"You're wicked."

"So I've been told."

"You can't get me all fired up and leave me like this."

"I don't believe you're helpless. Despite your medical condition."

She considers it, but the idea of bringing herself off while sitting next to Ethan is too out there even for her. Instead she rests her cheek against his shoulder and gazes at the opened book.

It pulls her in.

***

Her heart beats faster, in a stuttering rhythm. Again there's this flash of -- she won't call it greed, because the book is hers, has been meant for her for millennia, from before its writing. Dawn can feel something shifting and growing inside her as she takes in the black symbols on the pages -- and then its sudden, hard restraint against -- feels like stone walls, iron bars.

The headache seizes her again, and the sexual buzz suffusing her skin fades away and what she feels is like sandpaper against raw nerve endings. A gutteral noise escapes her, and Ethan turns to her.

"Dammit, Dawn." He hastily lays the book on the floor, out of her sight. "Christ, what were you thinking?"

"It's mine."

"It is, but it's too dangerous for you now. Tell me what's happening. Is it your head?"

"My head, my skin. Worse than when I came here." She surges to her feet, unable to sit still. "I only looked for a moment."

"It doesn't matter. You've taken in as much as you can until your bonds are weakened. I'll make some tea."

"I don't want it," she calls after him. "Don't want to sleep."

"You must." She hears him rattling around in the kitchen alcove, filling the kettle, placing it on the burner. The sound is deafening. He emerges and goes to her. "This is very serious." He begins rubbing her temples and the comforting gesture makes her start to cry. He murmurs soothing nothings to her, telling her to be brave, it'll be just a few minutes.

The kettle shrieks and she nearly does too. Ethan hurries to turn off the flame and steep the tea.

"I don't want to sleep. What if I die in my sleep?"

"You won't."

"You promise me?" She knows he can't, not truthfully, but she's not interested in truth right now.

"I promise, Dawn." He strokes her hair.

"You're a wonderful liar," she says. "So talented."

"I'm not lying. In just a bit you'll have some tea, and it will make things better, just the way it did before." He gathers her in his arms, murmuring more assurances. She suspects he's holding her this way so she can't see his expression.

She calms a little by the time he has to leave her to fetch her tea. He brings it the way he had before, with pieces of ice melting into it to cool it faster. "Drink this down, as quickly as you can."

This time she's ready for the horrible taste, so she manages to do as he says. By the time she hands him the empty mug, her head is starting to spin. "I should --" She staggers a little, and Ethan picks her up and carries her into the bedroom. Which might be sexy, if it weren't so Legends of the Fall. "Don't let me die," she tells Ethan, but she's asleep before she hears his answer.

***

When she wakes it's much like before, except the pain isn't quite as well muffled. She pulls on the silk robe, but it doesn't feel as wonderfully liquid against her skin, which is still tender, almost raw.

She wanders through the opened door and finds Ethan at the small desk in the corner of the sitting room. He's poring over some ancient text -- no, writing in some ancient text. She's almost afraid to approach too closely.

He finishes inking something runelike, then looks up. "How are you?"

"Better. But not as comfortable as last time."

He nods. "Time's not on our side, I'm afraid. But I found what I needed. I have to get some supplies for the rite, but I didn't want to leave you until you woke."

"I don't want you to leave at all." She feels like she's nine again, afraid of her parents leaving, even if Buffy is there.

He rises, strokes her face. "I know. But it's necessary. I'll be as quick as I can. Why don't I call for room service, and I'll go once they've come. You are hungry, aren't you?"

"Ravenous. But don't I need to ... I dunno, fast or something?"

"You'll need your strength."

That makes her nerves twitch, but she agrees to his plan. This time she asks for steak and potatoes, and while they wait she goes again to clean up. The hot water irritates her skin rather than soothes it, so she takes probably the shortest shower of her entire life. Same story with combing out her hair; her scalp is so sore -- tenderheaded, as her friend Carlene says -- that she abandons that attempt too. She brushes her teeth and slips into the robe and emerges. "I think we'd better hurry this up."

Ethan nods. "We'll be able to begin as soon as I return."

"What are you working on? Is it safe for me to see?"

"Completely. Come take a look."

Still, her approach is hesitant. The text reminds her of half a million research sessions with her sister and the Scoobies. Old, crabbed, writing, except it stops in mid-sentence in the middle of a page. Dawn touches the blank paper in the margin. "It's dead."

"Totally. Except it won't seem so when I've finished with it."

Catching his eye, she grins. "You're not just studying fake grimoires."

He enfolds her in the entre nous. "You're looking at the means by which I maintain my lifestyle."

"Oh, this is just delicious. How long does--" She's interrupted by a knock from the room service waiter. He sets up her tray on the coffee table, asks her if there's anything else she needs.

"No thanks. This is wonderful."

Ethan closes the door behind the waiter and strokes her cheek. "I'm heading out now. I'll gather everything we need. It shouldn't take more than an hour." He favors her with a kiss that makes her half dizzy. "Now have your dinner so we can start as soon as I return."

***

It takes longer than he said. Maybe this is just an elaborate ploy, and he's never coming back. He has no ritual, she's going to die, and he's going to let her do it alone. Why shouldn't he leave her? Everyone else does.

She tells herself no, don't be ridiculous -- he's been straight with her through this whole thing. He's found a way to fix her, but whatever he needs for the rite is harder to find than he expected.

Should she let him do it? As sexy and exciting as he is, he's Ethan Rayne for god's sake. She should call Giles, ask him for help. He's infinitely more trustworthy than Ethan.

Except -- when has Giles ever talked with her about what she is and what she can do? Not once since Glory was out of the picture. Dawn had just morphed into a fourteen-year-old girl as far as everyone was concerned. And Giles decided she wasn't his job. Her grief was too much for him. His own was much more important, and he couldn't attend to it properly with a sobbing, sniffling, moping teenager in the way. He stayed the summer, then it was See ya, wouldn't want to be ya.

So what in the fucking hell does she need with Giles now?

As if to reinforce this conclusion, the electronic key card snicks in the lock, and Ethan appears, his leather satchel bulging, and a couple of paper shopping bags in his other hand. When he sees her he looks as relieved as she feels.

He puts on water for yet another tea that looks more like dried bug legs than leaves, then begins to set out candles in a precise pattern. Once the pot is steeping, Ethan draws her to the sofa. "I think things will be a little less complicated if you'd allow me to pull your hair back in a loose plait."

"Of course."

Ethan nods. "While I'm doing that, I'll take you through what we're about to do."

Even though she'd abandoned her own attempt, she finds it comforting as he combs her hair. His attentions make her feel relaxed, almost trancy. As he works, he tells her how this will work.

There are three parts. First the rite. She'll drink the tea he's making, then they'll start the ritual. One of the things he brought back with him is some kind of special clay, which he'll use to mark protective symbols on her body. Once the rite is done, they will attempt to enter a state that's beyond thought.

"You mean sex," Dawn says.

"That's one way it's done. And since the hotel management takes a dim view of drumming..."

"So do I."

He laughs and focuses on braiding her hair for a moment. Dawn hasn't had someone else braid her hair since she was a child. This remembered sensation, more than anything else, makes her feel like everything will be all right.

"So what comes next?"

"We begin to dissolve the bonds that are hurting you. We'll take it slow and easy. I'll be with you the whole time."

"And then ... I'll be free?"

"Dawn, I think it's wise to take things slowly. I'd like to do this in three sessions."

"Sessions. What's that mean, the whole ritual and everything?"

"Yes. The restraints the monks created are extraordinarily strong. I don't want to go mucking about and doing you more harm."

Tears spring to her eyes. "I thought I'd be okay. That we'd do this and I'd be okay."

"You will be. The greatest danger will be past once we've completed the first session." He finishes the braid and wraps a cord of some kind several times around the end. "There. We're just about ready to begin." He offers his hand to help her rise, then caresses her cheek. "Two more things. You must be naked, and you must be blindfolded."

She's been naked or close to it for a good part of the time she's been here, but the two conditions freak her out a little, and the tears start in earnest. "I'm sorry. It's just -- I'm scared."

"Of course you are." He strokes her cheeks, gently thumbs away her tears. "But you're also braver than you know. And I'll be with you the whole time."

Dawn unties the robe's sash and lets the silk puddle at her feet. "Let's start this thing."

***

Ethan settles the blindfold in place before he tends to anything else. It feels like silk, hardly any weight to it at all, and lets in no light whatsoever. She hears the scratch of matches as he lights the candles, then he places a bowl of tea in her palms and tells her to drink.

It tastes like bug legs, too, but she refrains from commenting or making a face. As soon as she finishes the last of it, Ethan takes the bowl from her hands. She stands, waiting for direction, but he offers none, just smears something cold against her chest, making her gasp.

His fingers keep moving, skipping across the canvas of her skin, pausing only to dip into the cold wetness. The clay he told her about. He begins chanting as he marks her skin, in a language unknown to her. Once he finishes the runes, he hangs a delicate chain around her neck, with a pendant that falls between her breasts. Dawn reaches up to finger it, exploring its facets and sharp downward point. A crystal of some kind.

Without pausing in the chanting, he indicates by touch that she should kneel, and there's a cushion at her feet to settle on. He takes her hand, turning it palm downward, then passes a candle beneath, close enough that she can feel the heat but not enough to burn.

Ethan finishes the chant, then she feels a puff of breath against her arm, smells the pungent smoke of an extinguished flame.

"You did beautifully," Ethan whispers, stroking her jawline and leaning in for a kiss.

"It's over?" She reaches up to push the blindfold off, but he catches her wrists gently.

"The first part is finished. But the blindfold stays for all three." Deftly he wraps another length of silk around her wrists. "Relax and I think you'll come to enjoy it."

The sharp smell makes her wrinkle her nose as he puts out the rest of the candles. Then he helps her to her feet and leads her into the bedroom.

"Would you like your wrists free, or shall I leave them bound?" he asks her. His voice is like the silk that covers her eyes, entwines her wrists.

She's never thought of such a thing. Not in relation to herself, not as anything other than a joke about other people. "Bound," she whispers, and the admission makes her shiver.

Ethan raises her arms above her head and ties the silk to the bedpost. Her heart thumps as she finds herself in such uncharted territory.

The sex is so much more intense with the blindfold and the restraints. Just feathering his fingertips across her belly is enough to make her cry out, and when he teases her thighs apart and bends to taste her, she calls his name over and over until it sounds like meaningless babble.

***

Once her heart slows down to its usual rhythm and her legs stop quivering, Dawn can't say if she touched the sacred, but she knows she did leave conscious thought behind. Ethan spoons her from behind, his hand stroking her head. "Tell me a story," he says softly, his breath rustling the loose hairs at the nape of her neck.

"I can't think of a story."

"Something simple. A memory. From when you were a girl."

As he strokes her hair, she thinks about earlier, when he was weaving the long rope of braid. "My mom used to braid my hair like you did. I loved that so much. We'd talk about things that were going on. I could say things I couldn't when we were face to face."

"Like what?"

"Things that scared me. Or when I was mad at my dad sometimes I could talk about how much he disappointed me. I couldn't stand to do that when I could see her face." She drifts into the memory, the pleasure of the soft-bristled brush against her scalp. "It felt so good, so calming. Except, ow, when she was in a big rush. Stop talking, Dawn, stop moving around, we're late. It hurt." She reaches toward her head to finger her tender scalp, encountering Ethan's hand instead. The contact calms her.

"Tell me another. Your first day at school."

"I was so nervous. I'd been so jealous of Buffy because she got to go, but when it was my turn, I got all scared. Mom was teary, and that made it worse, and Buffy had some kind of school thing she had to go to, so Mom took her and Hank took me. The building was so huge, and there was this long, long sidewalk leading up to it." Her stomach flutters, and she concentrates on the hand stroking her hair. She wets her lips. "They all had mothers. The other little kids, I mean. Carrying their lunchboxes or their sweaters, holding their hands."

"What about you?"

"He was in a hurry. Always had somewhere else to be. He just leaned over me and opened the door and said, 'Knock 'em dead, kiddo.' And that sidewalk, it was so long."

"You walked in by yourself?"

"Uh huh. My stomach was all bunched up, and I was wadding up my jacket in my hands, and all these big kids were brushing past me, and all the little ones hanging onto their mothers. I felt like I was gonna cry, you know?" Her throat is tight right now. "But then I saw this little girl at the classroom door, hanging onto her mother's skirts and just sobbing. And I thought, 'Well, I'm not gonna be like that."

"And then you were brave?"

"And then I was brave. And the teacher lady came up and saw me by myself and told me how brave I was." She laughs, feeling lighter.

"And you're still very brave." The mattress dips as Ethan leans over her. He dabs at her forehead and lips with a cool, damp cloth. It smells like cucumbers, light and fresh. "You're such a remarkable girl."

He dabs at her throat and between her breasts, where the crystal rests. "Tell me more. Tell me about pretending to be Henrietta the Spy."

"Harriet the Spy." She nestles back against him as he resumes spooning. And she tells him.

***

When she wakes the room is flooded with sunlight and Ethan is gone. Dawn feels fuzzy-headed, and when she rises she finds she has wobbly colt legs. There's a glass of water on the bedside table and she drinks it, feeling a little steadier once she does. She pulls on Ethan's robe and shambles into the sitting room, finding him bent over his fake grimoire.

"'Morning," she croaks.

"Not precisely," he says, "but I'll take it as intended."

"What time -- wow, almost three o'clock."

"How do you feel?"

"Fuzzy. Other than that, I don't really know."

"Hungry?"

"Not so much. What'd we do, exactly, in part three? All I remember is talking a lot." It reminded her a little of sleepovers, exchanging confidences in the dark, but for two things. When she was young, the dark seemed to insulate her, distance her from the secrets she whispered. Last night her emotions had seemed so close to the surface. And the secrets -- she doesn't really remember which stories she told, but it had been a one-way street, that much she does recall.

Ethan sets down his quill pen. "Why don't we get you cleaned up, then you can have something to eat."

But she just told him she wasn't hungry. She feels too passive to argue, though, just follows him and watches him start running a bath, carefully adjusting the temperature and pouring in something foamy. She smiles, remembering her realization about them smelling alike.

He helps her into the bath and then instead of leaving her there, he kneels beside her and begins to sponge off her skin. Most of the clay smears are gone already, but he wipes away the remaining traces.

"It's like I'm ill or something, the way you're acting," she mumbles.

"You are ill. But you're on the road to getting better."

"Why do I feel so woozy?"

"I told you you'd need your strength. It's an arduous rite."

She tips her head back and drifts, letting him tend to her. The long, heavy braid hangs outside the clawfoot tub. Too much trouble to let it get wet and then wait for it to dry. "Ethan."

"Yes, Dawn?"

"After this can I have something to eat?"

"Of course you can."

After a bit he helps her up and dries her off, and she gazes in the mirror at the crystal around her neck. It's clear, with a mysterious dark thread twisting down the center. Beautiful.

Ethan bundles her onto the sofa and feeds her soup.

"Are we doing all this again tonight?"

"Not tonight. You need to rest at least another day."

"'Kay," she says. She pushes away the bowl and curls up on the sofa, sinking back into sleep.

***

When she wakes again she no longer feels like a convalescent. "Is there a hotel gym or pool or something?" she asks Ethan, who's still working on the grimoire. Energy flows through her, leaving her just at the threshold of antsy.

"I think it's best if you stay out of the more public areas," he says. "Your department chair is very fond of meeting friends for drinks here. It would be difficult to explain why you're recovering from a mutant strain of mono in my hotel suite. Besides --" He reaches for her hand and presses a kiss into her palm. "Your lack of a bathing costume would no doubt cause a stir."

The low belly flutter makes her draw in a breath. "'Bathing costume.' You Brits. You might've noticed I lack any sort of costume at all." There's the sweater and jeans she wore here, but she hasn't seen them since she appropriated Ethan's robe.

"You're perfectly attired for one form of exercise I can think of." He rises and stands before her, rubbing an ink-stained thumb over her lower lip in a way that makes her knees go weak.

"How do you do that?"

"Do what?" His innocent air is tinged with amusement as he traces a tiny circle with his thumb.

"That," she whispers raggedly. "Make me wild just by touching my hand, or my lips."

"The body's like any other text," he murmurs. "You can content yourself with engaging it on a superficial level. Or you can seek to know it on the deepest possible level, study every line until it reveals itself to you completely."

Her breath flutters against his hand as she releases a sigh.

"Would you like me to share some of my studies?" he asks. "Shall I read you my favorite passages?"

"Yes, Ethan, please," she says, and this time he doesn't scold her for pleading.

***

It's easier when she knows what to expect. The dark, the chanting, the cold, wet clay. The powerful eroticism of the things they do when the sharp scent of snuffed candles hangs in the air. He opens the text of her body to her yet again, revealing new passages, shedding new light on old favorites. Somehow these are easier to see in the velvety darkness of the blindfold.

And then there's more talking as they lie together after, limbs entwined. He coaxes stories from her as he strokes her hair and her face. Family vacations when Hank was still around and they could afford them. Her favorite childhood food. Her favorite game when she was small. Which leads to a string of stories about her best friend back when they lived in the city, Ligea. "I always thought that was the prettiest name, lee-he-ya.When I got to high school and we got to studying Poe, I never could get used to the way people pronounced Ligeia. It sounded like a skin disease or something. I'd totally lost touch with her by then. Funny how the people who are so important in your life at one stage just drift away. You think you'll stay in touch forever because you shared everything, and all it takes is a couple of months of school, and boom, they've evaporated. Well. Maybe not boom. Poof. Fizzle. Ssst. Your basic evaporation noise. I should run her through Google sometime, maybe I could find her again."

"That's a fine idea," he says, then he teases another story from her. Dawn enjoys this, his exploration of her body and her past, but soon she wants to drift further into the dark, into sleep, and he won't let her go. He prods her with his voice and dabs at her face with the cool cloth. Its fresh scent makes her feel relaxed yet focused.

Dawn tells him about learning to make seahorses, baking chocolate chip cookies with her mother, playing Parcheesi, which she never really liked but everyone she knew had it, and that's what you did. She tells him about deciding to be helpful and doing the laundry on her own, and turning Hank's underwear pink, which was actually more intentional than not.

"Tell me one of yours," Dawn finally says. "I'm tired of talking about myself."

"All right then." Ethan tells her about one Christmas at his grandmum's. Yorkshire pudding and Christmas crackers and the Queen on television, pretty much the classic story she'd gotten from Giles way back when.

"He brought us Christmas crackers one year," she blurts. "I'd forgotten that."

"Who, your dad?"

"No, it was Giles. The first or second Christmas we were in Sunnydale. Hank had made some promise he couldn't keep, as usual, and I was really crushed. Must've been our first winter, because I got progressively less crushed every year. Anyway, Mom invited Giles, and he announced he'd brought crackers, and I kept waiting for him to put them out, because I thought it was the kind you eat, y'know? But it was fun, and we all put on the paper crowns, and Buffy felt like a big dork which irritated me because she always had to be such a pain about everything."

"Siblings."

"Word. You have any? Oh, of course you do. The niece. You have that brother you hadn't spoken to for years."

"And the less said the better."

"I'm sorry." She reaches around and rubs a hand on his arm. "Even when Buffy's the world's biggest pain, which she still is sometimes, I'm always glad she's my sister. Maybe the present will smooth the path with the two of you. Most people are really soft-hearted about their kids. Make your niece happy, maybe he'll come around."

"You are very soft-hearted, Dawn Summers. I'm sure you took in all the neighborhood strays."

"Oh god. There was this time--" She stops, surprised at the way emotion clogs her throat after all these years.

He strokes her hair and she basks in his touch like a cat.

"I found this bird in the backyard. It fell out of its nest, and something must have gotten it. Its wing was all messed up. I picked it up in both hands and ran into the house, and Mom got a shoebox and some soft rags. We dragged in a desk lamp to shine on it and try and keep it warm. We tried for days to save that baby bird." Her voice wobbles as she continues. "Xander was so tender with it. I think that's when I developed my big crush on him."

"What happened? Did you save it?"

Dawn's breath hitches. "We called Giles, because all those books, y'know, he'd have to know how to save it. And we thought we would."

"How old were you then?"

"Eleven, I think." She wants to stop this. There's an ache in her chest so fierce she doesn't even think she can even speak. She fights to get herself under control. "Let's stop."

Ethan rubs her temple through the silk masking her eyes. "Just finish this one story. You're doing so well, Dawn. Just tell me the rest of this one." He presses a kiss on her shoulder.

She bursts into sobs instead.

Gathering her into his arms, Ethan caresses her, murmuring comfort. Tells her she's strong and brave, but it only makes her cry harder.

"Tell me the rest. You'll feel better."

"I can't." The blindfold is sticking to her face, and she raises a hand to push it up. "I don't want to wear this."

He catches her wrist, not so gently as the other night. "Dawn, you must follow this exactly as it was set down."

"Why? It's not doing anything."

"It is working. The fact that this is so difficult means you've reached the framework of your prison. This is the memory that binds them all."

She gets what Ethan's saying on one level, but it makes her head ache. She's been telling these memories as if they're real -- they are real to her as she tells them. It brings her up short to be reminded that they're a careful edifice built by the monks. "It's not a real story," she says, and her voice sounds so very small.

"No," he says gently.

"They're all fake. The one about -- about --" She can't think of any of the stories she told him. "Everything, before --" Before what point? It's so seamless, what they did. She can't say there's a moment when she wasn't there, and then suddenly she was, like a light flipping on. Earlier things, they're smudgier, less distinct, but the year that Glory was after her doesn't seem any different than the time that came just before. "Who I am is based on all these memories, the way Buffy is who she is because of all the things that have happened to her. Only half of mine -- two thirds of mine, actually -- are fake. If none of that is real, what am I?"

Ethan pulls her closer to him, trying to soothe her agitation. "You're far realer than most of the people on this planet. You just don't remember all that you are because it's been hidden from you. That's what we're doing now. Finding the heart of yet another text."

"I can't. I can't." She scrambles out of bed and yanks off the blindfold before Ethan can stop her. "I can't take the dark anymore, I'm so scared."

He's by her side in a heartbeat, and to her surprise he doesn't insist on replacing the blindfold. Wrapping her in the robe, he draws her back to the bed and holds her while sobs overtake her again.

***

She can't stop crying. That's how she'd been when it first happened, finding the bird stiff and cold in his box after they'd finally thought he was going to make it. Dawn had heard her mom on the phone to someone saying, "I'm afraid she's going to make herself sick." She'd thought then that she didn't care if she made herself sick, didn't care if she died (yeah, she was a drama queen at eleven, who isn't?).

Ethan tends to her, smoothing her hair, coaxing her to eat, trying to persuade her to tell the rest of the story.

"Just make it stop," she pleads.

"I never meant to cause you suffering, Dawn," he says.

"Then fix it. Because I'm going to die if you don't."

"Tell me the rest."

"Isn't that like dying?"

He dabs at her forehead with the cool cloth. "I know you're frightened. But believe me, there's more to you than the memories you're afraid of leaving behind. You'll regain who you were."

"You keep saying that." She pushes him away, and he leaves the room. She sinks back into weeping until he returns with another cup of that fucking tea. "No."

"If this continues, you will die," Ethan says. "You must sleep. While you do I'll attempt another ritual. Something different."

"I don't want it," she says, but at the same time she reaches for the cup. Her breath hitches with the force of her sobs, making it difficult to drink. Ethan helps her steady the cup until it's emptied. "I should call my sister," she says as she settles back onto the pillows. "I should say--" But then she's asleep.

***

The tears start again even before she's fully awake. He's sitting in a chair in the shadows by her bed.

"Go away," she says. "You said you were going to help."

"I thought I could," he says. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry doesn't cut it," she snarls. One of her dad's favorite expressions when he's in a real mood. "Just get out."

But he doesn't move.

"Mom! Make him get out!"

"She's gone out," he says. "Let it all out, Dawn. Say whatever you like. It'll do you good." Giles's voice sounds a little strange, a near whisper.

"I hate you. You said you'd save it."

"I said I would try."

"You didn't try hard enough! We kept thinking it would die, and it kept pulling through. I stayed up so many nights feeding it mashed-up worms and water in an eyedropper."

"I know, Dawn." He reaches out to stroke her hair, but she bats his hand away.

"And then we thought it was going to make it. It started cheeping and moving around a little and eating more, and it really looked like it would be okay. You and Mom talked me into going to bed, and when I got up it was dead."

She sobs so hard it makes her cough.

"I'm sorry," he says again.

"You don't care! Not really!" But she lets him stroke her hair when he tries again. "Oh, god," she says when the tears subside enough that she can speak. "Why did they do that?"

"Do what?"

"Why did they make me remember that?" She looks at him, and of course, it's Ethan, not Giles. She clutches his hand and he puts his other one on hers. "Why such a terrible memory?"

"It seems to be the underpinnings of who you became. Your friendship with Xander. Your closeness with your mother. Your soft-heartedness."

"I never felt the same about Giles again. I loved him, but I kept some part of my heart from him. He was just another man who disappointed me. Why would they do that?"

Ethan ponders for a moment. "Perhaps they meant it as protection. If it came to light what you truly were -- which of course it did -- they might have suspected Rupert would take whatever action he thought necessary to fulfill his duty. Perhaps they wanted to sow that seed of mistrust in you."

"No. He wouldn't have. Though I remember him watching me, when Glory was after me, after we found out. He had this calculating -- No. That was just me projecting that mistrust. He would never have hurt me."

Ethan doesn't respond. He draws her hand toward him and presses a gentle kiss on her fingers. "I can't say how honored I am by the trust you've placed in me. Given your history with your father and with Rupert. 'Everyone leaves' -- you said that earlier."

"That was me being emo."

"It seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the losses you've endured." He settles her hand back onto the comforter and gently thumbs away her tears. "Tell me how you're feeling."

"It doesn't feel like I'm dying anymore. But I'm wiped out."

"You should sleep."

Dawn shudders. "No more of that nasty tea."

"No. You don't need that now. But you've been through a difficult trial. Rest."

Ethan rearranges the comforter over her, and she sinks deep into sleep before he finishes.

***

When she wakes, she's alone, and feeling worlds better. A little wobbly, but she trusts that it'll fade as it did before. She pulls the robe around her and steps out into the sitting room to find Ethan sprawled on the sofa, fully clothed and asleep. A half-eaten sandwich on a room service tray sits on the coffee table, along with an empty Guinness bottle.

He must have been so tired. Dawn's fairly certain he sat awake and on watch for some time. He also must have spent a few hours on the grimoire, from the look of his ink-stained fingers. There's a faint smudge by the corner of his mouth, too, where he inadvertently rubbed his face.

She kneels beside him, lets her hand hover over his. The black smudges on his fingers, the deeper black of the tattoo almost circling his wrist. After a moment's hesitation, she lays her hand on his, but the first tentative touch brings him awake, jerking away from the contact.

"I'm sorry, it's me, I'm sorry, Ethan, I should have thought."

"Don't apologize." He sits up, making space for her on the sofa and reaching for her. "I startle rather more easily than I used to, that's all."

"It should have occurred to me. I knew someone else who was grabbed by the Initiative." She lays her hand on his chest, feels his heart thudding wildly.

"You look much better."

"Not so steady yet, but much better. I remember crying and crying. It felt like days."

"It was days."

Dawn makes a face and looks away. "That must've been a drag for you. I'm sorry."

Ethan touches her face, gently turning it back toward him. "It was worse than 'a drag.' It was like watching a beautiful songbird hurling itself against the bars of its cage. I was afraid for you."

Songbird. Something about the image stirs an echo of grief in her, faint and then gone. "But I'm safe now?"

"The worst is over. One more ritual will release you completely."

Dawn trails her fingers along the ink stains on his hand. "I'm like your grimoire. An elaborately constructed fake."

"No. It's been a long time since I've met anyone as genuine as you." He turns her hand, strokes her palm with his thumb.

Her breathing turns ragged.

"Would a fake person be so responsive? Or kindle such desire in me at the simplest touch?"

"Do I?"

He answers that without a word, making her shiver with a feathery touch, then setting about warming her. Kindle is the word; Ethan builds a fire in her that rages so hot it seems it'll consume her, then banks it so that it burns slowly but feels like it will never extinguish. She loses track of the number of times she cries out in ecstasy, the different ways he brings her to release.

After the latest time, she lies in his arms while the little tremors in her legs subside. "Wow," she breathes. "Have I used that one?"

"Once or twice, I believe."

"You'd think all this deep study of the text would build my vocabulary, not shrink it to five words and a range of moans, screams and squeaks."

"You've rather expanded that range, don't you think?" He glides his hand over her hip, teasing a gasp from her. "And no less expressive than language."

The sexual buzz builds in her again. She draws Ethan toward her for a kiss when her cellphone rings.

"Damn."

"There." He kisses her. "That's six words." Another kiss that sparks her back into flame, and she so does not want to leave this bed.

"I should get that."

"Who is it?"

"It's the general ring. Could be anyone, maybe an overseas call."

He releases her, and she gropes for the phone. "Hello," she says, a little breathless. Her caller identifies himself, and she sits straight up, pulling the sheet up over her. "Xander."

***

"Xander, sweetie, where are you?"

"I'm back in Bamako. I've been wanting to call for a couple of days, but I just got here. Dawnie, are you okay?"

"I'm fine. You went into the city just to call me?"

"Sadly, no." His voice sounds a little strange, but that could just be the sat phone. "Everything's good?"

"Seriously, I'm doing great. Why, what's wrong?"

"I just--" There's a pause long enough to make her wonder if the connection's been lost. "I had some -- I guess you'd call them breakthrough memories."

"Did you shout Eureka! in them?"

"Funny," Xander says, in a tone that means Not. "What I mean is, I was remembering things the way they-- I remembered things happening differently."

"Like what?"

"Y'know, times in high school, and you weren't there."

She curls in closer to Ethan, who presses a kiss to the nape of her neck. "Well, I wasn't there. I didn't start high school till after you graduated."

"That's not what I mean. That era, that's what I'm talking about."

"Huh. Well, maybe it's some wild mojo you happened across over there. Everything's normal here."

"You're sure? I had this really strong impression of you being really upset. Impossible-to-comfort upset. Like back when--" There's another pause. "Back in the day."

"You felt that? I had a bad case of the blues for a day or two. Completely hormonal, responded to time and chocolate."

"You're okay now?"

Ethan begins massaging her neck muscles, and it's all she can do not to ooooohh into the phone. "Right as rain." She runs her hand down Ethan's bare leg to let him in on the joke.

"Good, then." He sounds distracted, like there's something still bothering him.

"What about you, are you okay?"

"Sure."

"That sounded sincere. What's up? Are you headed back into the bush soon?"

"No. I'm going back to London." He sounds so old and tired. Xander never sounds that way.

"What happened?"

"Nothing, really. There's an outbreak of river blindness a couple of villages down, and I -- well, the word blind gives me the wig these days."

"I don't blame you. Look, you'll be in civilization. The land of good beer and great theater."

"Sure, yeah. Be fun." Something in his voice makes her feel like she's missed some crucial point. "Well, listen," he says before she can recover and come up with a better response, "I'm on a borrowed phone, so I should go. I just got worried and wanted to hear your voice."

"I'm glad you called. I miss you."

"Same here. I'll see you, all right?" Obviously it's a rhetorical question, because he's gone before she can answer.

Dawn drops her cell onto the bedspread and wraps her arms around her knees.

"What's wrong?" Ethan's breath rustles the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck.

"Xander. I think he's --" she borrows a word from their conversation -- "blue, I guess. I feel like I dropped the ball on that conversation."

"Not from what I heard." He slides his hands off her shoulders, slipping one arm around her waist, coaxing her to lie back against him. "You were concerned and encouraging."

"He's abandoning his work because he's afraid for his safety. You can't know how much that goes against his grain. I should have said -- I don't know. Nothing would make him feel better under those circumstances."

"You listened. It sounds like that's the best thing you could do."

"It wasn't enough."

He raises his hands to her temples, makes lazy circles against her skin. "It will turn out all right, love," he murmurs.

It's the first time he's used an endearment instead of her name.

She sighs and closes her eyes.

"So open-hearted," he continues. "You do want to save the world, don't you?"

Surrendering to the gentle movement of his fingers, she hears her voice, dreamy and distant. "I've helped. Save the world, you know."

"I know."

"No one else does. Ohhh, this is so nice."

"No one knows you like I do."

"That's true."

"Not Professor Roberts or Valryn, the people you surround yourself with."

Those people might as well be on some faraway planet.

"You've held yourself back from them."

She draws in a breath, lets it out. "I guess I have."

"Not Rupert or your sister. Even Xander. They've held themselves back from you."

She frowns. "No."

His fingers keep up their slow rhythm on her temples. "They have. They've chosen not to remember your origins. Chosen to limit who you can be with them."

Dawn doesn't want to believe this, but how can she argue his point? "They just -- They wanted me to have a normal life."

"As the sister of the slayer." There's the faintest hint of mockery in his tone.

She doesn't like it directed at her. "Don't make fun of me."

"Never that, my love. I have nothing but admiration for the way you've endured the things you have. You are the phoenix, and nothing will stop your rise."

Reaching up to draw one of his hands away from her temple, she parts her legs.

***

When they finally finish exploring one another, Dawn falls into a deep sleep. She remembers only fragments when she wakes. Swimming through warm sea-green waters. A bird whose iridescent emerald feathers flash in the sun. A faint green light winking across a bay in the gathering dark.

She's alone in the bed. Ethan, she's sure, is in the next room working on the creation of his elaborate fake. She has no urge to go to him just now, happy to luxuriate in the feel of the expensive cotton sheets against her skin.

Watery winter sunlight seeps in around the edges of the curtains. It occurs to her she hasn't left this suite since she arrived, hasn't even looked out the window. The thought doesn't impel her to do so now; it seems like a fitting irony that confining herself to this small, intense world will bring about her liberation from prison.

It took a man who'd known imprisonment to recognize her for who she is. And if you want irony, try this on for size: It's Giles who set it all in motion. He let the Initiative take Ethan, forgot him the minute those soldiers took him away. Was willing, knowing what they'd done to Spike, to give them a human, someone who'd been a friend. Left him there, even after he'd seen what they did to Oz.

Is Giles really that hard a man, that vengeful? Or was it the true believer in him that thought turning in Ethan was the right thing to do, that crippling his power (and maybe the man himself) would make the world safer?

She remembers his eyes on her, back when things with Glory got really bad. Maybe it wasn't a projection of her own lack of trust. Perhaps he'd been weighing his options, considering how he might prevent Glory from tearing down the curtain between earth and hell. It all came down to her -- could he have believed the world would be safer if Dawn wasn't in it?

True believers. That was Giles, priest of his one paradigm, unshakable in his faith. If Buffy hadn't been there to protect Dawn, would he have sacrificed her to his idea of the greater good?

She shudders. Reaching for the robe, she hurries out to the sitting room.

***

Ethan distantly takes note of her entrance, but his attention's still on his careful lettering. "I'll be going out in a short while," he says absently. "Sebastian's found a buyer for the grimoire."

"You're not even finished."

"Well, there are many channels to go through in buying such an object." He sets down his pen and looks up at her, rubbing at his neck. "Contacts in faraway lands, bribes to pay. It could take weeks." He finally notices her agitation. "Dawn, what is it?"

"I was just thinking. About Giles. Would he have done it? Sacriificed me to stop Glory?"

Ethan rises, resting his hands on her shoulders as he gazes at her. "Dawn, you mustn't, there's no use in--"

"I think what he did to you, letting the Initiative have you. He knew what they were like. If not then, not fully, he knew later. He left you there. I thought I knew him, but when I think of that--"

He strokes the side of her face. "Sweet, you and I mean very different things to Rupert."

"If he could be that coldhearted to anyone--"

"He saw me as a threat, love."

"I could have brought about the end of the world. I think I win on that front."

That teases a grin from him. "Granted." After a pause, he says, "He can be a hard man when he believes it's warranted. I especially brought out that tendency because of our history. But he would never have hurt you."

"How can you know that?"

"He loves you."

"How do you know? Our paths never crossed before now. You haven't seen him with me. You have no way of knowing." Her lip is trembling and tears swim in her eyes.

"I know he loves you because how could he not?" He brushes away a tear that escapes and rolls down her cheek.

She holds his gaze, searching. He has just declared himself in the process of defending Giles. "You're getting slightly better at sincere," she tells him, which prompts a soft laugh. "But it's wrapped in a lie. Giles does what he feels he has to. Period."

He pulls her close to him, enfolding her in his arms. "It's long past. There's no need to dwell on it."

She can't stop. He has to leave, though, so when he finally steps back and regards her, she tells him she's fine. Ethan bestows a kiss on her, then heads for the shower to get ready for his appointment. "Make sure you scrub off the ink," she reminds him. "Dead giveaway."

Once he's in the shower she sits on the sofa, legs tucked beneath her, dwelling. Thinking about Giles. Remembering a long-forgotten argument between Anya and Xander, in that horrible summer after Buffy made the dive off the tower. They hadn't realized she was around, and she'd heard Anya whisper, "Maybe we should have done it Giles's way, that's all I'm saying."

Xander's hand had flown up as if he was going to slap Anya, then he'd frozen, a sickened look on his face. "I never want to hear you say that again," he'd said, then he'd rushed out of the Magic Box, disappearing for hours.

They knew. Giles had wanted to kill her, and they'd all known.

Dawn feels a terrible hollowness sweeping through her, like her heart has been scooped out. She feels this awful urge to hurl herself through the suite's French doors, to hold her hand over a candleflame until her flesh burns. Jumping up, she goes to Ethan's desk and opens the beautiful Chinese box that holds his inks and pens. She finds a nib that looks like it gets little use and drags its edge along the skin of her forearm, watching blood well up in its wake like dark red ink.

She releases a breath, almost dizzy from the sense of relief she feels. She cuts herself a second time, and is about to make a third line when Ethan emerges from the bathroom on a gust of steam and aftershave.

"I think I -- Dawn!" He rushes to her and wrests the pen nib from her fingers. "What in Christ's name are you doing?"

"I just -- I felt --"

"Do you have any idea what could happen if your blood mixed with the ink and went into the grimoire?"

"No, what?" Her voice sounds very small.

He hurls the nib into the corner of the room farthest from his desk. "I -- I haven't the faintest notion, but it could be a disaster. Even an average person's blood -- it's not something that can ever be allowed."

"I didn't think." A sob bursts from her. "I just couldn't stand feeling that way. All hollow."

"I know." Ethan takes her face in his hands, locking his gaze on hers. "I can help you."

"You can?" she quavers.

"You need to feel something."

"God, yes."

"Wait here." After he disappears for a few moments, he returns bearing another case. Dark wood, with an elaborate inlaid pattern. It's larger than the other. "Don't be afraid," he says, and opens the case to her.

"You have a collection of whips," she says. Crops. Maybe that's the word. They're short, some with more than one lash. Her lips -- her whole face -- feel strangely numb.

"They can be useful for ritual purposes. For attaining an altered state."

"Quieter than drumming?"

He gives her a smile, the one that first drew her to him. "For the most part. You can touch them if you like."

Her fingers skim over the handles of a couple of them. "Who do you use them on?"

"Myself."

Jesus, this is too weird. So DaVinci Code.

But what about her and the blood welling on her arm? So Secretary. "You have to be somewhere."

"I can call and delay my meeting." He turns away with the case, setting it down on the coffee table, opened away from her, and she breathes a little easier. "It helps with the hollowness, I promise."

"You know what that's like?"

"Intimately." He bends to reach into the case, producing a thick-handled crop dangling several strips of rabbit fur. "It hurts less than slicing yourself. Go on. Hold it, if you want."

Dawn takes it, feels its weight.

"The second you say stop, it ends," Ethan tells her, "no questions asked. Anytime, from this moment on."

"No special safe word?"

He smiles. Not the wicked one. This is warm and encouraging. "Safe words are for games. When you want No, please stop to mean More, I beg you. Do you understand? We're not playing now. Stop means stop."

She blinks, then nods after a moment.

"Do you feel safe?"

After a pause, she says, "I do." She would never have imagined herself considering this. Like letting her hands be bound, it seemed like something other people do. Perverts, not normal people.

He slides another compartment of the case open, removes a length of silk.

Anxiety spears through her. "You're not going to blindfold me?"

"No. I thought I'd wrap those cuts." He takes the forearm she offers and binds it with a neatly wrapped bandage. "Now. Remove the robe." Laying it aside, he draws an ottoman into the center of the room and sets a pillow on the floor beside it. "Kneel there, and pull your hair around to the front."

She gathers her hair in her left hand and pulls it around to fall over her heart, which beats wildly.

"Put your elbows on the pouf, together, and your hands together. Just like those dreadful figurines of praying children."

She laces her fingers together, and he corrects their position so her palms are flat together, fingers pointing skyward.Then he winds another length of silk around her wrists, binding them together, tucking the ends between her palms.

"You see? You're only bound if you wish to be."

She nods.

"Are you certain you want this?"

After a second's hesitation, she nods again.

"Deep, steady breaths," he instructs.

She braces herself, but he steps away, picking up the phone. He tells Sebastian he'll be an hour later than agreed. "Tell the buyer I'm having difficulties with a go-between in Nicosia, if you like, or let him cool his heels and wonder."

Returning, he positions himself behind her, out of her sightline. "Deep breaths."

"I'm trying."

"At first it will be a bit vigorous, to bring the circulation up. Then I'll change the intensity and rhythm as seems required. I won't hurt you."

"Okay."

There's a kind of low whistle as the lash whips through the air, then it strikes her back, causing her to suck in a breath.

"Are you all right?"

Dawn doesn't know. She's not hurt, but she can't say if she's all right. "Keep going."

The lash strikes her again and another time, and that same relief wells up in her that came from the cutting. Her breath drops into the slow, deep rhythm she'd tried to find before. Her skin heats under the lash. A few more strokes, and the next thing to touch her back is silk, another scarf which he trails along her skin from ass to shoulder, wrenching a guttural cry from her.

"Are you all right?" His voice is just like silk.

She nods emphatically.

"You can stop anytime you like. You have only to say."

"More, I beg you," she whispers.

He gives her more. Adjusting the rhythm and intensity so she never knows what to expect, sometimes abandoning the whip to stroke her skin with silk or a square of fur, sometimes his bare hand, which feels so cool against her hot skin.

She feels herself opening to him as she never has before, responding to his deep knowledge of what she needs at each moment before she even realizes what it is herself. He writes himself on her skin and her heart and soul, the sound of his murmurs as he works indistinguishable from the feel of soft fabric on her reddened back.

Solace. That's what he offers her, with his voice and the silk and the lash. She presses her palms together as if in prayer, and she feels in fact as if that's what she's doing.

He takes her to a place where all the boundaries of her self disappear, then slowly brings her back to herself, smoothing the square of fur over her back and her ass and the soles of her feet. As he does he tells her how exquisite she is, how humbled he feels that she allowed him to care for her this way.

Ethan gently touches the top of her head. "You may rise, if you wish."

She shakes her head, content to stay where she is. She remains kneeling as he finishes his preparations for his meeting.

"Dawn," he says once he's put on his coat. It takes a moment to penetrate the cocoon that envelops her. "Dawn, I must go. I'll be awhile. The meeting will take some time, then I want to be certain I'm not followed. Call room service if you'd like anything."

She nods, still reluctant to rise.

"Do you understand me?"

She fights irritation at his insistence. "Yes, Ethan. Good luck."

He flashes a grin. "Here's hoping I don't need luck."

Dawn waits for the door to close, then brings her breathing back to that slow, deep flow.

***

She reluctantly emerges from her altered state as the heat fades from her back, leaving her chilled, her knees aching. Unspooling the binding from her wrists, she reaches for the robe. She gasps as the cool silk glides across her skin, still exquisitely sensitive.

Dawn can't think of the last time she felt so cared for. It was as if she were the only person on the earth besides Ethan. As if time had stopped as Ethan opened this new world to her.

The seed of an idea comes to her. This cocooned state she's in speeds its growth until it blossoms into action. Dawn rises and raids Ethan's ink box again, sliding open its bottom drawer to find the sheets of vellum stored there. She removes one, then opens the top of the case to find inks in green and black. Mindful of Ethan's warning about her blood mingling with the inks in the grimoire, she pours some of both into teacups and replaces the bottles in their case.

She searches the corner of the room until she finds the nib Ethan had thrown away, and fits it into a handle. Using the case of whips as her desktop, Dawn settles on the floor and begins drawing. Things that came from her dreams, things that rise unbidden, flowing through her pen. She sinks into a place as timeless as the one she recently left, forgetting everything but the scratch of pen on paper.

Once she's finished she gazes at her handiwork. It makes her feel the way Sebastian's bookstore did, and the rare books closet at the Magic Box. But there's not even the faintest glimmer of a headache. She feels energy surge through her, feels her self unfurling like a bud to greet the desert rain.

This is what Ethan set in motion, begging her patience and her trust through the terror and the pain of battering herself against her prison. This, though, is just the beginning. There's another rite yet to perform before she finds her full freedom.

She hears the card key slip in and out of the door slot, and Ethan enters, cheeks flushed. His sense of mischief is beaming from him in a way that it hasn't since her situation became so desperate.

"The meeting was good?"

"Brilliant."

"So what constitutes brilliant in the fake-grimoire world?"

Ethan pulls a banded stack of bills from his inside coat pocket. "An eight-thousand dollar advance."

"So what next? You don't just disappear with the money."

"God, no. That would poison the well. The secret is creating a fake so perfect no one ever realizes they've been buggered. The payoff is much greater, and there's always another buyer."

"Doesn't the magic have to work, then? If it's a perfect fake?"

"Most of the genuine ones are so obscure that no one can work the magicks inside. They're almost always held by collectors." He notices the elaborate drawing where she left it on the ottoman. "Where did this come from?" Abandoning the packet of bills, he picks it up carefully by the edges to take a closer look.

"I made it." Dawn can tell he hasn't heard. By the way his breath quickens, she's sure it's having the same effect on him as it did on her. There's power there, and she brought it into being.

With an effort, he looks up. "Where?"

"I made it. I was still kneeling here, still in that place, however you call it, when I had this impulse. I drew it."

"Jesus," he murmurs. She can't tell if he's pleased or the opposite.

"I guess I should tell you. I used that same nib. I made sure to keep the ink separate from the stuff you use. But it seemed -- well, right. It's for the ritual. Don't ask me how I know, but I do."

He has a hard time taking his eyes off it. "The ritual?"

"The third one. It's not just a repeat of the others."

Frowning, he studies her. "You haven't found that in the book I gave you."

"No. Just as you didn't find your ritual there."

Ethan sits on the sofa next to her, taking his hand. "I couldn't tell you then. I needed your trust for it to work at all. The books gave no instructions on how to help you, only hints. I read them as best I could and used my experience to cobble a ritual together."

"You thought you were alone. Unguided." She lays a hand over his heart. "I don't believe that for a minute. Something told you, but the fear was so thick that part didn't register. All that came through is what you needed to know."

"I -- I don't even know how to answer that. I was desperate, I--"

Dawn lays a finger to his lips. "You opened yourself. Trust me."

He stops his protesting.

"There are preparations I have to make before the third ritual," she says. "It'll take money, I don't know how much."

"What I have is yours."

"It'll also require bringing someone up here. If there's anything you want to keep out of sight, do it now. He'll have to be here a while."

"He?" Ethan echoes.

"There's a tattoo artist who works near the campus." Dawn taps two fingers on the vellum. "This is merely a template. It has to be written on flesh."

***

Monterey Mike gives her shit when she calls. "Honey, it takes six weeks to get an appointment to talk about what you want. I don't take drop-ins."

"Sugarpuss, I don't want to drop in. I want an outcall."

"I don't do those, either. My shop is cleaner than most doctors' offices, and I've got all the different chairs I need."

"That argument would fly a whole lot better if I hadn't come with a friend to Motorcycle Mania last year and watched you give him a tattoo in a fucking mechanic's garage."

"Make an appointment, I'm full up today."

"Three thousand," Dawn says.

"Say what?"

"You come to me, and do it today, and I'll pay you three grand."

"Sweetpea, you don't sound like a girl who's old enough to have three grand."

"Sunny Jim, just try me and see." Dawn gives him the hotel name and room number. "Clear some time -- I want a full sleeve. Greens and greys, the color of money." She hangs up.

"He said he'll come?" Ethan asks.

"He'll come."

"Is there anything else you require for the ritual?"

"I'll let you know." She settles herself back on the sofa cushions. "I suppose we need a hideous Ren Faire dress and a tower--" But the joke turns to ashes in her mouth. Her hand flies up, pressing against her lips, trying to rein in emotion.

"What is it, Dawn?"

"She made me put on that dress."

"She--?"

"Glory. All satin and brocade, a dress-up party for the end of the world. I couldn't believe how much it weighed." Dawn looks up at him. "This one won't go away? If I tell it. It's a true one."

Ethan sits by her, takes her hand in his. "It won't. We're finished with that. And the true memories, they're bound to you, part of who you are."

She tightens her grip on his hand. "She was so frightened. So alone. They made her put on the dress, and she folded her clothes so neatly. Arranged her shoes so precisely, even though it was the end of the world and no one would ever know. She never told anybody."

"Is she frightened now?"

"She doesn't want to burn away. I don't want her to burn away. I want to keep her bravery and her feistiness. She's protected me well, even without knowing how." She touches Ethan's face. "You don't want her to burn away, either."

"No."

"I should get dressed. In the clothes I wore when I came here. He'll be here soon."

***

Monterey Mike hasn't lost the condescending attitude by the time he arrives, but it's been dampened a little by the long walk through expensively-appointed hallways. "You must be Eloise," he says as she opens the suite door.

"That's me." She swings the door wider and steps back; if he was unnaturally pale she'd never know -- almost every inch of skin is covered in ink or beard.

"Sleeve, huh? If you were walking in for a consult, I'd figure you for a little butterfly on the ankle, or a rose on the shoulder."

"Shows what you can tell from looks."

"Ninety-eight percent of the time I'm right." He catches sight of Ethan. "You her daddy? You on board with this?"

"That would be none of your fucking concern," Ethan says mildly. "And hers is the opinion that matters."

"Got ID?"

Dawn rummages in her bag for her drivers license, which Mike tilts until the light catches its watermark. He passes it back.

"And the money?"

She hands over a hotel stationery envelope with the cash inside. "Can I get you something? A Guinness, maybe?"

"I don't drink when I'm working."

"Coke?"

"Don't do caffeine or fizzy, either. Regular water's fine. Let's talk about the piece first. You've got some ideas? Something in a book?"

"I've got this." She picks the ink drawing off the coffee table.

He lets out a low whistle. "Shit, where'd you find this?"

"I made it."

"No, seriously."

"No, seriously. I did this. You can do an exact freehand copy, right? That's why I chose you."

"Yeah, that's not a problem. This is beautiful work, it's seamless. How long did it take you to work out the measurements?"

"I didn't. I just drew it."

"But it's going to be an exact fit to your arm."

"I know."

Mike rubs his knuckles along his beard. "You know it's going to take more than one session. Outline first, then color. You'll have to heal between."

"Let's see how it goes," Dawn says.

"That's how it goes. I'll go down and get my equipment."

"One more thing," Dawn says. "Ethan has a small piece. A length of barbed wire around his wrist. There's a gap; you'll be closing that."

Startled, Ethan looks toward her. She holds his gaze.

"That right?" Mike asks.

"That's right," Ethan says, his tone carefully neutral.

Monterey Mike leaves to collect his tools, and Dawn reaches for Ethan's hand. She turns it palm up, circling her own hand around the tattoo, her palm covering the small gap. "You'll find some things are so much more rewarding than freedom." She's aware of his pulse throbbing beneath her hand.

She skips her thumb up and across his palm, and his breath hitches.

He keeps his eyes on hers. "I have no doubt of that."

***

Dawn closes her eyes, drifting. The buzz of the tattoo gun is a constant, though the pain, to her surprise, isn't. Most of the time it's no worse than plucking her eyebrows, but now and again it feels like he's drilling for oil. In its way it's like the rhythm of the lash: Mike works the ink into her skin, pauses to wipe away the blood and ink, applies the needle again. It has the same effect, slowing her breath, dropping her into an altered state. Now and then Mike tells her how well she's doing, what a beautiful canvas she makes, but she doesn't really care what he thinks.

In the other room Ethan also works with ink, trying to speed progress on the grimoire. Dawn drifts and allows herself to imagine it's Ethan's quill penetrating her skin. Inking the truth for a change, instead of what's false. Allowing what's inside her to manifest.

Mike rouses her every so often to change her position in his portable chair. "You tired?" he asks each time. "You need a break?"

Dawn shakes her head, feeling the weight of the thick rope of her braided hair, biting back her irritation. "Keep going."

Time gets swallowed by the rhythm: needle to flesh, soft strokes of cloth, then a quick return of the needle. Finally the buzz stops and Mike sits back, flexing his hand. "I don't know about you, but I need that break." He gently wipes her skin again, then scoots back and starts peeling off his latex gloves. "I don't know how I got so caught up in this one. Usually I break way earlier."

"Give me your hand," Dawn says.

Mike frowns, but offers his hand when she reaches for it. Dawn massages his hand, rubbing her thumb into the fleshy parts, gently stretching his fingers. He wants to break the contact at first, she suspects, resisting the shift in intimacy, but there's an energy that begins to flow between them, and he surrenders to it.

"That should be better," she tells him.

Mike shakes his head in amazement. "I could find a place for you in my shop. Between this and the design work..."

"I have a place." She settles back into position in the chair as if he never called a break, and Mike pulls his gloves on and resumes work without protest.

The pain is sharper now after this brief rest, but she gives herself to it. Penetration. Pain. The buzz of the needle. She lets herself imagine. Ethan and his quill. Not placing ink beneath her skin -- piercing it to let out what is already there, but hidden. Letting her true self shine forth, one prick at a time.

Why has it taken her so long to want this?

Why was she content all these years to accept what was forced upon her?

Giles might say something about the fullness of time, if he were speaking of any other subject. But she doubts he'd willingly concede the inevitability of this.

He'll have to, though. The day will come when he has no choice.

***

As she drifts, memories float toward her, then away. True memories. Her mother and Buffy learning the truth about her, how they'd been duped (all of them, Dawn included). How they'd chosen her, made her a real daughter and sister by knowingly accepting the lie.

Tara, and how good she was to Dawn during that horrible summer. How Dawn had grieved when she was murdered. They'd all tried to shield her from the knowledge of what Willow had done to the asshole who killed her, but she knew. A good sneak thief can steal information as well as trinkets; she'd snatched those stories out of the air, slipped them into her pocket. She knew Willow had flayed him alive, and she didn't blame her one bit. Not for that.

How important both Xander and Spike were to her that summer, and how they couldn't stop competing over it.

She remembers being on that tower. The air was so cold up there, whether from the height or the rip in the fabric of the universe. Or maybe it was terror that made her shiver uncontrollably.

She couldn't bear looking at the hole below her, so she searched for the people she loved. Spike, bloodied but moving. Giles, kneeling beside Ben. Poor Ben. He'd tried to protect her, as long as he could hold out. She was glad he didn't have to die alone.

Dawn lets herself step into the moment, be herself outside the terror and the sting of the knife cuts and the odd smell of Doc. He smelled like the inside of some of the jars in the Magic Box, all earthy and dehydrated and nose-wrinkly. She makes him fade away and watches Ben's last moments. All broken as Glory had fled to leave him to her suffering, trying to draw in a breath.

Giles so still and calm, kneeling beside him. She watches him reach toward Ben, offering comfort, laying a hand on his --

God. It wasn't comfort he gave at all. He planted his hand over Ben's mouth and nose, pressing down, pinching, cutting off his breath.

Dawn's own breath catches as she watches. Ben's eyes widen as he twitches and flails, but his broken body betrays him. Giles bears down, though he barely has to put any strength into it.

She watches as he kneels by Ben, nothing in his posture giving away the fact that he's committing murder.

He could be a priest giving last rites.

Priest, true believer.

She watches Ben's final agonies, each spasm costing him terrible pain. His body like a bagful of broken glass.

"Christ!" she cries out.

Mike pauses, needle hovering over her skin. "This hurting you now? We're almost done, but I can stop."

"Keep going." Her voice sounds thick, even to her ears.

Ethan appears in the doorway. "Dawn?"

"It's all right."

He comes to her, though, taking her free hand in his ink-smudged one as Mike turns her arm to work at the delicate skin of her inner wrist.

"She's almost finished," Mike says. "Then I'll finish that wrist piece for you."

She favors Ethan with a smile. "You hear that, Ethan? I'm almost finished."

***

The silence seems alive when Mike finally shuts off the tattoo machine. He gusts an exhausted breath. "I've never done that before. Installed a piece that large in one sitting. Next thing I'll do is clean it off, then slather it good with A&D ointment and cover it." He wets down some gauze with soapy water, then wipes at her skin, starting at the shoulder. "It'll be four weeks before -- fuck me cross-eyed!" he yelps.

"What's wrong?" Ethan steps in closer.

"That can't happen."

"What?"

"It's healed."

"I want the rest tomorrow," Dawn says. "You should get some sleep, but be here by two."

"Now hang on a minute. I've got a full--"

Dawn turns her gaze on him. "Cancel them. Leave your equipment here, there's no point carrying it away and back again."

There's a pause of barely more than a heartbeat in his movements as he wipes her arm. "Sure."

She holds out her other hand. "Let me finish that. You take care of Ethan. Don't bother changing needles."

"Look, Eloise. There are some things that aren't negotiable. I don't screw around with used needles. If you want to bond, there's the old spit-in-your-palms-and-rub-'em-together routine."

Dawn gently lays a hand on Mike's forearm, a gaudy dragon with scales rendered in different greens. "This is not for you to worry about," she says softly.

His eyes go unfocused for a second, then he blinks and turns to Ethan. "Ready?"

Releasing him, she leaves the chair and walks away to the renewed buzz of the needle. In the bathroom she cleans up and inspects their half-finished collaboration. Like Ethan's grimoire, it's beautiful work but it's lifeless. Its empty outlines give off nothing. But its completion will be a different story. Its power won't be illusory at all.

She pulls her sweater on and looses her hair from its braid. By the time she returns to the sitting room, Mike has finished bridging the gap in Ethan's tattoo. He hasn't merely filled in the missing line, but added a new barb to the entwined strands of wire. It's indistinguishable from the others, except its prong points outward, not toward Ethan. Mike wipes away the blood and ink.

"It's better," Dawn says, "with that missing piece filled in."

Ethan meets her gaze. "More than I'd imagined, yes."

***

After Mike finishes his cleanup and goes, Ethan turns to her. "You must be starving."

"Ravenous," Dawn says, and reaches for him. Opening the buttons of his shirt, she traces a finger along one of the old scars she finds there. "I opened myself to you. Layer after layer, all there for you to read and rewrite. I let you make me helpless with desire at a mere touch." She leans in to flick her tongue at the scar, drawing a gasp from him. "Are you willing to do the same before me?"

"Of course," he murmurs, and steps back to lead her toward the bedroom.

Laughing, she plants her feet. "You're willing to be helpless, as long as you're in control. You're not the lover of chaos you pretend to be. You refuse to surrender yourself."

"I've kept myself guarded, it's true. But it's no pretense--"

She takes him by the hand, tracing tiny circles in his palm with her thumb, as he's done to hers so many times. "Is he charming company, your guard? So much fun that you've believed yourself free all this time?"

Ethan's breath quickens and his skin flushes.

"I made myself shameless for you," she says. "Let you tease me until I came, standing right in this very spot." She moves toward him as if for a kiss, but stops short, whispering so her breath flutters against his lips. "That's just for girls, is it?"

His breath is ragged. "And fifteen-year-old lads."

Releasing his hand, she takes a step back. "You forget. A fifteen-year-old is a helluva lot more appropriate for Dawn than you." She turns away, making her voice brisk. "So, what do you think? Should we order up some room service?"

"Dawn."

"Mmm?" She waits a moment, then tears her attention away from the menu. "What?"

"Please."

"You're worse at that than you are at sincerity."

A flicker of a smile. "I've had less practice."

Dawn drops the menu on the sofa. "Then we'll have to make sure you get some in." Approaching him, she stops within two steps of him. "Let's hear it again. Let's try working it and the sincerity at the same time."

"I beg you."

She takes a step closer. "I find sincerity works much better with understatement. A please would have worked just fine."

He draws in a breath to speak, but Dawn lays two fingers over his lips. "We'll work on that later."

Her fingertips sketch over the scar on his chest, skip over to circle an areola, flick the nipple at its center.

She can feel how close he is to falling, and how much he wants to break away and seize control over his own release. Grabbing him by the waist, she moves in to whisper in his ear. Be a good lad.

A shuddering breath signals his capitulation.

"How responsive you are," she murmurs, rewarding him with a deep kiss that promises more. "How very beautiful."

She takes him by the hand. Takes him into her bed.

***

She teaches him the many nuances of the word please.

Teasing him until he begs for release. Riding him, pinning his shoulders to the luxurious cotton sheets. Sensitizing his skin by lightly raking it with her nails, brushing it with her hair, streaming her breath along its surface until his muscles tremble.

At last Ethan is sprawled across the bed, cheek pressed into a pillow as he pants, wrung out.

"I'd say that was a very successful practice session." Dawn feathers her fingers down his back, skin so sensitive now that he quivers slightly under her touch. "So remarkable," she croons. "Such history written on your flesh. You'll have to read it to me sometime." She leans in, presses her lips to the nape of his neck. "Would you like that?"

"Mm, yes," he murmurs, seconds from slipping into sleep.

"Tell me some of it. A bedtime story."

"Bedtime," he repeats, drifting.

Dawn traces a fingernail lightly along his spine, and the overstimulated nerves bring him awake, gasping. "Tell me a bedtime story about Giles."

"Rupert was a long time ago." His guard has awakened too, watchful, wary.

"Yet you couldn't stop coming around him. Not until the Initiative got you."

"The hellmouth was a diverting playground, that's all."

"Bollocks." Another feathery stroke from his shoulder blade down to his ass. "That's what you Brits say. Spike would. Giles, maybe, under duress." She rises up and takes his shoulders, pressing her thumbs into the muscles as if beginning a massage. His breath hisses through his teeth. "You two fucked each other, didn't you?"

"Dawn--"

She eases off, leaning over him, her hair spilling on the pillow bunched beneath his head. "It's so obvious," she whispers. "The way you circle around him, can't leave him alone."

"It's been years since I approached him."

"Mmm-hmm." She shifts to let her hair flow across his skin. "And what brought you around to researching me? Sure, you found something bigger than you meant to, but I'm betting your first thought was tweaking Giles." She leans in again, whispers into his ear. "What was he like?"

A secret smile. "He worked so very hard at rebellion. So earnest about it. I can only imagine how he was once he scuttled back to the safety of Oxford and his destiny."

"That's not what I meant." She massages his shoulders again, digging in, and he groans. "What was he like to shag?"

"This is not the most wholesome topic to be discussing with you."

She laughs. "Wholesome. That's cute, coming from you." She switches again to long, feathery strokes. "Tell me."

"Brilliant kisser. Demanding. Verging on brutal. Likes a bit of the rough trade. Or he did with me. We ... brought things out in each other."

"Mmm. The way we do. Did you like what he brought out in you?" She presses a kiss to his shoulder, feels the soft flutter of exhausted muscle.

"God, yes. It was all bound up in the magicks. We were consumed with them, with one another. We burned for each other."

"And for Eyghon."

"Yes."

"But you walked away, and eventually it came back and bit you on the ass. Was Eyghon the first paradigm you cast aside?"

He smirks. "That would probably be the C of E. Not that I got a terribly large dose of it in the first place."

"And when, precisely, do you think you'll grow bored with this paradigm?" Dawn adds just a hint of fingernail to her strokes.

"Never."

She bends over him again, her hair cascading around them. "I won't waste my time on dabblers, Ethan. I want a true believer."

"I am that."

"Oh come on." She trails a finger from behind his ear, down his neck. "You've done nothing but mock Giles for his belief."

"I've changed. You've changed me. I'm yours alone."

"Then you'll need to clear away a few gods and ends you've left lying around."

"Of course."

She settles down next to him, skin to skin, twining one of her legs with his. "Aren't you pretty," she breathes into his ear. "Tell me about the two of you. The things you liked to do to each other."

Ethan closes his eyes and begins to speak.

***

Dawn idles on the sofa, watching Ethan gather up the artifacts of his previous paradigms into the waste paper basket.

"Does it hurt?" she asks.

He responds with a puzzled glance. "Hurt?"

"Giving up these things. It's okay if it hurts."

Ethan shakes his head. "I've moved on." Moving to the altar by the door, he picks up the squat figure at its center. He barely gives it a glaance before placing it in the trash.

"We did this once." She stares off at the bland painting on the wall, without really seeing. "Only it was everything to do with magic." She hasn't forbidden Ethan this, of course, merely his objects of worship. "Books, herbs, sage bundles, even candles. Because of Willow." A surge of anger sweeps through her, startling in its intensity. "Even -- we had this Kokopelli. I loved it, it was my mom's. No one ever used it for magic. God, it wasn't even real, I think she got it from Coldwater Creek. But Buffy decided it had to go. Because Willow couldn't control herself."

"You still feel that." He sets down the trash basket and comes to her. "Your anger and your sorrow over your mum."

Sorrow. She'd only recognized the anger, but he's right. "Yes."

Ethan kneels beside her and takes her hands. "So many losses."

"It's silly. Even if I'd gotten to keep it, it would be gone, along with everything else I lost in Sunnydale."

"It's not silly. So much was taken from you. Not just a memento of your mother, or your mother herself. You were robbed, stripped of who and what you were. So much power, torn away from you."

Dawn pulls her hands out of his. "You never let me forget, not even for a minute. That I'm not Dawn."

"That Dawn is not all you are." He reaches for her hand again. "It's my job to remind you. Though I'd have laughed at the notion not so very long ago, it's my destiny."

She clutches his hand, but she's not sure what it is she's hanging onto: the physical reality of herself as a twenty-year-old girl, or the hand of her rescuer, pulling her out of the prison she's inhabited these past years.

"I'm here to guide you back to yourself. You've had glimpses of what you were, and god, I can't tell you what it's been like to see you take those tentative steps toward her. But there's a void, still, and it frightens you. Trust me, and that void will be repaired. You'll be whole again."

Tightening her grip, she closes her eyes. "I think maybe I should walk around in her a while longer. As a prelude to the ritual. For a week, or even a day. Go back to class, play Scrabble with Val, eat pizza. I haven't even been out of this suite for -- hell, how long?"

"No," he says gently. "You must keep stepping forward, not looking back." He slides her sweater sleeve upward. "Keep your eyes on who you're becoming, not who you were."

She opens her eyes and looks at the design on the arm Ethan exposed. "Oh," she breathes.

"You see?" he murmurs. "You needn't be afraid. This is who you're becoming. The self you're reclaiming."

"Yes," she says.

"I can help you," he says. "Make things clearer. You responded so well before."

I can help you. It was what he said before he brought out the lash. She looks up at him. "I'd like that."

***

She undresses as Ethan goes to retrieve the case.

Folds her clothes neatly on the sofa and waits naked for him, standing in a patch of sunlight cast through the French doors and their filmy curtains.

Striding back into the sitting room, he stops dead as he catches sight of her. A breath gusts from him. "If you could see yourself."

"What?"

"All your questions, all your fears would be laid to rest." His expression, for once, has nothing cool and knowing about it. It is the look of a true believer.

Dawn steps toward the ottoman, but Ethan raises a hand.

"Stay where you are. There, in the light." Ethan sets the case down and moves the ottoman toward her, then places a pillow at its base.

She kneels, gathering her hair in front to bare her back. She places her elbows and palms together as she did before, but Ethan crouches beside her to correct her position. Without speaking, he moves her bare arm back to her side, and extends the other in front of her, curled before her on the ottoman as if she's a schoolgirl hiding a test paper from prying eyes. He wraps a length of silk around her wrist and passes it down to the ottoman's leg, but instead of bringing the ends up to tuck inside her hand, he ties them around the base.

Dawn's stomach does a slow flip.

He moves around behind her. "Are you all right?"

She turns her head toward him. "You didn't tie me last time."

Gently he turns her face forward. "Keep your eyes on the design." He kneels beside her. "Are you frightened?"

"No," she lies. "I just--" She lets it trail off.

He puts his hand on her back. "Breathe in." He's made his voice all silky and comforting, and she takes a shaky breath. "Slowly, my love. Breathe out." She tries slowing it down, but it comes out in a rush. He stays with her, skin on skin. "Now in." This time she manages slower and deeper. "We can stop anytime," he reminds her.

He's not offering the option to be bound or not. Her choice is to be bound or stop altogether. The thought of stopping creates an ache in her.

"No. Let's go on."

"Once you relax into it, you'll be surprised how freeing it is. A new level of surrender, opening yourself, receiving." He takes her free hand, presses a kiss on the inside of her wrist. "Are you all right?"

She nods.

He tucks her bare arm against the small of her back, binding it and anchoring it with another silk scarf. Moving around in front of her, he places a hand on hers. "Don't look at me. Keep your eyes here." He slides his hand up her arm, over the intricate, grey-lined design. "Breathe. You feel the sunlight warming your back?"

She nods again. Speaking, she feels, would break whatever slow, trancey state she's yearning toward. All she wants is to give in to the rhythm of Ethan stroking her arm, of her deepening breath. The warmth of the sun on her skin, and the hypnotic glide of his skin on hers.

"I have never seen such beauty as this," he murmurs, "and it's merely a fraction of what you really are."

She breathes into all of it: the sight of the design on her flesh, the sensations of heat and soft stroking, the silky murmurings, even the minor tickle of fear at the thought of being bound. She breathes deeper and sinks into all these sensations until they all seem to blur together.

"Are you ready?" he whispers, and this time she does want to hear her own voice.

"I am."

The rabbit fur lash snaps against her back.

***

He works in silence this time, withholding the silky sound of his voice, the murmured reassurances. There is nothing but the sound of the lash, her own soft grunts in response.

He teaches her new aspects of trust. That trust can live alongside that tickle of fear, that it is meaningless if it's never tested. After an extended session with the lash followed by a long, delicious period of stroking with the fur, he shows her another crop from his case. Presents it to her like a wine steward showing a bottle to a diner in some fancy restaurant. It's thin and supple; he shows it to her doubled in a loop. Her breath catches. A new level of surrender.

She reminds herself how deeply she was rewarded the last time. She wants that now, but she's so scared. Ethan waits. We can stop anytime.

She doesn't want to stop. She doesn't want new levels, either. All she wants is to go on the way they had.

Ethan places a hand on her back. Breathe.

Dawn breathes, trains her eyes back on the tattoo. She nods.

***

It's not at all what she expected. She braces for the whirr and snap of the whip, the slice of the lash into her skin, but it doesn't come. Ethan leaves the whip doubled, tapping the loop gently against her back, again and again and again. A thin groan escapes her as her muscles quiver with released tension. He keeps up this light tapping until her nerve endings are exhausted with it, and past that point. By the time he abandons the whip, her skin burns.

He takes up the square of fur, caressing the expanse of her back, and she cries out as if he struck her. Though he doesn't say a word, the soft strokes of fur against her skin mix in her head with the murmurs he'd offered up during their first session. How exquisite you are, how beautiful.

She bursts into sobs.

Still, he doesn't speak. He looses the silk binding her bare arm behind her, pressing a kiss into her palm as he releases her.

He kneels before her and she waits for him to untether her other wrist. Instead he strokes the length of her arm as he had before. Gradually the rhythm of her breath slows and deepens again, and finally he unbinds her other wrist, kisses her palm.

He touches the top of her head and rises, disappearing into the bathroom. Dawn remains kneeling, clutching the edge of the ottoman. Distantly she hears the low murmur of water as the bathtub fills in the next room.

Closing her eyes, she tries to take in what just happened. Who is she? Has she taken another step toward before-Dawn, burned away or buried the part that clings to school and friends and watching American Idol like there's nothing more?

This time she doesn't feel a huge shift.

Not some personal alchemy this time, but an object lesson. Turning back won't take her past the fear. Neither will staying on the same level. She can only go forward, just as Ethan said.

Though the sun feels much too strong on her back, she stays on her knees at the ottoman until Ethan emerges and takes her by the hands, helping her to her feet. She lets him lead her to the bath as if she's a small child. He helps her in, where she kneels instead of leaning back into the warm water.

"This will help," he says, as he dips a bath sponge into the fragrant water. It smells vaguely herby, not perfumed. Not unpleasant, though. He raises the sponge and squeezes it over her back, and she bites back a cry. But a moment later the stinging dulls, and she relaxes, leaning forward and grasping the foot of the tub.

"What a remarkable creature you are," he tells her.

Creature. She snaps her head toward him, eyes blazing. Dawn burns to dress him down, read him the riot act, all those Giles phrases (rip him a new one, Xander would say), but something deep within her tells her it's not the time to break her silence.

Ethan puts up a hand. "Figure of speech, I meant nothing by it. You see, though, how strong and certain your instincts are? You understand you're meant to give up speech until you're ready for the ritual. Just as you've known you should fast."

Dawn thinks back, trying to remember when she last ate. Before Mike began the tattoo. Ethan had offered her a chance to eat when Mike left, but she hadn't had the slightest interest.

"Your true self is guiding you, even when you're afraid."

She realizes the truth of it as he says the words.

Surrender.

She has no problem letting someone else drive when they know the route better than her. This is the same. Dawn got scared and sad, and it made her try to wrest control from her true self, but that's just going to leave her feeling alone and more frightened than before.

She doesn't know where she's headed. But that other part of her does. Dawn uncurls her hands from the lip of the bathtub and sinks back into the warm waters.

***

Mike returns at two o'clock sharp, bearing Starbucks' tallest coffee. The smell of it almost drives her to speak, just to beg a sip. All she's had since she got here is teas of varying degrees of nastiness.

Instead she steps aside and lets him enter, raising a brow.

"I know, Eloise. I said I don't. It's medicinal. Didn't really sleep last night."

He looks less like an insomniac than some mad monk. As long as his hand is steady.

"Any concerns about the work I did yesterday? Let's take a look."

As Dawn pulls her sweater over her head, Ethan says, "Don't expect her to answer. She's observing a vow of silence for the day."

Mike eyes her for a heartbeat, then gives an I've seen weirder shrug. Setting his coffee aside, he turns his attention to the tattoo. "Not a sign this was done only yesterday. If they could bottle whatever it is you got, Eloise, you'd be richer'n Oprah." Turning her arm this way and that to examine his work, he says, "I'm not bragging when I say this is the most amazing piece I've ever done. I couldn't get this design out of my head last night." He releases her with what seems to be some effort. "Go powder whatever's shiny, and I'll get set up to work. No marathon session this time. I'm too fuckin' old."

She walks off without even a gesture, but Mike reads her right.

"I mean it," he calls after her.

She closes the bathroom door with a thump. She pees, rinses her face, weaves her hair into a loose braid. When she comes out, Mike is still setting up. Ethan is changing his shirt. His tattoo is unbandaged now, fresh black ink on reddened skin. Dawn taps two fingers at her own inner wrist and smiles at him.

"I'm delighted that you're pleased," he says. He slips his arms around her waist. "There are things I need to obtain for the ritual. You'll be all right here?"

She rolls her eyes at the notion that Mike is in any way threatening.

Ethan kisses her forehead and disappears to finish dressing.

She turns toward Mike, who's holding the vellum with her design, lost in its inricacies. Dawn clears her throat.

"Well, let's go then," he says, as if she's been holding things up.

She sits in his chair, lets him adjust her position, and they both fall into the rhythm of his work. The stop-start of the needle's buzz, the ebb and flow of pain. She opens herself to it just as she did Ethan's attentions, sinking into a deep stillness.

Mike doesn't disturb her trance, just bends to his work without uttering a word. When he wants her to change her position so he can reach a spot, he uses gesture and touch, just as Ethan did.

At some point she's dimly aware of Ethan's return, bearing a number of bags. She notes his presence and his retreat to the other room to work, then she drifts downward again.

She's not sure if minutes have gone by or hours when the sound of the phone tears her out of her trance. Luckily Mike had lifted the needle from her forearm to wipe away the ink.

All she can catch from the next room are murmurs, but they sound urgent. Mike turns on his tattoo gun again, but she gestures him to quiet it. Though she strains to hear, she can't make out what the trouble is.

"Christ," she hears Ethan mutter over the clatter of the phone. He emerges from the bedroom. "Why don't you take a break now?" he suggests to Mike.

Mike lays the needle aside and flexes his hand.

"Elsewhere," Ethan adds in his soft and persuasive tone.

"Yeah. Yeah, sure. Maybe some fresh air." He's like a sleepwalker as he moves toward the French doors.

Once he's gone, Ethan spits, "Sod it! That was Sebastian. The buyer's backed out. Arrested, actually, for certain of his other activities. Sebastian has another lined up, he has a list of those who are interested in such rarities. But I don't like it."

Dawn rubs her thumbs over her fingertips and raises her brows.

"We keep that," he answers. "It's understood. The down payment is good faith money, to cover certain costs. I can meet the new buyer today, he's in town for a symposium."

She shakes her head.

"I don't like it either. But there's no way around it. These things can often take months, and I spent almost all the cushion I had on preparing for the ritual. I can't walk away from this kind of money. Sebastian said he'd ring. In the meantime, I'll work some protective magic." He caresses her face. "It'll be fine. I'm frustrated, that's all. I've been working with Sebastian for years. I trust him completely, and he's very careful." He takes her by her right wrist, rubbing his thumb over the intricate grey pattern over the branching blue veins. "You concentrate on your work here."

He leaves her with a kiss and goes to summon Mike back to his needle.

***

Mike returns from the balcony looking like a graffiti'd scarecrow. "Look. Eloise. I'm done for the day. Mainly because it's night. I've been at this so long I can't see straight, which is not what you want." He starts to fuss with his equipment, preparing to put it away.

She rises and moves toward him, touching a hand to his face.

"Sweetpea, you're not the first who's tried that. Though usually it's the underaged ones who want ink. My rules are my rules."

Dawn rolls her eyes to let him know this was not the plan. Placing a hand on each of his temples, she rubs lazy circles the way Ethan had done to soothe her headaches.

"Oh," he says. Though he closes his eyes, she sees him regaining his focus, drawing energy from her. After a long moment, his eyes open. "Whoo. Like I said. You should bottle that."

The low sound of chanting in the other room is swallowed by the buzz of the tattoo machine as Mike resumes his work.

Dawn tries to settle back into the altered state the needle produces, but threads of anxiety keep her tethered to thoughts about the call and what's happening in the next room.

No more than half an hour passes before the phone shrills again, but it seems much longer. Her whole body tenses as she waits for Ethan to emerge from the bedroom. It doesn't take long. He bustles into the room, drags his coat from the closet and shoulders into it.

She extends a hand toward him, and Ethan approaches. "I'll be careful, I promise." He moves to take her hand, but she takes his instead, checking for ink stains on his fingers and thumb. He smiles. "Whatever would I do without you?"

Dawn squeezes his hand and lets him go.

***

She knows it will take a while. First the meeting, whatever it takes to convince the buyer to part with thousands of dollars. Then the circuitous route home so Ethan's certain he hasn't been tailed. Dawn tries to relax, but the sound of the needle that had soothed her before now sets her teeth on edge.

It's much too early when the phone rings. Dawn's breath catches, her heart thumping. Mike shuts off the tattoo machine. "Want me to get it?" he asks.

She shakes her head. She waits through another ring, then rises and goes to the phone. If it's Ethan, he'll know why she doesn't speak when she picks up. If it's not him, it's no one she wants to talk to anyway. She lifts the handset.

There's silence on the other end, too, for a long moment. Then comes a rattling cough that makes goosebumps rise on her arms. "Ethan."

Another horrible cough and then a breath which sounds worse. "Run. Take everything that's yours."

"Ethan, where are you?"

"You have to go. I'll find you."

"No. I'm coming for you. You're at Sebastian's?"

"There's no time." A coughing fit this time, and a wet, rasping gasp. "Christ," he mutters. "Go. Far. Take my robe too, leave nothing behind." Another scraping breath. "Go now."

He breaks the connection and she drops the phone, dashing for the closet where her messenger bag is stashed. "We're done for now," she tells Mike. "Pack up and go. I'll call you when I'm ready to finish, but I have to leave." She snatches up the Sumerian text Sebastian gave her, the vellum with the tattoo design and the silk robe, stuffing them into the bag.

Mike blinks stupidly, sagging against the portable chair she just vacated.

"I mean it," she snaps. "Get your things and let yourself out. I don't have time for this shit." She runs into the bedroom and rummages in the bedside table, among the lube and toys. The packet of money is there, thinner than it had been, just as Ethan had told her. She stuffs the envelope into her bag as well.

Mike is hunched on elbows and knees on the carpet as she strides back out into the sitting room. She crouches by him to pick up her sweater, yanks it on, then bundles herself into her coat. When she jerks the door to the hallway open (her first venture outside this suite since -- what, weeks? More than a month?), she's met with the shock of an upraised fist. Fortunately it freezes in midair.

It belongs to Giles, who greets her with a gusty exhale. "Dawn. Thank Christ you're safe."

Safe. She's not that. Not for him. She smiles. "Ripper."

***

That gives him a moment's pause, but he moves into brisk mode. "I see you're ready to leave. Good. I don't know how much time we have."

"You didn't leave him to die, then. You didn't take it that far." Dawn grabs him by the lapels and slams him back against the wall where Ethan's altar had been. She leans into him, close enough that he surely feels the heat of her body. "Tell me you didn't go that far."

He takes her by the shoulders, but his no-nonsense expression turns to puzzlement. Leaning in closer, he takes in her scent. Ethan's scent.

"He brings that out in you, doesn't he?" she says in a low voice. "The desire to go too far." Dawn drops her voice to a whisper. "I heard all about that."

Giles recovers himself just enough to push at her shoulders. She lets herself be backed off an inch or two. "Dawn, whatever he said--"

"Oh, he said a lot."

"He wants to drive a wedge between us. You see that, don't you?"

"What I see is that he doesn't treat me like an idiot child. If you've hurt him, I swear I'll make you pay."

"Dawn, I understand your attachment to him. You've depended on him these last weeks in captivity. We'll sort it all out, I promise."

"This isn't Stockholm. I came here of my own free will. I stayed because I wanted to."

"I'm sure it seemed so then." He takes her by the arm, steers her back as he steps away from the wall. "Dawn. We must go now."

She shoves him, driving him back into the wall again. "You arrogant fuck. Killer of gods. Defender of this crappy little world. You believe you don't answer to anyone."

Suddenly Giles looks so weary. "You sound like him. Trust me, Dawn. Things will seem much clearer when you're away from here."

"Trust me, Dawn. Come with me, Dawn. He's brainwashed you, Dawn. That's supposed to work on me? It's an old salesman's trick. It's cheesy, Giles."

"Perhaps this will work. Your sister is worried about you. Your friends."

"My sister." Dawn smiles. "You don't know me like you think you do."

Giles moves into exasperated mode. "That's enough of this. We haven't time." He grabs her arm again, fingers like steel this time. "We'll talk about this later."

Dawn seizes his wrist, and sees surprise flash across his face at her own steel. "You know, I was never all that fond of my sister, but you should answer for what you did to her."

"To Buffy? Dawn, I--" His attention is suddenly pulled away by a loud rattling sigh from the man on the floor. Pulling free, Giles pushes past her and kneels beside him. "Dawn, this man is dead. What in god's--" He looks up toward her just in time to see the lamp she swings at his head. He collapses in a heap next to Mike.

She cradles the lamp in her hands, weighing the idea of finishing him now. Her memories -- real ones -- tug at her. He meant something to her mother. To her sister and her friends.

She wipes her own fingerprints off the lamp, then molds Mike's lifeless hands around it. He's barely more than a husk, an empty cicada shell clinging to a tree.

Dawn slips out the door and heads down the hallway. When she encounters a man with a briefcase fumbling with his card key, she clutches him by the arm. "I just walked by 512 and heard a really loud argument, and a lot of crashing around. I'd better call security."

The man doesn't acknowledge her, but looks suddenly alarmed and bustles on to his room.

Getting discovered practically on top of a corpse should keep Giles too busy to chase after her.

Ethan would love it.