The thunder came from beneath him, under his feet and through his body, and climbed up the pillars until the whole edifice trembled around him. He looked at his useless hands folded, couldn't help but think of the old nursery rhyme…
Here is the church
And here is the steeple
Open the doors
And see all the people
Crack the floors and shatter the walls; the roof caves in and kills us all.
"Pray with us!" the priest begged over the din. Instead, Wesley pulled out another sort of bible from his bag and shouted out its twisted prayers, bringing forth a woman's shrill scream. He focused on the words, continued to yell his Latin until his voice turned hoarse, but could not bear to look at the figure before him. He was a mere sinner in the hands of his angry god, too late to repent because the end was not near. It was here.
Part One: Ashes of Wednesday
"I'm just so glad to see ya'll!" Fred said, hugging her parents goodbye at the elevator bay of Wolfram & Hart. "You should come visit more often."
"Honey, we're just so glad to see you doing so well!" Mrs. Burkle beamed. "Especially with your new friend." She glanced meaningfully in Wesley's direction.
"Mom, please!" Fred chided, rolling her eyes and blushing on cue. "Wesley's an old friend, you know that."
"Well, I think it's wonderful that you kids got together after so long," Mr. Burkle said, patting Wes on the back. "Friendship's a good start." Wesley smiled for the parents, playing his role of the adoring beau.
"You sure you two can't get away?" asked Mrs. Burkle, eyeing Fred. "You haven't seen the ranch in a dog's age. Don't you want to come on home for Easter?"
The grin slipped from Fred's face and she looked blankly at Wesley. "Uh, Easter?"
Wes stepped forward and tucked Fred under the protective shield of his arm. "We appreciate the invitation, but we simply can't abandon our projects at the moment."
Fred's face still hadn't recovered from its stunned blankness and confusion. Mr. Burkle smiled uneasily. "You're celebrating Easter this year, aren't you?"
Wesley pulled Fred tighter. "We'll attend church services, of course. Then I plan on treating Fred to my favorite Easter dinner, roast pork with rosemary and new potatoes. My mother's recipe." He looked at Fred meaningfully. "You know how the stove isn't always your friend, darling?"
Recognition flooded Fred's face and the carefree grin returned. "Isn't that the truth? Bunsen burners are no problem, but you can't bake cookies on 'em!"
The Burkles laughed and exchanged glances of what looked like relief. "Oh, honey! He's a keeper!" her mother sang. "Hold on to a man who cooks!" The four of them laughed together again until the elevator doors opened.
"These visits are always over too soon!" Mrs. Burkle said sadly. She and her husband again took turns hugging the young couple, promising more visits, letters, phone calls, and emails. The elevator doors closed on the happy scene of Fred and Wesley, arm in arm, waving good-bye.
Wesley dropped his arm from her shoulder. "I hope you achieved what you wanted from that exchange," he said coldly.
"Yes," the inhuman voice replied. "I found it illuminating."
"Good. Fix it in your mind, or whatever you have. It will never happen again." He turned and walked towards the doors of his office.
"My appearance as the shell," the voice continued behind him. "Do you wish it to remain?"
"For the last time, she's not a shell!" Wesley snapped. He couldn't bear to look at her any longer. "Do what you want. You will at any rate," he muttered. "I don't much care."
"We will resume instruction tomorrow," the voice stated. It left little room for argument.
He paused at the doorway. "For what? You succeeded in your ruse. You fooled them – her own parents. What more instruction do you need?"
"The Easter of which they spoke. I do not understand this word. There remains much for me to learn."
"Find another teacher, Illyria," Wesley answered. "I'm finished." He closed the door behind him to shut out the blind stare that bore through the back of his skull. He staggered to his desk, cradled his face in his hands, and wept.
"Vampire," Illyria called into the hallway and fell into step behind Spike's saunter. "You will teach me. You will challenge me with the sword and contest my strength."
"Bugger that," Spike said, continuing down the hall. "Last time I 'taught' you I nearly got my head cracked open."
"This action would not have killed you," Illyria noted.
"Yeah, well, my skull says otherwise." He gave her a backward glance. "Go hound Wesley. He's your welcome wagon to the world, isn't he?"
"He does not desire my presence," Illyria said with a hint of Fred's soft drawl. "I have offended him in some way. I know not how."
He stopped to stare at her. "How? Well, it's how you conjure up Fred, of course. You don't need more training for that Highness. It may be the most devastating thing about you."
Easter. However could Wesley explain the religious significance of such an event to a being such as Illyria? Although, he considered, the ancient one would probably understand the memorial celebration of a savior's resurrection. Angel's words to him that morning rang ever true: You're not her savior. Illyria must have seen itself a savior to its own worshippers – if only they hadn't died waiting for the triumphant return. Illyria's homecoming to its' temple had been like the bad punch line of a worse joke: what if you threw an Easter, he mused, and no one showed up?
Of course - Fred was Christian. She believed in Easter. She believed in God.
Wesley suddenly knew exactly how he could bring his Fred girl back. To his surprise, he realized that there would be no magic involved at all really. Well, not of the conventional sort. He thought of Angel's words to him that morning: "You're still alive. Start acting like it."
He hit the speakerphone and dialed his research team. "I need a religious type with flexible ethics," he told the nameless underling on the other end. "And give me something to bargain with. Make it worth his while."
The source of this unconventional magic arrived in the lobby of Wolfram & Hart, his presence clashing more with the surroundings than Lorne's minty pallor and Spike's duster put together.
Fingering his clerical collar nervously and glancing back at the door, the young priest looked touchingly overwhelmed and rather guilty, as though he'd considered planning an escape. Wesley realized the man seemed most uncomfortable with himself – take one bleached out brunette of a surfer dude and shove him into vestments. The salty friar of the waves, Wes thought, had he received his calling after a particularly bad wipeout? Or had the insinuations about the priest's shady dealings with altar boys hit a little too close to shore?
"Father Richards," Wesley called out in greeting.
"Father Steve," the young priest corrected gently. Wesley's smile faded. Gentleness was the last thing he needed here.
"Of course. Wesley Wyndham Pryce."
"I know you said you guys were the white knights and all, but you're fighting against quite a uh, historical reputation here," Fr. Richards said.
"As are you, in your alliance, Father."
"Despite your best intentions," the minister continued. "You can't expect to fight inside the bowels of the beast without getting somehow…stained."
"And how nicely you put it, too." Wesley responded. "Let's convene further in my office, shall we?" He escorted the priest to the elevators.
"Well now. The church's legal problems," Wesley began, after shutting the office door. "Those hits just keep on coming, don't they Father?"
"So I saddle on whatever cause you pull out and you'll be obliged to make all those nasty court cases go away, I take it?"
"I take it you'll cooperate?"
The priest's eye twitched, the only physical sign of his acquiescence. "You want what from me, exactly?"
"Help. Father. I have a problem."
At that moment, Illyria entered Wesley's office, yanking open the door and stalking stiffly over to his side.
"I seek you," the old one said. "Yet you ignore your duty to me. What is this?" It asked, indicating Wesley's guest with a glaringly blank gaze.
"This is my counselor," Wesley told her. "My own Qwa'ha Xahn if you will." He flashed an ingratiating smirk.
Illyria turned back to Wes and cocked Fred's beloved head at him. "I do not follow your meaning. If I will what?"
Wesley sighed. "Merely a figure of speech. I am not ignoring you, Illyria, but I must take this counsel now."
Illyria cautiously circled the chair of the surprised priest and studied him with all the posture of a preying panther.
"You will gather your counsel," it replied. "Then you will return to me." Backing out of the room then, the gleaming blue eyes darting back and forth suspiciously between the two men, Illyria pulled the door shut.
"What the hell?" the priest finally sputtered.
"That's the little problem I'm hoping you can help me solve," Wesley murmured and ran a shaking hand through his hair.
"I'm a priest, not an exterminator!" the man spat. "What the hell is that thing?"
Wes took a breath and sat down at his desk again. "That…is my girlfriend. Well, was," he corrected himself tiredly. "Is," he added, staring sadly at the closed door. "I need a standard exorcism case from you, Father."
"Standard, right. So this girl…"
"You're saying she's possessed?"
Wesley couldn't meet the priest's eyes. "Yes. The being calls itself Illyria, an ancient power. It told us that Fred's soul - everything about her really - was destroyed when Illyria took over the body."
The priest's shock downshifted into smugness. "Mr. Pryce, lemme say this. Souls don't get destroyed. They get doomed and they get saved. I talk to the one who does the saving every day – and it's not Illyria, I can tell you that."
Wesley bit his lip, the scholar in him struggling to keep silent. Illyria was beyond God, beyond time even. Yet he needed some kind of faith, some kind of magic beyond his own to reach Fred.
"Illyria's indicated that when she – it – took over, that Fred died. Fred… was in excruciating pain. She died in my arms, Father." Wesley paused to let the image sink in. "Illyria says that she - dammit-I mean it…is now bound to Fred's body."
The priest shrugged. "I'm sure that's how it feels to Illyria, but it simply isn't possible. Part of your girlfriend may certainly have died that day, but her spirit can't. It may be shoved aside in there, put on the backburner to make room for well, let's face it, a huge suckass power. Illyria is an essence, a spirit, that can't be destroyed any more than the girl can. It can be forced out with the right tools."
Wesley leaned across the desk eagerly. "You'll take the case? You'll perform the exorcism?"
The priest shifted in his seat. "We don't get a lot of call for exorcisms anymore, Mr. Pryce, and never for a mega one like this. So this is all a hypothetical – of the mystic variety."
"My favorite kind," Wes sighed.
"The way I see it, this Illyria would have no soul. I can only guess, but whatever's left of the girl, she'd be nothing but soul at this point. Probably a damaged one, given what she's shacking up with in there, it'll be hard to pull them apart, maybe damn near impossible."
Wesley inhaled sharply. "If you refuse me, I have the power to destroy you, your parish…would you like me to go further?"
"Hey, ho," the man stammered, holding his hands up in defense. "I haven't refused you jack. You gotta know the score. There's another way to go." He bowed his head. "You could free her soul. Give her peace. Whatever's left, she's a shell of her former self."
"She's not a shell!" Wes cried. "She's in there. I'm sure of it."
"Mr. Pryce, have you read the Bible?"
"Yes," Wesley answered with surprise. "Strictly in the academic sense, of course."
"'Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption,'" that's 1 Corinthians by the way."
"Meaning what exactly?"
The priest leaned in earnestly. "Man, let her go. I'll do whatever you want, no questions. But I hope you know that you could be damning her to some gnarly unlife if you don't. If you truly love this girl, you will let her go."
"Then she pays for your weakness?"
"'For when I am weak, then I am strong.' 2 Corinthians, Father," Wesley replied.
The priest looked furious. "St. Paul meant strong in the love for his God!"
"As do I," Wesley said softly. "She is mine."
Fr. Richards stood up slowly, his posture defeated and passive "If we're gonna do this thing, I gotta find some backup and a church. We should do it soon." He thought for a minute. "The chick is Christian, right?"
"Fred? Yes, of course."
The priest nodded. "We should do it Friday. The day the old church used to set aside for gigs just like this one."
"Good Friday?" Wes asked.
"You got it."
"If Fred comes back," Wes whispered. "It will be indeed."