Disclaimers; BtVS and its cast belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. Father O'Rourke is all mine, but I will admit to being inspired by Andrew M. Greeley's Bishop Blackie Ryan.

Spoilers; General sixth season so far, plus the more prevalent rumors.

Archives; Want, take, have.

Feedback; Give me a jingle at Jim_D_Means@prodigy.net

Author's note; Yeah, I know, it's a little angsty, but it's something I wanted to get off my chest, given recent developments on the show. Sort of a possible resolution to the whole Evil-Willow subplot. And if you need a visual reference for Father O'Rourke, I was thinking of actor Colm Meaney (Chief O'Brien on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as I wrote him.

Summary; Buffy finds that, even in your darkest hour, a light may still guide you out of the night...


Grace
By Kirayoshi


"People living their lives for you on TV.
They say they're better than you, and you agree.
He says, "Hold my calls" from behind cold walls.
The Boss says, "Come here boy. There ain't nothin' for free."
Another doctor's bill, a lawyer's bill,
Another cute cheap thrill
You know you love him if you put him in your will but...

Who will save your soul when it comes to the flowers now
Who will save your soul after all the lies that you told, boy
Who will save your soul if you won't save your own?"
--Jewel
"Who Will Save Your Soul"


========

Funny, she thought. During her sophomore year, when there was a prophecy saying that she was going to die, it scared her. She was only sixteen, after all. She didn't want to die.

Where was that prophecy when she needed it now?

She was now twenty. In two months, twenty-one. And all she wanted was to die.

She lay on a plot of ground where she had been buried six months earlier. She chuckled mirthlessly when, later, she looked at her old tombstone. "She saved the world, a lot." Had to be Willow's idea.

Just like her return was Willow's idea. Willow had found a resurrection spell. A spell that restored her decaying body and reunited it with her soul, bringing her successfully back to life.

A spell that dragged her out of Heaven, and back into the Hell that was Sunnydale, kicking and screaming all the way.

She was dead, the way she was supposed to be. She had given up her life to save Dawn, why couldn't they have left her for the worms? What reason did they have to bring Buffy back, anyway? To defend this miserable town? If anything, they should be saving the world from Sunnydale! Just nuke the damn town off the map, Hellmouth and all! Problem solved! No more Hellmouth, no more demons, no more vampires, no more evil witches.

And now, thanks to her meddling, Willow had gone over to the Dark Side. Her best friend was now an enemy. Anakin Rosenberg was now Darth Willow. And she was out to get back at Buffy.

Willow. The one constant she had left in her hellish existence. The one good thing left in her life. And it was no more. Her friendship died the moment she was reborn.

For the price for Buffy's rebirth was Willow's soul. Her goodness, her innocence, the thing that made her truly beautiful, truly Willow.

Tara finally saw it, which was why she left her. Xander and Anya saw it, which was why they broke off contact with her. Giles saw it, before he returned to England. Willow made it clear to him; Sunnydale was her territory now, and Giles wasn't welcome.

Out of love and friendship, Willow gave up her own soul to bring her back.

And Buffy Summers couldn't forgive her for that.

It didn't matter to her anymore. She didn't feel anything anymore. She tried to feel. She tried to go back to her 'life', paying bills, taking a job, and looking after Dawn. She turned away from her friends, the ones who brought her back, and started depending more on Spike. Spike, once an enemy, later an ally...she couldn't get herself to call him a friend. Maybe that's why she threw herself at him. Out of desperation, she tried to convince herself that she loved Spike, and threw herself into his bed. She pretended it was love, even fooled herself into believing that it was love. But despite his own feelings for her, he knew better. It wasn't love, it wasn't even sex. It was screwing, plain and simple. And as soon as he got his rocks off, he tossed her out of his bed, angrily telling her to steer clear of him. "If I wanted to sleep with crazy," he shouted, "I'd have gotten back together with Dru!"

The final straw. Being dumped by Spike. Just like Riley before him. Like Angel. Like Parker, Scott, Pike.

Like her father.

Like Giles.

Like every man she ever tried to love.

She didn't care anymore. She didn't want his love. Or anyone else's. Or anything else at all. Except to return to the cool of her grave. The warmth of her mother's embrace.

She wanted to die.

Xander and Anya would take better care of Dawn than she could anyway. At least they had regular jobs. Hopefully they'd take Dawn as far away from this Hell as they could get.

She grimaced at the realization that she would never see Dawn again. She accepted it. It was better this way, better for Dawn. Buffy was good for only one thing in the end. Slaying. Give her a vampire and a demon, she was on top of the world. Throw her in the real world, and she would fold like a paper airplane in a cyclone.

Buffy was still dead, really. All that was left was the Slayer. And the Slayer deserved to die.

So she lay on her old abandoned grave, waiting for some anonymous vampire or demon to kill her. Someone could get a rep as the demon that slew the Slayer. She would smile as the fiend drank her blood.

She heard a ruckus in the distance. Good, she thought. Her killer was near. Come and get it, demon boy! Nice fresh Slayer here!

Then she heard someone running away. She could hear the footfalls, could smell the sweat, the fear rising from their intended victim. Damn! She couldn't let this person die, no matter what else she wanted. She rose from her laying position, jumped to her feet, and ran toward the din of battle.

Two newbie vamps were chasing a portly middle-aged gentleman in a black jacket. Buffy took a look at the man's collar. A priest. "Out of the way, Father!" she shouted, and the priest dove behind a nearby tombstone. Buffy launched herself toward the nearest vamp, left foot ahead, and connected with a bone-crunching kick. She landed on the vamp, kicking it again for good measure, then twisted around to deliver a roundhouse kick to topple his partner. The two vamps crumpled under the assault, but one of them managed to get in a swift slash with a hidden knife before Buffy could stake him.

The priest watched guardedly from his perch as Buffy dusted the second vamp. He blinked twice, amazed by this powerful young girl. If she was the person he knew her to be...

He glanced up at the sky, and whispered, "Our Father in Heaven, You have brought me to this place for a purpose, and now You make that purpose clear. Blessed be the Lord." He made a quick sign of the cross, and sensing the coast to be clear, rose from behind the stone, and ventured gingerly toward the staggering Slayer. He saw the gash, a huge rip in her sweater and shirt beneath on her left side, and the deep cut under the shirt staining the cloth red. "Miss," he offered, "do you need any help? You don't look so good."

"Oh..." Buffy stammered weakly, "you...should see...the...the other...guy..." Reeling from blood loss and pain, coupled with a desire to let the wound claim her, Buffy fainted. As she collapsed, the priest caught her, and with surprising strength, lifted her in his arms. "No, my child, I won't let you die on me now."

She stirred long enough to shake her head limply. "N...no hos...pit...al..."

"Don't worry, child, I can handle this," the priest answered as Buffy lost consciousness. The priest carried Buffy to his car, and placed her gently in the back seat, carefully fastening a seatbelt around her. "Let's be getting you someplace safe, before you catch your death out here." He then got into the driver's seat, and sped away.

If he had bothered to look behind him, he might have made out a slender figure with a shock of red hair and almost feral sunken green eyes that glittered with malice. The red witch had found her wounded quarry, and was closing in for the kill

========

She awoke to the smell of chicken soup. A steady hand was holding her head up, and as she cleared the cobwebs from her head, the scent of rosemary and onion was clearer. For a brief second, she was back home, with Mom and Dawn, in a world where there were no vampires, no evil more menacing than a school principal with a mad on.

"Here, child," the soothing Irish brogue instructed her. "Eat up, you need your strength to heal." Buffy felt something metal at her lower lip, and realized that someone was trying to feed her the soup. Operating on automatic pilot, Buffy opened her mouth, and tasted the soup as it went past her palette. It tasted good, not too salty, and with generous chunks of meat.

Not that she could really taste anything.

She tried to sit up, but a lancing pain flared through her midsection. Gentle hands restrained her, as that Irish brogue pleaded with her; "Don't try to move, girl, or you'll break the stitches."

One word broke through the haze in her mind. "Stitches?" she asked in a slurred voice.

"Aye, you took a deep cut in the belly when that one gangbanger slashed you." Buffy struggled to awaken further, to see the person who was talking to her. She blinked repeatedly, but didn't try to sit up again, not after the initial pain of her wound protested with her. She figured that her healing factor would kick in soon, and she could leave this bed. And go back to her original plans of suicide.

Her vision began to clear, and through a pain-induced squint she managed to more clearly make out the man who was speaking to her. A fat, cherubic face, framed by a nest of sandy blond curls, blue eyes that sparkled with a merry wisdom. His priest's collar shocked Buffy's mind back to a semblance of consciousness. The priest she rescued from those vamps. "Welcome back to the land of the living."

Buffy winced and turned her head away. "Living," she groaned. "Save it for someone who cares, Father."

The priest pursed his lips in thought. "Now then, hardly a fitting sentiment for someone who saved your life. Of course, I can imagine the pain of that knife wound. Sadly I didn't have any anesthetic handy, but fortunately you were unconscious during most of the sewing." He extended a large hand, worn but still gentle. "Father Brian O'Rourke."

"Buffy Summers," his patient answered quietly, but she didn't return his handshake.

"Well then, Buffy," Father O'Rourke said, "A pleasure to meet you. Try and sit up slowly, that's a good girl." Buffy complied with her host's request, weakly lifting her body to a vaguely upright position. The pain was still there, but she could focus her thoughts past it. Those mental exercises Giles gave her were working.

She gave a relieved sigh to find that she was still dressed, although her midriff was bared, her sweater lifted to display her wound. Her hands brushed slowly against the wound, and she was surprised at the tight, neat row of stitches she found sealing her cut. "I was an Army medic during Vietnam, before I took my vows. I've seen my share of wounds. And my share of evil."

"So you became...a...priest," Buffy groaned through a fresh volley of agony as her wound throbbed.

"I was called," Father O'Rourke answered. He gave Buffy a strange, knowing look, and added, "So were you. Slayer."

Buffy wasn't aware of the bowl of soup that was still balanced on her knee, until the sudden shock of hearing the priest call her Slayer knocked the bowl on the floor, splashing her legs. "Oh, sorry about that, Buffy," Father O'Rourke puttered off for a second, returning quickly with a large towel, and started to dab at the spilled soup.

Buffy shook her leg away from him angrily. "What do you know about me, Father?" she spat out the last word like it was poison. Her attitude regarding the human race was already at an all-time low, now a priest was lying to her!

"I see things," he said. "I hear things, I read the paper, I know something about what's happening in this town. You don't think I'd believe those ruffians you turned to dust were just high on PCP, do you?" He gave her an elfin wink, adding, "Unlike the local constabulary, I'm not monumentally stupid." That brought a laugh out of her. "There have been stories for centuries, stories of women who fight against insurmountable evils, women who sacrifice all so that God's green earth can turn once more. Some of us in the clergy know about the Slayers. About the Council, about the vampires, about the demons. We know they're there, some of us do at any rate. And we know enough to keep quiet."

Buffy sat on the bed and said nothing. Father O'Rourke continued; "If what I've read about the Slayers is true, your body will heal practically overnight. But you'll still be weak until then. So I brought you to my rectory, to rest up."

"Great," she muttered. "Next time, save it for someone who wouldn't be better off dead."

As the words left her mouth, the priest's expression hardened slightly. A stern furrow ridged his brow. "Surely you don't mean that, do you child?"

Buffy shook her head to dispell his care and concern; she didn't want a stranger's pity. She didn't even want to continue breathing. She just wanted out. "Look, thanks for the help, Father, but you're wasting your time with me. Go save a soul that's still salvageable."

She turned sharply toward the door, but before she could take a single step, Father O'Rourke called out to her; "And who are you to say that your soul is not worth saving?"

Buffy stopped in her tracks, and considered shouting something back to the priest. Some kind of comeback, a witty retort, a swear word, anything. Her mouth opened...

...and shut again, soundlessly. What could she say? What could she possibly say to make the priest understand? She knew in her heart that she had no salvation. She was saved before, but dark magic robbed her of Heaven forever. How could she make him understand? If any soul on Earth was damned, it was hers. She knew for certain what every other person who ever lived could only speculate about, that there was a Heaven. And she was no longer welcome there.

The tears finally flowed freely and would not stop. The tears she had refused to shed when Willow denounced their friendship, when Spike kicked her out of his bed, when Giles boarded that plane to England vowing never to return. Her strength finally failed her, and she didn't care. She sank to her knees, unaware of anything but her sorrow, the pit of misery that had become her dwelling place.

She was vaguely aware of the strong arms that held her, the callused hands that soothed her shoulders, the gentle Irish brogue that assured her that God was watching out for her.
Feebly she tried to break the priest's hold on her, but his relentless gentleness and unstoppable caring finally reached her. Her heart, which had grown callused and brittle after breaking time and again, responded to Father O'Rourke's limitless patience and kindness. She held on to the priest like a lifeline. She didn't know how long they stood there, her desperate for comfort, him determined to comfort her. Eventually, she somehow managed to compose herself long enough to stop crying and to breathe normally.

Self-pity, she decided, is not for wimps. Her chest hurt from heaving, her eyes stung with the residue of her tears, her throat was harsh and raspy from crying, and her hair was matted with sweat. She didn't feel very good after her crying jag, but at least she was in some semblance of control. "Th-thank you," Buffy stammered to the priest.

Father O'Rourke delivered a cherubic smile; "No problem, child. Glad to be of service."

"How can you be so understanding, anyway?" Buffy asked. "I mean, you know what's out there, right? The vampires, the demons, the evil that's out there. How can you just go on here in your church anyway?"

O'Rourke just gave Buffy a knowing look. "Because of the evil that's out there, Buffy. You and I, we're both on the same team. In our own way, we fight what's out there. You with your great strength, me with my faith. Both our weapons stem from the same source, from God."

Buffy huffed as she considered the Father's words. "You think that God calls my signals, Father? After all that I've been through, I've started to wonder if He ever existed."

"With what's out there?" the priest asked. "I'd say that the fact that you've survived your calling as a sign that He does look after you. He certainly gave you the arsenal you've needed all this time to fight the evil."

"You think so?" Buffy asked plainly. She no longer spoke in a condescending tone, but out of genuine need to know. She needed to believe what the priest was telling her.

" 'There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.' Corinthians 1, chapter twelve." Buffy nodded, slowly considering these words. O'Rourke continued. " 'For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit. To another faith by the same Spirit, to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit. To another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits. To another divers kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But all these work that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.' You were given a terrible responsibility, Buffy. And God saw fit to provide you with the strength you would need to carry on that fight."

"You really believe that, don't you?"

"I have to," O'Rourke answered. "I've seen the Hell outside my window, I have to believe in a Heaven."

"Heaven," Buffy grunted. "Let me put your mind at ease there, Father. I know there's a Heaven, I just got kicked out of it!"

That silenced the priest for a few seconds. A small voice in Buffy's head told her to be silent, but she didn't listen. She started talking and couldn't stop. She told him about her mother's death, about Dawn, about Glory and the Key. She told him about that one terrible night, when a demon named Doc shed Dawn's blood, using it to open an interdimensional rift that would have torn all of creation apart. Father O'Rourke nodded at that point; "The press tried to convince us that there was a freak thunderstorm that night. I wasn't convinced." Buffy was amazed that he could listen to her strange story without believing she was insane. Maybe he did believe. In her, and in God.

"Yeah," Buffy said ruefully. "Anyway, the only way for the world to survive was for either Dawn or I to fall into that vortex. And I wasn't gonna let Dawn die. So I took the dive. I threw myself into the pit."

"You sacrificed yourself to save your sister," O'Rourke mused.

"Something like that," Buffy shook her head. "Of course, considering how my life had gone down the toilet, it wasn't that much of a sacrifice." The priest just shook his head in sympathy. She needed to say this, to let it out.

"I don't really recall much of what happened next," Buffy whispered slowly. "All I know was that I was with my mother. And I was at peace. For the first time since I became the Slayer, I truly knew peace. I was happy. I was with God, I don't know how else to explain it."

"That's what Heaven is, child," the priest answered. "The presence of God."

Buffy lowered her head, unable to make eye contact with the priest. "And then I was kicked out of Heaven, and thrown back into play here." She hesitated slightly, not quite knowing how to explain this to the priest. She decided to dive in. Yeah, she thought, she was good at diving in, wasn't she? "My friend, Willow, well, she's a witch. Practicing Wiccan, actually. That's right, a card-carrying pagan. Anyway, she found this spell that could resurrect someone who had died of supernatural causes. But it was a dark spell, a blood spell. Black magic, I guess, or something like that. It changed her, Father. Ever since I...I came back, I could see how she had changed. When the rest of us realized what she gave to bring me back, it was too late. It's like...ooh!" She balled her hands into impotent fists, angry at her own inability to explain the change she saw in her friend. She shook her head, feeling a new wave of tears forming in her eyes. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. It looks like Wills and I are both damned together." She lowered her head in her hands, and began to sob quietly.

Father O'Rourke regarded Buffy with caution, considering what council he could give her damaged soul. To shoulder such tragedy, to know so little happiness, to have such a terrible cross to bear, no wonder she was so miserable. And now to lose the one person whom, it would appear, made that burden bearable. No, this was worse than simply not believing in God, she was angry with God.

"So," O'Rourke said quietly. "You believe that God has forgotten you. That God does not know or care about the fate or status of your soul. Is that it?"

"I don't know, Father," Buffy wailed. "I just know that I was supposed to be dead, and I'm not! And as long as I'm alive, and stuck guarding Sunnydale, Dawn's stuck with me! She doesn't deserve that, dammit! She doesn't deserve to rot here!"

O'Rourke gave her a knowing smile. "And you, Buffy Summers? What do you deserve?"

Buffy looked at the priest for a second, before turning away suddenly, the tears flowing freely again. "I don't know!" she sobbed. "I just... just don't know anymore! They brought me back to life, but they couldn't give me a life! All I want is to go back...go back to... where it was peaceful..." Buffy couldn't say anymore, as her sobs turned to gentle hiccups.

All this time, Father O'Rourke looked silently at the lost girl before him. He had to summon a wellspring of patience to avoid pointing out that suicide was a mortal sin. More than anything, he wanted to ease this young one's despair. But he didn't know what words would assure her, what signs would persuade her to turn her face back to the light.

Finally, Buffy broke the oppressive silence. "It is kind of peaceful here, though," she said in a timid voice. "It's been so long since I felt safe, since I didn't fear what might be around the next corner. I dunno, I just want to be Buffy again, not the Slayer. I just want a chance to get back what I lost." She turned her face back to the priest, a sardonic smile playing at her lips. "Am I making any sense at all?"

Father O'Rourke laughed gently, and sat beside the Slayer. "More than you think, my child. You're asking the same question that everyone who ever lived as asked; what is the point of me? Why am I here, what is my place in this world?" He shook his head, and patted Buffy's knee. "Believe it or not, I don't always know the answer to that one myself. All I know is that, as long as there's one soul left in this town that can be saved, my work here will never be done." He gave Buffy another warm smile, which somehow helped to alleviate some of the burden of her heart.

"Oh, trust me, Padre," a once-familiar voice hacked through the peace of the evening with a terrible purpose. "Your work here is done. In fact, your lives are done now, both of you!"

"WILLOW!" Buffy's eyes were riveted to the figure that suddenly stood before her; short red hair, glittering green eyes, black satin dress with bared shoulders, and a sinister smile that chilled her to the core. Any trace of her best friend was absent now; there was only the darkness.

Buffy suddenly blurred before the priest, standing between him and her former friend. "Not tonight, Willow, I don't have time to deal with you."

"You don't have time, period, Slayer," Willow snarled. She spread her hands wide, spat out a string of some long-dead language, and streamers of lightning flashed from her hands, connecting with Buffy's chest, and tossing her in the air like a rag doll. Buffy shouted out to the priest; "Get out of her, Father! She's gone mad!"

The priest didn't run away, however. He just glared hard at the witch who dared to invade his rectory. He lowered his eyes, and started to speak, his voice taking a darker tone. "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti!" He thrust a crucifix into Willow's face, and the witch shuddered, lurching away as though she were Superman evading a piece of Kryptonite. "Begone from the body of the Lord's servant, foul demon! You are not welcome here!" Willow started to hiss and claw at the priest, rapidly losing any semblance of humanity under a feral mask.

"Buffy!" O'Rourke shouted. "Just behind you, left shelf, I keep a stash of holy water. Fetch a bottle, quickly!" Buffy looked behind her, and located the holy water stash. She grabbed a bottle and handed it to O'Rourke. "By the One True God, by his only Son, and by the Holy Ghost, you will not win this night, or any other!" He uncorked the holy water, and splashed the contents on Willow. She screamed as though touched by corrosive acid, and then reeled and fell, unconscious, to the floor.

Buffy gawked at the display, disbelieving what she had seen. "Uh," she stammered, "what just happened here?"

"She couldn't tolerate the touch of holy water in her state, Buffy," the priest explained. Seeing Buffy's confused state, he added, "Oh, come on! You're the Slayer, you must have seen a demonic possession before!"

"Well, something like that," Buffy admitted. "A friend of ours, Amy, was victimized by her mother, who switched minds with Amy. And I was once possessed by a ghost."

"Well, this is far more sinister, child," he answered, as he started to roam around the living room, picking up various objects as he traveled. "When you told me that she changed after she cast the resurrection spell, something clicked in my head; she must have made an unholy bargain to bring you back. Some sort of blood sacrifice, perhaps."

Buffy blanched at the priest's words. "Oh God!" she squealed, then caught a disapproving glance from O'Rourke. "Sorry, Father. But right after I was brought back, I learned that she sacrificed a baby deer for its blood, as part of the spell!"

"God protect us," the priest muttered, making a sign of the cross over his heart, "that must have been it. She lost her innocence that moment, by taking a life for a life. That's when the demon was able to enter her, to corrupt her gifts. But we still have a chance to save her, if we act fast." He gave the Slayer a penetrating stare. "Do you trust me, Buffy?"

Buffy looked at him as he asked the question. It was a simple question, whether she was willing to trust a man whom she had just met to protect her friend. She looked at Willow's still form on the floor, and made her choice quickly. "Uh, yeah," she said. "I guess I trust you."

"Then, Buffy," the priest said solemnly, "by the Living God, and by the love you bear Willow, you must do exactly as I say. What we do from this point on, we must do to save your friend's soul. You in?"

"I'm in," Buffy answered without thinking. She didn't need to think about this one; if it would save Willow, she would gladly throw herself on a landmine.

It was as simple as that; she loved her. Of all the chaos and insanity of her life, this was the one thing she knew for certain.

"Lift her off the floor, carefully," he said, "and bring her to kitchen table." He brushed off a few papers and other objects off the table, not caring about where they landed. Buffy quickly carried Willow in her arms, and placed her on the table. Willow was slowly starting to move, and the scowl on her face spoke volumes of her mood.

Father O'Rourke quickly donned a purple stole that he had grabbed from his closet. "Dominum vobiscum. May the Lord be with you."

"Dominum Vobiscum," Buffy repeated.

O'Rourke opened a small box he had grabbed from a nearby shelf, and withdrew a communion wafer, muttering silent prayers over it. "On the night he gave himself up for death," he whispered, as he broke the wafer into three similar sized pieces, "a death He freely accepted, He broke bread and gave you thanks. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples and said, 'Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you'." He put one piece in his mouth, and handed Buffy the other two. "Eat one piece of the Eucharist, Buffy, then place the other one under Willow's tongue."

"Okay," Buffy said slowly, as she ate the wafer. "But I think I should tell you, before she became a pagan, she was Jewish."

"I don't care if she was a Scientologist," O'Rourke spat back irritably, "put the wafer under her tongue." Buffy complied silently, placing the wafer fragment in her friend's mouth. The wiccan's body convulsed as the host touched her lips.

O'Rourke looked on approvingly. So far it seemed to be working. He withdrew a decanter and poured its contents into a glass goblet. He whispered in prayer again; "When supper was ended, He took the cup. Again He gave you thanks, and said to His disciples, 'Take this, all of you, and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for all, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me'." He took a sip from the goblet, then passed the wine to Buffy, who took a sip. "Can you hold her mouth open for me?" Buffy handed O'Rourke the goblet and lifted Willow's head. She managed to keep her steady despite her thrashing, and lifted her jaw. O'Rourke carefully poured a few drops of wine into Willow's mouth. Willow tried to cough up the sanctified wine, and Buffy shuddered as her best friend suffered.

"Buffy, for this exorcism to work," the priest instructed her, "I must recite prayers over her, entreating God's intervention on Willow's behalf. The demon will resist, bodily. You must restrain her, but be gentle, or else your battle with the demon will destroy Willow's body. Do you understand me?"

"I understand what's at stake here," Buffy answered. "I'll do what I have to." She took Willow's wrists in firm but gentle hands, despite the demon snarling at her.

O'Rourke handed Buffy a small leather-bound copy of the Bible, saying, "Turn to Psalm 23." Buffy quickly opened the book with her free hand and found the right page. "Merciful God," O'Rourke intoned, "this woman has sought only to do Your will, but by an act of love she has fallen into the snare of the enemy. We ask your blessing, and that You, in Your divine mercy aid us in retrieving her soul from the Evil One." Buffy crossed her fingers, silently praying herself that this exorcism would prove successful.

A low growl issued from Willow's throat, making Buffy more afraid for her friend. O'Rourke nodded to Buffy, and started to recite; "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Buffy began to read aloud with O'Rourke; "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters."

The growl became a howling, as Willow bellowed with rage. The priest knew that the demon was straining to maintain control of Willow's body, something the priest wouldn't let it keep. "He restoreth my soul," he continued to recite. "He leadeth me down paths of righteousness for His name's sake."

"He leads you to your ruin, priest!" an unearthly voice boomed through the rectory. "And you won't rob me of my prize, Slayer," the demon shouted through Willow's mouth. "Your whore of a witch is mine!"

O'Rourke ignored the demon and continued to recite; "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and
thy staff they comfort me."

"His rod and staff are powerless, hypocrite!" the demon in Willow's body chortled. "She's mine! Now and forever, she's mine!"

"Okay, foot off the reverb pedal!" Buffy shouted back. "Who the hell are you?"

"Who am I, little warrior?" the possessed witch laughed in a voice that patently didn't belong to Willow. "You know me, Buffy, we've danced this dance so many times before. I'm the Master and the Annointed One. I am Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Adam. I am Balthazar, Beozar, Moloch, the Jhe, Dracula, Glory! All of your enemies, all of your nightmares, all are me! I am the First Evil!"

"Fine," Buffy glowered. "So you're another demon with adequacy issues. Fine, I've beaten them all before, I'll beat you as well."

"Have you beaten me?" the First Evil grinned. "No matter how many of my foot soldiers you send to Hell, I'm always there, always planning! You will eventually lose to me. Resign yourself to that failure, little Slayer."

"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies," O'Rourke continued, raising his voice. "Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."

"You're not getting Willow, mister!" Buffy threatened, grabbing her shoulders with both hands. "Not on my watch!"

"It's too late for her, Buffy," the demon shouted. "She was mine the moment the knife entered the deer's heart! The blood of that fawn baptized her to my service!"

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all of the days of my life," O'Rourke finished the psalm, "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

"Your pitiful prayers are nothing to me!" the demon screamed, as Willow thrashed about in Buffy's grasp. "I will have the wiccan as my rightful prize! I will rend the Hellmouth from East to West. I'll take your friends as my slaves, your sister as my concubine! I will blight all you hold dear! I stole Heaven from you, Slayer, and now I will destroy you!"

"It's not working, Father," Buffy cried as Willow bucked under her hands. "The demon's getting stronger, I don't think I can hold her any longer!"

"Talk to her, Buffy," O'Rourke answered patiently.

"I was!"

"No," he answered simply. "Talk to her." Buffy glanced between O'Rourke and her possessed friend. "Talk to her. To Willow." Buffy listened to the priest's words, and suddenly a light dawned in her eyes.

"Hey, Willow," she said softly, but didn't release her hold on Willow's frame. "It's been a while, huh?"

"I am not Willow, fool," the unearthly voice answered. "I am the First Evil."

"So, Willow," Buffy's brow was wrinkled with worry, but she continued to talk soothingly to her friend. "I was talking to Tara the other day. She's got a new girlfriend, but she misses you, y'know. We all do. I miss my friend, Willow."

"Willow is no more, Slayer!" the demon growled, but her struggles grew less and less with each word.

"Look, Willow," Buffy plowed ahead. "I'm gonna just ignore Reverb-boy and talk to you, all right? Listen to me, Willow, the gang's just not the same without you. We need you back, Willow. The real you, the computer hacker, the witch, the friend. You've been the real heart of the gang for so long, Willow, I don't know if we can survive without you."

"I AM NOT WILLOW!"

"Yes you are!" Buffy shouted. "You're stronger than that demon, you're stronger than anyone I know! Fight it, Willow! You can beat this thing!"

Father O'Rourke continued to repeat the psalm as he watched Buffy and her interaction with her friend. She was a smart girl; he could see that. Must have taken some psychology courses. He marked how she forcefully said and repeated Willow's name, to remind her of who she is. His hope was bolstered that, by the grace of God, they may succeed in saving Willow.

"Look, Willow," Buffy didn't even try to hide the emotion in her voice. "I know I haven't been coping very well with life lately. I said things, I did things, things I'm sorry about, things I regret. Hanging onto Spike when I should have seen what was happening to you. But I want you to know, I never meant to do anything to hurt you." The demon within Willow's body still ranted at Buffy, but the voice grew softer, the thrashing grew weaker. "You're my family, Willow. You're everything to me. I need you in my life. You're my heart, Willow. You're my moral compass, my conscience. I may be the Chosen One, but you're the real hero here. I need you, Willow. You hear me?" She leaned in closer, and kissed her gently on the nose. "I love you, Willow," she whispered.

The priest considered how Buffy meant those words, but decided it didn't matter. As Buffy spoke the words, a tremor shook Willow's frame, and a gutteral growl of despair ripped her throat. The priest took a step back, just in time, as what appeared to be a geyser of arcane energy burst from Willow's body, and shot out to the ceiling. Buffy was nearly knocked back, but she refused to let go of Willow. She felt the energy running past her, through her. She felt the evil that emanated from it, the anger, the rage. And she felt something else; a sense of despair, of defeat. She wasn't quite sure how she knew, but she knew that she had banished the demon that claimed to be the First Evil.

As suddenly as it started, the energy cascade ceased, leaving behind a strange, calming quiet. Father O'Rourke joined Buffy over Willow's body, neither one daring to speak. Willow lay still on the table, still and unmoving. Buffy waited silently for some sign of life. Ten seconds, twenty, thirty, a minute, two minutes. The time passed inexorably, and Buffy stood over her, praying for Willow to awake, free of the demon.

A pair of eyes fluttered open, and a faint, almost inaudible voice asked, "B-Buffy?"

Buffy nearly gave herself whiplash turning back to her friend. "Willow?" she asked nervously, both praying and fearing the answer. "You're alive?"

"Ar...ren't I u...usually?" she said weakly. Her voice was frail, a faint whisper, but it was her voice, not the demon who had possessed her. Buffy began to weep openly, and taking Willow's hand in her own. She found herself whispering a wholehearted "Thank God", a sentiment that Father O'Rourke silently echoed in his heart.

========

"Eat up, child," Father O'Rourke offered a bowl of chicken soup to Willow, who ate slowly but gratefully. "A good bowl of Jewish penicillin." Willow smiled weakly, her body spent by the ordeal she had suffered. Buffy, for her part, was so grateful to have her friend back that she didn't want to be further than two inches from her. Willow wanted to tell Buffy that she wasn't a china doll that would break on her, but after all that they both went through recently, she decided to allow the Slayer her closeness, which she found she enjoyed.

"Hey, Wills," Buffy asked tentatively. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I guess," Willow answered, a strange sadness in her voice. "Considering that I remember everything that demon made me do since it possessed me. Tara, she must hate me now. And Xander, will he ever speak to me again?"

"We'll meet them at the Magic Box tomorrow," Buffy assured her friend. "Once they learn the truth, they'll understand."

"Oh Goddess, I hope so," Willow shook her head in disgust at what the demon had done in her body. She glanced at the priest, and, mollified, added, "Sorry, sir. I should have said 'God', not 'Goddess'."

"Not a problem, Willow," Father O'Rourke answered. "Sometimes I think of the Lord in the female pronoun. I doubt She would object." Willow smiled a little wider at the thought. "God is beyond any attempts of mortal man to classify Her."

"Thanks," Willow nodded. "And thanks, for the exorcism and everything."

"It was a privilege, my child," the priest answered as he watched the two women sitting together.

"You've been plenty generous, still," Willow admitted. "I mean I am a practicing pagan, a goddess worshiper." She turned away briefly, then added, "Oh, and I'm gay."

Father O'Rourke laughed heartily at Willow's admission, causing the redhead to blush to the point where her cheeks matched her hair, and bury her head in Buffy's shoulder. "I should introduce you to my sister, Sinead. She and her girlfriend fly in from Dublin to visit me every other Christmas. I try to convert her to Christianity and save her heathen soul, she tries to educate me about the evils inherent in a 'patriarchal monotheism', then we all have a good laugh, and watch 'Miracle on 34th Street'." His guests laughed happily at the thought, and the priest was again struck by the connection between them.

"Willow," Buffy started hesitantly. She didn't want to provoke Willow, or make her sadder, but she needed to ask. "There's something I don't quite get about all this. You don't need to answer if it makes you uncomfortable, but-"

Willow stopped Buffy's babble with a gentle hand on Buffy's lips. "It's okay, Buffy. I think it would help for me to talk about it."

"Well," Buffy hedged, then started to ask her question. "Do you have any idea when the First Evil possessed you? I mean, the exact point?"

"Some idea, yeah," Willow answered. "The second after I killed the deer for its blood. That's when it entered me. From that moment, I was..." She struggled with the words, fitting and measuring them to fully explain what had happened to her. "It was like I was a passenger in my own body, Buffy. I saw, I heard, but the demon was in charge. And I doubt that the demon that possessed me was really the 'First Evil'. He was powerful, but not that powerful."

"I guess," Buffy said. "But if that's true, then the demon was in your body when you...I mean IT... performed the resurrection spell." Willow gave Buffy a cautious look; she knew what Buffy was about to ask, but Buffy had to speak the question. "I guess I'm wondering why the demon wanted me back in the first place. I mean, I was dead, why did he want me alive again?"

After a moment's quiet, Father O'Rourke spoke up; "You said it yourself, Buffy. You were in Heaven, then thrust back onto the playing field. What would be a greater triumph for the Dark, than to steal the soul of the Light's greatest warrior from her final rest?"

"Yeah, that's what I sensed from the demon's mind. Not that I could read it or anything, I just got sensations. Dark purpose, cold rage. The demon didn't want you just dead, Buffy. It wanted to destroy you."

"You mean," Buffy mused aloud, "it wanted to destroy my soul, to drive me to a state of despair."

"Despair is regarded by some as a mortal sin, Buffy," Father O'Rourke observed. "By driving you to a state where all you wanted was to end your own life, the demon hoped to make you fit for Hell instead of Heaven."

"And I surely gave it a hand, didn't I?" Buffy shook her head. "I've been nothing but a self-pity party since I got back, huh?"

"It wasn't your fault, Buffy," Willow assured her friend, taking her in a warm and generous hug. "We had no idea what had happened to your soul. We feared the worst, I guess."

"Well, that doesn't matter now, hon," Buffy gave Willow a watery smile. "What matters is that I'm alive now. And now that I got you back, I think I'm ready to deal with it." She hugged Willow again, then glanced at a nearby clock. "The time! It's getting close to sunrise. I gotta get back before Dawn finds that suicide letter I left." She got up quickly, and Willow joined her toward the door. "Thanks for everything, Father O'Rourke," Buffy said quickly. "I'm sorry I can't stay."

"Not a problem, Buffy," O'Rourke answered. "My door is always open, to the pair of you."

"You here on Sunday?" Buffy asked as she turned to the door.

"I guarantee it," Father O'Rourke answered.

"I may see you then," Buffy promised. O'Rourke smiled and waved a farewell to the two friends. Just before she left, Buffy turned around, and with a wistful expression on her face, said, "It was nice up there. So beautiful."

"That's the point of Heaven, Buffy," Father O'Rourke said. He walked toward Buffy, and handed her the Bible she had read from during the exorcism. "I want you to have this, Buffy. A souvenir of our little adventure, if you will. Turn to the very first page of Genesis." Buffy turned a couple of pages and found the text. "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth."

"In the beginning," Father O'Rourke repeated. "Heaven's been around longer than anything in this world. It will still be there when your time is done." Buffy just smiled, finding a strange assurance in his words. She thanked Father O'Rourke again and left with Willow.

"Hey, Wills," Buffy asked. "You want to spend the night at my place?"

"Thanks, Buffy, I'd like that," Willow said sadly, looking at her feet.

"Hey, you sure you're okay?"

Willow glanced at Buffy and answered, "Yeah, a little okay. But I'm not gonna be a witch for a while. What happened with the demon was because of my own pride, my hubris. I thought I could do anything, that I could go against nature with my powers. Magic isn't about defying nature, but working with nature. I made a terrible mistake, and I have to cleanse myself. I have to lay off the mojo until I know my magic is no longer tainted."

"When will you know that?" Buffy absently draped an arm around Willow's shoulder as she spoke to her. Just being with her again, having her friend back, that made all the crap she went through since her return worth it.

"I'm not sure," Willow answered. "I guess the Goddess will send me a sign." She glanced at Buffy again, and sagged her shoulders with relief when she saw the understanding in her eyes. "I guess I need to heal."

"We both do, Willow," Buffy took Willow's cheek in her hand, and Willow melted into her palm. "I'm just glad that we can heal together."

Nothing more was said between them as they made the long walk to Buffy's house. Nothing more needed to be said. Through the darkest time in both their lives, they had found a light to guide them out of darkness.

They had found that light in each other, and no force on Earth would part them again.

========

Liverpool, England.

The incessant ringing of a telephone interrupted his enjoyment of a new translation of Beowulf. He placed the book on the table next to him, and picked up the phone. "Hello," he greeted the caller. "May I ask who is calling?"

"Hello, Rupert," an Irish accented voice announced.

Giles sighed with relief. "Father O'Rourke. Did you see her?"

"Both of them, actually," O'Rourke answered. "You were right about the redhead. Possession, a classic case if I ever saw one. The exorcism went off without a hitch, and Buffy was instrumental in its success."

"Glad to hear that," Giles nodded. She hadn't tried to contact the others in Sunnydale since he returned to England, for fear of contacting the possessed wiccan. "Will they be okay?"

"That's in God's hands, my friend," O'Rourke answered. "But they're both strong, they're loving, and they have each other. I believe that they're better equipped to survive."

"I hope so," Giles agreed. "It's just that so much has happened to them this last year. The last time I saw Buffy, she had so much anger bottled up inside her."

"Really?" Father O'Rourke's voice took an amused tone. "I seem to recall a young chap named Ripper who had a great deal of anger in him, and he turned out all right in the end."

"Thanks to the guiding hand of a stubborn Irishman," Giles kidded the priest.

"And don't you forget it, my son." The two men shared a much-needed laugh, and finished their call with a brief exchange of news from Sunnydale.

For the first time in a long time, Giles enjoyed an untroubled sleep. Buffy had her Willow, Sunnydale was safe, and all was well in the world again.

"God take care of them," he prayed silently as he drifted off to sleep.


"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?"
-Robert Browning