Foundations

DISCLAIMER: Joss' toys, my playground.

RATING: K+

SPOILERS: Everything up through "The Body" but no Glory storyline.

SUMMARY: OK, so my husband issued me this challenge to reorder the Buffyverse. Here we see Buffy finding her "roots" and with them, answers to current... circumstances. Lots of church stuff... Buffy and Spike are the only "usual suspects".

Dawn's been here again, Buffy noted as she knelt down to caress the brightly colored silk flowers in the ground near her mother's grave. Dawn had continued to bring flowers, but Buffy hadn't been to the grave since the burial. Last year, when an aneurysm had taken her mother tragically and unexpectedly, Buffy had been overwhelmed with grief. Fortunately, she had also been overwhelmed with responsibility. She suddenly had to make a living, keep her family together, and go to school, not to mention Slaying. Then, when she'd thought about returning to the grave, there were too many convenient excuses. But tonight, as she knew she must, she'd taken a detour from her usual route and here she finally was. It had been almost a year. It was her birthday today, her first without her mommy and she missed her. She wiped the back of her hand over he eyes.

How could it still hurt so much? How could she be gone when she needed her so much? "Mom," she began, "Are you listening?" All she could hear was wind in the trees. Did she expect anything else? "It's my birthday. Well, you probably know that. It's the big number twenty-one. Don't worry, I'm didn't test my ID at the Bronze...well, just once, but that's all." She paused, not sure if she should keep this first conversation light or not.

She decided "not" and she rested back on her heels. "Mom, I really wish you were here...to talk to about Spike. No, don't worry, he hasn't done anything to hurt us. If anything, I think he's even more protective than ever. I know he misses you. He talks about you a lot." Buffy recalled how he had sat on their back porch, numb with grief when he found out about Joyce. He'd sat there until dawn and she'd had to invite him back into the house or he would have...well, he came in just in time. She hadn't had the heart to lock him back out after that.

"But I'm so lost. Somewhere down inside I know he loves me. He tells me all the time. Not just tells me, but shows me in the things he does. At first it just made me feel, you know, icky, remember? But now I guess I'm glad he's around. He makes me feel...safe, secure. That's good...I think. We might even be friends, but I sort of feel sorry for him because what I don't feel is tearing him apart. I wish...Mom, I wish for both our sakes that I could feel what he wants me to... I even think...maybe I could, except for..."

Some small Slayer part of her that wasn't talking, heard footsteps coming up behind her. She stopped her dialogue and listened carefully, senses alert. She ran down the checklist. No, those footsteps didn't belong to anyone she knew. She was annoyed. How dare some vampire have the insensitivity to sneak up on the Slayer at her mother's grave! No use jerking around with this one, he was rude and she was not in the mood. She quietly pulled a stake out of the pocket of her coat and waited.

From experience, she knew her blow would dust it. Her move would set the stake at the right height, the right depth and angle. "Closer, closer," she urged, "Just a few more steps." At just the right moment, she spun around and thrust her weapon forward in one swift, always effective, move. As she did, she looked up to see the face of the demon that had approached her...at the tall, dark, handsome...priest?

"Well," he laughed, unflinching. "You must be Buffy Summers." He reached up and pushed the stake, which she had stopped just inches from his heart, away. Very carefully. "Do not worry, we're on the same side."

Buffy recognized him as the priest who had said the funeral mass for her mother. "Father Tomic? Oh my Go...I mean...gosh, are you OK? I'm really sorry. I didn't know who...that it was...that you were..."

"That is all right, Miss Summers, I interrupted you. Please, finish your talk. What I need, it can wait." He stepped back and walked confidently toward a nearby tomb. Buffy watched him, open-mouthed. Here was a priest she hadn't seen for nearly a year, who willingly accepted what she had just done without question, and now he was leaning casually up against a tomb, but there was something about the way he stood...he was watching her.

She turned back to her mom, suddenly she felt awkward. Buffy paused for a few minutes to gather her thoughts. Father Stephan Tomic had been especially kind to her and Dawn. He had held their hands and prayed before the services for her mother. The sound of his softly accented prayers had been comforting. His assurances of the church's sincere belief in her mother's right to a full funeral mass, although she'd been divorced were welcoming.

She remembered liking him, but the rest had been a kind of blur. Now she surreptitiously looked him over. He was certainly tall. Almost Riley's height, she thought. (She noticed with a little regret that she no longer felt pain in thinking that name.) Father Tomic had piercing black eyes that saw right through you and yet seemed to hold unfathomable secrets. His equally black hair was tousled casually. He wore his Roman collar with pride, at ease in his role. He was athletic and confident which showed in how he carried himself, what he said and what he didn't say. She got up slowly and brushed the dirt from her knees and hands, then she turned toward Father Tomic.

"Ready?" he asked. Buffy nodded. "Walk you home?" he offered.

"Okay," Buffy agreed, still wondering what this was all about. "You said you had something to discuss with me?"

"Yes, I do," but they walked on silently for nearly ten minutes. Buffy waited. "It's about vampires," he finally conceded.

"Father?" Buffy was surprised. This wasn't the subject she had expected. She'd expected a lecture about not going to church, or not making sure Dawn did anyway. Or maybe raffle tickets for sale, but certainly not vampires.

"Yes, Miss Summers, I said vampires."

"Father, please call me Buffy," she smiled.

"Buffy," he confirmed with his own shy smile, "My name is Stephan, or Father Stephan if you prefer." He paused before getting back to his point, "Well, I guess you would say I am obsessed with them...vampires that is. I read everything I can get my hands on and I have quite a portfolio of information. Anyway, a few years ago all sorts of stories seemed to be centering on Sunnydale. I asked around and read some more. I started to run across the legends of the Slayers and the Watchers' Council and then, well, you. I asked to be transferred here three years ago to continue my study, although I must confess that your presence, yours and your Watcher, and your friends', well, it skews the results a little," he admitted with a smile.

"Sorry." Buffy didn't know what else to add.

"As I said, I was doing research, so I did not want to effect it any more by introducing myself or my office into the mix so I have just been observing vampirism in Sunnydale. For the most part they are very predictable. Someone who has been turned will creep out of their grave 24-48 hours later and start looking for, er...food. They keep hunting until they run into you, or if they avoid you somehow, they hear about you and will usually leave town. Recently, however, I have found an anomaly. I think you know him. He goes by the name of Spike?" Father Tomic fixed her in his gaze.

"I've never heard him called that before," she grinned. ""An anomaly" huh? I guess it fits. Spike is a very...unusual vampire." How much did this man know?

"To say the least. He has a history, you know. His past is well documented, riddled with all sorts of blood and gore, but during the last year or two, I cannot attribute any violent incident in Sunnydale to him. Not a single one," he stopped walking and she turned to look back at him. "What do you think would account for that?" He asked as if he knew.

Buffy shifted on her feet. She briefly considered telling Father Tomic about the chip, about how Spike said he was in love with her, how he had become a part of the "gang", even though no one would admit it to his face. She thought about sharing with Father Tomic, that something had developed, she just wasn't sure what, telling him that a certain trust (plastic implant assisted) had been growing and that her comfort level in Spike's presence had grown from nil to...well, pretty high. High enough to trust him with not only her own life, but that of her sister and, once, her mom. But she didn't even understand it yet. Funny how she could trust Spike, but not this priest.

"Can I ask you a question, Father?" Buffy countered.

"Certainly."

With images of the Initiative the Watchers Council, chains, cages and cattle prods running through her brain, she asked, "What kind of research are you doing?"

By way of explanation, the priest said simply, "It has to do with souls."

Angry that he didn't know such a simple thing about them, Buffy responded, "Vampires don't have souls, Father."

"Well, you see, that's just it. My hypothesis is that they do."

Buffy blinked. What had he just said? She looked at him unbelieving, but wanting to believe.

After that uneasy moment of silence, Father Tomic cleared his throat, "Well, here you are. Home safe and sound." Sure enough, there was her front porch. "I just wanted to introduce myself to you and ask if you had any additional information on this Spike character. I thought you were kind of close, at least that's what the grapevine says, but...," he waited for her to object. She didn't. "I guess it was a rumor."

"Thank you for walking me home," she said as she walked up the stairs. She wondered what his theory was and why this man was interested in Spike. "Buffy, I want you to know that I am what I said I am, I'm on your side. After you've thought it over, and if those rumors are true, that means I'm on Spike's side too."

"What does that mean, Father?"

"It means that I want to help. That I think I know of a way I can help. Help you both be...," he stopped, thought and settled on, "...content."

Buffy raised her eyebrows. "Content?"

"I will need to explain it further. But I can not explain it if you are not interested, or especially if he is not. I need you to decide together and call me."

"I'll pass along the message Father, that's all I can promise," Buffy looked at him with curiosity and, for the first time in a long time, hope.

Buffy walked past St. Joan's. She couldn't remember going there with her mother after they'd moved to Sunnydale, except as "occasional" Catholics on Easter and Christmas. When she'd been little, they went to mass as a family every week. She felt a wave of nostalgia for the quiet, cool, welcome of a church. A place where you can share your faith with millions, or speak one-on-one with a benevolent, loving God, whichever today's needs required. Where faith was built on ancient foundations resonating with the courage and commitment of those who went before. She hesitated and almost went inside, but time was pressing. She walked on towards the rectory.

"Father?" she greeted him when he opened the door to her knock, "Can we talk?"

"Certainly, Buffy, come in." He led her through the front door and toward the back of the house. They walked past a parish office where a mature secretary looked up briefly from typing next week's bulletin notes and noted her but, Buffy knew, not her visit. Private discussions with the priest were anonymous, almost like a shrink.

Father Stephan led her past a door which had his name printed on it in large, gold letters. "That is my main office, but I think you will be more interested in what I have in the back room. Please follow me."

They walked down the long narrow hallway on the right side of the house, rooms branched off to their left including a dining area, kitchen, living space and a small chapel. Each meticulously clean, obviously cared for by some sweet little old woman who came in to serve her religion with a dust cloth. Father Stephan reached the back of the house and turned toward the last door. He opened it for her and gestured for her to enter. Buffy walked into chaos.

The room was cluttered from top to bottom. Cardboard boxes throughout the room were packed with papers, notebooks, shoe boxes and photos. Stacks of newspapers and magazines took up every corner, table top and chair in the room. A dusty crossbow, together with a stake and axe were arranged neatly on another wall, an obvious memento of the day he opened this office, before it became vampire data central and uncleanable. There was a large desk in the room, at least Buffy thought it was probably a desk. She couldn't see it for the papers on it and stacked around it. Behind the other papers were endless bookshelves, full of volumes of text. Many of the books Buffy recognized from Giles' shelves. Others were new to her. "I am a Jesuit, we live to learn," he explained.

"I know someone you should meet," she suggested. "Giles would love to get his hands on this stuff."

"I doubt that your Watcher would share many of my theories," he said softly as he settled down in a worn chair behind the desk. "Have you spoken to Spike?"

"No, not yet. You caught me off guard the other night. Now that I've had some time to think, I have a few questions to ask."

"Then I will try to answer them. Please have a seat." He offered her the less cluttered of two leather chairs.

"No thank you, Father, I'd rather stand, I think."

"All right," he seemed disappointed. "Ask away."

"Father, I don't know if you ever ran across anything in your research about a group that ran in Sunnydale last year called the Initiative." He shook his head. "Well, they pretty much did what I do, only on a really techno-gadget, sicko kind of level. They had para-military troops that captured vampires and demons alive. Then their scientists that did horrible, cruel experiments on them, well, mostly that kind."

"I see," he was curious. "What happened to them, this Initiative? They're not around here anymore?"

"No, they disbanded. The scientists went on to other things, the soldiers...well, they moved on too. Anyway, the point is that what they did to their captives was inhuman. They'd cut them open and treat them like lab rats. If you're doing that kind of research... Well, I will not let you do that to Spike. He's been through too much already." Why was she being so protective?

The priest noted her defense of Spike with interest. Perhaps the relationship was even more than he'd been led to believe. But her mistrust wounded him. His motives were pure. "Buffy, my intent is only to help Spike. Truly."

"Some say," she argued, "that the only way to help a vampire is to dust them and put them out of their misery."

"Well, I do not. I disagree most vehemently with those people," he insisted. "Buffy, please, let me explain. Are you sure you won't sit down? It's kind of a long story. No? When I was young, I lived with my parents and grandparents in a small cottage in Eastern Europe. I am sure you have noticed my accent. I am Croatian." He took a deep breath. "My family was poor, but my father was a good man. He went out each day to find us something to eat. He fought for honest work when there was work to be had. He fixed everything around the house and he was madly in love with my mother. The kind of love , a child of seven doesn't appreciate. He would hold her hand under the table at dinner. He would look at her...as if there were no other person on earth." Father Stephan closed his eyes and remembered them as they were before continuing.

"One day he was offered a particularly well-paying opportunity at the furniture factory in the next town. The only available job, however, was on the night shift. My mother and grandmother were frantic. They begged him not to take the work. They kept talking about evil spirits that walked the woods. My father laughed and dismissed their worries as old wives tales, legends and curiosities. He signed up for the job but every night when he left for work, my mother would still plead with him to stay. My grandmother would say a prayer for him and hand him a crucifix to take with him. She scolded him to return with it at dawn. Mother and Grandmother spent long, sleepless nights, praying and waiting. The work was hard but father was healthy and strong, still he came home more exhausted this night than the last. I remember Grandmother admonished him for forgetting the crucifix several times. Then, one morning, he did not arrive as was expected."

"Had he been attacked, Father?"

"Well, not exactly. He did arrive home, just not as he was expected. When he opened the door to our house that night, he had become one of them." Father Tomic turned his head so that Buffy would not see his face. "I was only seven but I remember the face of my father as he entered our house. It was ridged and taut, fanged and evil. My mother stepped in front of me, shielding me from the vampire, only to have her neck broken at my father's hand. She barely had time to be surprised." He was surprised to find the pain was still so fresh, the memories of that night so raw. "My Grandmother pulled me to her and covered my eyes. We cowered in a corner with Grandfather holding a crucifix to protect the three of us from my father until he left just before dawn. Those hours were...very long."

Buffy understood his loss, "I'm sorry. It must have been awful for you."

He nodded. It had been. "Buffy, I tell you this, not to elicit your sympathy, although I do appreciate it, but because it was the beginning of my journey. You must understand the journey to understand my goal, my research."

"Go on, I'm listening."

"My research began in those hours with my father. As the night wore on, his vampire visage came and went. At times he would appear to be the man I loved, at others, the beast that had killed my mother. I was afraid at all times, but I began to watch him most carefully. I was fascinated. He paced the room, back and forth, waiting for us to make a mistake, to leave him an opening so that he could attack us. But there were moments Buffy, moments in that night when it was not a demon, it was my father in that room. At one point he knelt beside my mother's body and reached out to her with such tenderness and remorse that I knew, absolutely knew in my heart that he was with us. Then he would rise and begin pacing again, brandishing evil and wielding our fear as his weapon against us.

"Buffy, I need you to understand what it was I saw that night," he paused and looked to her. His dark eyes reading her like a book. "I believe you have seen it too, in Spike. Moments when he is truly himself, his former self, the man he used to be."

"Father," she admitted, "I didn't know the man he was. That was nearly 125 years ago."

"No, but you know vampires and there are times when he is not one. Are there not?"

Just then Buffy wished she had taken that seat when offered. Images of Spike rushed toward her. She thought of the times he would play Life with Dawn, when he pouted because she'd run out of mini-marshmallows, or lemon for his tea. She thought of his infrequent attempts at humor and the way he would worry over her if she got hurt in battle. She reached for a chair and sat down, spilling paper on the floor. "I think I need you to tell me about that hypothesis of yours now," she said softly.

"So you have seen it," he went on, not asking again. The answer was obvious. "My theory, Buffy, is that vampires are not soulless demons, but are instead, humans co-habitated by soul and demon together. They are possessed. I believe that the soul is still present and therefore redeemable."

"How?"

"With an exorcism, of course," he looked over at her from his chair. Her mouth was moving but no words were coming out.

Finally she managed, "Like...in the movie?"

"Well, not much like. The process is actually usually very lengthy, taking place over weeks or months instead of hours. But the faith and the tools are the same."

"Didn't the priest in the movie die, Father?" Buffy reminded him. He smiled in return. "Have you ever done this before? With a vampire I mean?"

"Yes, I have performed three exorcisms myself and assisted in five others, and no, Spike would be the first of his kind."

"What would happen? I mean, if you were able to get rid of the demon?"

Father Stephan hesitated before telling the truth, "I don't know."

"What if you can't... I mean, what if it doesn't work? Would the demon get stronger or hurt Spike in some way?

"Again, I'm afraid do not know Buffy, these are uncharted waters."

"What? What happened to those theories of yours?" Buffy snapped. This was a very scary conversation for her. What he was offering had her trapped between emotions; having Spike continue to be the friend he was, offered her comfort, but no closure. Gaining the opportunity to have him be "real boy" again might mean a dramatic shift in his feelings for her, or hers for him good or bad. But the thought of losing him from her life was too much to bear. She still wasn't sure what she wanted.

"I have several theories as to what might happen, but I think I would prefer to dispense those once Spike's in the picture. It is his future, it will be his decision."

Buffy nodded she was still full of questions, but he was done answering them for now. She stood and started walking to the door. "Like I said Father, all I can do is pass along the message."

"You want me to come with you to see a WHAT?" Spike scoffed. "What are you trying to do to me, Slayer? Kill me off once and for all?"

It had been two weeks since her conversation with Father Stephan. Buffy had struggled the entire time. What to do? She couldn't go to Giles. Confronting him with another man's theories on vampires and faith would be like telling him he was fired all over again, only worse, like saying that she didn't believe in him. Besides, Father Tomic had been right, his theory of Spike having a soul went against everything Giles ever taught her. The Scoobies were out, they only tolerated Spike as it was, and if she told them the plan, there would be so many more things to argue over. So, here she was in her kitchen with Spike sitting at the kitchen table having tea. Old, English customs die hard, Buffy thought as she warmed her coffee from the pot on the stove. The little speech she'd worked up hadn't gone well.

"No Spike. That's not what I said. Father Stephan just wants to talk about something." She had chosen her next words very carefully, "He says he can help us."

Somewhere through his agitation at the suggestion she'd just made, Spike heard her and paused. What had she just said? "'Us', Buffy?" he asked. Spike had worked very hard over the last year to win Buffy's confidence. He'd been earning money to help her with household expenses. He'd patrolled with her and his back-up had saved her life more than a few times, one of which even garnered him an honorary, if not warm, membership in the Scooby gang. But he knew he'd made progress and that was enough for him to keep working on it. After all, he loved her and he had forever to prove it.

And she had given, only millimeters, but given none the less. See, he was sitting in her kitchen for a spot of tea. Who'd have thought that a year ago? She was still constantly on her guard around him, never too trusting, or too friendly. She was very careful about what she said to him, about not letting him get too close. It was like watching her walk on eggshells. But just now, she'd said 'us', as in Spike and Buffy. Hadn't she? That was a good thing. He stood up and crossed over to where she stood. He stepped up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders.

They stood that way for a long while. She was tired. She was tired of being the strong one, "Don't be upset Dawn." "It's okay, Giles." "I'll take care of that, Xander." "I've got to go save the world, again." She was tired of fighting back her own pain to comfort others and tired of pushing Spike away. There were just too many battles. She wasn't even sure this was one she wanted to win.

"Buffy," Spike turned her around slowly and lifted her chin upward, needing to see her face, to see if it were true or if he was only hearing the echoes of his own heart. "Is it 'us' then?"

Buffy opened her eyes slowly and looked at him. Spike, who knew her better than anyone, better than she knew herself, and still he loved her. Who knew that she was lonely, hurt and afraid, and still he loved her. Who'd given up everything that he had been for her with no hope of anything in return, and still he loved her. Who knew what they were each supposed to be, and still he loved her.

Everything that she was began to tremble, exhausted from the war within herself. Could she finally love again? Finally trust again? Finally choose something good for herself? Tears of so many lonely hours, so much fear, self doubt and loss began to well up and spill from her eyes.

Spike reached out and captured one on his finger as it left a trail down her cheek. He looked at it then back at her. It struck him for the millionth time how small, how fragile, how beautiful and how young she was. How hard it must be for her to carry the weight of so many worlds on her shoulders. "It's all right, love. All you have to do is let go. I'm here." She looked at him through her tears. How did he always know? And then her legs went out from under her.

Spike caught her as she fainted. He swept her up into his arms and carried her to the living room. He carried her to the couch where he set her down gently. He felt for her pulse to make sure that the fainting spell had caused no damage then he knelt by her side and his gaze lingered over her face. Lovingly he brushed her hair into place. After minutes that seemed like hours, her eyes flickered open. "Welcome back, pet," he greeted her.

Buffy sat up quickly, dismally aware of her moment of weakness. Slayers didn't do that. Buffy didn't do that. She looked around the room for damage, as if she didn't believe it could still be in tact because she hadn't been there to protect it. Spike looked too. "All's well here, love."

"Dawn?" Buffy asked, panicking.

"Nibblet's in LA with dad, Buffy. Face it, nothing happened. You were gone for a few minutes and the world survived. I missed you though," he smiled.

"I'm sorry, Spike, for fainting and all...," Buffy began.

"Don't be sorry, Buffy. If you were sorry, it would mean that you felt you'd put me out by being dependent on me for a few minutes. I didn't mind that at all. In fact, if you'd like to do it again sometime, just let me know. But maybe, do it sitting down, or at least closer to the couch."

She smiled and tried to stand up. He grasped her elbow and helped her sit back down on the sofa. "Maybe I'll just sit here for a bit," she suggested and she leaned her head back.

Spike sat back on the couch too, kicked his boots up onto the coffee table and put his hands behind his head. He wasn't going anywhere. "So, like I was sayin', it's 'us', then, is it?"

Buffy closed her eyes. He could be so infuriatingly stubborn. "Spike, I just meant..."

"Slayer, you don't 'just mean' anything. You knew exactly what you were saying." He leaned forward to look into her face. "Admit it."

"We need to talk about this, Spike."

"Yes, we do, love, as soon as you admit that you said 'us' and that you meant it."

She opened her eyes. Spike was looking at her with those sad eyes for the...what was it...quadrillionth time? What would it hurt to admit that there was something? There was, wasn't there? If not, why would she be negotiating between him and Father Stephan like a lawyer in a custody hearing? "Well, you can see him if you promise not to hurt him." "Why don't you cut him a little slack, just see what he wants." "We need to find out what this is about." "Tell him enough, but not too much."

"Spike," she lifted her knees up onto the cushions and turned to face him, after all that she couldn't look at him. She chose the second button on his shirt instead. "I will admit that, and it hasn't happened yet, mind you, but I think, just maybe, that maybe, if things are just right, that I might...might...might want there to be an...us." There, she'd said it. Sort of.

Spike looked at her in silence for a long moment and then he laughed. It was a big, happy, joyous laugh. Something Buffy had never heard him do. "Spike?" She stood up.

Spike stood up, grabbed her around the waist and twirled her through the room. "Buffy, love, say it again."

She laughed too, his joy was contagious. "I don't think I could repeat that if I tried," she laughed. Why had she waited this long to make him so happy, when it made her feel so good too?

They stopped spinning slowly and he set her down, sliding her down his body to the floor. Not sure of what his new limits were, but willing to test them, he didn't release his grip on her. "Buffy?" he called with a new seriousness in his tone. She turned her face to him the last of her giggles on her face.

"Yes, Spike?" she asked. Her eyes still sparkled from laughter. She was perfect.

The room fell away, there was only her. He leaned toward her slowly, almost imperceptibly. Waiting for her to stop him. She stopped smiling but said nothing. His hands moved from her waist to her shoulders. Silence. His senses were working overtime. Everything was slow motion. He could smell her perfume and her fabric softener and under that he smelled just her. He could hear her breathe, her breath uneven as he came near. His fingertips felt her heartbeat quicken and begin to pound through her. He heard her swallow and watched as the muscles of her neck rippled in response. He stared into her eyes. Waiting for them to blink, to turn away. They were still. He could feel her warmth encircling them both. After an eternity, and in a second, his lips brushed hers.

She barely felt it, but it sent waves of energy through her. She drew in a short breath and closed her eyes, she felt light-headed. Had he kissed her? Buffy opened her eyes. He had backed off only an inch or two, but she read the question in his eyes. 'Again?' This time, she was the one leaning forward. She reached for him and pulled him toward her. Spike closed his eyes now, concentrating on the joy of her drawing him in, her arms slipping around his neck. There was no mistaking this kiss. It was long, slow and delicious.

It was so good it scared her. She pushed him away roughly. "No," she said. "We can't be doing this."

"But we are," Spike corrected, reaching for her again. She almost gave in, but not quite.

"Spike, no," she said gently. "There's just so much so wrong with this."

He wasn't going to push it. He stepped back. "Right then, love. We had a deal. You admit, we talk. Now what is it exactly that this priest thinks he can do for us?" He said the last word with a big smile.

They arranged a meeting at Spike's. Father Stephan agreed to come "out of uniform" and unarmed, with Buffy's guarantee of his safety. He knocked on the door just before sunset. Buffy let him in. He was wearing street clothes, a sweatshirt and pants, running shoes. "Just come from the gym, Father?" Buffy teased.

"Actually, yes Buffy, I did." He came further into the room and looked about. It's furnishing were sparse. TV, chair, TV table, a few candles a crypt. "Crypt, sweet crypt?" he commented.

"Have a seat, Father, Spike will be joining us shortly. It's a bit early for him."

"Buffy, I have been thinking. You might want to leave us here alone to talk."

"No," she was adamant. "I will stay. I'm in this all the way."

He shook his head. "I have not prepared you for what might happen. There are certain...rules. I should instruct you...," he was cut short by a growl.

They both turned sharply toward the back of the room where Spike stood. He had come up from the tunnel below and just stood there, game faced, looking at the priest. Buffy stood up, realizing suddenly that she was unarmed. Father Stephan remained calm. "Spike? I'm Father Stephan. I know that this is difficult, but I need you to work with me. Please come and talk to me." Nothing changed. Without turning toward her he called out, "Buffy, what was Spike's name, before? Do you know?" he asked urgently.

"William. It was William."

"William," he said, "I know that he's stronger now, but I need your help. You can do it. Just a little while longer."

Spike's game face slowly disappeared and he stepped forward toward Buffy and Father Stephan. Spike wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold. He was trembling. The priest held out his hand to him. Spike gave him a you've-got-to-be-kidding look and sat down in the chair, staring off into space.

"Okay, William," the priest knelt in front of him, "I know this must be terribly hard for you. My presence is upsetting the balance so I will make it short. I am only here to introduce myself to you. My name is Stephan and I want to help you. I can help you, but only if you want it. I will give Buffy a paper outlining the process, and after I have gone and things are easier, you two can discuss it. She can give me your answer and I will not see you again unless you agree. Do you understand?" Spike nodded stiffly. "Good bye, William." Father Stephan rose and handed Buffy a thick envelope.

"Shall I see you to the church, Father?" Buffy offered, keeping her promise of the priest's safety, but she glanced back at Spike with concern.

Father Stephan looked too. "No thank you. I can take care of myself from here. This is more important. Stay and take care of him. Read through this letter and talk about it." He slipped out the door and they were alone.

Buffy turned to Spike, not sure what she'd see. He was still sitting in the chair, still trembling, but his stare was less fixed and his manner less stilted. "Spike? Are you all right? I don't think I've ever seen you at a loss for words before."

"Bloody hell," were his first words. "What was that?"

"Well, that was Father..."

"No not the soddin' priest. What the bloody hell?" Spike stood up from the chair and began to pace the tomb. He was back, but he was...scared?

"Spike," she decided that direction and distraction might be the best things for him right now. "Stand still. We need to read through this."

"I can't stay here." He grabbed his duster and slammed out the door. Buffy was right behind him.

"Slow down, Spike. Where's the damn fire?" she called out, out of breath after they'd put several blocks between them and the cemetery. "Spike?" No answer. "Okay, well, I'm stopping," and she sat down on a nearby bench. After a few more steps, Spike stopped and came back.

"Can't keep up Slayer? That's not like you."

"This is not like you, Spike. Please, talk to me. What's wrong?"

He sat down on the bench next to her. "I've never felt anything like that before. It was like there was something alive inside of me, crawling around me and gnawing on my bones. Something dark and...," he leaned forward and put his head in his hands. Buffy had a bad feeling. If Spike was calling something creepy, chances are it really was. He looked up at her.

"Whatever it was, we'll find a way to fight it. We always have," she reached out and held his hand. They both sat that way for a long time.

After quite a while, Spike sat up and reached for the papers still in Buffy's hand. "Well, we might as well get on with this." He began to read.

Number One - Preparation

The Goal To ready ourselves for what is to come.

Buffy, first you must tell Spike of my plan. I don't believe you have or Spike would never have agreed to meet with me. If you two are not honest with each other, we cannot possibly succeed. You must do this before anything else.

Buffy looked up guiltily. She hadn't told him. It all just sounded beyond real. But whatever it was that Spike had just felt was bad and Father Stephan's explanation made sense. "He wants to perform an exorcism, Spike," she explained, "He believes that the demon within you is battling with your soul but William has been winning."

Spike sat back on the bench. Trying to absorb it all. He was possessed? It certainly would explain the feeling he'd had earlier. It would explain a lot. "Shall I continue?" he asked.

Spike Now that you know, you understand that you must be prepared most of all. Physically you are young, and strong, and although you have not fed as your demon tells you you should lately, you have been taking care of yourself and that should count for something. Mental preparation is another matter. Your strength of mind will be critical. You must clear your mind of everything but your purpose and your purpose is control. Not necessarily the control of your body, but control of the demon. The goal is to loosen his grip. The demon has been a predator within you for 125 years. Learn from the lessons he taught, remember the tricks, remember the training, rely upon your cunning and trust me to see to everything else. Open discussion of the exorcism will cause the demon to get stronger. It will sense itself in danger. Your soul will recede into you for protection. This is as expected. The demon will become dominant. Therefore, once your decision is made, we must act quickly.

Me I will locate a suitable place, acquire an assistant, all the necessary equipment and pray as I await your decision.

Number Two - The Ritual

The Goal The goal of this phase is to drive the demon from Spike's using prayer, faith and Spike's force of will.

Buffy I know this is futile, but I must say it. Please stay home. Knowing that you will ignore this advice, I offer you this. You may come to the room as often as you like during the ceremony, which, as I told you may take weeks. My team and I will be focused in prayer during this time. Nothing is more crucial for us. You may stay only until you say or do anythingto interfere with the goals of either Spike or myself. There are other rules, but I will go over them with you separately as we near the time.

Spike I'm sure you understand that your purpose is everything. In this phase, the demon will be all that we see. He will focus on those of us outside. Your opportunity for control lies here.

Me See above.

Number Three The Aftermath

The Goal Survival

Buffy and Spike In other exorcisms, after the demon leaves it's host, the person left behind is physically exhausted, often abused and malnourished. Their health is the main concern at this time. But this, I don't have to tell you, is not like other exorcisms.

When we spoke two weeks ago, Buffy, I told you that I had theories on the risks. You are about to read them. I will apologize in advance for having no knowledge of what will happen in reality, but I have researched and prayed over this for quite some time and feel it only fair that you both know all of this possible.

Theory #1 We are not successful and the demon remains. In the best of these worlds, things will remain as they are. We release Spike and return to our lives.
Theory #2 - We are not successful and the demon remains. Once disturbed, this sleeping demon would probably reassert is presence in a powerful way. In other words, it will retake Spike's body with vengeance on its mind. Buffy, you and I would need to deal with this.
Theory #3 - Once the demon which reanimated Spike upon entering his body, leaves, Spike, who does not have that power on his own, will die a soulful, free and peaceful death.
Theory #4 Once the demon who has perpetuated Spike's body leaves, the body will return to its rightful age in rapid succession and Spike will die a soulful, free and peaceful death.
Theory #5 - Once the demon who has perpetuated Spike's body leaves, the body will return to Spike's control as though no time has passed. He will come out of this a free man of 26.

Unfortunately, none of us has much of anything to say about how this phase will end. I will admit that the odds are against us, but then, you both know all about that, do you not?

Spike, I urge you to consider those things which have made you strong over the last two years and the future you face if we do not try this. Consider that we have good on our side. Consider long and hard, then have Buffy call on me, quickly.

I am praying for you both.

In God's name,

Father Stephan

"The man doesn't pull punches. I'll give him that," Spike said at the end of the letter.

Buffy shook her head and took back the letter. She started to tear it up. "Well, we won't be needing this. We're not calling him."

"Buffy?"

"No, Spike, I will not let you risk this. The odds are too high. It's too dangerous. Consider what you have to lose."

"Love, I have nothing to lose," he admitted quietly.

"What about...," Buffy was shocked he'd forgotten so quickly, "What about us?"

He smiled. He did like the sound of that. "Buffy, pet, I love you, but I can't go on like this. We can't go on like this and we both know it. You Slayer, me demon. It's just, like you said, so wrong. There's an indefinable something (chemistry maybe?), but I see the hesitation in your eyes when you look at me, I hear it in what you say and it tears me up inside that I can't make it go away. There are litanies of 'ifs'; If I weren't a vampire, if I didn't have that chip, if I were more like people. Face it love, we have no future if I stay what I am and if this works and we can be together...really together...odds or no odds, it's a no-brainer. I have to do it."

Buffy knew he was right. She hung her head for a long time, trying to accept it. Her mind whirled. Why did the men she loved always have to face these things on their own? Why couldn't she, just for once, prevent them from having to face such sacrifices for her? When she looked up, there were tears in her eyes. "Just promise me one thing, Spike."

"Anything, love," he responded.

"Promise you'll come back to me?"

Spike put his arms around her and held her close. "How could I stay away?"

Buffy and Spike walked around town together for a while, semi-patrolling, but mostly just looking and talking. The decision had been made, though and about 10 o'clock, Spike reminded Buffy that she should be going.

"Yes, you're right. I need to stop by St. Joan's and talk to Father Stephan before it gets too late." One last time, she asked him, "You're sure?" He nodded.

She turned to go, then stopped and came back. She stood in front of him and fell into his deep blue eyes. For the first time in a long time she said what she meant, damn the consequences. "Spike, I'll be there with you. This has to work. I don't know what I'd do without you." Then she kissed his cheek and left.

Spike raised his hand to touch the cheek she'd kissed. He was pretty sure he'd never be happier in his undead life. But the demon growled within him, anxious and nervous. He'd made the right decision.

Buffy pounded on the rectory door. "Father Stephan? Let me in!"

The door opened slowly. The little old secretary that she'd seen earlier, let her in. "Father Stephan is not in right now, Miss, would you like a cup of tea?"

"No thank you. Do you know where he is?"

"No, Miss, I don't. He always goes out around 9:00 pm and returns about 11:00. Do you want to wait?"

"Is there any way to reach him? A cell phone, a loudspeaker?"

"Miss?"

"Yes, I'll wait." By the time Father Stephan returned, Buffy had nearly worn a spot down the middle of the carpet. "Where have you been?" she demanded.

"Doing research," he responded as he tucked away the stake he held in his hand. Buffy understood.

They both looked at the door as the secretary brought the priest a cup of tea. "Father can we talk in your office?" He nodded and led the way.

This time she took his offer of a place to sit.

Father Stephan set down his tea and made a few notes in a journal on his desk. He pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk and dropped the stake in. There was the distinct rattle of other implements. Not quite sure what to say, Buffy remarked, "Nice to see that I'm not in this alone."

He looked at her for a moment, "Not nearly." He closed the drawer, shook his head, took a sip of tea and settled back in his chair. "Well?"

No, he didn't pull punches. "He's decided to do it."

He sighed. "Then we begin. Everything is set up in the old mansion across town. Do you know it?"

Buffy knew it all too well. "Does it have to be there, Father? I have a history in that place."

"It's the best possible place, Buffy. Solid, secluded." Buffy nodded a reluctant agreement to the location. "Now, we'll have to get William there somehow."

"I can do that," she offered.

The priest looked at her. "He won't come willingly. The demon will fight against it."

"Then I'll trick him, or beat him up. I've done both before. Either works," she commented off-handedly. Father Stephan was surprised. What kind of relationship was it between them? "Father, there are some things I need to tell you before this starts."

"Yes, Buffy?"

"First, do you remember me telling you about the Initiative and their experiments?" He nodded. "They performed one on Spike. They implanted a computer chip in his brain which emits an electrical shock whenever he tries to hurt a human. It's been one of the reasons that he's been on his good behavior for the last two years."

Again, Father Stephan was surprised. "Oh?" was all he could think of to say. Then he fell silent. Buffy sat there watching him think. After several minutes, he refocused on her. "It is possible that the demon has been dormant and is in fact stronger than we had anticipated, but I see no disadvantage in this, in fact it could work to our advantage. But thank you for telling me. I needed to know."

"When will we begin?" she asked.

"Tonight."

"Tonight?"

"We must. The demon will only get stronger as we wait." Father Stephan leaned forward. "Was there something else?"

"I promised him I'd be there. You were right, it was futile to ask." He understood. He nodded. "And one other thing Father," she hesitated to say this out loud. "I care about him. A lot. I thought you should know."

"That, my dear, was obvious," the priest smiled. "Now, Buffy, I mentioned some rules that would apply to you if you attended. Are you ready to discuss them? You will need to know them soon."

This was happening too fast. Things were getting away from her. She shook her head to clear it. "Yes, instruct away."

He noted the sarcasm in her voice, but knew that all to quickly, she would realize the seriousness of the situation, so he chose to ignore it for now. "The rules are these. One) Do not talk unless asked to do so by me or my assistant. Two) Do not bring anything into the room that is not necessary to the ceremony. Three) You may touch the possessed only if asked to do so by me or my assistant. And Four) Above all, do not listen to anything the demon says or respond to it in any way. The rules are harder than you think. As the exorcism progresses, they become more difficult, but if we remain focused on our goal we will succeed."

"The goal is to get the demon to leave Spike, right?"

"Yes." He stared at her for a minute. "There is one other aspect of this we need to discuss. It's about you, Buffy."

"Father?"

"The demon has two reasons for being inside William. First, it needs somewhere to exist. When his sire turned William, the demon moved in. It will not release him without a fight. He will fight because if it is forced to leave, it will have to return to its hell having failed its mission and its master. Because, you see, the demon was sent by a master with a higher purpose, and that, my dear, is where you come in."

"Me?" she hated that her voice quavered.

"I believe that the demon's greater mission is to stop the Slayer from finding her true power. One of the other reasons that William has been able to control the demon so well over the last couple of years has been because you were going in the direction the demon's master had chosen for you anyway, away from God. The fact that William was kind to you made you doubt your purpose even more. If the demon's plan was to distract you from God, thereby weakening you, it was succeeding without having to throw a punch."

He stood up came around the desk toward her, "Buffy? I have been watching the vampires, but I have been watching you too. You have been given great gifts, Buffy, the powers of a Slayer, friendship, love. But did you ever ask yourself where those gifts came from? You have forgotten God. Symbols of faith, any faith, have always brought protection to those who believe, for Catholics it has been the host, the crucifix, holy water. The church holds another arsenal for you in the battle against evil. Giles and your friends have planted their faith in the earthbound, in research, in human knowledge and in ancient tricks of power they feel you can control. That has worked so far, but only because they have been lucky. They have found answers and you have not stumbled on something stronger than your combined strength. But those things are out there. We are facing one now."

She could feel those eyes looking into her soul, deep into it. "You have lost your compass, Slayer, and this path you have been traveling is full of danger. You must learn to trust in something other than what you can perceive. Belief in the benevolence and righteousness of an ever-present God who you can not see, can not move, can not effect, can not control, in something more powerful than yourself, more powerful than the evil you fight, more powerful than anything that, Buffy, is your ultimate weapon. If you do not realize that, if you cannot accept that, I fear you will fail. I fear we will fail."

Buffy tried to think of the last time she'd used holy water or a crucifix to defeat a demon. It had been a long time. She'd come to rely on her own strength, her own weapons, on the power of Willow and Tara's spells and on Giles' ability to find answers to their questions. It had worked. "Father, you fight demons your way, I'll fight them mine."

"Buffy, you are right. You win battles. You are a gifted warrior; armed by the grace of God, with incomprehensible powers and skill, but you have no concept of what the war is about. True, it is good versus evil and each demon that you defeat is a win for us, but diminishing their numbers only buys us time. In the bigger picture, Buffy, the war is not going to be won in some arena by opposing gladiators, it is won in the hearts of men, one at a time. Possession is one of their strongest weapons because it attacks not the person afflicted, that person is incidental. But it reaches those around them on a primal level and distorts the truth in their hearts. The phrase vampires use for having created a new one of their kind is 'turning', is it not?" Buffy nodded. "That word was chosen not because the victim has been 'turned' into a vampire, but because they have been 'turned' away from God."

"Demons have used possession against the hearts of men from the beginning of time. The first of your line, I believe, recognized the threat but had no recourse, no answers, so they developed skills and powers and knowledge of demons and became our first line of defense, protecting us as mankind found its way to the one true God. As men have drawn closer to understanding God, however, the Slayers have been afraid to grasp His power, assured, as you are, by the successes of their ancient practices. Unwilling to see that they alone can not win the war."

Father Stephan knelt before her now. "But Buffy, we have found each other now. We have been drawn together, an oversight on the part of the devil, I am sure. Good forces, long at work in our lives, the soul on the face of my father and your...feelings for Spike have united us. Now, together the Slayer and the Church, defender and conqueror, you and I, we can deliver souls. We can begin winning the war. Let us begin with William."

Buffy was out of her element, "What are you asking me to do Father? Lead a battalion of Slayers against the devil himself?"

"No, Buffy, that's just it. You don't have to do anything except believe. You have led the demon before the Lord, let him do the rest." He knew it would be much harder than it sounded.

At 4:00 am, Buffy went to the cemetery. It was an hour before dawn. Two priests were waiting for her outside Spike's crypt.

"Buffy, this is Father Michael. He will be assisting me in the exorcism. He has assisted me before and I have made him aware of the uniqueness of this situation. If things were as usual, we would require a medical attendant as well, but in this case, well Father Michael is also a trained doctor."

Buffy nodded at him. The gray haired priest stood about her height. His manner seemed timid, but somehow she knew he was a member of the group. The three of them had seen unspeakable things. "The more the merrier," she managed. He smiled and nodded to her. "Well, here we go," she said, more confident than she felt. "You wait here, I'll be right back."

She knocked at the door, but there was no answer. She opened the door and went in. As soon as she entered the room she knew something was wrong. Furniture, such as it was, was strewn about the room. Papers were scattered everywhere and the place smelled like vomit. She had brought weapons this time and slowly reached behind her back to get a stake she'd stashed there. "Spike?" she called out. "Where are you?"

She stepped carefully across the room. She looked down into the tunnel below, it was black. "Spike?" she called into the darkness. A low, rumbling growl replied. Buffy carefully stepped over the edge of the tomb and began to descend the ladder. The snarling was getting steadily louder and was accompanied by low moans of effort. Her sense of urgency got the better of her and she jumped down past the last three rungs of the ladder into the darkness below. She landed catlike on her feet, stake at the ready. Her eyes adjusted. A single candle burned on a table against the far wall. She walked that way. A pale hand grabbed at her from out of the a dark alcove on her right. She broke free, moving away. She looked back into the inky space, careful not to get too close and saw nothing. But the growling was coming from there, and now there was the distinct clink of chains. She needed light. She continued her walk to the candle. On the table with the candle on top of a folded slip of paper and a key tossed casually to the side.

Suddenly she knew, without looking, what she would find in the alcove. She paused to read the note.

"Buffy, love. It is getting impossible already for me to control the demon. It knows that we are aware of him and that you are coming. It is frightened, but ready for battle. I'm afraid it will try to harm you when you come back for me so I am taking precautions. I have prepared myself as best I could according to Father Stephan's instructions. I trust you and together you will do what you must. Forgive me for whatever pain I may have inflicted on you in the past. Thank you for what you are about to do. No matter the outcome, remember that I have loved you, pet. That I always will. You were the best thing to happen to me, ever. Always, William."

Another growl emitted from the alcove and the sound of metal rang out as the demon lunged against its chains. Buffy realized that Spike must have locked himself up as the demon gained control and tossed the keys here out of his reach, but where she could find them. She steeled herself, pocketed the note and the key and turned back to face evil once again.

The demon lunged at her again, held up short by the chains around its wrists. Buffy looked at his wrists as he wrestled to get free. Blood oozed from around the cuffs. It was strong, but not invulnerable. She'd beaten Spike before and could do it again. "Hello Slayer. I thought you'd be here before long. Be a love and let me out of these chains, would you?" Buffy remembered the silken tones of Spike's demon from their past. It sent chills down her spine. Here again was her enemy, no longer anything more. She crept within inches of the ends of his chains.

"Sorry, Spike. Can't do it. I'll let you though." She tossed him the key. He was on it in an instant, laughing that it had been that easy.

"Foolish little bint," it said as it released itself. As the second cuff fell to earth, Buffy planted her boot in its face.

"Don't call me names. It's not nice." She spun around and caught him in the face again. He was still trying to stand up as she pushed him up against the wall.

The demon laughed. "You can't win this battle, Slayer. It's for good this time."

Buffy kneed him. "Not laughing now, huh?" The demon doubled over and Buffy hit him on the back of his neck with all her strength. He was out cold.

Buffy dragged Spike's body up the ladder from the tunnel. Father Stephan and Father Michael were waiting there. The three wrapped Spike up in a blanket, secured with straps. The priests were careful not to touch Spike directly as they carried him to their car, waiting nearby. A short drive later they were at the mansion. They carried his still unconscious body into the room and strapped him down.

The room had been prepared according to Father Stephan's instructions. Its barred windows were covered with thick curtains. All furniture had been removed with the exception of the bed which had been stripped of linen and covered with vinyl sheeting. Straps held Spike to the bed at the chest, hips, knees and ankles. His hands were bound separately at his sides. Once he was secure, Buffy looked down on Spike as he slept. His black denim and black t-shirt contrasted sharply against everything else in the stark room. He would pose no further physical danger to them, she was sure, but what lay ahead still frightened her.

With one last check on his restraints, the two priests left the room. "Buffy?" Father Stephan called back to her. "Right there," she called back. She leaned down over the sleeping figure and kissed his cool forehead, then she slipped out of the room.

The three sat at a table, to discuss their strategy.

"Buffy, do you remember the rules?" Father Stephan began.

"Uh, yes. I think so." Buffy guessed. She thought hard. "No talking, no stuff in the room, no touching, no listening."

"Good." He hadn't been sure she'd been paying attention.

"Father Michael is here to help us. He is an old friend of mine. We have done three exorcisms together. I was explaining to Michael, earlier this evening, that this one is unique."

"Yes, Stephan, the vampirism makes our job harder," Father Michael agreed. "The symbols we'd usually use can cause great physical damage to the victim in this case. Sprinkling him with holy water, or touching him with the stole for example would cause him excruciating pain. The demon would simply retreat from the affected area and allow the host to bear the suffering. No, we must rely upon our main weapons of prayer and admonishment."

"I agree," said Father Stephan, "But the prayers remain the same."

Buffy thought about Spike bound up in the next room. What had she done? She'd betrayed him to these men. She'd delivered him right into their hands. It was no different than handing him over to the Initiative. Everything up until now had made sense. Now she began to doubt.

Sorrowful moans began to emanate from the next room. "Buffy, love," the demon called out accusingly. "What have you done? Do you know what they are going to do to me?" Buffy looked at the priests, her eyes wide and wild.

Father Stephan reached out to her, "Remember, the demon will twist the truth to it's own purposes. It knows everything that Spike knows, about you, about him. It will use that to fuel your doubt. Rule #4, don't listen. Shall we begin then?" Father Stephen asked. "It seems that the demon is ready." Buffy nodded, still unsure, but resigned.

As the priests put on their robes and gathered their prayer books for the job to begin, Buffy walked into the other room.

The demon was still strapped. It wore Spike's face, but something was wrong. She stood still until it came to her. Her Slayer senses, that creepy feeling she got around vampires was back. She hadn't felt it when she was with Spike for nearly a year, but there it was. The beast turned to her, a plaintive look in Spike's beautiful eyes. "Let me go, Buffy, and we'll leave here. I will be strong and things will be as they were. We'll be together. I promise."

Buffy was fully alert. The words were sweet, but she was frightened by the return of that feeling, and aware that almost anything might happen. She turned to tell the priests as they entered the room, but then all hell broke loose. The demon began to yell, "Leave me alone, you heathens you, you don't know what you're dealing with. The truth is hidden from you by your God. My master is the true light." With these words ringing in their ears, the stake Buffy still had tucked away in the small of her back worked itself loose. It flew across the room, landing embedded in Father Stephan's left shoulder. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain, his white robe turning quickly scarlet. Buffy dropped to her knees at his side and removed the stake gently. Father Michael ran for the first aid kit.

The demon screamed, "Christ, Bloody Hell!" as the chip kicked in. However, moments later the demon laughed, "Buffy, Buffy, Buffy. How could you forget rule #2?" Then in another voice, in a language Buffy didn't recognize, "Posrijedi je previse los ti si ne neki od nas Korak, ili te c´e znati istinabog muka." Father Stephan's eyes grew wide.

"What? What is it?" Buffy implored.

The priest did not answer. She lifted him and dragged him out of the room and closed the door. Father Michael returned with the bandages and began to remove the older priest's robes and dress the wound.

The demon continued to call out to them, "Is that all you have? This is too easy. You might as well let me go now, you've already failed. Come on back and play boys."

Buffy hovered around Father Michael and after the wound was dressed, they sat back down at the table to regroup. "Well that went extraordinarily poorly. Didn't you think so Father Michael?"

"Father, I'm so sorry. I forgot I still had that stake with me. Are you going to be all right?"

"I'll be okay, Buffy. But please be more attentive."

"Again, sorry." She paused and then had to know, "Father, what is it the demon said to you? Was it Croatian?"

He gazed at her then nodded silently. "The demon said 'It is too bad you are not one of us Stephan, or you would know true pain.'"

"What did it mean?"

"It means that it knows the rest of the story I began to tell you about my father the other night." The priest rubbed his shoulder and drew a long breath. "My father left us that night and ran out into the woods. We did not see him again, but we heard tales told throughout the area of new demons, new devils. There were rumors about it being my father, but I refused to believe. Then one night, when I was eighteen, I had stayed too late at a friend's house. The night was moonless and I should have stayed with them, but my grandparents would worry if I were gone so long, so I left. I felt secure with the knowledge of vampirism I had acquired.

"As I walked home in the dark, I felt the weight of the stake I carried, heavy in my hand and knew I would be safe. I heard footsteps behind me. I was afraid, but I was also armed so I turned, but there was nothing there. I began walking again. Again there were footsteps and again, there was nothing in the darkness when I looked behind me. When I turned down the road again to continue my journey, I faced my father. His face was the face of the man I had loved. He called to me but I could not move. He stepped forward and his face changed. It was the face of the demon. All the horror of that night came back to me. I tried to retreat but he was upon me. I fell to the ground and he pinned me there. I came to my senses then, and began to fight back. He was strong, but I was young. I rolled him over and raised my stake to strike him. I looked down to see the face of the demon as I struck, and it was gone. It was my father again. "Do it." he begged. I plunged the stake into his heart and watched him turn to dust."

Buffy stared at the priest, and the significance of what the demon had said sunk in.

"You see? Physical pain is just no match for the "true pain" those possessed souls endure. Father Stephan stood. "Shall we try again?"

"Yes, Father," responded Father Michael. Buffy nodded silently and followed them into the room.

The next two weeks were a blur. Buffy followed the rules meticulously, Father Stephan and Father Michael worked shifts so one of them was always with Spike. Buffy sat up in the room and when she was too exhausted to sit, she curled up in a corner and tried to sleep. The priests tried to get her to leave, but she wouldn't. Her place was with Spike. She had told him she'd be there. She had to be there.

The demon kept getting louder and not listening was definitely the most difficult rule to follow. It was constantly baiting her. It threatened to leave Spike and go find Willow "I always liked Red," it would say. It would beg her to release him. "We'll go somewhere far away, Buffy, you and I." It would blame her for everything. "If you'd been home, your mother wouldn't have died," or "Remember Jenny? She was your fault, you know." Buffy cried most of the time and tried not to listen, but it hurt.

The priests were keeping up the good fight. They repeated the ritual from start to finish all day, every day, from the opening prayer;

Holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God and Father, who once and for all consigned that fallen and apostate tyrant to the flames of hell, who sent your only-begotten Son into the world to crush that roaring lion; hasten to our call for help and snatch from ruination and from the clutches of the noonday devil this human being made in your image and likeness.

To the commandment:

I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure.

The request for aid:

Almighty Lord, God and Lord of all creation; who gave to your holy apostles the power to tramp underfoot serpents and scorpions; who was pleased to grant them the authority to say: "Depart, you devils!" and by whose might Satan was made to fall from heaven like lightning; I humbly call on your holy name, asking that you grant me, your unworthy servant, the power-supported by your mighty arm-to confront with confidence and resolution this cruel demon.

The exorcism itself:

Depart, then, transgressor. Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent. Give place, abominable creature, give way, you monster. For He has already stripped you of your powers and laid waste your kingdom, bound you prisoner and plundered your weapons. He has cast you forth into the outer darkness, where everlasting ruin awaits you and your abettors. To what purpose do you insolently resist? To what purpose do you brazenly refuse? For you are guilty before almighty God, whose laws you have transgressed.

Therefore, I adjure you, profligate dragon, to depart from this man. Tremble and flee, as we call on the name of the Lord, before whom the denizens of hell cower. It is futile to resist His will. The longer you delay, the heavier your punishment shall be; for it is not men you are condemning, but rather Him who rules the living and the dead, who is coming to judge both the living and the dead.

And the prayers for William:

God, Creator and defender of the human race, who made man in your own image, look down in pity on this your servant, William now in the toils of the unclean spirit, now caught up in the fearsome threats of man's ancient enemy, sworn foe of our race. Repel, O Lord, the devil's power, break asunder his snares and traps, put the unholy tempter to flight. Let your servant be protected in mind and body. Keep watch over the inmost recesses of his heart; rule over emotions; strengthen his will. Let vanish from his soul the temptings of the mighty adversary.

The prayers rarely varied, although the lessons and psalms changed from time to time. The litanies droned on and she found the prayers with responses monotonous. Soon the prayers were of no interest to her, except as a means to an end. When the priests rested they allowed her to take over. She washed Spike's face with warm water. She sponged off his chest and neck. She put ointment on his wrists where the demon's twisting had caused blisters to form. She tried to get him to eat, spooning soup into his mouth. More often than not, it was a disaster, but she had to do something, she had to be useful, do her part.

Late one day, Buffy was cleaning the floor in the room when that creepy feeling she'd noticed the first day suddenly disappeared. She stood up and looked around. What was it? "Buffy?" a hoarse voice called from the bed. She was at his side in an instant. His eyes were red and his face torn by dehydration. Looking into his eyes, though, she saw love once again.

"Spike?" she asked. "William?"

He tried to smile. "'How we doin', love?"

"Good, Spike, we're doing good. The demon is weakening. I can feel it."

He nodded. "You look like hell, pet. You should get some sleep." Buffy smiled. Only Spike would be worried about her while he was the one tied up on the bed.

"I'll get sleep soon enough, when this is over and you're back here with me."

"Doin' my best love."

Buffy bent over to kiss his cheek. She felt his face morph under her lips. That feeling was back.

"Miss me too, Buffy?" the demon crooned as it slashed at her with its fangs. Buffy jumped back but not in time. Twin gashes bled down the side of her face. She covered them quickly with her hand. "Or are you saying good bye? I know that I'm all you have and when Spike dies you'll be alone. Pity, when you're so delectable. Angel told me so when he visited a while back. Too bad I can't speak from experience."

Buffy looked at the blood on her hand. "You..."

"Yes, pet?" the demon hissed.

"Buffy," Father Stephan called her from the doorway. "Come out here right now."

She stared down at the demon for a moment then turned her back and walked out the door.

"Buffy, come back, we haven't finished our dance!" the demon snarled after her.

As things wore on into the third week, Buffy began pacing the floor. The demon was more demanding now, louder, more insistent, cruder. Scared. But she saw the toll it was taking on Spike and she couldn't stand it. He hadn't eaten for days. His ribs showed through his clothes. His skin was loose and dry, his eyes rolled back in his head and when they didn't they were unfocused and milky. The smell in the room was almost unbearable and it was cold. She had tried to convince the priests to allow her a blanket, but they would not. She began to be short with them. Impatient and demanding as well. "When will this be over? Can't you see it's killing him?"

Father Stephan called her outside late that evening. "Buffy, I understand your need for this to go faster, but I did tell you it could take weeks, even months. Your impatience is doing none of us any good. You should go home for a while. Take a shower, a nap. Come back refreshed."

"I can't leave, Father, I promised."

"Nothing will happen." She looked skeptical. "If it does, I will call you immediately. Just a few hours, Buffy. Go." Still she hesitated. He offered her a way to say yes, "I could use another change of clothes. You might stop by the church and pick up an extra set for me."

Thank God for something to do. Buffy agreed and with one last look into the room to check on Spike, she walked out of the house into night in Sunnydale. She took a deep breath of fresh air. It felt good. As she walked home, she suddenly felt very alone. When was the last time she had walked these streets without him? It seemed darker and she felt smaller than before.

She made her way home without incident and took their advice. The warm water had turned to cold before she stepped out of the shower. She rubbed her skin pink with the towel before dressing again. She would skip the nap part. She had to get to the church for Father Stephan's extra clothes. Then what? She felt so integral, but so helpless.

On the way back from the rectory the church called to Buffy again, and this time she went in. She opened the heavy door slowly and peered up the long aisle. It hadn't changed much since she'd last visited. The lights were mostly off, just a few illuminated the statues and alcoves. She closed the door softly, respectful of sound, and stood looking forward at the altar. Images of the last few days were swimming through her head. The quiet of this space was inviting. She blessed herself with holy water and slipped into the last pew. For a long time she just sat there, willing the noise in her head to stop. Finally it did.

She looked around her. Statues of St. Joan and St. Michael, defenders of the faith, fellow warriors, flanked the altar. The cross centered over the altar was twice her size. On it hung the visage of a sacrificed Christ. He'd had power, but had chosen faith instead. Is that what Father Stephan expected of her? She leaned forward on her knees. Prayer would not come to her. She began to remember words learned years ago. "Blessed art thou, Lead us not into temptation, Glory be to the Father, Guardian Angel, Maker of heaven and earth." She couldn't remember all the words, they came in fragments. Then one phrase began to repeat itself. "He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead...the living and the dead...the living and the dead." She thought of all the times she had judged Spike, judged him unfairly. Who was she to judge anyone anyway? It was probably better to leave that to God, like it said. The thought gave her a little peace. She put her head down and hoped with all her heart this would be over soon.

When she returned, things were in turmoil. Father Michael met her at the door. "Buffy, we tried to reach you at home, but..." Her heart skipped a beat. "It's not good."

She flung the clothes in her arms onto the table and ran into Spike's room. Father Stephan was in his usual spot, saying the usual prayers, oblivious of his surroundings, but Spike lay on the bed, his game face on. The demon was screaming, unintelligible words, guttural, primal sounds., Father Stephan was holding a stole in his hand, and blood was dripping from his fingertips.

Father Michael was right behind her, "He got too close. He tried to wipe his face and touched the demon by accident. It lashed out and nearly bit through the palm of his hand. Father Stephen has been in here ever since. He wouldn't leave. I need to clean the wound," he trailed off.

Buffy looked at Spike. Obviously the chip was in overdrive. His head was flung back, his back arched. His fists clenched in pain. She moved to go to him. Father Stephan stepped in front of her, but continued with his prayer. She went to move around him, and again he was in her way. Father Michael grabbed her by the elbow. "Buffy, Rule #3. You have to stay back."

"But look at him, Father. He needs me. I've got to go to him. I can't just stand here and watch him die. I have to do something. That's what I do. I do things. I make things better. Just tell me how. What am I supposed to do?"

The chip had stopped now, but Spike lay on the bed drained. His eyelids fluttered and the muscles in his legs twitched. His hands opened and closed sporadically.

"Just tell me what to do!" Buffy cried.

Having finished the prayer, Father Stephan's attention turned to her. "Buffy, all you need to do is realize that there is nothing you can do."

"There has to be, Father. There always is. Slayers can do things. Change things. Move things. Kill things."

"Not here. Not now. Buffy, we're nearly there, but this demon is still strong, Spike is weak and our prayers are not enough."

Buffy sank to the cold floor on her knees. Tears were streaming down her face. How could she have failed Spike in this? And having failed, how could now she turn to God in defeat?

"Buffy, all you need to do is ask."

Her chin sank to her chest. Her tears did not stop, but she felt the words, "Father in heaven. I'm a Vampire Slayer, but I'm only human. I'm a warrior, but you are God. We are here fighting your enemy but our strength is not enough. My strength is not enough. I thought I didn't need you, or your power. But I was wrong. Please forgive me Lord and hear my humble prayer. Judge us all, living and dead, with mercy. Throw off the demon and free Spike if that is your will...and if it is your will, return Spike...William to us, to me, to love."

She wasn't sure she'd even said the words aloud.

She sat on the floor for several minutes.

It was very quiet.

Then, slowly Buffy felt the world shift.

Worry and struggle, responsibility and liability melted from her like so many layers of ice. Her back straightened and her shoulders shifted back, her head rose.

The priests were kneeling on either side of the bed. Buffy stood and walked around them to look down at Spike. That creepy feeling was gone. His body rested on the bed. Unmoving. His eyes were clear but open and unblinking. She noticed that the scar over his left eye had faded and knew in her heart that the demon had left with it. She reached out and closed William's eyes. He was at peace.

The priests rose and looked at him. "We're so sorry, Buffy," they started. She raised her hand to stop them. New tears fell from her eyes. Tears not of frustration, but tears of relief. He was no longer in pain. His suffering had had value. She loosened all the straps, laying his hands carefully at his sides. He should have some dignity.

But she would miss him. She'd never hand a chance to tell him she loved him. She sat on the side of the bed and caressed his cheek and brushed his white blond hair. She leaned over and felt her lips brush his for the last time.

She sat on the side of the bed remembering all the things he'd done in his clumsy attempts to woo her, the time he'd tried to impress her with small talk at the Bronze. The way he had approached April while she was flirting with Ben at that party. The time he'd saved her life and the times she'd saved his. And then he gasped.

Buffy jumped off the bed and turned around. What?

He coughed.

And blinked.

And coughed again.

She didn't know what to do. "Father Stephan, Father Michael!" She called. The priests were already on their way.

"Father Michael, the first aid kit please," Father Stephan directed. He felt for a pulse on William's neck and looked up at Buffy with joy in his eyes.

Buffy didn't need to hear the words, she knew William was alive.

It had been three hours since he'd drawn his first breath in 125 years. Spike was sitting up at the table, drinking the second cup of tea that Buffy had made for him. She watched him stirring in the sugar. Each moment with him was a miracle. He took the spoon out of the cup and put it on the saucer to the side. He pushed it away from him. "Would you please stop staring at me, Buffy? And wipe that insipid smile off your face."

"I can't help it, Spike. I just can't believe you're here. I thought you'd..."

"Died? Well, what if I did? I've been dead for over a century and that didn't bother you."

She smiled.

They were alone. After William had reappeared, Father Michael had done an examination. "Seems to be completely normal. Dehydrated, under nourished and some superficial skin abrasions, but pulse, blood pressure, respiration, all normal. That's good, right?"

The two priests had done a final prayer for the safety and sanctity of William's soul, gathered their stuff and prepared to leave.

She had walked them to their car. The sunshine felt good on her face, the sky was a clear and cloudless blue. "What can I say? Thank you, both so much." She hugged Father Michael as he got into the car. She closed his door and then turned to Father Stephan who had stashed their equipment in the trunk.

"Buffy, can we take a little walk?" Father Stephan asked shyly.

"Of course, Father," she agreed and fell into step with him as he walked across the lawn.

"I wanted you to know that if you ever need me again, I will be at St. Joan's." There was more on his face, Buffy waited and walked. "We've said our prayers for Spike, but I will continue to pray for you. I will pray that your new-found faith will continue to give you strength. That in your Slayer duties, you will not feel so alone anymore, now that you know God is with you."

Buffy nodded. "I will need your prayers, Father, thank you. We both will. Old habits die hard. But it is truly amazing what you accomplished here..."

"No, Buffy, what we accomplished here." The priest cleared his throat, and hesitated. "I also wanted you to know how much this has meant to me personally. Seeing Spike through this has allowed me to finally face my own demons. It will make me a better man. And," he continued, "before this began, I knew that working with the Slayer would be special, but the fact that it was you...I had no idea how much this meeting would effect my life. Watching you find your faith and the results that that had will be with me always. It will make me a better priest. Thank you."

Buffy stared at him. Miracles just kept happening. "Anytime, Father."

The finished their walk around the mansion and came back to the car. She waved to them as they drove away. She turned back to the mansion. The door was open and Spike was leaning against the jamb. His eyes closed as the sun warmed him for the first time in so long. His hair shone in the sunlight and his pale skin seemed to glow.

"Thank God," she thought, and meant it.

She walked toward William, her footsteps crunching on the gravel driveway. His eyes opened as she drew near. "I'd forgotten how good this feels."

"You should be inside, resting."

"I was looking for you." He gazed at her intently. "Buffy, the demon is gone. I am not the man I was when it was inside me. But I am. I was me, well mostly me, for the last two years. Everything I have been in that time, is still here," he laid his hand on his chest. "Everything I felt for you is still with me. I love you, Buffy. Always will."

She walked up to him and slipped under his arm, holding his waist so he could lean on her as they walked back into the mansion. He didn't really need the help, but he wasn't going to say anything, having her arm around him felt too good. "Can we talk some more about that 'us' thing now?"

"Bloody hell, Slayer," he grinned, "I'm recovering here. What are you trying to do to me?"

FIN