Warning: Character death
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: All my characters are belong to Joss.
Author's Notes: I have a really bad record with multi-part fics so I'll say right here and now that I guarantee absolutely nothing. But I do want to know what happens next, and if I want to find out, I have to write it. My thanks to Djarum99 for the beta and encouragement.

In Absentia

Is it getting harder to pretend
that life goes on without you in the wake?
And can you see the means without the end
in the random frantic action that we take?

And is it getting easy not to care
despite the many rings around your name?
It isn't funny and it isn't fair;
you've traveled all this way and it's the same.

--"Astronaut", Amanda Palmer

He wouldn't have come to Rome, except that she was dead and he had loved her in another life; and she had maybe almost half loved him, at least enough to say she did when it mattered most and not at all.

He almost didn't come at all, because she was dead, and he had his own business to look after. Los Angeles had brought its own little corner of Hell back with it. With Angel gone, it was Spike's city now, a city of demons and desperate humans, at war with itself more than ever. He hadn't signed up for this gig, but there was no one else to do what had to be done, so he helped the damn helpless. Or maybe the helpless damned. He mostly couldn't tell the difference.

He didn't do it because she might have been proud.

Not that it would have mattered anyway. She was dead, and he'd come to say goodbye, was all. He owed her that much.

There was only one problem. The girl in the coffin wasn't her.

He should know. He'd made a study of her, sidelong and straight on, from the shadows while she stood in the light unawares, in the dark as she moved above him, the rare few hours she'd slept by his side. He'd seen her lifeless body laid out like this, even, had seen every feature of her still face in dreams every night after they'd put her in the ground.

The face was almost right, but the chin was a bit too narrow, the mouth (God, her mouth) too pinched, the frame not quite petite enough. No one who knew her, really knew her, could mistake this chit for her.

And yet, there they were, heads bent, faces drawn, their grief by all appearances genuine. Giles, looking very old, shoulders sagging. Willow, her chin up but tear tracks on her cheeks, her arm around Dawn, whose face was still, eyes wide and shocky. Xander, his arms folded, stared at the ground; the patch over the boy's lost eye gave him a ridiculously rakish air, although he looked angry, lower lip thrust forward, scowling. Andrew wept messily and openly, a little apart from the others. There were a few other girls present--Slayers, probably--although Faith was conspicuously absent.

How could they not know? Had they all gone stupid--stupider--in the years since he had known them?

Or had he? Could he have forgotten her face, memories he'd thought indelible mingling with the dust of Sunnydale or blurred by incorporeality, by simple time, by Hell? That last time he'd seen her, in this city, he'd only glimpsed her across a crowded dance floor. If that remembered image seemed to match this still, small corpse, it didn't mean much.

It couldn't really be her. Could it?

* * *

Funny thing, he'd always thought he would be there when it happened. Dealing the blow himself, once, or later, at her side to the last. He'd never thought it would happen like this, that he'd hear the news from a Riigi demon in a bar just this side of Hell, a day late and half a world away.

"What did you say, mate?"

The demon, too dense or too drunk to heed the dangerous note in the question or the speed with which the vampire's head had whipped around at his announcement, repeated himself. "Haven't you heard the news? Some lucky spawn finally took out the Slayer."

"Lot of those in the world lately," Spike said, but had the room just tilted under him? Or maybe it was the city, shifting uneasily on its tectonic plates as it was prone to do since its return to this dimension, as if California was trying to slough it off like a scab. "Dime a dozen, Slayers. Not like the old days."

"Not a Slayer," said the Riigi. "The Slayer. The original article. You know what I mean." He sniggered, baring huge, razor-sharp teeth in a horrible yellow grin. "'Bout time, if you ask me. That bitch was long past her expiration date."

Spike's bottle shattered in his hand. Convenient, that, because it meant he had something to put through the Riigi's eye.

He'd come in here to start a fight anyway, hadn't he? Show them who was Lord of Los Angeles now. Teach them to stay away from his people.

By the time the last of the patrons slumped to the ground, he didn't feel any better.

He was angry. He wasn't sure at what, or whom. Her. Himself. Destiny or chance. The shortness of human lives. A futile exercise, trying to protect them, trying to save them.

Every night, I saved you...

Hell. Bloody, rotten, sodding hell. Wasn't once enough, to endure this? All the witch's fault. For that matter, he could've stayed dead, too. He'd been done, just like her. Happy to rest in peace. But the meddlers had meddled, as they tended to, and here they were.

Only she wasn't. Not anymore.

He lifted two mostly-full bottles from the bar and kicked the door off its hinges on his way out into the night.

* * *

"You are intoxicated," Illyria observed.

"Very astute of you, Blue. Care to join me?"

She tilted her head, looking him over while plucking the bottle he tossed to her out of the air. "You have been fighting," she said, slightly accusatory. "You should have invited me to join you in that, rather than in the consumption of your recreational poisons."

"Sorry, love." He dropped his demon-slimed duster in a heap on the floor and slung himself onto a posh leather couch. They had taken over this place in the Hollywood Hills after defeating the previous Lord during their months of Hell; it looked like a Gothic castle on the outside and a thoroughly modern bordello on the inside. Illyria liked the grandeur and Spike liked the comfort. And the state-of-the-art security system. So far, no one had objected. The rich folks fortunate enough not to have been in Los Angeles when it all went to Hell were happy to stay away, and most of those who had been...well, they were in no state to complain. "Heat of the moment sort of thing. Didn't have time to call."

She seemed to accept this for the time being, examining the bottle of Skyy vodka in her hand. "This is your poison?"

"A lovely but murderous substance. See, it matches your...everything."

"I do not know how this shell will react to such a toxin," she mused. And then a shiver passed over her and the azure tint vanished from her skin and hair, the clipped, even tones of the Old One broadening into a ghost's sweet drawl. "Spike, you know I can't keep up with you! Not even close. Don't you remember what a lightweight I am?"

Spike stiffened, leaping to his feet; but the color had already flowed back into her, and it was Illyria's familiar, unearthly gaze that met his, distantly curious.

"Don't do that to me," he snarled. "I'm not in the mood for your games tonight."

The scalpel-cool gaze sliced deep. "Your voice and face display pain, and yet your body is not damaged. Does the spark cause you so much harm?"

He turned away, pacing the length of the room to the blacked-out windows. "It's not that," he said. "Just reminds me..." Of Fred, yes, and that was a dull sort of hurt. But also of the year when he existed in fragments that way, caught between human and demon.

The "spark" that was Winifred Burkle didn't seem to burn Illyria the way his own soul did at first; the former god-king treated Fred's presence like everything else in this world she chose not to destroy, an object of dispassionate inquiry, a curio. He envied her detachment. He'd always been too human, felt too much even before he saddled himself with a soul. Before Buffy...

He cursed, wheeled, let his empty whiskey bottle fly out of his hand to explode into shrapnel against the brick fireplace. "You'd think this would get easier. After two hundred bloody years."

"I do not understand," said the god-king.

Of course she didn't, probably couldn't, but he was seized with an irrational desire to have that understanding. She was more or less his best mate, the only one he had left. "Illyria, do you remember what you felt when Wesley died?"

She stood very still. "I wished to kill things," she said, low and fierce. "So I did."

"Did it help?"

A flicker in the blue eyes. "No."

"Then you do understand. When someone important to you dies, a friend, you feel..."

"A void," Illyria said. "The spark called the void grief. Do you feel this...grief, then?"

"Don't know what I feel, Blue."

After brief consideration, she held out the vodka to him. "Do the intoxicants help?"

"No," he said, but he took the offering anyway and swigged some down. Sinking back down on the couch, he welcomed the holy water sear of the liquor in his throat and stomach. He was startled when Illyria perched on the arm of the couch beside him, reached out to take the bottle from him.

"I will drink with you," she said solemnly. "Although I do not know your friend."

"No. She was before your time, love."

"I am Eldest. Nothing is before my time."

"Sorry. Between your times, then."

Appeased, she inclined her head, an indulgence. "Tell me about this...she."

He did want to talk about her, he realized. He also wanted to get so drunk that he would pass out for days and not dream or remember, but there was no reason he couldn't do the one while working on the other.

"She was an enemy," he said. "Then she was an ally. Then she was...more." Not quite friend, not quite lover, not quite desired object. None and all of those things.

"She was your mate," said Illyria, and his head came up sharply. "So it was among the Old Ones." Her lips curved in reminiscence. "We fought when we met, great battles to the death that shook the earth and stirred the sea into a froth of ichor. But when one could not overcome the other, they would join together in copulation on the field of battle."

"What a way with words you have. That's charming, that is." He grimaced around another swallow of vodka. "And not so far off. She was the Slayer. I was a vampire. We meant to kill each other. Were made to kill each other. But we never did. We just...danced."

"The Slayer." She rolled the word around on her tongue as if tasting it. "You loved her."

Did the god-king know love? Or was it the spark of Fred inside of her that made that leap? After a moment he said quietly, "Yeah. Yeah, I did." And then, "Oh, hell." He pushed himself to his feet. "Blue, what're the odds this city can make it through the week without me?"

She regarded him, eyes bright, hawk-watchful. "You are leaving."

"Got to pay my respects. 'S only right."

Illyria rose in one fluid, inhuman movement. "I will come with you," she said. "I wish to pay my respects as well."

Nonplussed, he stared at her. "You do? Why?"

"She was a great warrior. I am a great warrior," Illyria said placidly. "I would have liked to have met her. Tested my strength against her." Then she stretched out a slender hand to touch his face; too gently, with skin rather than shell, and he flinched away. "Because you loved her," Fred said softly, "and you shouldn't have to face this alone."

* * *

So it was Illyria's hand that pulled him back when he would have surged forward out of the heavy shadows of the cathedral, singed himself in the dusty beam of sunlight that filtered through the high stained glass windows to illuminate the figure of the dead Slayer.

"You are foolish," she hissed at him, and he hissed back, "It's not her!"

She did not loosen her grip on his shoulder. "I know this madness. You cannot accept the truth, so you deny it. It is another form of grief."

Spike glared at her. "I liked you better when you were less human," he growled, and twisted out of her grasp as her eyes went ice-pale with fury; but he knew she was the stronger, and had let him go. "You didn't know her. That's not Buffy."

The words rang out louder than he intended, echoing among the pillars of the cathedral, and Giles, who had begun to speak quietly, faltered, peering in Spike's direction. Xander's head jerked up, and Dawn gasped.

"Who's there?" Giles called out.

Time to make his entrance. Spike strode forward without looking back to see if Illyria followed him. The heads of the mourners swiveled in the pews, and a low murmur rose as people shifted, stared.

"What have you done with her, Watcher?" Spike demanded. "Didn't recover a body, did you? Or did you not want them--" with a nod towards the other Slayers, who drew together, eyes wide, whispering-- "to see what fate they're born to?"

"Spike...?" Dawn quavered, face pale.

"Hello, Niblet. So what about it, old man?" He stopped just at the edge of the light, stretching out a hand toward the body as if to touch her. If she was made of wax, she was quite lifelike. Smoke curled off his fingers into the sunlight, like an offering. "This charade must have cost a pretty penny. So where is she? Did she burn, like I did?"

"Is it the First?" Xander muttered, behind him.

"Spike, is that really you?" That was Dawn.

Giles almost sputtered, anger and disbelief warring in his expression. "You idiot," he managed. "What are you doing here?"

Flame licked his knuckles, and he pulled his hand back, shook it out. "Came to see the Slayer buried," he said. "Always swore I would, you know." He was facing off Giles now; the old man looked ready to stake him, and he could use a fight. "Imagine my disappointment when I found it wasn't even her."

"Spike." The witch, in tones of command. Little Red, all grown up. "Shut up."

He turned; her eyes met his--steady, a warning--and it hit him like a punch in the gut. She knows. Then, They all know. What is going on here?

::We'll talk about it.:: Willow's voice in his head was quiet but firm. ::After. Not here. Not now.::

He held her gaze for a moment before a new murmur announced Illyria's advance down the aisle.

"What the hell is that?" Xander demanded.

"I am the God-King of the Primordium," Illyria said with great complacency, and reached out to take Spike's arm. "The vampire is my pet." Her gaze swept over them. "We honor the Slayer."

The silence that greeted this pronouncement was broken by Dawn's "Okay!" Giles cleared his throat, and Spike said weakly, "Right, then."

Willow's lips twitched as she made room for them in her pew, but her voice was somber. "Thank you for coming. I know it would have meant a lot to her."

* * *

"Dawnie, why don't you go back to the flat with the others?"

"No." The Summers obstinacy in full flower. "Don't you get it? It's Spike. He's alive. Well, not dead. Undead. Whatever. I'm not going anywhere."

"Well, come wait back here with me, at least. I think he'd like a moment."

"Fine," huffily; and the two women's voices receded toward the back of the cathedral.

The pool of sunlight from the windows had shrunk to a narrow bar falling over the altar, leaving the coffin safely in shadow. Spike stood before it, staring down at the dead woman, this stranger with the eerily familiar, eerily wrong features who had lived as his Slayer, and maybe died for her.

"Who was she?" he murmured, without looking up.

"Her real name was Sarah Kendrick," Giles said stiffly. "One of our best. She volunteered to act as Buffy's decoy in Italy."

Spike gave a short laugh. "Volunteered? That's rich. What did you offer her? A hefty severance package? The chance to grow old on the Riviera? A thousand promises you knew you'd never have to make good on?"

"Believe it or not, Spike, people do often choose to devote their life to the greater good because it is the right thing to do. Because they wish to be part of something bigger." Giles removed his glasses, studied them critically, set to polishing the lenses. "Sarah knew her place in the scheme of things, knew her contribution was needed to protect Buffy. Whom you have now placed in grave danger with your rash words." Glasses back in place, he frowned over them at Spike. "If news of the subterfuge reaches our enemies, you will have rendered Sarah's life here, and her death, utterly pointless."

"Pointless, eh?" Spike shook his head. "So she had no life of her own? No dreams? No family or friends?" Struck by a thought, he turned to look closely at Giles. "At least tell me she really liked that greasy Immortal bloke, and it wasn't just some ploy—" The Watcher's eyes shifted away. "Oh, come on! And you call yourself the good guys?"

"I do not call myself any such thing," in Giles' chilliest tones. "My job is to do what's best for all the Slayers, and for Buffy. If you still purport to care for her, you should understand that. Even if you do not understand what is at stake."

"Does she know?"

"Of course she does. She wanted very much to be here. For obvious reasons, that was impossible."

"I don't suppose," Spike said, "that you'd tell me where she is."

"Absolutely not," Giles said sharply. "It's no business of yours. Buffy has moved on, Spike, and rightly so. It's time you did the same."

And why do you think I came, you damned sanctimonious git? But he heard the dry whisper of Illyria's armor sliding over itself as she stirred behind him, and turning, spoke to her instead of to the Watcher: "Come on, Blue. I think we're done here."

Head cocked, she said, "Your Buffy is not dead, then."

"Seems not. Sorry to drag you halfway 'round the world for nothing."

"I do not regret it." She strode forward to his side, looking down at Sarah Kendrick. "She, too, was a warrior. One of the same brood, the same power. But you do not consider human warriors to be fungible."

Spike's laugh caught, raw, in his throat. "That's one way of putting it. No. They are not."

"Spike, who is this person?" demanded Giles, but Spike ignored him, as did Illyria.

"Then if this is not your Slayer," she said, "why do you still grieve?"

* * *

He would have left immediately, ducked out of the cathedral and into the bowels of the sleek, dark Wolfram & Hart car that had brought them there. He meant to leave. But there was Dawn, ambushing him in the vestibule and poking him painfully in the ribs.

"Just to make sure you're you," she said, unrepentant and with total disregard for the god-king hovering protectively at his side. Then, with a little gasp, she wrapped herself around him like a girl-shaped limpet. "Oh, Spike--!" Her narrow shoulders shook, and again he remembered the summer they had grieved together, when Buffy had been truly gone and not merely lost. She was taller now, beautiful, grown out of gawkiness into the full bloom of young womanhood; but he thought, with a sharp relief like pain, that she had not changed at all.

"Missed you too, Niblet," he said, and caught Willow's frown over Dawn's sleek head. "What, Red? Got something to say, do you?"

The witch shook her head. Dawn sniffled and pulled back a little without letting go of Spike's coat. "I knew her," she said. "Sarah, I mean. I lived with her before I started school. We used to go shopping together. She was—" she hesitated—"Well, she was nothing like Buffy, really, but she was fun to hang with. We were friends."

"I know, Bit," Spike said. "Tried to visit you both, as it happens. You were out."

She froze, staring at him. "What?"

Spike aimed a vicious grin at Andrew, who had been hanging around the doors in a hopeful way but now gave a guilty start and looked ready to sidle out. "Guess our Junior Slayerette here neglected to share that little detail."

"You knew?" Dawn shrieked, turning on Andrew. "You knew Spike was alive, and you didn't tell me?"

"I wasn't the only one!" Andrew protested, cringing. "Giles knew, too. And so did Willow."

"We only just found out before Los Angeles went to Hell," Willow said, glaring at Andrew. "And when it popped up again, nothing much was coming out of there in the way of news except for bad, so I didn't want to get your hopes up, sweetie."

"You were babying me, you mean," Dawn retorted. "Does Buffy--?" She stopped abruptly, her gaze darting to Spike.

Spike looked at Willow, who was examining the floor of the vestibule as if some fascinating and arcane spell had been encoded in the tiles. "Ah," he said. "That answers that pressing question, then."

"Buffy has enough to worry about," Willow snapped. "The subject never came up."

"Dealing in deceit again, witch? Deciding who gets to know what and when? Might want to look to that. 'S bad for your complexion."

Her eyes and cheeks blazed. "That's—I'm not! I didn't." Then, "Spike, did you ever think she might not want to know?"

"I did think it," Spike said. "Funny thing, I was misled." He took a step forward; saw the witch's fingers by her side spooling light out of the air, tipped his head at her: point. Illyria stood tense and still at his elbow, coiled violence whose strike would even his odds. He shook his head slightly; he saw no advantage in taking on the big bad witch at present. "But that doesn't matter now. There's something else I'll wager she does want to know, though..."

Willow bit her lip; iridescent tendrils of power twined around her hand, quiescent for now, but they sparked as she said, "It's been a long day, and I'm feeling tetchy. Why don't you cut the cryptic, Spike."

"The red one is insolent," Illyria said suddenly. "Shall I silence her?"

Willow bristled. Her gaze had gone pupil-flat; foxfire ran up her arms and flared around her, a full-body shield. Spike said, "It's all right, love. We're leaving." He gave the witch a wide berth; after a moment, Illyria followed, but she didn't look pleased about it. Pausing before the doors, he turned to look back at them: Willow angry, Dawn uncertain, Andrew crushed. Giles had remained in the church, communing with his sacrificial Slayer.

"Thing is," Spike said into their silence, "I wasn't the only vampire with a soul in Los Angeles when it went to Hell." He saw comprehension and growing concern on their faces, tasted bitter dust on his tongue. "But I was the only one who came back."

Dawn's hand came up to cover her mouth, and he was sorry for that. Far less sorry for Willow's tiny "oh."

"That much, at least," he said, "I think she deserves to know." And he pushed his way out the doors into the street.

In the mercy of the cathedral's deep late-afternoon shadow, he muttered a curse, rummaging in his pockets for a smoke. His Zippo wouldn't catch, and he made a savage move to throw it away.

Illyria caught his upraised hand, plucked the lighter out of it. The flame sparked easily to life for her. He glanced down at the fingers that held his cigarette, steadied them with an effort as he brought it to his lips.

She lit it for him solemnly, handed the lighter back, fixing him with her unwavering, impenetrable gaze. No use trying to guess what she was thinking. Likely as not, she'd tell him, and he would find he hadn't wanted to know after all.

But she only said, simply, "Will you go to her?"

Startled, Spike frowned at her despite himself; if she were a woman, he would have expected to see jealousy. But she seemed merely curious, attentive, as if cataloguing his responses for future reference. He shrugged finally. "Got no reason to. You heard them. And we've got a city to attend to, don't we? The Lords of Beverly Hills, playing hooky while Hollywood burns. Likely missing out on a bloody good time." He tossed his cigarette into the gutter. "'Sides, she could be anywhere. No one's telling."

Illyria looked thoughtful. Their car glided up beside them. Spike reached for the door handle, then turned at the sound of running footsteps, a clatter of heels on pavement, and his name.

"That's it?" Dawn halted in front of him, breathless and pink with fury. "After everything? You're going to just leave?"

"Don't think I'm much wanted here, Bit."

"That's not true! At least, not for me. Willow and Giles..." She hesitated. "Buffy doesn't always see eye to eye with them these days, you know. She won't even talk to Giles, after the Faith thing..." Then, seeming to remember her purpose, she abandoned this potentially interesting tack, folding her arms and glaring at him. "I can't believe you didn't call, Spike. You could have told me you were alive, at least!"

"Was a bit too insubstantial at first to hold a phone, and then I didn't have your number, did I? Besides, I was laboring under the impression that your sister didn't want anything to do with me, after my visit here."

"Aside from the fact that it wasn't actually her--so you decided to have nothing to do with me? 'Cause that's real mature."

"Well, there was the little matter of an apocalypse pending..." Belatedly, he saw the tears standing bright in her eyes. "Sorry, Niblet," he said. "You're right. I should have called. I'm sure the Wolfram & Hart research staff could have tracked you down without breaking a talon."

"I knew it," she exclaimed, then frowned. "Actually, I'm not sure how I feel about that. Wolfram & Hart is evil, right? Only you and Angel and everyone were fighting them from the inside..." She stopped. "Is it true, what you said about Angel? Is it...is it all of him that's gone, or just his soul again?"

"It's true," Spike said, wondering how much to tell her, and by extension, her sister. Would it hurt Buffy more or less to know that Angel had gotten his Shanshu after all, to know how much and how little it had meant in the end? "He kept his soul," he said.

"But...he could come back, couldn't he? He came back from Hell once before..."

"I don't think he's coming back this time, Bit."

"He died well, as a warrior should," said Illyria. "He slew a great number of his foes."

Spike glanced at her, surprised again. That wasn't how it had happened, exactly, and Illyria was more prone to manipulate time than truth. Nor was she given to imprecision. But he saw no trace of Fred in her just now.

"That's right," he said. "You can tell your sister that the bloody great git died like a Champion. Sacrificed himself for the good of the world, like he always wanted. Too bad she wasn't there to see it. He would have liked that."

"Spike," said Dawn, and the look she gave him silenced him. "Why don't you tell her yourself?"

"Better not." He turned away, towards the idling car. "You'll know better than me...what to say. How to soften the blow, like." How to comfort her as she cried over the vampire she had loved. "After you, Blue."

Illyria folded herself fluidly into the back of the limo, and Spike moved to follow her.

"You're running away," Dawn said. "When did you ever run away from things, Spike?"

He looked at her and for a moment again it was as it had been, the way her obstinate faith left him helpless and irritated and full-hearted to bursting. "I'm not running away, Niblet. Got things to take care of. People who depend on me. Running away would be leaving those poor bastards to fend for themselves in a city that the great and powerful Slayer Force ceded to the demons and the gangbangers well before it went to Hell." He slid onto the leather seat, reached to close the door. "I'm sorry, Bit. I've got to go."

"Spike, wait--" Dawn said, as the door shut. A second's hesitation later, he cursed under his breath and lowered the opaque window.

"I'm glad you came," she said, and leaned forward to lightly kiss his cheek before standing back to let the car pull away.

Spike slumped back against the cushioned seat, avoiding Illyria's curious gaze, fumbling blindly in the side compartment for the flask he'd stowed there in full knowledge of how much he'd need it on this ride. What he hadn't known was why he would need that drink so much just now to calm the chaos of his thoughts.

Dawn had only whispered it, so softly he had almost missed it over the purr of the engine, just before her lips brushed his cheek. But the single word echoed in his brain like a thunderclap.