The Rapturous End
by Annakovsky

Buffy starts getting the apocalyptic dreams in late April. Apocalypse season.

She shouldn't be surprised, really. It's just that she had thought that once she slayed Sunnydale, she would be... done. Stupid thing to think. But every villain had gotten more and more insurmountable, every year worse than the one before - and once you've fought the First Evil, there's really nowhere left to go, right? Shouldn't they retire the whole concept of apocalypse after that and move onto something new?

The dreams crackle at the edges. She can't quite get a good look at what's going on, just catches images out of the corner of her eye. And gets the horribly strong feeling that there's nothing she can do. It's that feeling that gets to her more than anything else, the helplessness, the inevitability. It's terrifying.

She reports the dreams to Giles, twisting the phone cord around her fingers. "Raining blood and fire, evil looking monsters rushing at me, you know, the usual." She speaks as flippantly as possible because if there's anything Sunnydale has taught her, it is how to be flippant. And because her hands are shaking.

Giles makes a note of it, says something reassuring and gets off the phone quickly. Because now Buffy isn't the Slayer, she's just a slayer, and there are a hundred others calling Giles with their dreams, day and night. He sounds tired.

She dreams of Xander in Africa. She hasn't seen him in ten months, which is by far the longest she has gone without seeing Xander since they were sixteen. Of all of them, he was the only one who never left her. At the time that seemed unexceptional, expected. Of course Xander was there - that's who he was, what he did. It is only in hindsight that she learns to value it. Value him.

He has a slayer there, in Malawi. Naomi. Xander has gone quiet, doesn't say much, even when they can get in touch with him. His satellite phone broke in a fight with vampires, and he didn't replace it. Every week or so he goes to the embassy for his mail, every two weeks or so he'll email one or the other of them with a brief update. Occasionally Buffy gets a package wrapped in brown paper that will have a present and sometimes a note. Once it was a carved wooden giraffe, once a necklace she now wears almost every day. Once an envelope that contained a photograph of him next to a newly built wooden hut. He looked tan and lean and grown up, white teeth flashing in his browned face, a dark girl beside him. Buffy almost didn't recognize him. On the back he had written, Me and Naomi. You'd like her. I miss you.

She doesn't believe him, but it's a nice thought.

She dreams of Xander, in these apocalyptic dreams, when the flashes of blurry image, of rivers of blood and piles of rubble and destruction, clear a space in the middle for him. She sees him walking down a hill - that's all - dirt on his clothing and under his fingernails. He is looking down, and somehow the sight of him, the slope of his shoulders and the way his feet trudge along the dusty road, is the saddest thing she has ever seen. And she knows, in the dream, that he is just returning from burying Naomi, that it is grave-dirt clinging to him.

She dreams this three nights in a row, waking up each time with an almost intolerable feeling of melancholy and despair. She starts checking her email twenty times a day to see if he has written. She calls Giles, but he just tells her not to worry, that he's sure Xander is fine. That it's just a dream, and anyway, slayers die, and Xander knows this. Since she's emailed, there's nothing more they can do.

She doesn't know how Giles can possibly think that Xander is fine, when there is only this quiet Xander left of him, when she is dreaming this dream where sadness is radiating off every hair of Xander's head, off the hands clenching by his sides, off his knees and ankles and wrists.

Buffy books a flight to Lilongwe, the capital, but doesn't tell anyone until the day before she leaves. Even then, there is hardly anybody left to tell. She's the only one in Rome at the moment - Dawn is spending a couple of weeks working with Giles in London, Willow and Kennedy are in Thailand, Faith is in Cleveland, and Andrew is off visiting family in Oregon. So she calls England, talks to her sister.

Dawn sounds a little concerned. "Is everything okay?"

Buffy forces her voice to be cheerful. "Of course. I just need to see Xander. It's no big deal."

"Okay," Dawn says. "Cool. Take lots of pictures."

"I love you," Buffy says. She tries not to sound weird, but it comes out sounding overly meaningful, like something someone might say on her deathbed.

Dawn immediately picks up on it. "Wait... is the world ending? The world's not ending, is it? Because Matthew asked me out for this weekend and it would suck if the world ended first."

Buffy smiles weakly. "The world never ends," she says. "Haven't you learned that by now?"

She doesn't sleep on the plane ride because she doesn't want to dream. Her knuckles are white on the armrests and the African woman beside her thinks she's scared of flying. Buffy doesn't tell her that it's not so much the flying that frightens her, but the whole four-horses-of-the-apocalypse thing, the imminent doom thing, and more than anything else, the slope of Xander's shoulders as he walks down that hill.

She doesn't say that she is the one who is supposed to stop bad things from happening, but at the same time the one who brings bad things on her friends. She doesn't tell her about Tara, or Anya, or Willow's black magic, or Dawn's scars, or Xander's eye. She just holds tight to the armrests and waits for landing.

It's hot when she steps off the plane, but not unbearably so. It's definitely Africa, though, a strange mix of modern and primitive, poverty and bureaucracy, and everything different than what she's used to. The American embassy tells her that Xander was last there eight days before, and gives helpful advice on getting to his village. She takes a bus, foul smelling with people crammed in every which way (not to mention a couple of chickens), that lets her off just down the road from where she wants to be. She walks the rest of the way. The road is dusty, but the country is green and quiet.

She can see why Xander stayed here.

The village is full of huts like the one in the picture Xander had sent, and the children frankly stare at her. She feels white and out of place, her North Face knapsack on her back, her clothes fashionable and impractical.

She has nearly walked through the whole village when the view takes her aback. There is a hill in front of her, and trees and the dusty road, the sky a brutal blue, and she realizes that she is standing in the exact same place as in her dream. The exact same - every leaf is in the right place, the funny looking rock a few paces up just where she'd dreamed it. The only thing missing is Xander, but as she pauses, disconcerted, he comes walking over the crest of the hill. Like a video clip she'd seen many times before, exactly as she'd dreamed it - his head bowed, shoes scuffing at the road. Sadness in every line of his body.

She wants to run to him but is frozen by the strangeness, this waking dream. He is halfway to her before he looks up and sees her. She wants to speak, but cannot force the words out of her tight throat.

He doesn't look surprised at seeing her. He just stares at her with a defeated look of absolute exhaustion, arms hanging at his sides, shoulders rounded. His eye patch is dirty and tattered, and he still looks crippled by the missing eye. She forgets, not having seen him. In her memory he still has two.

They watch each other from this distance

"Xander," she says finally, and moves to hug him. He is motionless as she puts her arms around him.

"I dreamed you'd come," he says. There is a cut on his left cheekbone, just under the eye patch.

"So did I," she says, pulling back to look at him wonderingly. "How did you... I thought they were slayer dreams."

He shrugs. "I don't know. I've been dreaming a lot lately. I didn't know any of them would come true." He turns and starts back down the road, toward the village. Over his shoulder he says, "Come on. I'm already packed."

She hurries after him. He walks to one of the huts on the outskirts of town, the one with a jeep parked next to it.

"Xander, we don't have to go anywhere right away. We don't have to go anywhere at all, actually, I just came to make sure you were okay. I didn't...."

He interrupts her. "There's no reason for me to stay here."

She looks at him helplessly. His hair is longish and falling into his eyes, and he looks older than she remembers, standing here in the African sun. "I'm so sorry about... her. Naomi."

"Yeah," he says tightly. He goes inside the hut for a moment and comes out wearing a backpack and carrying a duffel bag.

"This is where you live?" Buffy asks.

"Uh huh," he says. "It's the unlucky hut. Everyone who lived here has died."

"Except you," Buffy says.

"Except me," Xander agrees. He doesn't altogether sound like he thinks that's a good thing.

Xander throws their luggage in the back of the jeep and doesn't look back when they drive away. He drives like he's used to the African roads, expertly avoiding potholes, and honking nonchalantly at a cow that had wandered onto the road. The wind rushing by the windows keeps it too loud to talk, so Buffy watches him out of the corner of her eye.

Mostly, he looks the same. But now he is leaner and more muscled, his arms and chest substantial under his t-shirt, like he's been doing heavy work all the time and not eating much. There are fine lines at the corner of his eye, from squinting in the sun, and from smiling, maybe. But right now it is hard to imagine him ever smiling again.

He is so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It makes Buffy feel almost shy.

In Lilongwe he drives to one of the nicer hotels. She trails after him into the lobby where he books a room. Two beds. One night. "We're leaving tomorrow, right?" he asks her casually as the clerk makes the arrangements.

"We... I don't know. Um, I guess," she says. It's all happening so fast - this isn't what she expected. She's been off balance ever since seeing him on the road, right where she'd dreamed he'd be. There hasn't quite been space to catch her breath since then.

"Okay. Well. One night for now," he says. Like he can't be gone fast enough.

The room is nice - your standard hotel room, boring and clean. Buffy sits on one of the beds while Xander, without saying anything, immediately goes into the bathroom. She hears the shower turn on.

Buffy checks out Malawi television while Xander takes what is possibly the longest shower known to man. She ends up watching most of Don't Tell Mom, the Babysitter's Dead while she waits. She's traveled too much to be surprised that it's on Malawi TV - the worse the movie, the greater the odds that it'll be on TV in, say, Lebanon.

"So where's the apocalypse this time?" Xander asks when he finally comes out of the bathroom. He has a white hotel towel wrapped around his waist, and goes to his backpack to rummage for clean clothes. He looks like he feels better.

Buffy finds herself checking out his abs, too, which is, um. Weird.

"Huh?" she says.

"The apocalypse. Where are we going?"

"What makes you think there's an apocalypse?"

"Well, you're here, for one thing," Xander says. He's smiling, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. Eye. Damn it.

"That's not the only reason I would come here," Buffy says. But it's sort of like there's a hole in the center of her chest, a big empty space, and the look on Xander's face is making it bigger. Any more of that look and she might actually implode.

"And you said you've had slayer dreams," he says. He moves to the other side of the little wall dividing the room from the sink area outside the bathroom, presumably to put on the clothes he's holding.

"Yeah, but... they've been weird," she says, speaking up so he can hear. "Freaky and apocalyptic, yeah. But, like... fuzzy around the edges. Not like regular slayer dreams, they're not clear like that. They're just... staticky. Like they're not really my dreams."

Xander comes back into the room, wearing jeans and a perplexed expression. "What does that mean?" A green t-shirt is dangling from his hand.

"I don't know. It just... they feel like I'm overhearing them or something. I can't explain it right. But it's like it's not my apocalypse this time. Like I'm just picking up signals meant for someone else."

Xander sits on the other bed, t-shirt still forgotten in his hand. "How could it not be your apocalypse? You're the Slayer."

Buffy shrugs. "Except that I'm not. I'm a slayer. The world doesn't revolve around me. Um, anymore." She laughs a little.

Xander does the wry face he does sometimes, smiling with half his mouth. "My world will always revolve around you."

She laughs. "Right, that's why you've been in Africa for the last ten months."

Xander doesn't say anything for a long moment. Then he sighs and says, "Yeah, that would be pretty ridiculous, huh?" He pulls the t-shirt over his head roughly.

Buffy doesn't say anything. They're skirting perilously close to a topic they never, ever talk about, and that Buffy doesn't particularly want to discuss. It's not like she doesn't know that Xander... well. She doesn't think he's still in love with her or anything like that. She may have a little bit of an ego problem sometimes, but it hasn't quite gotten that bad. But she knows that in some sense, Xander is... hers.

That sounds stupid. But she knows that even when he was dating Cordelia, even when he was engaged to Anya, he would've dropped everything to help Buffy do whatever she needed done. Anything at all.

At least, back then he would've. But she had thought that was over. It's not like he had hung around Rome to take Dawn to school in the mornings and make fun of Buffy's boyfriends and help with research. There had been a big gaping hole in all those departments, actually, that she had tried not to dwell on.

"We've got to be headed somewhere, though," Xander says, his wet hair mussed and sticking up. He runs his hands through it. "For this apocalypse that isn't yours."

Buffy shrugs. "I was just planning on going back to Rome. I don't know where the bad stuff is going to happen, or if I should go there, or anything. Giles was supposed to call me when he found out anything."

"Okay," Xander says. "Rome. Fair enough."


Buffy is out in the African grassland at sunrise, hunting. She crouches low, listening for her prey, before she is running through the tall grass, following the evil thing's track. There is a stone knife in her hand, evil looking and sharp.

She runs all the way to the desert, coming abruptly out of the tall grass and into barren yellow earth and scrub brush. The sun is bright, so bright she can hardly see. The force and heat of it is so strong it is like a physical thing, beating down on her shoulders. And the whole place seems familiar.

Anya lies on a towel in front of her, face turned up to the sun. She is wearing the blue bikini Buffy helped her buy the spring before Xander left her at the altar, and she tips her sunglasses down her nose to look at Buffy.

"I thought you were never coming back," she says. "I need someone to rub sunscreen where I can't reach."

"I'm busy," Buffy says vaguely. She has just noticed a black place on the horizon, like clouds massing.

"It's better not to look at that," Anya says. "Enjoy the sunshine while it lasts. Five thousand years doesn't guarantee forever." She pushes her sunglasses back up and takes out a magazine. "Oh, and she says you can borrow her bed of bones if you want."

"What?" Buffy says, and then the First Slayer is standing in front of her, the stone knife in her hand.

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Haven't we been through this?"

Anya turns a page. "She says it's coming."

Buffy braces herself for a fight, but instead suddenly the First Slayer is ten yards away, then twenty, then thirty, then forty, then back and back and back into the mountains. A cold wind comes up out of nowhere, smelling of sulfur. The sky darkens.

Buffy whirls around, looking behind her to see the menace she knows is approaching. She has goosebumps all over, and her Spidey sense is going wild. There is evil everywhere, all around, all coming for her.

When she turns, she sees that she is standing in a parking lot at night, completely alone, broken glass under her feet. It's frigid and she shivers, the wind blowing strong around her. It begins to snow, white flakes coating the cigarette butts littering the ground.

She looks up into the sky and sees that it's not night at all. The sun is there, but dim and weak, dark red like a dying fire's embers. Then as she watches, the sun goes out.


She wakes up in a cold sweat - like, seriously, a cold sweat. All sweaty and cold, which sucks as much as you would think it would. It's four in the morning, and Xander is snoring slightly in the next bed.

She's too freaked to fall back asleep, so she puts on her iPod headphones and lies in bed listening to Bon Jovi until someone pulls one of the headphones out of her ear and nearly makes her jump out of her skin.

"What're you listening to?" Xander asks, sitting down on the edge of her bed in his boxer shorts. He leans over and puts the headphone into his own ear. After a second he laughs.

"Shut up," Buffy says shakily, stopping the music. "It was the least scary music I could think of."

"I find Bon Jovi terrifying, actually," Xander says, and yawns. He has a serious case of bed head, and crease marks from the pillow on his cheek. Blinking sleepily, he suddenly stops short and looks at her sharply. "Wait, were you dreaming?"

"Yeah," Buffy says. She sits up and tries to keep her voice steady. "You know, it's totally unfair. You'd think with, like, a hundred slayers I'd only get one percent of the dreams now, but no."

"What did you dream?" Xander asks.

Buffy remembers the darkness, the total isolation. The sense of something horrible coming. The cold.

"The sun went out," she says.

Xander scratches at the stubble on his face thoughtfully. "You are the girl who keeps the sun out."


"You're not the only one who's been dreaming," he says. "What else?"

She tells him, and finishes, "It wasn't like the others, either, this one was clear. Technicolor and surround sound."

Xander had gone quiet as soon as Buffy had mentioned Anya. He traces patterns on the bedspread with his fingers, and doesn't look up. "So what does it mean?" he asks finally.

Buffy shrugs. "How should I know? Nothing good."

Xander nods. He looks defeated and tired again, lines more pronounced on his face. She reaches out impulsively and touches his shoulder. He looks up at her, still drowsy and heavy-lidded in the middle of his sadness, his body still sleepy-warm.

She suddenly doesn't know what to say, so goes with, "It'll all be okay."

He smiles a little. "I gave up on okay awhile ago, but we can dream."


The flight to Rome is only half full, so Buffy and Xander have a whole row to themselves. Xander sleeps. Buffy reads a magazine.

Somewhere over the Mediterranean, out of nowhere, the plane hits an air pocket or something and must drop 20 feet. People are screaming. The guy who had been standing in line for the bathroom flies up and hits the ceiling. Xander looks like he's going to puke.

And then the plane stabilizes. No more turbulence. Nothing. Just that drop, that bang, and then everything back to normal. When the pilot finally comes on the loudspeaker to reassure them, he sounds confused and a little shaken.

The next day, Xander will show Buffy the finger-shaped bruises on his arm from where she grabbed him.

They land at the Rome airport without further incident. It's after midnight, so everything is darkened and closed, hardly anyone around. The city itself seems kind of shut down, which is odd for Rome, where usually the cafes are filled until the wee hours. It's colder than when she left, but Buffy chalks it up to the unpredictability of spring and lets Xander loan her his jacket.

In her apartment, Buffy puts Xander into the guest bedroom, the one that still has a pair of Giles's shoes in the closet and some of Andrew's comic books on the dresser.

"You haven't been here before," she says, standing in the doorway of the room as Xander puts his knapsack down beside the bed. "That's weird."

"Am I the only one who hasn't?" Xander asks, touching one of the comic books with a funny expression on his face.

"Yeah," Buffy says. She shifts her weight to her other foot and tentatively says, "I missed you."

"Yeah," Xander says. The comic books under his fingers are brightly colored, heroes with clear black outlines fighting evil. "Yeah."


Buffy dreams she is wandering the Rome streets in the dark and the cold, Xander's coat clutched around her. She hears the splashing of Trevi Fountain and heads towards it and the crowd of tourists she knows must be there. But when she gets there the plaza is empty and the fountain water is a dark pink. When she gets closer she smells the iron of blood. There are bodies in the fountain, bleeding into the water.

Across on the other side, around the curve, she can see someone standing, their head hidden by one of the sculpted horses. She moves closer in trepidation until finally she can see who it is.

It's Xander. Blood is coming out of his ears and mouth and eye, trickling out from under his eye patch, soaking through his shirt. He holds out his hands to her, gory and dark and dripping, silently pleading for help.


She wakes up in her own bed.

It's morning, but everything is dim, like there are the thick clouds of a storm overhead, and she is shivering in the cold.

When she makes her way to the kitchen, in her gray hoodie and warmest sweatpants, Xander is already there, staring at the coffee maker.

"Morning," she says, shoving her hands into the front pocket of her sweatshirt.

Xander looks up. "I think your power's out," he says. His voice and expression are odd, like something is quite wrong. "And there's no hot water."

"Really?" Buffy says, flipping a light switch experimentally. Nothing happens. "Huh. I'll call the electric company, I guess. And we'll just have to go down the street for coffee."

"And your phone's dead," Xander says.

A feeling of dread starts to build in Buffy's stomach.

"And the street's been really quiet. There's no traffic. I haven't seen a single person. When I knocked on your neighbor's door, no one answered."

"What?" Buffy says. She goes to the window and looks out. She can't see anything moving outside, and it's a busy street. Something is always moving out there.

"I was afraid you weren't going to wake up," Xander says quietly. "I think we might've come late to the apocalypse this time, Buff."

Buffy turns to look at him. His shoulders are hunched and he is still wearing the grass-green t-shirt of the day before. It is the only bright spot in the room.

"I think we lost," he says.

Buffy goes to the weapon's chest under the windows and opens it. Everything is there, in order, the axes glinting in the light, the stakes jumbled together at the bottom. The familiar smell of wood and metal. She takes out stakes and an axe and a crossbow, and hands the axe and some of the stakes to Xander. "It's not over until you're dead," she says, checking the string on the crossbow and putting some stakes in her pockets. "And even then, usually still not over. At least if you're me." She smiles at him.

He shoulders the axe and stands up a little straighter. "After you, general," he says.

Buffy pauses with her hand on the doorknob. "If we die...," she starts, but then trails off.

"What?" Xander asks.

"I'm glad you're here," she says.

As they leave the building and walk into the empty streets, she reaches out to hold his hand.


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