“After Life,” by Jane Espenson
Biker demons are fleeing Sunnydale, and WillTara and XandAnya are rushing back to the Summers house to see if the newly resurrected Buffy is there. They’re worrying that she’s broken or dangerous. She sure didn’t seem like her old self after she clawed her way out of the ground and defeated the hellions for them.
They are headed the right way. Buffy is, in fact, home, having been brought there by Dawn. There’s a nice echo of the scene last year where the girls bring Joyce home before her tumor surgery—like Joyce then, Buffy now finds the light a bit too bright. Dawn’s freaking out but trying to hide it, tour guiding her sister through the slightly altered terrain of their home, and helping her clean up.
Spike, meanwhile, has been on a frantic search for Dawn that has led him right to their doorstep. He mistakes Buffy for the ‘bot for all of a second and then it hits him. Oh. He knows what’s wrong with Buffy’s hands, and sets to helping the girls. He’s very stunned, very sweet, and very kind. Now that they’ve both come back from the dead, they have a lot in common. There’s a connection that wasn’t there before.
It’s an important shift for Spuffy, but Spike—perhaps fortunately—doesn’t perceive it. And when the Scoobies come rushing in, full of questions and worry, he bails, making it only as far as his favorite stalking tree in the yard before he breaks down.
Buffy is in no shape to handle an onslaught of “OMG, Concern!” and “Hey, what was Hell like?” Dawn is obliged to run interference for her. I love that she’s doing this—it’s neat to see her being the grown-up in this scene.
By the time Buffy retreats to her room, Spike is furious with the Scoobs. He lays into Xander, declaring that Willow kept the resurrection plan from him because she knew it could go horribly wrong. He raises the ugly image of Willow having to dispose of a badly resurrected Buffy, and reminds us all that magic has consequences… that there will be a price for this.
Back in the house, WillTara are worrying and winding down. Willow is wishing Buffy would snap out of it and offer up some evidence that she’s okay, preferably with something along the lines of a thank you for the rescue. In time they go to sleep, and they’re accosted by a Buffy-shaped apparition. She’s deeply angry, throwing things, and accuses them of meddling with forces beyond their control. Across town, Xander’s on the phone hearing about this turn of events when Anya appears to hack into her own face with a butcher’s knife. Then she faints.
Clearly, something demonic is ahoof.
The four of them gather to debrief and plan. Buffy walks in on the meeting, and they tell her it’s okay, they’ve got it. Also, they’re so happy she’s back from Hell! Right, she thinks. That Hell thing again. She doesn’t offer enthusiastic agreement.
As everyone starts making a list of demons who could have hitched a transdimensional ride with Buffy, she, feeling the need for some space, heads out on patrol. By patrol she actually means it’s time to go whisper in a dead man’s ear—she makes her way to Spike’s crypt, where he essentially tells her he’s sorry he didn’t save her. The face-slicing demon, meanwhile, is hanging around in the Magic Box, checking out the cozy confines of Dawn’s head, snooping for intel and, when that gets dull, breathing fire on the gang.
The Scoobies put out the flames and eventually work out that they created the demon. Hey, there’s that price Spike was talking about! Their main option for getting rid of it is to give back Buffy.
Dawn flips out at the mere suggestion. Why shouldn’t she? Even if the others are secretly thinking that Resurrected Buffy isn’t quite as fun as Original Recipe, losing her again would be just too much to bear.
Plus, they already called Giles and told him to haul butt back to California. Nobody can imagine greeting him at the airport and saying “Um, there were parts missing so we shipped her back.”
Luckily, the refund policy on raising a dead friend has a time limit. Willow’s reading reveals that if they can keep the demon from killing Buffy for awhile . . . oops! They just told the demon, who’s camping within Xander now, that it needs to kill Buffy.
The demon zooms off to Chez Summers to see if it can do just that. It has only existed for a very short time, so it can be forgiven for not realizing how very much the odds are not in its favor. Even so, it has a good go at demoralizing Buffy by telling her she doesn’t belong in the real world anymore, that there’s no place for her. XandAnya and Dawn rush over to help with the fighting as WillTara buckle down to work on a spell to make the thing solid.
Once they do, she beheads it pretty handily.
So, hurrah! Right? As prices for a resurrection go, some lost sleep, a few scares, and another round of ‘clean the demon blood out of the bedroom carpet’ basically make for a steal of a deal.
Except, of course, we’re nowhere near the real price yet.
I wonder if S6 might not be, in a sense, the Year of the Decoy. “After Life” is meant to imply that the price of Buffy’s resurrection is this invented straw man of a ghostly monster. With it decapitated, we are invited to imagine that things will fall into their usual BtVS seasonal pattern. You know how it often goes: Buffy returns from wherever she’s been all summer, and then a bad guy comes to Sunnydale. The villain is temporarily backgrounded as the Scoobies develop and struggle with some more internal-to-them problem—like Faith, in S3, or their alienation from each other in S4.
Finally, there’s a renewed commitment within the group followed by a build-up to the big combat showdown.
There have been decoys aplenty on the show before: Spike and Drusilla appear to be the big bads in S2 for just long enough to hide the looming problem of Angelus, and in the following year Mr. Trick waltzes onstage to warm us up for meeting the Mayor. Even Glory is, in a sense, a bit of a decoy—the truly rotten apple in the S5 barrel is Ben, who sells out Dawn because he’s unable to resist the temptation to save himself.
I’m not saying that BtVS was locked in one predictable story arc. There were tons of variations and surprises. In S5, the team conflict is dialed down. After the big bonding that helped them defeat Adam, the Scoobies are all about finishing the process of incorporating Tara and Anya into the team—then expanding even further to include the far more problematic Spike and Dawn. But now in this sixth year, there’s all this sleight-of-hand meant to hide the fact that the world-ending evil of the season—the real threat—is truly homegrown.
But before that can happen, there are so many other days to be gotten through. Buffy starts hers by making lunch for Dawn, demonstrating her determination to return to the world of the normal for the sake of her loved ones. Especially the innocent loved one who didn’t yank her out of the afterlife.
In return, that innocent loved one tells her, without realizing it, what the Scoobies want from her. They want to see her being happy.
So Buffy immediately, dutifully, unenthusiastically goes to the Magic Box and delivers the validation and thank you that Willow in particular has been waiting for. She tells them she was in Hell (or a Hell) and that they pulled her out of there and she’s grateful.
She’s so lying.
She flees before they can question her sincerity or her facts, and finds Spike lurking outside. He heard the whole thing. He asks if there’s anything he can do to help her. Sometimes Spike is geniunely awesome. He would make a great mom.
Buffy tells him the truth. She was in Heaven, or something like it, and her friends jerked her out.
Damn, Spike. What do you say to that?
Next: And plus, she’s broke.
A.M. Dellamonica has tons of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second Gale, story too—“The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)