“Selfless,” by Drew Goddard
It’s another glorious morning in Sunnydale, and Dawn is briefing Willow on how to fit in at university as she unpacks some of her things. The message seems to be keep your head down and don’t make waves. Willow is taking it all on board very kindly. (What this advice says about Dawn and how things are going in high school, I’m not sure.)
Buffy and Xander, meanwhile, are worrying about Anya. Xander’s worry is that she’s sad. Buffy’s is more that she’s working her old vengeance gig. Oh no, says Xander. The thing with the worm-monster was totes an aberration.
Guess which one of them is right? Or don’t—no guessing is required. Across town, at a local fraternity, a whole bunch of guys are lying around with their hearts ripped out. Anya’s sitting in their midst, covered in blood, trying to figure out how she got there.
How did she? Apparently the answers lie way way back in the past, because we get a sepia filter and a shot of black-haired bunny-cuddling Anya. Here in ye days of olde, she was Aud and Olaf the Troll God was her sweetums, in a fractionally less trollish outfit. He’s shining her on in various ways, and asking her about the bunnies she’s been breeding. She has a jealous moment, over a barmaid, but he tells her she’s the only one for him. This is, apparently, all she wants to be. Bunny ranching is just a sideline.
Back in the present, she’s washing the blood off her hands. She’s not a happy little vengeance demon by any stretch. She can barely face herself in the bathroom mirror.
And speaking of identity crises, I bet you’re wondering how Spike’s doing. He’s verging on coherent, telling Buffy he’s seeing things, including Drusilla. She’s very sweet and kind and tells him they’ll get through it, because he’s different now. She even holds his hand.
But the handholding and kindness is all fake Buffy, a litany of what Spike wants to hear as interpreted by the First. When original Buffy shows up, it freaks him out pretty badly. She’s made her way downstairs to advise him to get out of the basement before the Hellmouth kills him or makes him insane. (Insaner.) But Spike has nowhere to go, so that conversation sputters to a pointless end.
Willow has, by now, made it to university, which by crazy random happenstance is where the Sunnydale fraternities are kept. She’s chatting up a professor who definitely wants her and her huge intellect back in class, distorting the bell curve and stirring up knowledge. Unfortunately for Anya, the two Scoobies run into each other. She’s fleeing the scene of the slaughter in a heavy raincoat and a cloud of guilt, you see.
Willow is bubbly and cheerful; Anya is furtive and disturbed. She claims to have a new boyfriend, but she didn’t do a great job of washing off the blood.
As soon as she excuses herself, Willow uses her big brain to draw the obvious conclusion, walks into the frat house and finds the crime scene decor and profusion of heartless bodies. I thought you wanted to stop being the one who finds the corpses on campus, honey.
She also finds Anya’s latest client, hiding in a closet in hysterics and trying to take it all back. She was dumped by her boyfriend, in front of all his friends. Feeling angry and humiliated, she wished all the laughing frat boys present could have their hearts ripped out. And, well. Blammo, presto, Anyanka. (This is what they say in the Buffyverse instead of “Alla peanut butter sandwiches.”)
The actual heart-ripping was performed by a spider demon, which duly appears and attacks Willow. One of the irrevocably cool bits in this episode—which is, on the whole, pretty great—follows when she holds it off. The wisher shrieks, and Dark Willow makes a brief bitchy appearance to bully her into silence.
From there we zoom back to the past, where Olaf the barmaid-wooing cheater is now Olaf the actual troll, protesting his humanity and getting himself stoned by angry villagers as Aud watches grimly. D’Hoffryn shows up to praise her magical prowess. She reveals that her habit of speaking her mind and taking everything literally is causing her problems with her peer group, here in ye past. It wasn’t just being a demon that made her such a kook, in other words. D’Hoffryn doesn’t care about her social skills or lack thereof: he’s there to recruit her to the vengeance fold. She’s only too keen to sign up. If she can’t be Mrs. Olaf, she might as well be the personification of scorned women, getting their own back.
Switch to Buffy, who’s being a little odd herself, in response to the time-honored pressure of boredom at work. She is, in fact, balancing pencils on her forehead until Willow calls to report the spider attack at the frat. Hooray, something fun to do! She summons Xander and they go after the beastie.
Anya had headed home after the fraternity killings, and now she’s debriefing with Hallie, who is over the moon about the death and mayhem. Her happiness over Anya’s slaughtery success is genuine, but it doesn’t take her long to notice that her friend is still guilt-stricken and grossed out. She tries to tell her she’ll get used to it, and maybe that would’ve gone somewhere... but then Willow shows up and evicts her.
Willow, it turns out, hasn’t told Buffy yet about the part where Anya summoned the spider. She’s there with good intentions, to help. The venging has to stop, she says. Anya blows her off.
Meanwhile in the Sunnydale woods—I’m betting they’re not far from where Warren met his yucktastic end—Buffy and Xander have weaponed up and gone after the spider-demon. Ooh, it’s bouncy! But it’s not fast enough to dodge a well-thrown flying axe. They head home to Willow, where the good news is they don’t have to crack the research books for hours on end and the bad news is Anya’s to blame for a dozen deaths in the frat, not to mention one unlucky spider victim in the woods.
According to the unwritten but reasonably clear law of the slay, Buffy should definitely now head out and kill Anya.
Back in history, we revisit another chaotic scene, another Halfreck-Anyaka post-vengeance tea party. This time, they appear to have caused the Russian Revolution. Hallie, ever the supportive friend, tells Anya she doesn’t have to be all work, work, work.
But Anya is a pure spirit of vengeance at this point—her work is her entire identity. It’s a nice simple life, unlike Buffy’s. The prospect of killing a friend offers no great joy to her. It’s making Xander deeply unhappy, too.
“When our friends go all crazy and start killing people, we help them!” he protests.
The fight almost gets ugly, as it tends to when BuffXander go anywhere near the topic of their love lives. Spike gets hashed up, Angel too. There’s a fantastic moment when Buffy throws Willow’s words about Angelus—“Kick his ass!” in their faces. Of course, this was Xander’s big lie. Willow remembers the quote as being something more like “Play for time and I’ll give you back your honey bunny!”
But they don’t pause there, so Xander skates again on that particular bit of mischief.
This fight isn’t as terrible as it would have been a few years earlier. The kids our Scoobies were have done some real growing. Xander challenges Buffy about her tendency to be emotionally cut off. In the past, she may have replied with a curt variation on “Because I said so!”, one that validated his whole point. Instead she argues that she has no choice: that being the Slayer does make her different from other justice fighters in some fundamental ways. Today, those ways include introducing Anya to something from the Mister Pointy collection.
Xander’s still in love with her, so he pleads that there has to be another way. Buffy gives him an opening: go find it, basically. And move fast. She’s not going to wait.
Willow declines to come along as Buffy swords up and goes Anya hunting. Then she remembers there is possibly something she can do to help: she goes to the laundry room to summon D’Hoffryn.
He’s all hopeful, for a second, that she’s there for a job of her very own. But no—having an evil episode (or two) and remembering how much it cost her, Willow is still trying to find a way to help Anya crawl back into the general vicinity of goodness, if not the Scooby fold.
Xander finds Anya guilting at the scene of the crime. To his surprise, she’s better with the idea of getting Slayed than he is. Buffy shows, Anya knocks Xander aside, fighting happens, and Buffy spears her.
I cannot help but think that everything that’s happened lately, with the worm guy and now the fraternity boys, is at least a half-assed attempt by Anya to commit suicide by mystically appointed cop. She doesn’t have to be living in Sunnydale anymore. Even if she occasionally had vengeance duties there, she could be on the other side of the world most of the time. Her apartment could be in Capetown, or Inuvik.
Now Buffy has come to kill her and the only thing she really does about it is get Xander out of the way.
She can’t think she’s going to win the fight. She has been around Team Slayer far too long for that. And she doesn’t even really want to. Sure, punching Buffy is fun. They’ve all wanted to do it at one point or another. But she’s far from filled with homicidal range.
And, as a bonus: the part of her that does still do revenge? Must know how horrible would it be for Xander if Buffy did in fact kill her.
In the next flashback, we’re in the midst of Sweet’s reign of Broadway in “Once More with Feeling.” Xander is asleep on a recliner while Anya tries to wake him. Then she sings! Unfortunately, she sings about how her universe is built around being Xander’s significant other. The pattern’s clear: first she was all about Olaf, then she was all about work, and now she’s getting her identity from planet Harris. We get a look at the wedding dress again. It’s so pretty! It’s also an emblem of misery from the past, a elegantly horrible reminder of “Hell’s Bells.”
The song cuts off abruptly. We see Anya, stuck to the wall with the sword through her chest.
But hey, swords through the chest don’t kill vengeance demons! This doesn’t stop Buffy from trying to finish the job, but Xander tackles her away.
Then D’Hoffryn interrupts. He asks what Anya wants, and she says she wants to take it back. “It” being the thing where all those frat boys got their hearts literally torn from their bodies by a not-so-itsy springy spider.
This he seems willing to do, surprisingly. Willow must have been way persuasive. But he reminds Anya that it’d take a sacrifice—the life and soul of a vengeance demon.
Anya agrees. See? She just wants to end it all, on some level. Kill me and restore the boys, she’s saying. Way to take responsibility for your actions! I cheer her! But don’t actually kill her, okay?
(You all know, right, that I adore Emma Caulfield and Anya?)
D’Hoffryn’s tricky: he summons Hallie, and zorches her instead. He gives Anya her virtual pink slip next, and when she says he should’ve killed her, he essentially says they’re all dead already. From Beneath You, It Devours, gang. Ex-demons, souled vampires, super-powerful witchy types and construction workers are all on the menu.
With this, the gathering breaks up.
Xander goes after Anya, but she doesn’t want him. In essence, she says she has to figure out who she is. She’s afraid she might be nobody, you see, and he replies that she’s a dope. They go their separate ways, Anya forcing herself to walk into the night without vengeance, without Xander, very much without Olaf—without anything but herself. Whoever that turns out to be.
Next: Team Spander versus the Quarterback
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth 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 of The Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)