Author's note: Warmest thanks to Djinn and Rabble Rouser for beta and brainstorming. All credit to them, all blame to me. Happy Easter, everyone.
Copyright © 2002 Kathleen Dailey. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the author. This is an amateur nonprofit work, and is not intended to infringe on copyrights held by Mutant Enemy, Paramount, Renaissance Pictures, 1013 Productions, Comedy Partners, or any other lawful holder.
"Pardon me. Is this seat taken?"
She looks up, does a quick head-to-toe scan. No ping on the Slayer radar. Or at least no demon ping, which is odd because, well, big pointy ears. And maybe it's just the sickly cafeteria lighting, but she could swear there's greenness going on too. Still, nice voice and good manners. And unlike some of the others in the support group, he doesn't smell like death warmed, literally, over. He's clean and neatly dressed, someone's kindly grandpa who probably wandered into his garden, absentmindedly picked some zombie voodoo paralytic plant instead of camomile for his tea, and then woke up to find that his relatives had jumped the gun. Old, harmless, polite, and anyway it's time she started relating to her fellow mortals, just like their teacher's been telling them to do.
"Nope," she says. "Help yourself."
He does. Stirs spoonfuls of sugar into his styrofoam coffee, adds about half a dozen containers of petroleum-byproduct whitener. She looks away from the result. He doesn't seem too thrilled with it himself. "I normally drink herbal tea," he says by way of apology for the mess.
"I figured. So what do you think of the class?"
"I am pleased with our teacher. He appears to know his subject matter, and his pedagogical method has much to recommend it."
"Yeah, Joshua is a good guy." From here she can just see their teacher sitting over in the corner of the caf, all bearded and sandaled and hippie-dippie, surrounded by the usual dozen or so groupies. "I like the way he makes a point by telling stories. Did you try the fish fingers he brought for break? They're yummy."
"I am a vegetarian," the old man says. "I ate only the bread he offered."
"Oh. Well, there's plenty more where that came from. You live around here?"
"No. I had hoped that the group might convene somewhat closer to my home, but it seems that many of the members live within commuting distance of Sunnydale." He sips from his cup, grimaces slightly, sets it down. "The convenience of the many, I suppose."
No demon ping, no vamp ping, but there's definitely something otherworldly about the old dude, even by Sunnydale standards and even given all the givens. "If you don't mind me asking," she says, "how did you end up here?"
Another sip, another grimace. "My friends brought me back to life against my will. You?"
"Same here. How'd it happen?"
"I committed a selfless act."
"A selfless act," she says, and mostly succeeds in keeping the bitterness out of her voice. "That'll do it, all right. I jumped off a tower to save the world."
"I succumbed to radiation poisoning. I was attempting to keep the galaxy safe. Or at least this local segment of the Orion arm."
"My friends thought I was in hell," she says, looking down at her hands. Sky-blue nail polish. Skin all nice and lanolin-smoothed. "But I was--the thing is, I know they meant well. They risked a lot to bring me back. I should feel grateful. Joshua says I have to do more work on that."
"One would hope that dying to save others would earn one a peaceful, contemplative afterlife."
"Yeah, one would hope. I guess your friends meant well, too."
"Between my friends and my father and a moment of astonishingly bad judgment on my part"--he studies his own wrinkly hands--"well, let us say that garbled messages were sent and received, and an undesired result was attained. Like you, I am here to 'work on' my ingratitude."
"Do you think this group will help? I mean, Joshua is a great teacher and all, but the others. Have you seen some of them?"
"Yes. I cannot say that they are all exemplars of altruism, but I found the dark-haired woman from Thrace quite charming."
"The tall one with the boots and the leather mini? I've been meaning to ask her where she buys her clothes."
"She informed me that she and her friend have a special bond with our teacher. Evidently they knew him in India by another name."
"Huh. Well, have you met that little kid in the orange snowsuit who smells like he's died about a thousand times? Can you even understand a single word he says? And I tried talking to the man who sits in front of me--the FBI agent? He said he was eaten by some shaman and then, like, vomited back to life or something. How weird is that?"
Grandpa arches an eyebrow, thinks for a minute. "I should say it falls almost exactly at the median point on an objective scale of weirdness."
"So what about your friends? The ones who brought you back, I mean. Are they in rehab?"
"The man who orchestrated the rescue mission is in the classroom next door. He is attending the Enablers and Controllers group."
"Really? So's my friend who did the reanimation spell. She's in two or three self-help groups here, actually. My other friend signed up yesterday for the Commitment-Phobics group. And my little sister's just down the hall in Kleptos Anonymous."
"I once had a half-brother." The old man frowns into the sludge of his styrofoam cup. "Odd, now that I think of it--it seems that he came into my life rather suddenly. In fact, he appeared one day out of nowhere."
"Tell me about it. You're just minding your own business and then suddenly there's this person who says they're your sib, and they're all 'you're not the boss of me,' and 'you don't know how to have fun.'"
He nods in grave sympathy. "Most unnerving."
"You know what's even worse? When one of your friends is split into two versions of himself!"
"Agreed. I am hard-pressed to say which experience is the more disconcerting." He makes a final half-hearted attempt on the science experiment in the styrofoam cup, then pushes it away.
"Finished with your coffee? We can go back into the classroom if you want."
The old man opens his notebook to a page covered in yellow highlighting. "Before we go, may I ask--were you able to answer question four?"
"The one about developing healthy romantic relationships? Not really. Not such a great track record in that department. If you know what I mean." There's a smidgen of eww in talking about this stuff with the geezer, but then again there's also something reassuringly Gilesish about him--all baggy and bookish-looking and long past It, comfortable and unthreatening. "Bad choices, I guess you could say."
"I cannot point with pride to my own history in that respect. I too have made some unwise choices. I was betrayed by my first love, and I have even--I regret to say that I once fraternized with the enemy."
"On second thought, let's talk about something else."
"Perhaps we should just say that we will try to do better in the future. That should take care of most of the challenges we are likely to face." He glances down at his notebook. "Our next lesson is entitled 'Mustard Seeds and Moving Mountains.' It must have to do with herb gardening and demolition engineering, though I confess I cannot see the connection. Shall we return to class? Tardiness would be a sign of disrespect for our teacher."
"Not to worry," she says, getting to her feet. "Joshua's an easy-going guy. I think he's probably the forgiving type."
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© 2002 Kathleen Dailey. All rights reserved.