Rating: PG-13, for violence and disturbing imagery.
Summary: A peculiar lady tells a story to a little girl on a train.
Disclaimer: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and its characters are the creations of Joss Whedon and the property of Fox Television.
This story is set just prior to the events of "Crush" in Season 5.
Special thanks to Dr. Tamwe for editorial assistance and general encouragement.
"Mommy?" she said, barely able to speak because she was still waking up. "Are we almost there?"
"Shhh," a voice whispered. It wasn't mommy.
"Mummy's sleeping. We mustn't wake her, or the lampposts will go hopping off and not show us the way home."
The girl opened her eyes. It was dark on the train, but she could see a strange, dark-haired lady sitting across from her, next to the girl's mother. Her mother did indeed seem to be asleep, though her head was hanging to the side, and it looked like her eyes were open a little.
The girl was still scared from her dream, so she was glad there was someone there to talk to, even if it was a stranger. "You talk funny," the girl said to the lady. "Like Mary Poppins."
"I'm from far away and long ago," the lady said dreamily. "I travel all over the world and eat lots of interesting people."
"You don't EAT people, you MEET people," the girl said. She wasn't sure if the lady was really dumb or just teasing.
"I'm forever getting them confused," the lady responded, putting her fingers to her temples. "Your mum had an iced cappuccino, and now my brain's all dashy."
The girl giggled. What the lady said didn't make sense, but it was kind of funny.
The lady dropped her hands into her lap. "Shall I tell you a story?" she offered.
"Mmmhmm," the girl replied. She liked stories. She clambered up onto her seat with her legs crossed and looked at the lady intently.
"Well, then," the lady said, leaning towards the girl and lowering her voice a bit. "Once upon a time, there were two great, golden lions who lived in the dark jungle."
"My teacher says lions live in the grasslands," the little girl said helpfully.
"Shush," the lady said with a warning look, "or there will be no treats."
The girl shut her mouth. Not for the promise of treats, but because it suddenly seemed like a good idea not to make the lady mad.
"These lions," the lady went on, "were the king and queen of the jungle. They lived where they wanted, did what they wanted, ate what they wanted. They drank the hot blood of the antelope, all thick and panicky and sweet, like curry. They loved each other and ruled the jungle side by side, and even the bees feared them."
"But cruel Fate hated the lions. She hated how happy they were, and she especially hated their love, for no one loved old nasty Fate, with her scrapey voice and her frozen eyes.
"So Fate sent monkeys swarming over the grass and the trees and the anthills, and they caught the lion and put a piece of ice inside his head. The ice was so cold that it burned the lion's brain, especially when he roared or bit or did any of the things lions do.
"Then the monkeys, who were clever and stupid and capery, tried to teach the lion to be a monkey. They made him dance and jump and screech, even though he couldn't be any good at it, because he wasn't really a monkey. Then they threw coconuts at him and made him live in a cave, and they never ever took the piece of ice out of his head, even though it burnt him every day."
"That's awful," the little girl blurted.
Quick as lightning, the lady grabbed the girl's forearm and gripped it tight. "No!" the lady hissed. "He was a lion. He could have borne it. He could have borne anything!"
The girl's eyes went wide with fear, but the lady kept talking. "No, the awful thing was that, after a long, long time, the lion began to BELIEVE he was a monkey."
The lady's voice became shaky, and though it was dark on the train, the girl could see that the lady was starting to cry. "And now he's so confused," she sobbed, "and the fire in his chest that was so strong and bright gets a little fainter every day, like dead firefly juice between your fingers. And I have to help him, before it goes out, and he turns to ashes, and makes the floor all dirty..."
The woman broke down, weeping pitifully and gripping the little girl like a doll in her incredibly strong arms. Frightened, the little girl let the lady hold onto her.
Eventually the crying slowed down. The lady released her crushing grip on the little girl and fell back in her seat.
"But I have to be strong," the lady said, wiping her eyes. "He needs me to be strong for him, so I can help him be a lion again."
The lady opened her bag and took out a doll, which she showed to the little girl. The doll looked old, and it had on a frilly white dress.
"This is Miss Edith," the lady said. "I have to leave her so I can help my lion. Will you be her friend?"
"OK," the little girl whimpered. She didn't really want the old doll, but she was scared not to take it.
"Here, I'll put her up above." The lady stood up and reached upward to put the doll in the overhead luggage rack. "She'll watch over you, like your angel."
Then the lady got an odd look on her face and lowered the doll back down again. "But you won't do," the lady said, looking down at the little girl. She shook the doll back and forth a few times, making its limbs flail loosely. "Miss Edith is a floppy girl."
The lady knelt down so that she was eye level with the little girl, then took
the girl's face in her hands. The girl felt very, very scared.
The lady wrenched her hands to the side. There was a wet cracking sound.
"There," the lady said, putting Miss Edith back up on her perch and laying the little girl's limp body on the seat below. "Now you're like sisters."
The lady began humming happily to herself. Now that Miss Edith had a friend to look after her, the lady could be the lioness to her lion. She could help him, make him chase and kill and roar, make him her mate again. And if anyone got in her way...
Miss Edith could always use more friends.