Overhead, the stars glittered needle-sharp as a hooded figure trampled through the brush of a densely wooded area. Like a gray shade, she hurriedly covered the ground, almost indiscernible from the shadows cast by the tall trees. Nonetheless, she clearly felt vulnerable and at risk, constantly glancing over her shoulder. Her breath came in labored gasps as brittle twigs snapped beneath her sneakers, shattering the otherwise tranquil atmosphere. Crickets chirped a harsh warning at the unexpected intrusion, and in the distance, an owl hooted mournfully.
Tripping over a gnarled root, the girl tumbled to the forest floor. She lay still for a second, bringing trembling fingers to the nasty gash on her cheek caused by a trailing branch. Probably no more than 16 years of age, her face was pale beneath the moonlight. Scrambling to her feet, she continued her desperate journey, only to stumble again and find herself lurching headlong into a small ravine. Stifling a cry of pain, she gritted her teeth and pressed onward. Panting heavily, she murmured the same phrase over and over as she ran.
"Help me. Help me."
The words were whispered like a mantra and apparently lacking conscious thought. Yet they appeared to fuel her momentum and she repeated them without pause as her feet pounded the overgrown path.
Careful to avoid any further obstacles to her flight, the girl's pace quickened. She no longer glanced behind for fear it would slow her down. Focused solely ahead, she failed to notice the sign, barely visible above the tangled bushes, which read "Welcome to Trillium." Her breathing became increasingly ragged as her heart hammered relentlessly within her chest.
"There's no help for you. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. You're run down, falling out, your back's against the wall. It's just you and whatever little bit of nerve you've got left. So the question is ..." Willow's eyes narrowed and her upper lip formed a challenging curl. "Do you feel lucky, punk?"
In the living room of the Scoobies' house, a game of cards was in full swing. Seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the coffee table, Willow peered over her hand and fixed Dawn with a rough and steady gaze.
"'Do you feel lucky, punk'?" echoed Xander disbelievingly.
Willow frowned briefly in his direction. "Shh. I'm being intimidating."
Xander couldn't quite bring himself to overcome. "'Do you feel lucky, punk'?"
"What? I just ..." Willow flapped her hand in a random pattern. "There were words, and they wanted to come out. And, okay, a few points lost for originality, but- but boy, I betcha Dawn's a'quakin' in her boots now." She looked hopefully in Dawn's direction.
"Quaking," confirmed Dawn affably. "Totally. At least a 7.3."
"Oh, peanut brittle," Willow muttered, shoulders slumping in defeat.
Piles of mini-chocolate chip cookies, variable in number, littered the surface of the coffee table. Willow's heap was moderately respectable, but Xander's stash had become sadly depleted, with perhaps a dozen or so remaining at best. The undeniable big winner of the evening, however, was obviously Dawn. A virtual mountain of the tiny goodies sat next to her cards, which were laying facedown on the table and covered by her protective hand.
Sitting on the couch behind Willow, Tara nodded sagely. "Dawnie's just that hardcore." The expression sounded strange as it rolled off Tara's tongue, and prompted a confused yet entertained look from Willow.
"She's a little shark, is what she is," Xander complained bitterly as he tossed his cards onto the table. "I think Miami John Cernuto had a day job as one of those monks that made her."
Dawn smiled. It enigmatic, but still managed to convey a modicum of pride and an overabundance of self-satisfaction.
"You out with me, Xander?" asked Tara.
Xander eyed his meager cache of cookies. "Enjoy cookie goodness, lose cookie goodness," he pondered, weighing his limited options. "I'm thinking no contest."
Scooping up the remaining stack, he quickly popped two of the cookies into his mouth and then flipped one in Tara's direction. She stretched out a hand to catch it, but Willow executed a deft interception, snapping it between her teeth.
"Why you ..." Throwing her arms around Willow's neck, Tara began to shake the redhead from side to side. "Cookie thief!" she accused.
Willow sighed heavily as she crunched. "Snuggles from a beautiful woman? However will I survive such punishment?" As the swaying began to subside, she leaned contentedly into Tara's arms and looked up at the blonde with a wicked twinkle. "The urge to steal is rising. You'd better keep disciplining me, just in case."
At Tara's raised eyebrow, Willow held aloft a cookie from her own hoard by way of compensation. Grinning to see the instantly opened mouth, Willow dutifully complied.
Dawn drummed impatiently upon her cards. "Hey! I'm winning over here! C'mon Willow, in or out?"
"I'm thinking," responded Willow, continuing to gaze at Tara.
"I bet," Dawn grumbled.
Sorrowfully, Xander glanced at the smattering of crumbs that now claimed the space formerly occupied by his cookies. His eye drifted to a small supply at the far end of the table. Furtively, he glanced toward the kitchen.
"Buffy better get back soon, or I declare her winnings forfeit," he announced with all due officialdom, fingers snaking toward the abandoned harvest.
A blonde head, cell phone glued to one ear, appeared at the entrance to the living room. "Touch them, and never eat again."
Xander promptly retracted his hand as Buffy disappeared back into the kitchen.
"How'd you get to be so good at poker anyway?" asked Willow suspiciously, refocusing on Dawn.
"Spike," Dawn relayed cheerfully. "The summer when Buffy was ... wasn't here. There were lots of card games."
"And his legacy lives on," said Xander.
Nibbling at her bottom lip, Willow examined her cards and then glanced at her opponent. Dawn's expression was inscrutable. Sliding several cookies toward the center of the table, Willow added her stake to the small pile already there.
"I'll see your four, and raise you four."
"You're a woman of derring-do, Will," stated Xander approvingly.
Picking up her cards, Dawn fanned them and carefully scrutinized her hand. There was a fleeting glimmer of concern, but it was abruptly squelched and then the mask of neutrality slid smoothly back into place.
"Everything okay, Buffy?" Tara called, glancing toward the kitchen.
A hand appeared at the entrance forming an 'okay' sign.
Dawn added more cookies to the pot. "Raise four."
"Glad we got out when we did," Xander noted to Tara.
She agreed wholeheartedly. "Cookie Poker – rough game."
"An' only gettin' rougher," announced Willow as she matched Dawn's bet. "I call," she declared firmly, laying down her cards. "Read 'em and weep, bucko."
She smirked victoriously while Xander and Tara could only blink at the two pair she'd just laid on the table.
"Uhm, Will...?" murmured Tara hesitantly.
Xander had no such hesitations. "You do know that sucks, right?"
"It doesn't have to!" protested Willow. "Not if I'm right, and Dawnie has—"
With agonizing slowness, Dawn deliberately spread out her hand. It was a straight flush. With a smile that was smug and yet irritatingly sweet, she swept the spoils toward her.
"No! No, uh-uh!" protested Willow with wide eyes. She jabbed an accusing finger at Dawn. "You had Worried Face! I saw it! It was there, all Worried and everything!"
"Hel-lo, it's called 'bluffing'?" Dawn informed, neatly stacking her winnings.
Willow turned to Buffy, now taking her seat on the floor, phone no longer clamped to her ear.
"Buffy, your sister's being ..." Willow struggled indignantly for the most appropriate description. "Conniving a-and downright underhanded!"
"Welcome to my world," responded Buffy without a drop of sympathy. "I've been telling everyone for, oh, about 18 years now that you can't trust her. Sure, she's all sweet and innocent on the outside ..." Buffy considered that proposition for a moment. "Well, not really," she continued with a shrug. "But it's the stuff on the inside that'll get you every time."
"So says the Queen of the Painfully Obvious Pout," Dawn said matter-of-factly.
Almost immediately, Buffy pouted and emitted a tiny wounded sound, pointedly ignoring Dawn's 'see?' gesture transmitted to the room in general.
"Your deal," prompted Willow, placing the deck at Buffy's elbow. Picking up the cards, Buffy began to shuffle.
"All's well on Slayer duty?" asked Xander, feeling around beneath the table for any wayward cookies.
"Lynn gives the verbal thumbs up."
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Tara assured with a smile.
Buffy nodded. "Me too."
"We could tell," added Willow wryly. "What with the you calling every ten minutes."
"I'm just checking in," defended Buffy. "This is Lynn's first time out with a group all her own and ... and it's rough out there."
Dawn rapped her knuckles on the tabletop. "It's about to get rough in here too, if you don't ante up."
"'Ante up'?" Buffy repeated incredulously. "Where are we, the old west?"
"It's Spike's fault," Xander happily pointed out.
Buffy was skeptical. "I'm fairly certain Spike never once used the phrase 'ante up'."
"Would you deal already?" insisted Dawn.
"Maybe I like holding all the cards."
Dawn simply continued to stare flatly at her sister.
"Fine," acceded Buffy as the dealt cards skidded across the surface of the table. "We'll play it your way."