Rushing. In the week since Brian had buckled on her new cuff, it had become almost normal for Tara. She rushed to class. She rushed to the library to complete homework for college classes and Dominant training with Trish. She rushed to additional Dominant training sessions with The Trio, as she'd begun calling them.

And right now, Tara was rushing for a lesson with Brian. A lesson with a live submissive.

If she hadn't been in such a hurry, that thought might have scared her right out of town. There just wasn't enough time for a really good fit of the vapors, though. Tara spared only a second to acknowledge the anxious cramping in her stomach as she entered Top of the World, one of the few Sunnydale clubs.

"ID?" The bouncer stopped her headlong rush just inside the door.

Right. Tara fumbled in her backpack for a minute before brandishing her driver's license. She stood mostly still as the man carefully held the laminated plastic card up near her head and visually matched it to her face. Good luck, she thought. The photo was so bad; she looked like a strung out vampire.

Apparently, his eyesight was better than Tara's. That or vampires were welcome inside. He placed an "under-21" stamp on her left hand. "Have a good evening, Ma'am."

"Thank you." The urge to turn tail and run ballooned. Tara was short of breath just walking toward the dance floor and play space. Brian had emailed her earlier to say he would reserve a table in a secluded corner of the main floor. Consciously slowing her breathing, Tara forced shaking legs to carry her toward the smattering of tables. Faux candlelight shone in ornate brass holders mounted on the wall and soft music played in the background.

"Tara! I'm glad you made it," Brian said as if they were meeting at the Pump for coffee. He was dressed in shorts, T-shirt, and flip flops. The quintessential California Golden Boy.

Tara responded to his relaxed attitude and attire immediately. She'd been expecting more traditional club clothing. Seeing Brian in tight leather might have pushed her over the edge – and right out the door. "Sorry I'm late."

"We've been keeping you busy. I thought you might be running behind." Pulling a chair away from the table, he helped her sit down. "If you're ready, though, I'd like to get started. I want you to have plenty of time for your practicum."

"OK." Tara's anxiety returned.

Brian paused and waited until she nodded for him to continue. "Trish and I have been talking." That didn't bode well. "You're probably not going to like what I have to say." Tara stared longingly over his shoulder at the door. "You spend too much time learning and not enough doing. If you were ten and needed us to teach you the basics, book work and theory would be fine. But you're not, Tara. You're eighteen. The longer you listen to us lecture, the more you worry about whether you can actually do any of the things you learn."

He was a mind reader, and Tara almost regretted telling Trish's friends an edited version of her past. "I…"

Interrupting, Brian said, "Dominance isn't a science. It's not about understanding a rigid set of rules or laws. It's about observation and feeling. It's about learning what your partner wants and needs and helping them find it. And you can't learn that from a book, Tara. You learn that by talking. And listening. Not with me and Trish. With a submissive."

Gentle hands turned Tara in her chair until she faced one particular conversation nook. The Sub Station. Every club had one. A place for submissives to gather.

A place for Dominants to cruise for companionship.

"I can't do that." Tara's stomach threatened to revolt. She couldn't just walk up to the group scattered through the Sub Station and pick one up for the evening.

"You can. You have to. Tonight. Now." Brian was uncompromising. "Don't be afraid of your Dominance, Tara."

His words were an eerie echo of Althenea's warning. Goddess, Tara couldn't let fear keep her frozen any longer. She reluctantly turned her attention to the four women and two men chatting and laughing across the room. One of them noticed her watching. He ducked his head, dropping his eyes for an instant before peering at her through his lashes.

"Go on. Go talk to him," Brian urged.

Tara stood and moved woodenly across the floor. This felt all wrong. Not only wasn't she ready, but she was bonded. It didn't matter that the bond wasn't complete or that she'd never held a conversation with her submissive. She kept walking, though. Brian was right; she was afraid. If she didn't act now, the fear would win.

The rest of the submissives had turned to watch her approach, and Tara glanced away. Meat market, much? That's when she noticed another submissive slouched in the far corner of a couch, nearly hidden by the high arm. She automatically changed course.

"May I join you?" Tara asked the pretty brunette submissive.

Without glancing up, the woman muttered a sullen, "I guess."

It wasn't the response Tara expected. However, she suspected it was an honest response. Sinking into the soft cushions nearby, Tara sighed and closed her eyes. "Thank you. It's been a long day," she said as if the submissive had welcomed her company.

Tara felt the other woman shift on the couch. "Do you want…I could get you a drink?" The question was reluctantly offered, a nod to convention rather than a desire to serve.

Opening her eyes, Tara turned and caught the submissive watching her. So many things were wrong with this scene, with the submissive's behavior. Should she say something? Examining the woman, Tara noticed her tension. Her posture was so stiff, it appeared she might break. Her hands were fisted in her lap. And, as Tara completed her perusal, the woman's chin raised almost defiantly.

She clearly expected Tara to call her out. Why? Shelving that for later consideration, Tara confronted a more immediate issue: the submissive didn't seem to want Tara to get angry with her behavior. If that was the case, why was she even in the club? It was a mystery Tara suddenly needed to solve. "That would be wonderful, sweetie. Just water, please," she requested.

Tara kept her attention on the woman while she walked to the bar. It was a good thing. She received several furtive glances. Obviously, the submissive didn't trust Tara's interest. Someone had clearly betrayed her in the past. Tara kept her gaze sure and steady, never glancing away. She wasn't going to desert the poor sub, and she hoped her expression conveyed that.

What could be better? A reluctant Dominant and her reluctant submissive. Brian and Trish were going to pay for this. Somehow. Some way.

When the submissive returned with a bottled water, Tara took a deep breath. It was time to stop hiding. She had a submissive who needed something from her; Tara simply had to discover what that was. To that end, Tara didn't reach for the bottle the woman held out for her. She raised a single eyebrow in a gesture she'd seen Trish use and then glanced at the floor next to her feet.

She and the woman were not equals. There were protocols that should be observed. The sub had the right to refuse, of course. She and Tara weren't bonded. However, Tara needed to see how the woman would react.

The bottle wavered in the air as the submissive recoiled. Tara didn't say anything. In fact, she didn't even react to the refusal to obey. She simply met the woman's eyes and…waited. Waited as if obedience were a given. Of course the submissive would kneel at her silent command. Tara was a Dominant; she expected – and would get – nothing less.

Tara's tactic worked. After a momentary hesitation, the submissive dropped to her knees next to Tara. "Your water, Ma'am."

An electric spark of accomplishment lit Tara's emotions. She'd done it. She'd actually given a command and been obeyed. More than that, it was the first time she'd earned the honorific rather than received it because of her marker.

"Thank you, sweetie." Tara took the bottle and set it on the end table. She hadn't really wanted a drink. "What's your name, pretty one?" Setting her fingers under the woman's chin, she raised it slightly so she could watch the submissive's expression.

The touch also allowed Tara to feel the lingering tension in the submissive's body. "Mari, Ma'am."

Releasing Mari's chin, Tara gently stroked over her neck and shoulder. Soft strokes meant to soothe and relax rather than arouse. Tara didn't speak. Not yet. Mari wasn't ready for that. Little by little, the sounds from the club faded into the background. Tara forgot the other people wandering by or watching from the other tables or couches. Her world had narrowed to Mari. Mari's soft skin, her expressive eyes – and the tension slowly dropping away under Tara's hands.

Tara knew it was time to move forward when Mari released a deep sigh and her body finally settled comfortably into position. Pulling the submissive closer, she encouraged Mari to lean into her leg and cupped the back of her neck. "Tell me what's wrong, sweetie."

Faith knew she wasn't alone in the House. A familiar tingle traced along her skin. Each step closer to the second floor and the gym increased the buzz as well as Faith apprehension. This could go one of two ways: Faith would end the night as a corpse or she would walk away with nothing more than the usual bumps and bruises.

The equipment had been pushed against the walls and mats covered the wood floors in the darkened gym. "Hey, B. Thought you and Xander were honeymooning or whatever," Faith said to Buffy, who continued her stretching routine on the mats without looking up.

"We're waiting until after the latest Big Bad is gone." Buffy leaned forward and pressed her face against her outstretched legs. Her hands gripped the bottoms of her feet, pulling her upper body more fully into the stretch.

"Big Bad?" Faith pulled off her boots and exchanged them for a pair of martial arts shoes from the shoe rack by the door. Maybe she'd been wrong. Maybe there was Option Three for the evening. Maybe she and Buffy would hit the streets for a joint patrol. Option Three was Faith's choice.

Buffy didn't answer until she'd completed her stretch. "Let's spar first." Rolling backward, she tucked into a somersault and came to her feet. Faith never even saw the first punch. Or the four that followed.

She staggered backward and crashed into a weight bench. "B…" Buffy hit her again, cutting off her comment. Shit. Was Buffy going to finish the job she'd started the week before when she'd found out about Faith and Xander. A kernel of self-preservation pushed Faith to her feet. Partially blocking Buffy's next blow, Faith managed to strike back.

They weren't sparring. This was an all-out brawl. Blood dripped into Faith's eye from a cut on her forehead. She swiped at it and ducked under a wild haymaker. The move left Buffy vulnerable; Faith used it to her advantage. Slamming her shoulder into the ribs under Buffy's outstretched arm, Faith drove her back into the mirror on the far wall.

Glass rained down around them.

"Good. Fight back," Buffy snarled. "It's no fun beating someone who just lays there."

"Look again, B." Faith was way past "laying there" for Buffy to beat on. "I've got you all wrapped up. Guess I'll be doing the beating." It was about time, too. With a grin of anticipation, she reared back and ploughed her right fist into Buffy's face.

Or…that was the plan. Buffy somehow escaped Faith's hold, and Faith's hand crashed through the mirror and lodged in the drywall behind. "Son of a bitch!" Now Faith was pissed. How did Buffy do that? Yanking her hand free, she spun – right into a brutal upper cut. Her head snapped back.

It was like fighting a ghost. Casper, the not-so-friendly ghost, with a wicked right hook. Faith did her best. She landed a few punches and kicks. Got in one really good knee shot that might have broken a few of Buffy's ribs. But she was definitely losing. Her left eye was swollen shut; her right ankle kept buckling after Buffy kicked it out from under her. There were glass shards embedded in her right hand and wrist from the mirror.

Faith refused to give up, though. Scrambling around the gym, she ducked and blocked when she could. Hit back when she saw an opening. Unfortunately, Faith didn't have a chance. Buffy overpowered her at every turn. Faith went down for the last time as Buffy unleashed a reverse crescent kick that caught Faith in the temple.

Her vision filled with black and gray dots, and the room swam. Faith barely felt the floor as she crashed down.

Buffy straddled her, hands on either side of Faith's head. "If you so much as look at Xander, you'll regret it. This will be like a sparring session with Giles; do you understand?"

"I didn't…did you…talk to Xan?" Faith mumbled. It hurt to move her jaw.

"Oh, I did, Faith. I talked to Xander for hours, and he told me everything." Leaning closer, Buffy stared into Faith's eyes. "He told me that you were trying to help him. That you did help him. It's the only reason I took it easy on you tonight."

Holy fuck! Buffy hadn't gone all out? Faith didn't want to think of what the fight might have been like if she had. "Got it, B. Xander's off limits. I won't even think about touching him."

"Then we're done." Buffy hopped up and held out a hand. "Get cleaned up. You're covered in blood and then come up to Giles' office. He's got information on some weird, sword-carrying vamp I met on patrol last night."