Author: Tim Knight

Title: College Blues (Or, A Witch's Guide To Higher Education)

Copyright: December 2001

Rating: PG (fight scenes)

Spoilers:

Buffy:
Season 2 until Phases.
Specific Episodes: Season 4 and beyond.

Highlander:
Season 5 until Season finale.
Richie Ryan lives.

Keywords: Buffy/ Highlander.

Summary: A young woman arrives in Sunnydale and reflects on her impending college education. Of course, you know what happens to daydreamers in Sunnydale..... they get bailed out by one of our beloved heroes.

Legalese: All characters except those noted below with their respective rights, properties, and copyrights are the property of the respective creators, authors, owners, producers and agencies. These characters are used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended or meant, and no money will be made from this story. This story may be copied in its entirety, and may be distributed as long as all copyright information remains.

The characters Steven St. Wolf, Marc La Chevalier, Charlie, Randi Jessup, and Brian Jessup are property of Steve Pantovich, as is the universe in which this story takes place. Steve can be contacted at steve711@concentric.net.

The concept of VAN is owned by Harvey

Author's Notes: This story takes place in mid-August 1999, between Bidding For Your Business and Dating Blues 3.


College Blues

Prologue: Welcome To Sunnydale
(Home Of The Sunnydale National Forest, California�s Best High School Burritos, Two Local Colleges, And. . .
Oh Yeah, Its Own Doorway To Hell)

City Limits
Sunnydale, California
19 August 1999

"Ladies and gentlemen," the bus driver announced over the vehicle�s speakers, "we are now entering Sunnydale. We should be arriving at the bus depot in about fifteen minutes. For those of you continuing on to Los Angeles and San Diego, we will have a forty-five minute layover for routine maintenance. Thank you for your patience."

Most of the passengers accepted the announcement with a shrug or no reaction at all. Two of three, in contrast, sat up straighter and gathered their portable belongings or prepare to get off the Greyhound at the earliest opportunity.

One rider, however, just watched the trees zing by in the darkness. She caught a glimpse of the sign as the bus�s headlights illuminated the large wooden board. <Welcome to Sunnydale,> she read off the sign denoting the city limits. <Enjoy your stay.>

She hoped it was a good omen.

The young blonde-haired woman leaned her head back against the seat and thought about the events that had led to her arrival in this town over two thousand miles from the only life she�d ever known, and her own reasons for leaving.

*****

Part 1: College Bound
(I Know How John Boy Feels; I Had FOUR Sisters Bugging Me For Rides ALL The Time)

Maclay Residence
Morristown, Georgia
15 August 1999

Tara watched through her bedroom window as her father pulled out of the driveway, heading for work. She waited until she was sure that he hadn�t forgotten anything that would force him to return before she could enact her plan. After thirty minutes, she knew she was in the clear for at least six hours. The eighteen-year-old woman sent up a silent prayer to whatever Gods had smiled upon her. She turned from the window and walked to her closet. After opening it, she paused to glance at her watch.

<Three hours,> she thought. Tara felt a rush of emotions; the bus would leave in three hours, five hours before her father would return home from work. That would give her, if fortune continued to smile upon her, a head start before he would realize she wasn�t coming home. <I�m sorry, Dad, but I just can�t live here anymore. I have so much I want to see and do, and I can�t do that in Morristown, or under your thumb. Not with the way things are. And not�not without Mom or Grandma.>

She hastily tossed her clothes in her suitcase; she didn�t have much. She then went to the bookshelf and removed the small collection of special books she�d inherited from her mother. The woman had passed away when Tara was very young, but the Maclay female had inherited both her mother�s gift and curse. Passing a hand over some of the spines, Tara packed them in the old suitcase as well. She locked it with a double "click" of the latches.

Taking a deep breath to steel her nerves, Tara gripped the handle of the suitcase and left the bedroom for what she hoped would be the last time.

*****

Tara knocked on her brother�s door. The door opened and a lanky, redheaded boy two years older than she stared at her. Billy looked amused at her as usual.

"Yeah, whaddya want?" he asked, scratching his head.

"I-I-I�" Tara began, trying not to break out of her course, "I need a ride into town. Can you take me? I couldn�t catch Dad before he left."

"Awwww, c�mon, Tara," Billy groaned loudly. "I got better stuff to do than drag you around pickin� up your stupid witchy stuff. Ya know how Dad feels about that."

"No�no, Billy. I don�t need ingredients," the young Wicca told him. She ran a hand through her long blonde hair. "I�I need to buy some new clothes. Some of my stuff is just worn out."

Billy stared at her in suspicion. "No stupid stuff, like toads, newts, or fairy dust?"

"A shirt, some jeans, and maybe a dress," Tara archly informed him. <I have enough spare money for that to make it look real.> "And I know you can check out the new racing magazines."

She knew that she was close to convincing him, so she offered more bait. "And I have enough to treat you to lunch at Big Jake�s."

He smirked at her, obviously thinking he�d just gotten the better of his "stupid little sister." Tara fought down a smile as he told her to let him get dressed. She went downstairs, grabbed the keys to his car, and rushed outside to throw her hidden suitcase in the trunk before he saw it.

*****

Big Jake�s Diner
Morristown, Georgia
15 August 1999

Tara chewed her bottom lip as Billy pulled their car into the parking space. She avoided looking at her watch. Knowing that she had slightly less than thirty minutes before the bus left, she was cutting it close.

She looked to her older brother and gave him a forced smile. "Thanks for bringing me, Billy."

He snorted and she knew why; she�d taken two whole hours to pick out just two summer dresses and a pair of clogs. Tara just ignored him and thought about the plan she�d begun last fall.

The young witch, wanting to escape the oppressive nature of her family, had secretly used her father�s computer to search the Internet for possible options for continuing her education after high school, something that Mr. Maclay would never have permitted, had she asked him directly.

Tara had been overjoyed to find that several colleges across the country accepted applications through the Internet. Tara had then secretly gone to the Post Office, where she had purchased a private post office box, a bargain at only twenty dollars for six months. She had sent out a number of applications, both over the Net and through the postal service. On the same rainy day in March, she had received the letters she�d been praying for; an acceptance letter from a college and the stunning bonus; the approval for an academic scholarship for less fortunate students funded by an international charity organization called VAN, Ltd., which provided millions of dollars of aid across the globe.

Tara smiled as she remembered the way she had clutched the letters to her chest, one accepting her to the Sunnydale branch of the University of California, the other being the proof of her fully paid scholarship. She had locked herself in her room for hours, just staring at the letters that would let her escape this dismal life. She had money she�d been saving for years, so she knew she could buy a bus ticket when the time came.

<And now the time�s come,> she thought, determined to see this through. <I love you, Dad, I do. But I just can�t do it, not like it happened to Mom. And I can�t let it control my life. When I turn twenty, I�ll deal with it.> A thought crossed her mind. <Maybe I�ll find a way to deal with it before then. Maybe� but I can�t do that here. I want a life of my own. I�m sorry.>

"Well, are you buying me lunch or not?" Billy demanded. "I swear, ya make me drag ya all the way out here, y�all better keep your promise, Tara. Ya know what�ll happen if ya lie, don�t ya? In two years�"

"I k-k-know, Billy," Tara said, her stutter coming forward as it did when the notoriously shy girl was nervous. "I-I-I promised."

"Damn right," he drawled. He sat back in the driver�s seat. "Now go grab my food."

Tara meekly moved to obey, or so she pretended. <All right, there are some things I won�t miss.>

*****

Tara got the massive cheeseburger heaping with ketchup and mustard, a large order of fries, and a medium Pepsi. After paying the cashier, she walked out of the diner. Stopping halfway between the door and the corner of the building, where the parking lot sat, Tara sent a hurried glance around to make sure no one was looking in her direction.

The Wicca reached her hand into a pocket and pulled out a small amount of crushed herbs. She threw it up in the air and gripped the lunch order with both hands to hold it under the falling concoction.

"Lords and Ladies of the night
Aid those under your domain.
Grant upon he who breaks his fast
Gentle slumber once again."

The food glowed with a pale blue light for a heartbeat. Once it faded, Tara hurried back to the car before her short-fused brother came after her.

She opened the door and climbed in. "Here you g-go."

Billy yanked the burger and pop from her and made her hold his fries for him. He took a massive bite out of the sandwich and chewed hungrily for several seconds before swallowing. He took a big sip of Pepsi to wash it down.

"Aaaaah!" he sighed with pleasure, Tara watching intently. "Yeah, that hits the spot, Tar. I�"

He blinked in confusion, a wave of drowsiness washing over him. He shook once and said, "Like I was sayin��"

He didn�t get any further before his words faded into a deep, nasal snore.

The instant the spell took effect, Tara made sure he was comfortable then glanced at her watch.

<Twenty minutes!> she realized. She slid the keys out of the ignition and slid out of the car. She popped the trunk and, glancing around to see if anyone saw her, took her suitcase out and set it on the ground. She started to take the keys back to the seat, but stopped.

Tara considered what would happen when Billy woke up, about two to four hours from now. Thinking furiously, she decided to do what she could to stack the deck in her favor.

Glancing at the open trunk, Tara moved and lifted the mat that covered the jack and spare tire. She dropped the keys in there, assuming that her brother would do everything he could to find his keys before admitting such a goof-up to their father.

The witch threw the carpeting back into place and gently guided the trunk down until it locked into place.

<No sense in taking chances waking him up,> she reasoned. Giving one last look at her slumbering brother, Tara lifted her suitcase and dashed across the street to the bus station.

*****

Tara watched the trees zing by in the sunlight as the Greyhound rolled its way out of Morristown. She caught a glimpse of a sign at the side of the road.

<So long, Morristown,> she thought, shivering as the full impact of leaving home settled upon her. She then read the words under the announcement that she was leaving the town. <Y�all come back now, you hear?> She shrank in her seat to give herself the illusion of privacy. <Like Hell I�m ever coming back.>

The West Coast bound passenger laid back and closed her eyes, attempting to catch whatever sleep she�d be able to on the four-day trip.

*****

Part 2: Reading The Fine Print
(It�s The Stuff They Don�t Put In The Travel Brochures That You Have To Watch Out For)

Sunnydale Bus Depot
Sunnydale, California
19 August 1999

Tara was startled back to the here and now by a low, friendly, "Miss?"

"Huh?" she said as she jerked in response, blinking her eyes to regain her awareness. Glancing up, she saw the bus driver watching her with a kind smile. "I-I�m sorry. I must have been d-daydreaming."

"That�s okay, Miss," the driver said. "The last passenger just got off. You�re only about three minutes behind."

Tara�s face flushed as her shyness reared its head, but she gave him a timid smile. "Thank you."

"No problem. Take care of yourself, okay?"

"Uh, s-sure," the woman said, wondering why he�d say something like that. She stood up and snatched her suitcase from the overhead storage. "Thanks again."

*****

Tara walked into the bus depot and looked around to get her bearings before deciding what she wanted to do. She finally walked over to the information desk, where she saw a number of brochures on Sunnydale, Los Angeles, and other towns within reasonable driving distance. Figuring that she should get the 411 on her new home, she picked out one of each brochure before walking off to get something to eat before hailing a cab.

*****

Tara sat at the snack bar table, nibbling on her chicken salad. The Sunnydale travel guide was packed with information about the town; the highlights like the local parks, Boardwalk, pier, the beach, and the National Forest; local residential areas, including apartment complexes; the forty-three churches (or forty-four, if one believed the urban legend); the two colleges, including a bit on UC Sunnydale; and some of the local businesses like the Summers Art Gallery, the Espresso Pump, and a nightclub called the Bronze.

She was interested in one shop; the Dragon�s Cove. If the so-called magic shop proved to be genuine, she could probably find all kinds of ingredients to work on spells she�d only been able to read about in Mother�s books. It would also give her the opportunity, perhaps, to meet other practitioners of the Craft, assuming there were any in this small town.

<If there are, maybe I can find someone to teach me. Not that they could ever replace Grandma,> she thought with a pang of sadness. <Or better yet, maybe I can find someone for a more personal relationship.>

Tara wondered how her father would have reacted if he had ever learned about her leanings in that direction. She knew it wouldn�t have been favorable. Most likely, he would have claimed it was a manifestation of the thing inside of her, the legacy of an old family curse.

<Which is just one more reason I had to leave,> Tara thought. A pang of regret worked its way through her system. <I did the right thing. The right thing for me, at least.>

Finishing her salad, Tara threw the trash in the can and retrieved her luggage. <I hope there�s a cab outside. I�d hate to have to carry this to the dorm.>

As she approached the main entrance, she noticed a row of pay phones. The travel-weary witch angled toward them and set the suitcase down. She dialed Information to get the number of a cab company and called it. They told her a cab would be there in ten minutes.

Feeling in much better spirits than when she�d first left Georgia, Tara happily walked out of the station to wait for the cab.

Tara strolled through the parking lot to keep the cabbie from having to drive all the way up to the door. As she weaved her way through rows of parked cars, she felt like she was being watched, although she was certain she was the only living soul in the lot. She stopped, turned around, and scanned the entire area. Seeing nothing, she laughed at her paranoia. <Like Dad or Billy have any idea at all where I am!> She shook her head. <You�re free, Tara Maclay. You made it to college and there�s no one who can ruin it.>

Her cheerful musing lasted until a rough, calloused hand clamped over her mouth.

*****

Part 3: Cool Monster Hunter
(One Often Has To Wonder; If Your College Is On A Hellmouth, What The Hell Are Pledge Weeks Like?!?)

Sunnydale Bus Depot
Sunnydale, California
19 August 1999

Tara�s muffled screams vibrated against the hand keeping said screams from gaining anyone�s attention. Her first panicked thought was that her father had done the impossible and tracked her here. That idea died when she felt the superhuman strength in the arms of her attacker. Also, the hand acting as an improvised gag was very cold, despite the warm California night.

Her attacker dragged Tara into a nearby alley. As her heart raced and adrenaline flooded her being, Tara felt something flare inside of her.

Her attacker stiffened and staggered back, unintentionally releasing the terrified teenager. A loud gasp of pain accompanied his reaction.

Tara turned around to face the man who had accosted her and saw a monster. The man, if it qualified as such, had ugly ridges over his forehead, sickly yellow eyes, and long sharp canines jutting down from his upper jaw.

"I don�t know how you did that," the man said, feeling an apparently sore jaw, "but now, I�m gonna make it slow and painful."

Tara suddenly realized, with crystalline clarity, what she�d done; she�d manifested her magical powers into an effect without an incantation. Her Grandma had done it before; telekinesis, pyrokinetic effects, and telepathy. Tara, however, was weaker and had only pissed this guy off.

<If there was ever a time when I wished I was twenty already, it would be NOW!>

The creature advanced on her. She tried to retreat but soon she was trapped against a brick wall. As she pressed herself against the unyielding surface, she tried to think of a spell to use.

The yellow-eyed monster smiled with sickening intent. "I�ll give you a choice, girly-girl. You can see it coming, or I can bite your from behind. Take your pick."

Tara narrowed her eyes in concentration. <If I can do it once, I can Do. It. AGAIN!>

She felt a second flare of Power. Her opponent�s head snapped to the right, like he�d been punched in the jaw. An audible impact acted as proof to Tara�s success. The creature staggered back a step before righting himself and glaring at her, his inhuman eyes ablaze with fury.

Tara had room now and tried to cast another desperate spell. She knew in her heart that he could reach her before she finished. The bestial human snarled at her and charged. Tara continued to chant, determined to finish her enchantment.

It turned out to be unnecessary.

The thing stopped before he had taken two steps, skidding to a halt as if he�d been grabbed by the scruff of his neck. That turned out to be the case, as a feminine hand clamped itself onto the thing�s right shoulder.

The monster was spun around by that hand, only to spin back around when yet another blow struck his chin.

<How can this guy�s jaw still be in one piece?> Tara thought in amazement. She could only watch as the thing that had attacked her turned to face the threat.

The boogeyman hissed, but the unseen rescuer�s response was to grab both of his shoulders and give him a nasty head butt, the sound of colliding craniums echoing through the alley. Tara winced at the sound.

Tara watched as the creature was lifted and thrown toward the entrance to the alley. As he landed awkwardly, she got a look at the girl who�d rescued her, if only from the rear.

Her impromptu bodyguard had a great figure, Tara could tell that much. She noted the black motorcycle jacket with metal studs decorating the shoulders, a pair of what had to be the tightest (not to mention the only silver) leather pants Tara�d ever seen, and heavy brown boots. A wild mane of dark brown hair flew all about in kind with the woman�s graceful movements.

The villain rose to his feet, somewhat unsteadily. The wild woman didn�t give him a chance to recover.

Before Tara�s dumbfounded eyes, the woman in leather threw two wicked roundhouses that finally broke the monster�s jaw, only to follow up with a front kick to his gut, and an elbowsmash to the back of his neck, sending the thing down on all fours.

The woman reached into her left pocket and pulled something out. She lifted it with both hands and stabbed downward with all her weight. The pointed object punched through the thing�s back with a "shuk." Almost instantly, the thing vanished in an explosion of ash and dust particles.

<What in the Lord and Lady�s names. . .> Tara marveled as the soft wind scattered the remains of her attacker. She glanced back up and saw her rescuer smiling at her.

"You okay?" the girl, who was certainly no older than Tara, inquired with a New England accent.

Tara didn�t answer right away; she was too busy staring at the gorgeous teenager responsible for saving her life.

That free-flowing brown hair framed an angelic face with the most luminous brown-green eyes Tara had ever laid eyes upon. Looking downward, the witch saw a perfect chest only half-hidden by the low necked, high-cut, stomach bearing red tank top. The five-foot-five woman was proportioned perfectly in every way.

The girl cocked her head and asked, "Uh, you�re not in shock, are you?"

Tara blinked, bringing herself back to reality. "Oh, uh�no! N-n-no, I-I�m all right."

Honest concern reflected in those hypnotic eyes. "You sure?"

"I-I-I�m sure, I-I just�" Tara worked to slow her breathing. "I-I�m kind of shy. S-sorry."

"Hey, we�re five-by-five," the other girl shrugged. "Uh, look, you can�t tell anyone what just went down. It�s top secret. Real Double-Oh-Seven type stuff."

"B-but I�" Tara stammered, trying to make sense of this. "I-I know that t-there are t-things. I�"

The girl stared at her for several seconds, zoning out a bit. Her mouth curled again into that winning smile that made Tara want to melt into a puddle of goo. "Oh, you�re a witch! You know not to blab then. Cool."

Tara�s stomach felt like it dropped to the ground. "How d-did you k-know I�m a w-witch?"

"I�ve got this kind of mystic Fuzzbuster. Or as B calls it, my Spidey-Sense." The girl cocked her right eyebrow. "You�re pretty low on the totem pole though, ain�t ya?"

"Excuse me?" the baffled Tara asked.

"You know, low powered," her company explained. "You�re pretty new to the whole �Blessed Be� club."

"Well, uhm� I have a lot of training from my G-Grandmother," Tara confessed, "b-but she died a few years ago. And I d-didn�t have many chances to work on my p-powers where I lived."

"No prob. But let me give you the scoop," the fighter told her. She waved an arm around. "This burg�s built on a Hellmouth. Really short version, we get vamps and demons from all over. We have a Rambo-type unit that keeps �em in line."

"You k-kill demons?" Tara asked in dread.

"Just the bad guys," her savior explained. "Some of the vamps, we popped their souls back in �em and they do the undercover bit for us. Few of the demon dudes are snitches for us, others just wanna be left alone, so we leave �em alone."

"What about you?" Tara asked, surreptitiously glancing over the girl�s body once again.

"Me, I�m a Slayer," she answered with a smirk.

Tara blinked several times. "Slayer?"

"Yeah." The leather-clad babe grinned fully. "One chick in all the world, who gets to fight the bloodsuckers and demons wherever they throw their keggers and kick the crap out of their unlives."

"Wow," Tara said, secretly admiring both the girl�s role and her figure. "You�re like, way-cool monster hunter."

"Bingo," the "Slayer" said, "shooting" Tara with double finger guns. "Anyway, I�d love to chat, but I gotta book. More hineys to boot and cans of whoop ass to open. Sure you�re okay?"

"Y-yes, I-I think so," Tara answered. As the so-called Slayer turned to leave, the witch blurted, "Wait! What�s your name? Do you g-g-go to the c-college?"

"Nah, I got a year left in the high school," she groused. "As for the higher learning, I got some friends starting there. You�ll probably hook up with some of �em in class."

Tara struggled to hide her disappointment. "Oh. Anyway, I-I�m Tara."

"Faith," came the girl�s answer. She flipped the girl a salute and said, "Remember, watch your back, Terror!" Then her beautiful savior walked off into the night.

"Terror?" Tara asked, quite puzzled.

"Nickname thing! I do that to everyone!" came the laughing response. She heard a fading, "See ya on the flip side!"

Tara just stood there, thinking about what she�d just learned. <Hellmouths, vampires, demons, girls with super strength, soldiers fighting demons?> A chill ran down her spine at the thought of a military unit hunting demons. However, it did strike a thought within her. <Wait. She knew I�m a witch, why didn�t she feel�because it isn�t out yet.>

As Tara returned to the parking lot to gather up her belongings, she considered what the girl named Faith had shared with her. For the first time since leaving Morristown, Tara Maclay asked herself the same question thousands of new college freshmen have considered every fall, albeit for completely different reasons.

<What the Hell have I gotten myself into?>

Somehow, she believed the answer was going to be very interesting. To say the least.

The End

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