100 Words or Less
By Queen Boadicea

Title: 100 Words or Less
Author: Queen Boadicea
Email: queenboadiceaoftheiceni@yahoo.com
Spoiler Warning: BtVS season seven. Spike disappeared after the rape attempt and didn’t return and the First Evil isn’t in evidence. I mean, who could take that storyline seriously?
Disclaimer: This belongs to Joss Whedon and the usual gang of idi…uh, geniuses. The contest is the property of Harlequin® and cannot be accessed from my story.
Pairing: Buffy/Giles
Feedback: Do your worst—it can’t compare to my worst ;)
[thoughts]


Dawn flipped through the clothes rack. She didn’t even know why she bothered; they were broke. Buffy was scraping to make ends meet and Dawn was too young to work and earn her own cash. [I could always get work as a babysitter until I’m old enough for real work.]

[But babysitters get crap money.]

[Still, it’s better than nothing.]

[Well, I could just steal the clothes.]

[Forget it.] The last thing Buffy needed was having her nabbed for shoplifting again. The next shopkeeper who caught her might not be as tolerant as Anya.

Sighing, the teenager turned away from klepto temptation. She knew why she was really here. She was still in her R.J. funk. Shopping, browsing, whatever, was like eating chocolate or ice cream. It was a girly way of working off grief or angst.

Dawn knew what she’d felt for R.J. wasn’t real. [It was a love spell. A stupid crazy love spell that I made a total jackass of myself over.] R.J. had thought it’d be cool to have every girl he met drooling over his sneakers and she’d been just another one of his brain-dead slut queens. He was just a big old jerk like his older brother.

The teenager scowled and plopped down at one of the mall tables. She understood what she was feeling now: anger. She was totally pissed off that she’d had her emotions screwed with and dragged through the mud and for what? So some juvenile, immature asshole could feel like more of a man.

"Fuck you, R.J." Dawn muttered. She glanced around quickly to make sure no one had heard her. Looking up, she spied one of those Max Racks of free postcards. "At least no one will complain about my taking these."

She began idly spinning the vertical rack when a red-and-gray card caught her eye. Pulling it out of its mini cubicle to get a closer look, she saw the hunky back of an anonymous guy featured on the front. "Mmm. He looks totally crushable." She held up the card and read aloud. "Is your man too good to be true? If so, he could be a Harlequin® Blaze™ series cover model! Tell us, in 100 words or less, what makes your man cover-model material and prove it to us with some photos!"

[That leaves out R.J. He’s not even in the running.] Dawn snorted and was about to replace the postcard when an idea struck her. Well, it didn’t so much strike as slowly take root and start to blossom. She wasn’t thinking about R.J. He may have been good looking but he was a major creep. No, she was thinking about someone else entirely…

Tucking the postcard in her bag, she hurried home. She had a bit of searching to do. Not to mention planning and writing and typing…

Dawn dug through her drawers, mumbling to herself all the while. "Where are they, where are they?" she found scattered photos of herself making faces at the camera, Xander and Anya fooling around, a few of Buffy after resurrection—and didn’t her sister look miserable in some of them. The few times Buffy had caught her making the candid camera shots, she’d either snapped at Dawn or slapped on such a tight smile Dawn wondered why her face didn’t crack.

"Aha! Here they are!" She dug out her prizes and held them up for inspection. She’d taken a picture of Giles standing proudly in front of the Magic Box store. He looked okay in that and like a man with a good job. [I’m betting that’s important. Why pick a deadbeat for a cover model?]

The other pictures were way more interesting. After one of Buffy’s training sessions, Dawn had edged open the backroom door and seen Giles remove his sweat-soaked shirt. She’d quietly taken two pictures: one of him rubbing one uplifted arm and the other showing him posed with his right hand against the wall. In the latter, the light from the window had fallen perfectly onto his upturned face. He’d had such a thoughtful expression; Dawn had wondered what was going through his mind.

[The first one shows him all sexy with sweat. Totally drool-worthy. But the other makes him look, I don’t know, strong and vulnerable. Yeah, that’s the word I want.] Thinking her English teacher would be proud of her, Dawn settled down to business.

"I think Rupert Giles would be a perfect cover model. He’s not pretty boy cute like some airbrushed model out of GQ. But he’s got the debonair…"

She pulled back frowning over that word. "Debonair? Is that right? I don’t want to make him sound fakey and slicked up." She crossed it out and tried again.

"He’s got the charm and grace that sometimes comes to older men—if they’re lucky. He’s good, kind, decent, sweet, thoughtful and has a heart of gold. He doesn’t always show his emotions but they shine through his eyes. He’s tender but he can be tough, too, and he’s not afraid to let you know when you’ve screwed up. He’s a real man, scars and all. I feel myself lucky…

"No, wait. I used that word already. What’s a better one?" Dawn scrambled for her thesaurus, rejected the choices given and tapped her teeth with her pen as she thought. Then she started up. "Ooh, I know!" she plopped down on her bed again and continued, her brow furrowed in concentration.

"I feel myself privileged to know him. He’s that rare specimen: a nice guy."

Dawn grinned, pleased with herself, and began to count the words. "Darn. That’s 103. Let’s cross out ‘I think’ ‘cause I don’t think Giles would be perfect. I know he is. And let’s turn ‘charm and grace’ into ‘graceful charm.’ That gets rid of three words." She counted again just to be sure and beamed. "Yep! That’s 100."

She glanced at the postcard and scanned the back checking for the entry rules. Her face fell when she read the fine print. "I have to be 18 and over? What a gyp!" She leaned her chin on her hand and huffed in disappointment. Well, it might seem kinda strange if some barely-17 girl was going nutty over some guy old enough to be her dad. Major ewww.

She tapped her pen on the postcard and struggled for a solution. Then her face lit up. Of course! She’d put Buffy’s name on it. She wouldn’t tell Buffy, though. Buffy’s eyes got wistful and sad whenever the Englishman’s name was mentioned. Dawn wondered if there was something more going on than Buffy was telling.

Shrugging it off for the moment, Dawn ran her eye over the rest of the rules. Oh no. It looked like both the candidate and the contest writer had to sign the entry and publicity release forms. Crap crap crap. She could pick up Buffy’s signature and learn to fake it from any of the bills she had to sign that lay around the house. But where was she going to find something with Giles’s name?

Another idea struck and Dawn went to her desk, swearing under her breath as she brushed aside various miscellaneous papers. She really had to be better organized; this kind of mess got to be a real pain after awhile. Finally, she came across the objects of her search.

Here were letters from Giles. He’d written to Buffy several times after he left last year. She wouldn’t open the envelopes or listen to Dawn read the contents. She simply left them unread. Dawn had taken it upon herself to read and answer them. She took pains to describe Buffy’s state of mind and make it sound as if Buffy missed him as much as she did. By the tone of the answering letters, it didn’t sound as if Giles had been fooled.

She had his signature. How hard could it be to fake it? Dawn hesitated. This sounded an awful lot like forgery. Still, it wasn’t as if she was signing someone else’s name on a check. [But it is going on an entry form. Would they have me arrested for that?]

[Nah. I’m a minor. They can’t touch me.]

[But it may disqualify Giles if they find out.]

[This is just a joke, really. What are the chances Giles will even be picked?]

That decided her. There were probably going to be gadjillions of women mailing in entries. What were the chances hers would be a winner?

Satisfied with that rationalization, Dawn opened her door and knocked on Willow’s. Now came the tricky part. When the redheaded wiccan opened up, Dawn plastered on a big fake smile. "Hey, Willow. Can I borrow your computer and can you teach me to use the scanner?"

"Sure, Dawnie. What do you need the scanner for?"

Dawn thought swiftly. "I’m doing a report on geography and I want to scan some maps into it. You know, give it a really professional look."

Willow smiled and replied, "Okay. Just bring in your report and I’ll show you."

"No! I mean, can’t I take it to my room? I may have to work on this for awhile and I don’t want to take up space in your room."

"You’re going to have me around anyway if you need me to show you what to do. And it’ll be easier for you to carry in your paperwork here than for me to unplug the computer."

"Fine." Dawn flounced back to her room. Great. Not only was she going to have to put together an unnecessary paper on imaginary homework, she was going to have to find a way to scan the signatures, print out the entry forms elsewhere and mail them without anybody noticing. [Oh, what a tangled web. Blah blah blah.]

Dawn watched closely while Willow uploaded a map of Belize into her fictional report. She had picked Belize at random because she remembered Riley had been sent there. It didn’t look as if Willow had noticed so that was a plus. It seemed like hours while she typed in boring facts about average yearly rainfall, population, national flower, main exports and a whole lot of other junk. At last it was over. Willow put the whole thing onto a disk and handed it to the fidgeting teenager. "Let me know how it goes, Dawn."

"Huh? Oh yeah, thanks." Dawn smiled feebly and snatched the disk. Willow hadn’t moved from the computer once; Dawn was going to have to wait until she was out of the house. [Maybe I can tell her what I’m really doing. She might want to help.]

[Help you commit forgeries? Yeah, right.] Nope, she was definitely on her own for this one.

Days seemed to pass while Dawn waited anxiously for an opportunity. It seemed as if everybody was conspiring against her. If Willow wasn’t around, then Buffy was hovering. Her sister was going through one of her care-about-Dawn phases. Every now and then, Buffy would take an excessive interest in her sister and pry into the details of her life. Usually, Dawn was glad of the attention no matter how short-lived. Now it was just a pain in the ass.

After two and a half weeks of waiting for her chance, she managed to get the entry form printed up with the facsimiles of Buffy’s and Giles’s signatures. Dawn shoved the package into the mailbox before she could change her mind.

[There. Out of my hands now.] She wiped said hands on her jeans; they were kinda sweaty for some reason.

The weeks dragged by and Dawn was barely able to hide her nervousness from Buffy. "What’s the matter, Dawn? You’re all keyed up." The blonde Slayer grinned at her own joke.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Wow, that joke was so funny—the first dozen times Xander told it."

Buffy snickered and then sobered, eyeing her younger sister. "Well, something’s up. You’ve been getting antsy every time the mail arrives or the doorbell rings. You want to share here, Dawn?"

"I was just hoping for another letter from Giles." That was a good save and she knew Buffy probably would let the matter drop. Sure enough, the familiar flicker of pain surfaced and vanished in Buffy’s hazel eyes.

"And there’s been nothing, huh? I wouldn’t get myself worked up over it, Dawn. Giles made it crystal clear there’s nothing left in Sunnydale worth his attention. He’s lucky he was able to get out while he still could. Who knows what might have happened if he’d hung around."

"That a polite way of saying ‘Good riddance, Giles. Don’t let the Hellmouth hit you in the ass?’ "

Buffy scowled in the direction of her sister. Dawn crossed her arms in her usual mulish fashion and stared her down. "You make it sound like I gave him the heave-ho. He’s the one who insisted on bailing."

"And you hate him for that, don’t you?"

"No, I don’t hate him. I get his reasons."

"But getting them isn’t the same as accepting them, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess that’s it. Sometimes I wake up all excited. Not that kind of excited," she added hastily seeing the look on Dawn’s face. "But I think I’m going to see him before or after I go on patrol only he’s not here and it’s as if something’s missing." Her voice trailed off unhappily.

"Is-is it like a part of you is gone?" Dawn asked in a cautious voice.

"Yes. No. I’m not sure. We were a team for so long. It’s like there’s a limb that’s been chopped off only I can still feel it itching." Buffy shrugged and lapsed into silence.

Dawn didn’t know what else to say. This wasn’t quite the same as an "I love you" but it came awfully close. If only she could be sure about how Giles felt about Buffy. Buffy’s death had hit him hard; she’d seen that. All throughout that summer, there was a haunted, bitter look in his eyes that seemed to get deeper with every passing day.

She’d gotten really alarmed after smelling the faint tang of alcohol on his breath night after night. She’d warned Willow and after that a member of the gang always showed up at Giles’s place after hours to talk to him and make sure he wasn’t hitting the bottle. It seemed to have worked. There were no more telltale fumes of alcohol about his person.

The deadline came and went and the contest closed at the end of the month. There was no sign of anything and Dawn gave up hope. [Oh well. At least, I’m the only one disappointed.] And she still had copies of the photographs she’d sent in; luckily the photo shop had offered double prints.

The phone rang in mid-September and Buffy got up from the table to answer it. "Who could that be? Dawn, is one of your friends calling? You told them they couldn’t call at dinner time, right?"

"Sure," Dawn mumbled around a meatball.

"I hope it’s not a telemarketer again. I swear, we’ve got to get one of those phone thingies that blocks their calls. Hello? Summers residence."

"Is this Buffy Summers?"

Buffy narrowed her eyes slightly. The woman’s voice at the other end was not familiar. "I’ll see if I can get her. Who’s calling?"

"This call is for Buffy Summers." The voice got equally guarded as if she had information she didn’t want to share with someone else.

[Shit. It is a telemarketer.] "I’ll see that she gets it. Who may I say is calling?" There, she couldn’t get more pointed than that.

"This is Ms. Fitzgerald of Harlequin, division of Marketing and Public Relations. We’re calling to let Ms. Summers know that her entry was selected as a finalist in our contest. May I please speak to her?"

"Contest? What contest?" Behind Buffy, Dawn let out a squeak and jumped up from the table, startling Willow.

"The Harlequin® Blaze™ Cover Model Search Contest. May I please speak to Ms. Summers?" The voice got a touch of asperity and Buffy opened her mouth to answer when Dawn grabbed the phone from her.

"Hello? That was Ms. Summers. She’s just way stunned by your news." She clapped her hand over the mouthpiece. "Buffy, can I talk to you?"

Buffy gave her a narrow stare. "Dawn, I was on the phone! And what do you know about this?"

"Whatever this person talks to you about, just go along with it. Please? I’ll explain everything to you after you talk. You just gotta agree with it. Okay?" Dawn’s look was pleading as she handed back the phone.

Buffy shook her head and privately wondered what trouble her younger sister had gotten into this time. "Uh, I’m Buffy Summers. What did you say about a contest?"

"Ms. Summers, you sent in an entry about your boyfriend, Mr. Rupert Giles. We at Harlequin were extremely impressed with his picture and your essay. We wanted you to know he’s been selected as a finalist. His picture will be posted on our website so that viewers may vote on their favorites to assist in our judging. I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you."

Buffy opened her mouth to protest and caught sight of her sister’s face. Whatever this was, it seemed really important to Dawn. But how did her name get mixed up in it? "Well, thanks a lot. D-do I have to do anything, Ms. Fitzgerald?"

"Not at all. Just go to our website to see Mr. Giles’s picture and let us know if it’s to your satisfaction. If you have any complaints, just click on the appropriate space and inform us of the problems. Goodbye and once again congratulations!"

"Okay. Thanks." Buffy hung up and turned around to witness Dawn’s guilty expression. "All right, Dawn. You want to let me know what that was all about?"

Dawn jigged from one foot to the other and glanced over at Willow. "Uh, Willow? You might want to listen to this since you kinda helped me with it."

"Me? Helped you with what? What’d I do?" Willow’s green eyes darted in surprise from her to Buffy.

Buffy went into the living room and pointed to the sofa. "Oh, I can tell this is gonna be good."

Dawn fumbled through her explanation, frequently interrupted by Buffy’s and Willow’s outraged blurtings. "You forged my name on a document? An official document?" Buffy fumed.

"It wasn’t like it was a mortgage or a loan application! It was just a stupid contest. I didn’t think it would actually win."

"But, Dawn, it was my name. Don’t you see how wrong that was? The document doesn’t make any difference. How would you like it if I forged your name on a letter you never wrote and sent it off to some stranger without telling you?"

"Seriously? I-I guess I’d be kinda pissed," Dawn muttered.

"Thanks. I’m glad you could admit that much." Buffy sat down beside Dawn and stared at her sister. "What I really don’t get is why you did it."

"I told you. I was seriously bent out of shape by that R.J. mess and I was thinking what buttholes guys are and then I saw this contest and remembered the one guy in my life who wasn’t a loser, deadbeat, mean bastard or undead."

"Why didn’t you use Xander, Dawn?" Willow asked.

"Xander ditched Anya at the altar. That doesn’t qualify him for Boy Scout in my book."

Buffy’s brows drew together. "But Giles took off, too. How does he win your Best Male of the Year award?"

"He’s always been there for us when it counted and he only left so you’d get back on your feet. Besides, he still cares about y—us. You’d know that if you ever bothered to read his letters," Dawn finished with a frown.

Buffy ignored the accusation. "He doesn’t live in the States any more, Dawn. What if he wins the contest? How are you gonna explain that to these romance people?"

"I was planning to tell them that he lived here but his job required him to travel. It’s not exactly a lie, is it?"

Willow walked to the computer set on the table and brought up the site. Her eyes widened and she said, "Buffy, you might want to take a look at this."

"What? What is it, Willow?" She leaned over the redhead’s shoulder and she went absolutely rigid with shock. Dawn knew what she was looking at but she couldn’t resist taking another peek just to see her sister’s expression.

There it was, the shirtless shot of Giles set in the Magic Box’s backroom. A click on the photo brought it up to fill the screen along with the details of his name, age and location. On the computer screen, you could see every detail of Giles’s upper body: the curly, springy hairs on his chest, the lean frame that managed to be fit without the artificial tone of a gym bunny, the rugged good looks that Anya had once commented on, the sparkling green eyes.

"Oh. My," Willow breathed.

"Ditto," Buffy echoed without taking her eyes from the screen. "Dawn, when did you take this picture?"

"It was last year just before he left again."

"Really?" Willow frowned and clicked on another icon. "Uh oh."

"Uh oh. What uh oh? Is there another problem I didn’t know about?" Dawn asked nervously.

"It says here that the photo had to have been taken no longer than three months before the start of the contest," Willow pointed out.

Dawn squinted at it. "Really? I didn’t see that. There were so many darn rules to this thing I kinda skimmed through it. I mean, honestly, you’d think they were picking a congressional candidate instead of a romance book cover model." She shrugged and grinned at the other two girls. "Hey, does it really matter? People have to vote in on this. Giles may not even win. If he doesn’t, no harm no foul."

"And if he does, Dawn? What do we say to these people when they ask us to produce Giles? How do we explain that he’s not in the country now?"

"If he wins, we can tell him and he can fly back over here."

Buffy’s look was amazing in its incredulity. "For a contest? Giles wouldn’t stay when I as—when I was in serious trouble. He’s not gonna throw up his life in England just so they can flash his pecs on a cheesy romance book."

"But it’s more than just that! The winners get a trip to New York and get to stay at a luxury hotel and they get to receive $500 spending money."

"Five hundred dollars?" Buffy echoed. That was a tidy sum to her. Not a lot but it would pay off a few bills. However, it wasn’t enough incentive for Giles to buy an expensive ticket from England to Sunnydale and she automatically found herself vetoing the idea.

"I’m sorry, Dawn. But Giles gave me way more money than that after I came back from the dead. I’m thinking $500 isn’t going to be that big a draw."

"But if you call him and tell him to come, I know he would, Buffy!" Dawn pleaded. She knew that was a lost cause as soon as she spoke. Buffy’s face closed up and her next words confirmed Dawn’s fears.

"Dawn, if Giles wanted to come back, he would have done it before now. He doesn’t want to be here and a silly contest isn’t going to change his mind." She smiled sadly at Dawn to soften the blow. "Anyway, we don’t even know if Giles will win, do we? And, if he does, we’ll still have a lot of explaining to do to the judges about why a guy who hasn’t lived in this country for almost six months got nominated for a contest."

Dawn sighed with resignation and then turned to Willow. "Can I at least see that picture of Giles again? He looked so yummy!"

"Dawn!" Buffy’s eyebrows shot way up her forehead and Dawn giggled at her.

"Oh, come on, Buffy. I saw the way you were looking at him. He is really cute."

"And old enough to be your father. What happened to drooling over guys like R.J.?" Buffy caught her breath guiltily. She’d also been caught up in the R.J. lovefest but she hadn’t had her heart broken by it like Dawn.

The teenager waved her hand dismissively as if the very idea of her crushing on R.J. were laughable. "Screw that. R.J. was a tool. Giles is the real thing. Now let’s see that picture again."

"No problem." Willow brought it up and all three women sighed as they stared.

Then Dawn looked at Willow in puzzlement. "Willow, why are you looking? Aren’t you supposed to be gay?"

The redhead puffed out her lips in derision. "Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean that I’m blind. I know good-looking guys when I see them. I just don’t get all wet over them like I used to."

Buffy didn’t say a word. She’d thought about Giles a great deal especially since he’d left her last year. Part of her ugly deal with Spike had been to forget the anger and pain she’d felt at Giles’s abandonment. But lately her ex-Watcher had been in her mind a lot. Too bad he’d never know how she felt about him.

She got up from the computer and left the other two to their whispered, laughing comments. Her food was probably cold by now but she could always re-heat it. She wished she could be sharing it with her tall, handsome Englishman across the ocean. But what were you gonna do?

 

Giles sat at his favorite table in the pub and looked quietly onto the street. It was an unusually bright day in England. The rest of the world thought the country stayed dank and cold year in and year out. But occasionally the weather turned warm and today was positively sultry with the temperatures in the upper 70s. Such a day reminded him of California and he found his thoughts straying inevitably to Buffy.

He wished he could see her, hold her again, as he did when he came back to stop Willow. Never mind that the circumstances had been truly dire with no time for personal endearments. It had been good to have her in his arms for those brief moments when they hadn’t been fighting for their lives.

Had he imagined it or had there been a flare of pain in her eyes when he explained he had to return to England to help Willow find a balance for the dark magicks she commanded? But she didn’t press him to stay or return with Willow when the redhead came back from the mother country. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that she let him go so quietly.

[She could have written or phoned. True, calls across the Atlantic are expensive and she’s desperately trying to make ends meet. But would a postcard be too much to ask?] She was angry with him still; the letters Dawn sent him were cautious when it came to describing Buffy’s feelings but he could read between the lines.

His Slayer hadn’t forgiven him for deserting her in her hour of need. She never accused him of pushing her into the arms of Spike but he wondered if she held him in some way responsible. He certainly felt that way. He had no way of knowing how soon after his departure she’d started sleeping with the soulless undead. Two months? A month? A week? Would she tell him if he asked? Did he even want to know?

He sighed and stared out the window again. This was all pointless speculation. She was in Sunnydale; he was in England. "And never the twain shall meet," he muttered and raised his glass of warm lager to his lips.

When he got home he flipped through the small pile of mail. As always, his heart beat a little faster when he saw the envelope bearing the 1630 Revello Drive address. As always, he chided himself for his foolish hope. Buffy had never written to him in all the time he’d been gone and it hurt each time to see the handwriting of someone else—Dawn, Xander, Willow or even Anya—instead of hers.

[Face it, Rupert. You’re madly in love with the girl. Why didn’t you tell her instead of being such a bloody coward?] Why, indeed. Perhaps it’s because she herself had never shown any interest in him beyond that of an older friend, a man so ancient the very idea of romantic love would have been abhorrent, to say the least.

He pushed the tiresome thoughts aside and opened the envelope. Scanning the contents, he frowned and plucked at his lips. Then he shrugged and put the letter into his breast pocket. It was a strange request but she made it sound urgent.

He picked up his phone and dialed the number of one of the younger Watchers. The Watchers Council had extended a generous stipend to him after Buffy’s death. Because of his fears concerning the darkness of Willow’s magicks, he’d never told them about her resurrection. He was certain the Council would think it and Willow’s growing abilities causes for concern. He refused to put her in that kind of peril. He had told them he was going back for Xander Harris’s nuptials, now regrettably cancelled. That was all they needed to know.

Now he was apparently something of a legend among the Watchers, himself being a Watcher to one of the oldest surviving Slayers on record. It had afforded him a lot of free dinners from admiring and adoring colleagues once he’d returned to the shores of England for good.

"An, Benton? It’s Rupert Giles." He listened for a moment. "Yes, it’s good to hear you, too. I was wondering if I could borrow your computer." He listened again for a longer spell and sighed. "Yes, I know I should come into the 21st century but I can’t bear to have one of those things in my house. So may I use yours or not?"

This time the waiting was shorter and he smiled in relief. "Thanks awfully. I shan’t forget this." He hung up and patted his pocket with the letter in it absently. "Now let’s see what this is about, shall we?"

After Benton tactfully left the room, Giles painstakingly typed in the URL. He furrowed his brows in puzzlement. Why on earth would Dawn think he was interested in a contest for male models for tawdry romance novels? He’d never seen her reading such trash when he’d been there. Of course, she was reaching that age when females seemed to swoon over the antics of some swashbuckling male and his fainting heroine. But why would she send notice of this to him?

He clicked on the link for "Finalists" as she’d instructed. Then his jaw dropped. "Oh good Lord. That, that brat. I shall spank her soundly if I ever catch her again." He clicked on the photo and the larger image sprouted up in front of his appalled gaze.

When had she taken this? Why hadn’t he known about it before now? Had she shown it to Buffy? The blood mounted to his cheeks when he considered the older Summers woman might have seen him like this. Then he noticed the link that would show the essay with the picture.

"Rupert Giles would be a perfect cover model. He’s not pretty boy cute like some airbrushed model out of GQ…" He read it all the way to the end and felt something prick at his eyes. Buffy had written this? Did she really see him this way? Then in spite of her coldness she did feel something for him after all. He re-read the short essay and reconsidered. There was no mention of love in it—only deep respect and admiration. But the picture hinted that she might possess emotions of an earthier nature for him.

But if Buffy had only esteem for him, why had Dawn written the letter? Was Buffy ashamed of her feelings, platonic though they might be? But if they were only daughterly emotions, then why enter him in the contest? It wasn’t something geared for family readers; that much was apparent.

Giles’s frustration was acute. This essay and the letter raised more questions than they answered. But unless he got some concrete signal from Buffy, he wasn’t going to say anything about this. [Goodness, how do you get more concrete than this?]

He clicked off the site and shut down the computer. He didn’t want to risk Benton accidentally pulling up the site. He didn’t know how he would explain this to the Council.

 

"Buffy! Oh my god, Buffy! You gotta see this!" Dawn rushed in waving the envelope and her sister came running out of the kitchen, a smudge mark of some unidentifiable sauce on her face.

"What? Dawn, you or some piece of the furniture had better be on fire because I was in the middle of making dinner."

"Buffy, you are so gonna want to see this." Dawn held up the envelope and even from across the room Buffy could see the very impressive looking seal on it.

"Dawn, is that what I think it is?" She came over to her sister, the cooking on the stove completely forgotten, as she eyed the envelope.

"Yep. It’s from the Harlequin people. Do you want to open it or should I?"

Buffy looked down at her greasy hands and belatedly remembered the food. "Bring it into the kitchen. You can open it. I need to get back to the food before it explodes all over the ceiling."

Dawn perched against the high table and ran her eyes quickly over the paper. " ‘Dear Ms. Summers: You were a contest entrant in our Harlequin® Blaze™ blah blah blah…’ " She scanned farther down the letter. " ‘We were very impressed by your unusual choice in boyfriend, Mr. Rupert Giles, etc., etc…’ Ooh! ‘Congratulations! Mr. Giles is the winner out of over 100,000 entries. You and he are going to New York to stay at the luxurious Plaza Hotel.’ " Dawn let out a high-pitched squeal and danced up and down on the floor. "Buffy! We won! We won! We’re going to New York!"

Buffy raised an eyebrow and continued stirring the pot. "Dawn, one: We are not going. That contest is for Giles and me. Two: We are not going because Giles isn’t here. He doesn’t even know anything about this."

Dawn’s expression turned furtive. "Uh, actually, Buffy, he kinda sorta already does."

Buffy whirled around, a bit of sauce falling unheeded from the spoon. "He WHAT? Dawn, tell me you didn’t tell him about this!"

"I sent him a letter telling him about the contest after he became a finalist. I kept thinking ‘What if he wins? Doesn’t he deserve to know?’ And if he doesn’t win, well, he might be glad to know how much you thought about him."

"How much I thought about him? Oh, right, you sent the entry in my name. Oh man, this is really gonna bite us in the ass." Buffy shut off the stove and leaned against the countertop.

"No way! We’ll call Giles up and tell him to meet you in New York. What’s the prob?"

Buffy lifted her head and thought hard. What was the problem? Well, the problem was that Giles had seen that picture of himself and he thought she’d taken it. He might assume—what? [That I’ve been thinking about him? That a part of me hurts because he’s not with me? That it feels as if all the happy Buffy has left the room and is never coming back? That I love him?]

Oh shit. She’d never thought that before; she’d never dared to think it. But that’s what this contest had been about, right? Searching for the perfect Mr.-Right-for-Romance? And that was Giles.

The very thought was enough to make her knees wobble. Why hadn’t she thought it before? [Slow Buffy. I wonder if Dawn knows. I wonder if Willow knows. I wonder if Giles knows. Eep!]

Dawn was getting worried. Her sister was totally spacing out on her and she hadn’t answered the question. She waved her hand in front of Buffy’s face. "Hellllooo? Buffy? This isn’t a physics question. I said, what’s the prob?"

"Huh?" Buffy blinked and recalled her surroundings—and her dilemma. "Oh, right. What were we talking about?"

"Meeting Giles in New York." Dawn spoke slowly as if to a deficient two-year-old kid.

"Right. We can do that. But what if Giles doesn’t want to come? I’d look pretty stupid, wouldn’t I? Not to mention the contest people would have to be called and told ‘Oops. Change of plan. The boyfriend didn’t want to leave England. Can we reschedule?’ " Her irritated sigh showed she wasn’t really amused.

"Buffy, calm down. Breathe. We’ll call Giles and, since we’re getting $500 spending money, I think we can afford a phone call. You’re getting paid to travel to New York so that’s no biggie. Make arrangements about what day you’re meeting and greeting in New York. We call the Harlequin people and let them know what we’re doing on our end. If Giles says no, then you tell them he couldn’t make it. Maybe they’ll let us have the money anyway. Sound like a plan?"

Buffy stared at her younger sister. Sometimes Dawn was just too smart for her own good. "Sounds like a nifty plan. Just how long have you been thinking about this?"

"I really haven’t been thinking about this. This all started because of R.J. and then turned into the Buffy-and-Giles show somewhere along the way."

"Great. Except that there isn’t any Buffy and Giles. And that’s the big problem, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if Giles agrees to all this. This whole entry thing is based on a lie." Buffy pushed away from the counter.

"Is it, Buffy?" The blonde woman strode into the living room and began setting out the place things for dinner as she tried to ignore her pesky younger sister. "The contest is about showing a man who’s better than any other guy out there. I thought Giles head and shoulders above some of the other losers who’ve been in our lives: Dad, Angel, Parker, Justin, Riley, R.J., Spike."

"Dawn." Buffy’s voice held a warning note her sister ignored.

"In the end, this isn’t about you and Giles. Well, I guess it is a little. It’s mostly about Giles and letting him know that we see him as being this terrific, wonderful, special person. I think that’s something he’d go along with. Don’t you?"

Buffy paused after putting down the plates. She didn’t look at her younger sister who was awaiting an answer. "Fine. I’ll call him. But if he doesn’t want to play this game, then I’m letting you explain to these people why their new model bailed on them."

"No biggie. I’ll just tell them you two broke up after you sent in the photos. What?" She flung Buffy a teasing smile when her sister glared at her.

 

Buffy picked up the phone and set it down again. She’d done that something like nine times and she still couldn’t think of a thing to say. She hadn’t really talked to Giles much in the past year. [Make that at all. He goes to England after I come back from the dead and I’m too pissed to talk to him. He comes back to stop Willow from going Dark Phoenix on the world then he jets off again. Since then not a word unless it had something to do with Willow’s recovery.]

This was ridiculous. She was the Slayer. Why should she be scared of a little thing like a phone call? Buffy wiped her hands on her skirt and picked up the phone again. Trying to keep her fingers from shaking, she squinted at the phone number Dawn had given her and punched in the numbers.

[I’m so out of touch with Giles I had to ask Dawn for his number.] She grimaced at the thought and checked the clock. Giles was eight hours ahead. It was 11 o’clock at night here so that meant it was seven in the morning in England. Was that too early? Maybe he was still asleep. Damn, she didn’t even know what kind of hours he kept.

Before she could hang up again the phone clicked and a familiar English voice spoke over the lines. "Hello? This is Giles. How may I help you?"

[Come back to me. Don’t ever leave again.] Squelching the impulse that would have had her blurting out those words, Buffy cleared her throat and prayed for calm. "Um, Giles? It’s me, Buffy."

"Buffy? Goodness, is that really you? It’s wonderful to hear your voice."

"Likewise." There was an awkward pause while she tried to think of what to say. "So…how are things on your end?"

"I can’t complain." He didn’t speak for another moment and Buffy wondered if he’d hung up. In a panic, she said, "Giles, have you been getting the letters from Sunnydale?"

"You mean the ones Dawn and the others wrote me?" His voice was cool and noncommittal but she understood the unspoken accusation.

"Yeah. Those. I was referring to one in particular, actually."

"Ah." Now she could almost hear the embarrassment in his voice. Encouraged, she decided to continue.

"Dawn says she sent…it was a crazy idea. We didn’t actually think you’d…" She paused again. "Do you know what I’m talking about?"

"If you’re referring to that contest, yes, I’m quite aware of all the details." He wanted to add that he’d seen the picture and was flattered and deeply embarrassed in equal measure. But he still wasn’t sure of her part in all this. "D-did you mean everything you wrote in that essay?"

"Essay?" Shit, what was he talking about? There had been an essay involved? Dimly, she recalled Ms. Fitzgerald mentioning something about it. But she’d been so busy slobbering over the picture of Giles she hadn’t noticed anything like that on the site. She scrambled to cover herself. "Uh, yeah. Sure, I meant it. Every word."

"I’m touched, Buffy. I truly am. I had no idea you saw me in that light." His voice had turned warm with gratitude and Buffy felt a flush at the joyful accents. She had never really thanked Giles for all he’d done for her. She’d certainly never told him she found him physically attractive. [Duh. Guys like to hear that, too. You could have said it once or twice.]

"Well, in case you haven’t heard yet—you won! Congrats!"

There was an even longer pause. [Is Giles polishing his glasses?] "Giles? You still there? You didn’t drop dead of shock or anything, didja?" she asked in an attempt to break the tense silence.

"I’m speechless. No, overwhelmed would be the better word. I’m reminded of when Patrick Stewart won the TV Guide award for that year’s sexiest male. He said it felt a little bit like winning the Miss America Beauty Pageant."

Buffy let out a giggle and received a deep masculine chuckle by way of answer over the line. Meanwhile she scampered towards the downstairs computer and frantically typed up the Harlequin website with one hand. "I remember that. I can’t believe he won alongside Cindy Crawford. Talk about a weird match."

"A bit like you and me, no doubt."

Buffy’s brows quirked together. Was Giles disapproving or disappointed? She hastened to assure him. "I don’t think we’re weird. We’re…special. I-I think we go together somehow. Me tough, strong girl, you intelligent, smart guy. It’s a good match."

"Ah yes. We do complement each other, I suppose."

"Giles…about the contest. What do you want me to do? We won, that is, you and me. So we have to go—I mean, we’re expected to go to this hotel in New York. They’re expecting a couple and we have to be there in a couply sort of way and I know that’s never been…we’ve never been and…" She bit her lip and inwardly cursed her sister. This was all her fault. Why was Buffy even making this phone call? She should have just let Dawn take the fall. She brought up Giles’s picture again and this time noted the essay link that accompanied it. Clicking on it, her lips moved silently as she read what her little sister had written.

"I-I know. Talk about awkward situations. Why did you do this if you knew winning might be an eventuality?"

Buffy licked her lips. She was about to cross the line from a little fib into outright lying. She could spill the beans and tell Giles that this had all been Dawn’s idea right from the start. But that would hurt his feelings. Or would it? She still had no idea how Giles really felt about her. If he felt nothing, he might just be annoyed at Dawn. If he did care, he would be crushed to think Buffy didn’t find him sexy and studly.

"I-I was feeling low, you know? I had been for awhile and then I saw this postcard about this contest. I started thinking about the men in my life, what they’d given me, what they hadn’t. I thought about the one man who demanded the best that I could do without asking more than I could handle. I thought about the one decent man who’s stood by me when I needed it and knew when he needed to let go. All of a sudden I had to write about it. I wanted the world to know how I feel about Mr. Rupert Giles."

"And—how is that exactly?"

Buffy frowned. He still wasn’t giving anything away and she was all at once a little pissed at him. "Well, I wrote it there in my essay, didn’t I? I think you’re charming, graceful, good, kind, decent…"

"The same things might be said about the Pope," Giles responded.

"Yeah, but the Pope doesn’t get pictures like that sent to websites," Buffy purred.

"Y-yes. Quite." Now she was sure she could hear those glasses being polished. "But this contest is about a boyfriend. As you stated before, I’ve never been that to you."

"D-do you want to be?" Buffy whispered. She held her breath as she listened for the answer.

"That would depend on you. Since I’ve left you, you’ve never called and never written. You’ve left all the correspondence up to your sister. I was under the distinct impression you would be glad if I never spoke to you again." This time his voice sounded positively frosty.

"Well, I was under the impression that you didn’t care enough about me to stay. You took off when I was still reeling from being ripped out of Heaven even though I practically begged you to stay. You were just like every other guy in my life who’d pulled up stakes and took off. That didn’t sound really friendly to me."

"And yet just a moment ago, you said you thought I was wise enough to let you go when you needed it."

Drat! He’d caught her and Buffy scrambled to cover. "I admit I was really hurting Buffy when you took off. I blamed you for bailing and being no better than my dad, Angel and Riley."

"I see. I was lumped with those treacherous oafs, was I?" Now Giles was the one who sounded hurt.

"Yes. Well, no. Okay, maybe at first. But then I realized that you’d done what you thought was best. You weren’t leaving because I was suddenly too much for you to handle. You thought I could handle things myself. You didn’t know I was on the verge of a major breakdown. Nobody did."

"Major breakdown? N-no, I admit I had no idea things stood that badly with you."

Buffy blinked back tears as she remembered those awful months after Giles’s departure: her sister’s tantrums, Willow’s out-of-control magic, the hateful sex sessions with Spike. Oh yeah. Life had been the pits.

"But that’s all in the past. And when the smoke cleared from the rubble that was Buffy Summers’s life, I looked around and realized the one thing I wanted more than anything else in this world was you." She sucked in her breath. She hadn’t actually confessed her true emotions to Giles but she’d come really close just then.

"I felt that way, too. I mean, I feel that way now." There was a longish pause and this time Buffy’s Slayer ears could hear it—a distinct squeaking noise as the lenses of his spectacles were polished.

"So…since I feel that way and you feel that way, you want to meet me in New York? I understand the Plaza Hotel has a room reserved for the two of us."

"Good Lord," he muttered. "What day do you want me there?"

 

Buffy stood in the lobby as she tried to ignore the crowd swirling around her. The Harlequin people were there, fussing in the background. She’d honestly thought there would only be two or three of them. How many people did you need to photograph an amateur model anyway?

They had already taken pictures of her "for publicity purposes" Ms. Fitzgerald had assured her. Damn, why hadn’t she considered that? Her face was going to be in a magazine. What would Angel think? What would Cordelia think? The thought of the former beauty queen seeing her face splashed on a magazine cover caused Buffy a decided happy tingling.

But Giles still hadn’t arrived and Buffy felt her nervousness increasing with every passing minute. What if he’d changed his mind? What if his plane had crashed? What if he’d gotten into a pileup on the way over to the hotel? What if—?

"Wait, is that him?" The photographer held up his camera and Ms. Fitzgerald straightened up, a carefully crafted smile plastering itself to her face. Buffy stood up taller and held her breath.

It was Giles. He was casually yet well dressed in a two-piece suit and blue shirt that was opened at the top. Butterflies began fluttering in her stomach and suddenly Buffy wished she hadn’t eaten that beefsteak on her flight over. She felt faint. She thought she might throw up. She realized her vision was starting to blur a little at the edges and she took a gulping breath.

He walked over to her amidst the snapping of several flashbulbs. "Buffy."

"Giles. It-it’s good to see you again."

"Giles? You call him by his last name?" Ms. Fitzgerald asked with a puzzled glance.

Buffy began to babble. "Uh. Yeah. That’s our thing. An English thing. You know, instead of pookie or snookums, I call him Giles. It’s a couple thing."

"I told her if she ever called me Pudding again, I’d never speak to her in public," Giles added. The small upturned curve at the corner of his mouth belied the apparent seriousness of the statement.

Ms. Fitzgerald shrugged. Darned if she understood the English. "Fine. Whatever. How about you give our photographers a kiss from you two lovebirds?"

Buffy blanched. "A-a kiss? You didn’t mention we had to do kissage. Giles?"

Giles was equally dismayed. "Yes. I was told you wanted my picture. There was nothing mentioned about taking one of us together."

The woman’s smile was patient. "Well, this is supposed to be about this woman’s great and wonderful boyfriend. So I’m thinking a photo of a kiss between the two of you wouldn’t exactly be an unusual request, would it?"

"I-I see your point." Giles turned towards Buffy. "Well…sweetheart. Shall we have one kiss just to oblige these nice people?"

Buffy couldn’t tell what expression she had on her face but if it was anything like Giles’s, she must have looked as if she were facing a firing squad. But Ms. Fitzgerald was glancing at her watch and the photographers were poised. In a minute, they were going to wonder why she was so reluctant to kiss her own boyfriend. She held out her arms stiffly and said, "Sure. Why not…Pudding?"

Giles paused to glare at her and then pulled her roughly into his arms. She rose on her toes as he pressed his lips to hers. He lipped all around the curves and then she felt his tongue shyly tease the lower dent of her mouth. Her lips parted automatically and his tongue darted in swift sallies over her teeth and across the sensitive upper palate. In moments, she was swaying in his arms, getting lightheaded and dizzy, as he continued to pull expertly at her mouth.

The photographers paused and Ms. Fitzgerald stared in astonishment. "I didn’t know the English kissed like that," somebody muttered.

"I didn’t know anybody kissed like that," a hotel patron responded.

"Well, take the picture already before they stop," Ms. Fitzgerald hissed. Belatedly the men and women lifted their cameras and snapped them. Oblivious, Giles bent Buffy backwards until she had to grasp his back to keep from falling.

"Okay, people!" Ms. Fitzgerald called out and the spell was broken. Giles and Buffy parted and stared each other deeply in the eyes as the woman from Marketing came up to them. She smiled and shook the Englishman’s hand.

"Mr. Giles, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was meeting you. You too, Ms. Summers," she added.

"Same here," called out Brian the bellhop.

"Yeah. I’d say that was a keeper," the female photographer replied.

"Ditto," Buffy murmured. Giles only grinned and bent Buffy backward again in another kiss.

"Wow. I hope my next boyfriend is that great a kisser," one of the females staying at the hotel remarked.

"So do I," sighed Brian.

Buffy pulled back and said, "Do you want to go to our room now, Giles?"

He murmured, "Absolutely. I think we have—things we need to discuss."

She stepped into the elevator and pressed the button, ignoring Brian as he shuffled on with their luggage. "So how does it feel to be a romance novel ideal?"

Giles didn’t answer. He merely drew her close and kissed her again as the elevator doors slid shut.

 

Finis