'Pictures At An Exhibition'

by

A Gentleman Of Leisure.

'Fifth Movement'.

--

13.

Promenade.

"Sssh!"

"Dammit Xander, can't you keep your blasted feet under control? If you trip over again, we're bound to get ourselves arrested this time!"

"Sorry, sorry. I'm doing my best, Giles."

"He wants you to do better, Xander. Watch where you step," Willow whispered fiercely in his ear. Poor Xander tried his hardest not to move a muscle while Buffy squeezed past him, sorting through her mother's spare keys. It was almost as if they'd all been transported back to the night of their earlier visit to the 'Gallery Eye', only this time they knew exactly what they were looking for.

It was very late in the evening of the same day, or more accurately extremely early in the morning of the next, and everyone was feeling tired and stressed. A couple of hours' intense translation work on the photographs of the texts Dawn had brought them, using Giles little dictionary, had revealed something of the secret purpose behind them, and as he worked, Giles' expression had become more and more serious. Eventually Buffy and Dawn had been forced to leave for home, with a scribbled note from Giles to tell their mother they'd volunteered to help him sort books in the Library after school, and apologizing for letting them stay so late.

After they'd gone, Willow had managed to keep quiet for a while, until eventually the strain had become too much, and she'd just had to ask Giles exactly what he'd discovered. The answer had not been a welcome one. So far as he could make out, the three texts were parts of an occult ceremony intended to imbue the celebrant with dangerous magical abilities. Only the fourth part was missing - the climax - and that apparently not a very long part. Even without it there was considerable risk. A great deal of harm could be caused if the incomplete ceremony was performed - powers might be released that would be uncontrollable. Not a good situation.

"Buffy says that the exhibition is only on for another few days. It's ending on Sunday, so the sooner we do something about it the better," he'd said.

"You mean tonight really, don't you, Mr. Giles?" Willow had always been pretty quick on the uptake. "How about if I phone Buffy up, like for a chat sort of thing, and if her Mom's out of earshot I can give her the news," she'd said. "Just tell me when we should meet up. And where."

It had all been arranged in a great hurry. At a little after midnight, driving his battered old Citroen ID, Giles had collected Willow and Xander from where they had each been hiding in the bushes just outside their homes, close enough to get safely back indoors again if any vampires had appeared. Buffy had been last. Even at that late hour, Dawn had been leaning out of Buffy's bedroom front window, silently waving encouragement to them.

--

14.

'Portrait Of A Ceremony'

"Quick! Everyone inside!" Buffy ordered in a stage whisper, and they all slipped into the Gallery Eye', closing the door as quietly as they could behind them.

"Phew! I was sure the security g-guard would hear us," Willow said quietly. "When I heard him coming down the stairs I thought we were done, for sure."

"Shush. Keep still, everyone. Wait until he goes back into his rest-room," Giles whispered back. "Give him a few minutes to settle down again, then it'll be safe for us to move about. We should have about twenty minutes or so to get into the safe and decide what to do with the pictures. Loads of time."

They all stood in the darkened gallery, letting their eyes gradually become accustomed to the gloom. The only light was a small amount filtering in through the heavy venetian blinds on the huge plate glass window facing the street.

"What are we going to do with them, Giles?" Buffy asked softly.

"I'd actually like to dispose of all of them," he whispered back, "to destroy them completely, but I really don't think I could bring myself to do that to genuine works of art. Besides which, it may well be that their owners have no knowledge of their secret, so it might not really be fair." He shrugged.

"We could keep them, hide them somewhere, maybe?" Willow offered.

"How about we send them to this Watchers' Council thing you work for?" Xander suggested unexpectedly. "Wouldn't they like to have them?" They all looked at him as if he'd just scored a perfect 100 in a pop quiz - something completely unheard of.

"You know, Xander, you constantly amaze me," said Giles.

"Um, is that a bad thing?" Xander asked uncertainly.

"In this case, definitely not!" Giles told him, and smiled. "Good thinking, Batman - that's a very good idea indeed! It has the merit of taking them all out of circulation, and allowing the Council to do research on them under controlled conditions."

"And I guess the owners will get their insurance payouts too," Buffy added, "so it's all good, huh?"

"It would certainly seem to be," said Giles cautiously, "but there's no knowing what problems might still crop up."

Never were truer words spoken. They were hardly out of his mouth when a little tapping noise came from the passage outside the gallery front door.

Giles and Buffy looked at each other in horror.

"That's someone else out in the hallway keying in the entry code on the security alarm!" Buffy whispered urgently.

"Who the hell...?" said Giles. "It couldn't possibly be your mother at this time of night, I hope! Could it?"

"More burglars?" suggested Willow.

Buffy shrugged. "No idea! All I know is it's not us. We'd better get the hell out of here - like NOW!"

She grabbed hold of Xander by his jacket sleeve and rushed him as quietly as possible towards the back of the gallery. Without thinking, Willow and Giles took hold of each other's hands and hastily followed them.

Buffy hesitated by the office door, and then, apparently changing her mind, dragged Xander on towards the emergency exit at the rear, with Giles and Willow close behind. She was just reaching out to press down the emergency release bar on the fire door when Giles whispered fiercely, "Stop!"

In the faint glow filtering in through the venetian blinds from the street lights outside, he pointed forcefully towards a couple of large, pedestal-mounted metal statues close against the back wall. There was just enough room for a couple of people to squeeze themselves hastily in behind each of them, and a couple of instants later they were those people.

They all froze, trying to be as still as the statues on the plinths themselves, collectively holding their breath as the gallery door slowly, cautiously opened. There was a pause, someone said calmly, "It's OK, the guard's asleep now. He won't be bothering us for a while," and then the door quietly closed again.

Another voice said, "Why wouldn't you let us feed on him, Boss?" It was the creepiest voice Willow had ever heard in her life, and her hair suddenly tried to stand up on end. She pressed her hands over her mouth, desperately trying not to breath so loudly.

Someone carrying a flashlight walked unhurriedly through to the back part of the gallery and stopped to look around. "Here'll do fine. We'll be well away from the front window, so no chance of anybody outside seeing anything. Someone go open the safe, and bring out the other three pictures."

"Lights, Boss?"

"Certainly not! We don't want to deliberately attract attention and have late night passers-by noticing anything out of the ordinary, do we?" the voice of the person in charge said, and there was a general laugh. It sounded as if there was now a small group of people in the gallery. "Sunnydale's finest do patrol the main thoroughfare occasionally, after all, and we don't need to excite their interest, do we?"

There was a pause, during which someone at the entrance said "What about us, Boss? What do you want us all to do? Do we take part?"

"No!" the voice said sharply. "You're all on guard. Now just keep quiet and stay alert!"

"I can smell the Slayer's scent," someone announced and, in her hiding place, Buffy tensed and reached silently for her stake.

"Not surprising," the chief voice said, sounding completely unworried. "It's her mother's gallery after all, so she's in and out all the time, I guess. Now keep quiet, or I'll pick you as the sacrifice at our next ceremony!" The casual manner in which this was said made even Buffy go cold.

Willow felt Giles fishing for something in his jacket pocket. Then he was groping around in the darkness for her hand. A number of small roundish objects were carefully placed in it. More were put into her other hand a moment later. It wasn't necessary for him to tell her to hold them ready to use, whatever they were. She supposed they were some magical device to be used to subvert the mysterious ceremony that was apparently about to take place.

The sound of the safe being opened with a key came from the office, and someone brought out the three pictures.

"What do I do with them, Boss?" a voice said.

"Lay them out here, here, and here," the one addressed as 'Boss' replied, pointing at the floor with the beam of his flashlight. They couldn't see any detail of him except a vague impression of average height. "Now you, give me the fourth one,"

In the dim light reflected off the floor the hidden observers could just make out someone in silhouette opening a briefcase, taking out a small flat object and carefully unwrapped it. It was the last picture. He passed it to the 'Boss' who went down on one knee to lay it gently, almost reverently in the fourth corner of what was apparently to be a 'magical square'.

Still kneeling, he waved all the others back towards the front part of the gallery.

"Right," he said, immense satisfaction clearly audible in his voice, "now finally, finally we can begin!"

--

The four concealed observers held their breaths as the ceremony commenced. Naturally, none of them could understand the meaning of the Enochian language being used, not even Giles, so they all had to guess at exactly what was being said. The only thing they could be certain of was that it wasn't going to be a very prolonged affair - the person performing the ceremony seemed to be in quite a hurry. He obviously wanted to get it done and be away before the security guard roused himself from whatever spell had been cast on him, and realized it was time to do his round again.

After a few minutes of apparent recitation from the four texts laid out on the floor the 'Boss' started to walk round the quartet of pictures in a counter-clockwise direction, chanting slowly as he went. Most of the time the hidden watchers could see very little. Only when he was on the far side from them did the flashlight reflected from the floor show anything of his face, and Giles told himself to try to memorize it for future reference.

The voice began to rise, and it was obvious that some sort of climax was approaching. Willow was just beginning to wonder how long they would wait when Giles touched her on the shoulder and whispered in her ear very, very softly indeed, "When I say 'go', throw one lot, then the other."

Giles felt her nod, and readied his own handful.

"Go!" he said in a firm, clear voice.

The voice in the gallery heard him and stopped immediately. "What was that? Who spoke? Someone's there! Where are they? Who is it...?"

Willow hurled one of her handfuls right into the middle of the gallery and was rewarded with a series of brilliant flashes and deafening bangs like gunshots - they were a bunch of firecrackers that exploded on impact as they were scattered across the floor!

Sudden confusion and dismay gripped the intruders immediately. Someone shouted, "Run for it!", The 'Boss' yelled angrily for someone to grab the pictures, and then Giles too hurled something. There was a heavy metallic clunk as it hit the floor in the centre of the room, and then a hissing sound. Instantly the gallery started to fill with heavy, dense smoke. Then Willow threw her second handful of firecrackers, and this time it sounded like a firing squad in a thick fog.

Someone shouted again, "Get the damned pictures!" just as Giles threw another device. This time the effect was far more powerful - a brilliant flash and a really deafening bang. Willow shrieked and clapped her hands over her ears, while Giles scrambled to his feet, and charged into the darkness and smoke, yelling at the top of his voice. Buffy and Xander too had been astonished by the unexpected explosion, but they both jumped out from concealment behind their statue, and dived into the smoke, Buffy with stake at the ready. There was a muffled howl, suddenly cut short.

"It's the Slayer!" someone else shouted immediately, "Run!"

Despite the ringing in their ears, the Slayerettes could hear the intruders retreating in panic back the way they'd come, and a whole host of feet hurriedly running away down the street. Nearby, a car started up, and left thick black rubber on the road as it shot away, tyres squealing as it fishtailed round the corner into Espenson Avenue and disappeared into the night.

Then there was silence, with just the smoke swirling about, masking everything.

"Anyone got any of the pictures?" Giles said loudly, still partly deafened himself.

"One here," Xander's voice came through the gloom. He coughed heavily.

"I've got one," Buffy announced. "I think I stepped on another, but I can't find it now."

There was a thud. "Ow! I think I j-just fell over that one," Willow said unhappily.

There was a pause while everyone groped round in the gloom and fumes, unable to see much despite their own flashlights, eventually coalescing into a group in the middle of the gallery.

"Are you alright, Miss Rosenberg?"

"I'll live, thank you, Mr. Giles. B-but if you call me Miss Rosenberg again outside of school, I'll... I'll... I'll jolly well spank you, so there!"

There was a chuckle from somewhere within the smoke. "Very good, Miss... er... Willow. Point taken. As interesting an experience as that might be, I'll do my best to reserve the formality for use exclusively in an educational context."

"Thank you, Giles. And I've banged my knee, but I think it'll be OK."

"Maybe someone could kiss it better?" suggested Xander invisibly.

"Down, boy!" said Buffy, grinning.

"Did anybody get the fourth picture?" Willow said after a moment.

"Well," said Giles, "you found one. Have you got hold of it?"

" 'You bet!' said young Willow bravely," said Willow bravely.

"I've got one here," said Buffy.

"So've I," Xander said, to everyone's surprise.

"Well, I'm holding one as well, so I really think we've got a clean sweep!" said Giles. "Amazing! Congratulations, everybody!"

"The whole lot?" asked Buffy. "Really?"

"Someone, somewhere is going to be mighty pissed," Xander pointed out. "Maybe we should just get the heck out of Dodge before they decide to come back?"

"Wise words," said Giles. "The security guard will also be making the wires hum to the police station at this very moment if he's woken up after all this row, as I imagine he must have, so out of here is the very direction we should go. Bring the pictures with you."

"But three of them ought to go back in the safe," Buffy protested.

"No, no! Absolutely not! As Xander suggested earlier, the best place for them all is back in England, safe in the care of the Watchers' Council where there's no chance of them ever being misused again. I'm afraid your mother's gallery has just been burgled by art thieves, but as you pointed out, the various owners will get their insurance value in full. Well, three of them will, at any rate. Now, for goodness' sake let's scarper!"

"Let's what?" Buffy asked, puzzled, as she headed for the firedoor at the back of the gallery, a picture tucked under one arm.

"Cockney rhyming slang," said Giles. "Scapa Flow - Go!"

So they did.

--

15.

'The Finale - A Picture Of Satisfaction'

"Thank you all for helping out with mailing the paintings to England at the weekend," said Giles.

It was the following Monday evening, and the Slayerettes were once again gathered in the library after school.

"If someone had tried to send them all in one go from the main Post Office here, particularly a foreigner like me, it might have looked somewhat suspicious. Even Sunnydale's unbelievably stupid law enforcement officers might have been prompted to ask questions. After all, as art thefts go, you have to admit it was a biggie, as you young people call it."

"Pretty cool, though, driving to the next town to mail them to England!" Dawn declared.

"What if they'd stopped us at that checkpoint?" Buffy said. "Our asses would have been seriously fried! Yet you... you just did the English schoolteacher act - taking pupils on a weekend trip! Crazy!" She shook her head.

"It worked, though. I told you not to worry, didn't I?" Giles said complacently. "I had everything in hand. That chap, the 'Boss', isn't the only person who knows how to cast a glamour over things, you know."

"Oh! So that's why they just waved us through - I thought it was a bit weird. They were looking as if they couldn't really see us at all," Willow said. "It was just a mite c-creepy! Clever though, Giles. Very clever!"

"I am that, and I thank you my dear," he replied, looking just a trifle smug. "I must say though, I don't think Oxnard is nearly as attractive as Sunnydale, even allowing for the major infestation of vampires you have here. Anyway, my thanks to all of you. Very well done indeed."

"The Slayerettes are here to help and serve," said Dawn soberly, and Xander nodded in agreement. "All the same though, Mr. Giles, I do wish you'd let me go to the gallery with you guys that night," she added. "I'm sure I'd have been able to help somehow."

"But you did, my dear," Giles assured her. "The ingenious way you solved our problem about examining the texts in the paintings was masterly. Absolutely masterly."

The youngster beamed at him with visible pleasure, and Buffy patted her encouragingly on the shoulder.

"Just one thing, Giles," said Willow. "I've been meaning to ask - where did you get all those firecrackers and things we used that night? How come you just happened to have your jacket pockets full of them?"

Giles had taken off his glasses and started his ritual of cleaning them. He smiled thoughtfully.

"Hm. Well, as it happened, I'd confiscated the firecrackers from a group of eleventh graders the day before, and I just thought they might come in handy."

"You were right on the button there," Buffy said. "But what about the smoke bomb and the stun grenade?"

"Mm? Oh, I got those from a rival gang of eleventh graders. Did you never hear of the Arms Race?"

THE END.

--

Author's Notes.

1:I was originally going to write the story of Buffy's incarceration in the psychiatric ward as an even earlier Dawnverse story, with the title 'It's Always Darkest... (Before Dawn)'. There would also have been a sequel, where Dawn found out exactly what her world was really like. I hadn't yet got round to writing them, and then the subject somehow just came up in conversation in this story. So I used the idea of having Buffy tell the other Slayerettes about it as part of the explanation of how she came to be in Sunnydale, and to explain how young Dawn came to know about vampires. After all, she really was there all the time - wasn't she?

2:The story's structure is based on, and takes its title from the music of the same name, composed in 1874 by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky.

3:If you have enjoyed this story, please leave a comment in the review box, and tell your friends about it. Thank you.

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