Gender Theory

Disclaimer: Do not own a single Mutant Enemy character in this story. Not a one. So if you insist on suing me, I must warn you I have few possessions worth an hour of your lawyer's time.

Spoilers: Everything up to Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not much else.

Opening this box was going to cost him, Xander just knew it. Everyone else was knocked out, or possibly worse, and there was no one else to do the job. That's where he came in; pretty much everyone's last choice. The box was giving off Hellraiser vibes that's for sure. It was gold and black, but instead of having the black trim inlaid in the gold, the gold was inlaid in the black. Carving out words, or letters, Xander couldn't read never mind understand. Common sense told Xander not to touch the box, but it was the reason the gang attacked the underground lair and the demons within.

He was still tingly all over from the explosion of magic that made the others go night, night. If he'd been closer to Willow when she de-trapped the magic box he'd be dreaming too. Though he felt like his entire body had been used as Buffy's training dummy without sufficient padding, Xander knew he had to get moving, there was no telling when the demons' friends would show up to avenge their buds, who now littered the ground as corpses.

Xander crawled past his friends, stopping only once to gaze at the agonized expression frozen on Willow's face. The bolt of magic reflected back at her must have been a doozey. Xander thanked his lucky stars he didn't understand the kind of power Willow literally had dancing on her fingertips, or else he was certain he'd be more worried about her condition.

The Hellraiser box lie in the center of the semi-circle the others had fallen into, near Giles's hand where the Watcher fell. Xander grabbed it, well, no, he gently scooped the box up, careful not to stroke the chicken scratch lettering. He so did not want to meet Pinhead or his Hellmouth counterpart.

Pain is pleasure my ass!

Xander held the box up and studied it in the torchlight. Trying to remember Giles' explanation on how to unlock the thing, which according to the Watcher was going to reveal the mysteries of life, or what's really in hotdogs… Xander really wished he'd paid attention.

Just beyond the mouth of the cave the sound of clashing blades reached Xander's ears. Angel. The Scoobies took care of the group of demons guarding the box, while Angel watched their rear. Five demons guarded the inner sanctum, about half their number and they'd killed three before reaching the box. Angel had two demons on his hands and there wouldn't be any Calvary. Xander didn't feel happy about that. Hate, hate, hate Angel he did, but the demons were tough; stronger than your average vampire, and it didn't sit right Angel had to take two of them on his own. He was part of the team… sort of.

Xander put Angel out of his thoughts; the box was the mission. The magic Willow used to bypass it's force field worked, except for the unfortunate backlash which knocked everyone out, and that meant Xander theoretically could open the box. If he didn't, the danger they'd risked would've been for nothing.

Okay, Xander recalled Giles saying touching a series of symbols in a particular order would activate the box. Symbols that looked a lot like… Roman numerals, yeah, that's right! Xander remembered now. He rotated the box and found all four hieroglyphs—and all but one was over ten, and one through ten was as far as Xander's familiarity with Roman numerals went.

Well… dang.

Angel barely managed to dodge an axe swing when he heard his name called. "Angel!"

He was distracted so it took him way too long to recognize the owner of the voice. "What?" he shouted back as sparks from the axe blade hitting the rocks above his head rained down on his ducked head.

"What do the Roman numerals above ten look like?"

The hell… Angel quickly jumped out of the way of another axe swing just in time. Only Xander Harris could ask a question so asinine and bizarre it could make a man in the middle of a life and death struggle forget there were axes coming at him. "Are you insane!"

"The others are unconscious and I figured since you're old you probably used Roman numbers at some point and can tell me what symbols I'm supposed to press."

"Giles," dodge, "explained at," duck, parry, "the meeting," Angel said.

"Yeah, right, like I was listening! Geeze, I was supposed to be look out, not opening Pinhead's private invite to tortureville!"

What the hell is he talking about, Angel wondered? But decided it was likely nonsense Xander mistakenly thought pertinent to the situation. "Whatever, just enter 1999 and--"

"How do I do that?"

Angel dodged one demon's attack then kicked the second in the stomach, temporarily knocking it away from him. "Push the freaking symbols!"

"Hey! Don't you yell at me, Deadite! I can't calculate Roman numerals that high!"

What the hell are they teaching kids in school these days? "You're an idiot, Harris!"

"Oh, screw you! Just tell me what to push, asshole!"

"Well, I'm kind of busy fighting for my life," Angel said. "Figure it out yourself. Maybe you won't be blown up."

"Dude, I hate you beyond all reason. It's, like, not healthy how much I hate you."

"Learn to live with it for however long it takes you to blow yourself up." The truth was Angel was sure the Clock didn't blow up when the wrong date was entered, but if giving Xander the impression it did made the kid crap his pants, well, Angel so rarely got to feel happy these days…

"Hatehatehate… wait a sec… you'd never let me detonate a bomb in the same room as Buffy," Xander said. "Ha! Nice try, blood-breath. Just you wait, I'm gonna tell Giles you risked the mission just to scare me because you're totally petty!"

"I'm petty?" Angel cried and in a fierce rush of anger took the head off one of the demons. The second demon looked down at his fallen comrade, then at Angel and fear showed in the creature's yellow-in-red eyes. Angel was too busy yelling at Xander to notice.

"And you're a thousand years old, too. Grow up, man!"

Angel's face grew bumpy and a pair of fangs appeared in his mouth. He growled and made the remaining demon jump. The demon was brave and held its ground even as Angel charged in with a mighty roar and cut it in half at the waist. While the demon's guts spilled onto the soil, Angel gripped his sword tightly and tried to stop imagining going into the cavern and mixing the demon's blood with Xander's. After calming his nerves and over-developed bloodlust, Angel left the antechamber connecting the dead-end cavern to a mile long cave system.

Bodies were scattered everywhere. Xander was lying on the ground on his side. One arm supporting his torso off the earth, while his other hand held Mythr's Clock; he was intensely scrutinizing the cube and missed Angel's entrance.

Angel's face went smooth when he saw Buffy unconscious form next to Willow's. He ran to her and dropped to his knees beside Buffy and set down his sword, he heard her shallow breathing and the slow rhythm of her heartbeat. She wasn't seriously hurt from what he could detect. He brushed his hand across her cheek. He wanted to do more but only allowed himself that much contact before he moved on to Willow then Giles. Giles was fine as well, but Willow was hurt badly. A faint electrical charge surrounded her and her heartbeat was irregular. She needed medical help soon.

"Are they okay?" Xander asked when Angel finally approached him.

"What happened?"

"Magic stuff. Are they okay?"

"Willow's hurt. Her heart's going through fibrillation."

Xander looked at the girl for a long moment before Angel saw the boy's concern fortify into grim determination. "Okay. Okay, tell me how to make this thing work," he said.

Angel felt for the kid. He bent down and placed a comforting hand on Xander's shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it. Give me Mythr's Clock."

Xander looked like he was about to protest, out of habit if nothing else, but did hand to cube to Angel. Angel examined the intricately designed clock and located each numeral he needed to push. There was a slight tug on Angel's trench coat, which he ignored, knowing it was Xander. But a second later he was almost pulled to the floor when the tug became a hard yank. Bracing his legs Angel looked down and saw Xander hoisting himself up from the ground using Angel's coat like a rope.

"Don't give me that look, Dead Boy Walkin'," Xander said as he straightened up beside Angel. He clutched the back of the coat and Angel's arm to keep on his feet, his head leaning on the vampire's shoulder. "You coulda helped me up."

Angel frowned but didn't say anything. Xander was staring at Mythr's Clock; a clear look of worry upon his countenance, and Angel thought it cold-hearted to throw him back to the ground. Angel took his gaze from Xander and looked down at the clock and began tapping off the numbers in order: MCMXCIX. Nothing happened.

Xander, his head now comfortably propped on Angel's shoulder, said, "I'm severely under-whelmed."

"I don't understand." Angel re-entered the sequence of numbers and, again, nothing happened.

"Shake it," Xander suggested helpfully.

Angel pushed Xander off him and the kid dropped like a stone. "Ow! You dork!" No matter how many times Angel entered the numbers the clock remained unresponsive. "Seems like I wasn't the only one not listening to Giles," Xander taunted from the ground.

"Please shut the hell up," Angel responded absently, more focused on Mythr's Clock than Xander's insolence.

"Look, forget the box and get Willow to the hospital."

"You know I can't do that. If I don't get the thing working we're going to have an Apocalypse on our hands!"

"What else is new? Willow needs help now!" Xander demanded pulling on Angel's coat to snatch the vampire's attention from the Clock.

"There can't be more to it," Angel said aloud, but not to Xander who he thoroughly ignored. "Giles said he just needed to enter the numerals then Mythr's Clock would be reset."

"Angel…" Xander tugged on Angel's coat.

"Maybe it is reset? No, the box opens and shows when it goes off again."

"Angel…" followed by a more insistent tug on Angel's coat.

"Quiet, Xander. Damn it, I know I haven't forgotten a word of what Giles said about the Clock! But if it's not working I must have missed something, but what?"

Xander abandoned coat yanking and shouted, "Angel!"

"What the hell do you want?" the vampire snarled, glaring down at the Xander.

Xander glared right back. "Has it occurred to you maybe Giles doesn't know everything about the box?" he asked.

"Clock. It's a clock."

"Sure it is, a clock in the shape of a box. Listen, I know I'm talking crazy, I mean, Giles not knowin' stuff? Wacky. But what if he's Special Ed. when it comes to the box?"

"You don't know what you're talking about. He and I poured over every book and scroll having to do with the Clock. We didn't miss anything."

"You're holding one box-clock that says otherwise."

Angel hated to admit it, but Xander had a point. Mythr's Clock should have responded by now. And in less than twenty minutes when the Clock ticked down to zero it would set off a chain of events leading to unimaginable catastrophe. The world would descend into utter chaos. Which is what the Clock contained: Chaos in its purist form. Untainted, unfocused, and worst of all, utterly unpredictable—the way chaos tends to be.

"I need Giles," Angel said before walking over to the Watcher. Angel didn't want to disturb Giles, he knew the best thing to do when magic is involved is to allow that magic to run its course; waiting a spell out, if possible, was better than trying to interrupt it. But the Clock couldn't wait.

"No need to wake Rupert, my good man. I'll be more than happy to lend a helping hand."

From his vantage point on the ground Xander couldn't see who was talking to Angel because the vampire's body blocked his view. "Hey, who's that?"

Angel was ignoring him again and took a threatening step towards the intruder.

"No need to get physical, young man," a British guy said, a British guy with a familiar voice. "Or should I say old man?"

"Who are you?"

"A friend of Rupert down there…"

"Who just happens to be visiting an underground labyrinth overrun with demons?"

"Believe me, Ripper and I handled our share of demons. Demons certainly more feisty than these poor, unfortunate creatures."

"You're that guy!" Xander shouted, suddenly remembering whom the British voice belonged to. "Angel, seriously, kill this guy! He's totally evil and up to no good!"

"Oh, I didn't see you there. Xander, isn't it? I assure you, you need not worry about me, I wouldn't dream of being "up to no good" with a dangerous vampire like your Angel around."

"Xander, who is he?"

"Remember when you had to take that demon inside you? The one that possessed… Ms. Calendar? He's the guy that tried to get it to kill Buffy in his place."

"Oh, dear," the British guy said. "That was so long ago…"

"And that Halloween when everybody turned into their costumes, that was him, too, I think. Oh yeah, and the Band Candy incident? All his fault."

"I take exception to that one," the evil British guy scoffed. "I was freelancing that nasty piece of work. Hired for my special brand of--"

"Chaos," Angel finished.

"Hah-Ha. You understand how I might be able to help you, then."

"You're here for the Clock. To make sure it goes off." Angel took another threatening step.

"No, no, no, I simply want to reset the Clock for you… and borrow a portion of its power. A small bit, mind you."

"We do not believe you, British guy," Xander said. He'd crawled into a position on the ground where he could see the Chaos Wizard. Yep, definitely that's him: Thin, dark hair graying at the temples, sly-faced. He wore a dark blue knit shirt and light colored slacks and black shoes. The wizard looked very none-threatening if you didn't know what he was capable of.

"I don't blame you, young man. However only I can reset the Clock, unless you prefer a world overrun by chaos?"

"Like you wouldn't?" Xander accused.

"Certainly not! Well, not chaos my god nor I have a hand in."

"I think we'll stick with Giles. You know, the guy who hasn't tried to kill us," Xander said.

"How do you plan to get the Clock to work?" Angel asked the wizard.


"I intend to reset the Clock then siphon off a portion of its power," Rayne answered evasively.

Angel growled. "How?"

"If I told you that would you need me?"

"I can get it out of you," Angel said.

"Force?" the wizard said the waved away Angel's threat. "Certainly it's in all our best interests to make one small concession. After all, physical intimidation takes time. You don't have time."

"I can't believe this guy," Xander muttered, a little awed. He remembered what Angel did to Giles to get him to talk and the Chaos Wizard had to know what vampires like Angel are capable of, but he was pretty much thumbing his nose at the prospect of Angel torturing him. The guy may look scrawny, but he had some huge balls on him. If Angel threatened to torture him for information Xander was pretty sure he'd be spilling his guts about stuff as far back as second grade, like when he peed on himself during P.E after Larry Blaisedale promised to beat him up after school.

"And let's not forget you may not wake Rupert in time."

Since he wasn't getting a vote, Xander remained silent and waited for Angel to decide. Besides, he didn't know what to do anyway; he just knew he didn't trust the Warlock. Angel walked over to the wizard and placed the box in the man's outstretched hand. The wizard smiled wickedly and didn't even try to look like he wasn't going to betray them. Xander couldn't recall meeting anyone who looked as untrustworthy as this guy did.

"If you screw us, I'll show you what I can do when I have all the time in the world."

Xander felt a chill run through him at Angel's menacing tone. Damn it, why is nobody in Angel's fan club ever around, or conscious, when he says stuff like that? The wizard moved past Angel and came to where Xander lay. He looked down at Xander and gave him a look that was pure creepy.

"Hello, little boy." Xander gulped and scooted away from the man, or tried to. He was actually too achy to drag himself more than a few inches.

"Leave him alone, Rayne," Angel said, walking up behind the wizard, past him and blocked his path to Xander. Ethan Rayne, that's right, Xander remembered his name now. Rayne laughed.

"Actually, I need this young man's help."

"What for?" Xander and Angel asked at the same time.

Rayne gave the pair a deep frown. "Hmm. It seems Rupert truly lacks access to some of the darker tomes regarding Mythr's Clock. Such as Mythr's very own manual, which I happen to have in my possession."

"You have it?" Angel exclaimed. Angel sounded impressed.

"Certainly," Rayne declared proudly. "I am a Chaos Wizard after all, and Mythr was one of my forbearers."

"Still not getting why I need to be involved," Xander said.

Rayne moved and stood next to Angel, got down on one knee and held his hand out to Xander. "Come now, young man, I intend to hurt you only slightly."

"Aren't you supposed to say you won't hurt me?" Xander asked, ignoring the wizard's outstretched hand.

"What are you going to do to him?" Angel asked, though the way he asked didn't make him sound too concerned for Xander's welfare. Very perfunctory, like how someone might sound when know they should be empathetic, aren't, but want to sound like they are because that's what's expected. Basically? Angel sounded like a psychopath.

"I just need a few drops of blood."

"Back off, freak, use your own!"

Rayne pulled his hand back and chuckled. "That would be quite the trick, wouldn't it? I lack, shall we say, the virtue necessary."

"Ah," Angel said, "let me guess: virgin's blood?"

Hah! They're in for a surprise! Xander crowed silently. Almost glad he lost his virginity to Faith… eventual strangulation aside, so yeah, almost.

"No, the essence of the uncorrupt. Which, of course, takes you and I out of the running."

Angel nodded. "I guess Xander might meet that criteria," he acknowledged dryly.

"Don't sound so convinced there, Angel," Xander remarked, frowning.

"Right, shall we proceed then?" Rayne said, holding his hand out to Xander again.

Xander pinned the man with a deadly stare. "Screw you."

"We don't have time for such a dalliance, maybe we can work something out later, if you like…"

Xander stared at the warlock blankly. He did not just hear that. He was having an auditory hallucination, that's all. Creepy wizard guy did not proposition him. Mmmm, mmm, la la la la la!

"Give him your hand, Xander," Angel said.

Unnerved and off-balanced by Rayne's innuendo, Xander thoughtlessly put out his hand as ordered. Rayne materialized a wicked looking knife in his right hand from somewhere, the glow from the cavern's torch light made the five inch blade glint. Xander snatched his hand back and glared up at Angel.

"Oh, you'd just love that, to see me get my throat slit, wouldn't you?" Xander shouted to mask his sudden, stinky fear.

Angel had the temerity to look affronted. "I would not!"

"Would too!"

"I guess we can't force the lad to participate," Rayne broke in before Xander and Angel could continue their lively and intelligent debate. The wizard turned around and eyed the unconscious Scoobies. "We'll have to take an alternate. The witch will do nicely."

Xander and Angel looked at the wizard then at each other. Angel's face was impassive; Xander had to give Angel a few points for not smirking at the crappy situation Xander was in. Xander bore his gaze into Rayne's back, wishing looks could kill and said, "You evil sum bitch. I'll do it."

Rayne faced them again with a huge smile on his face. "Excellent. And by the way, I don't need to slit your throat, a simple cut to the palm of you hand should suffice," he said and set the box on the ground between himself and Xander. "Give me your hand."

Xander took a deep, calming breath and held out his hand. There was a flash of glinting metal and a harsh sting on his palm. "Ah!" Xander gasped and snatched his hand back, hissing he looked at his hand and saw a pool of dark red blood already forming in his palm.

"Put your hand over the Clock and let the blood cover as much of its surface as possible," Rayne said.

Xander moaned and cradled his injured hand, watching his blood start to drip down from between his fingers and over the edges of his palm. "Please," he replied quietly.

"What's that?"

"You could at least say please."

"Xander, just do as he says," Angel said.

Xander's gaze switched to Angel so he could snap at him, but Xander was struck silent when he found the vampire investigating his bloody hand a little too closely. Great, I have one evil dude wanting to hump me while the part-time evil guy wants to turn me into a Slurpie.

Xander quickly looked away from Angel and placed his palm above the box. It didn't take long before the blood gushing from the gash coated the top surface of the gold and black cube. Xander was about to pull his hand away but Rayne caught his wrist and held Xander's hand in place. His grip was like an iron trap, and hurt, making Xander's breath hitch. "Let the blood flow," he said softly, the rough pad of his thumb brushing against Xander's skin.

And flow it did, until Xander felt a little faint. As dark red spilled over the four other exposed surfaces of the box a yellow glow emitted from the sliver-spots where blood didn't yet reach. A low-pitched clicking from the box followed, reminding Xander of the sound gears make inside old-fashion Wind-up clocks. Huh, I guess it is a clock, Xander thought.

"O-Okay, I think that's enough blood," Angel said after the light emanating from the box disappeared, and Xander's blood hit the ground and oozed into a moat around the cube. When Rayne released his wrist Xander risked another glance at Angel and saw the mesmerizing effect of the blood had worn off the vampire.

Rayne handed Xander a crisply folded white handkerchief, and as Xander used it to tend his wounded appendage the blood on the box seeped into its gold inlay and disappeared; even the blood puddle surrounding the cube got sucked up inside without leaving a speck of dampness behind in the earth. Then the box broke apart into five sections reveling a narrow, transparent cylinder. Inside the cylinder Xander saw dozens of metal gears of varying sizes and colors winding. Nowhere on the thing did he see the face of a clock, though. Next, very slowly, the cylinder began to darken like a photosensitive lens until it turned solid black, and on top of the cylinder a line of dark red lettering appeared: MMMXCIX.

"Ah, eleven hundred years, is it?" Rayne said. "A bit over a millennium. Nothing we need worry about."

Rayne touched the script with the fore and middle fingers of his right hand and began chanting in a language that sounded suspiciously like Pig Latin to Xander. He was convinced Rayne was speaking gobbledygook until Angel said, "What do you mean, 'I shall let all chaos reign supreme'?" Xander heard alarm in the vampire's voice. Angel finally figured out Rayne was a shady bastard and they shouldn't have trusted him and he was about to stab them in the back.

Rayne continued chanting and Xander felt the tiny hairs on his skin rankle, while the fillings in his teeth flooded his mouth with the tang of metal. Angel tried to pull Rayne from the box but Rayne wouldn't budge. It was as if he were a statue that weighed more than even a vampire could move. And he never stopped chanting. Angel gave up trying to move Rayne and rushed to Xander, picked him up and set him farther away from the wizard down among the Scoobies.

"I think it's time to get the hell out of here," Xander said when he saw Angel about to continue his useless struggle to remove Rayne from the Clock.

"I have to stop him."

"You guys made a deal, remember? He resets the Clock," Xander hated calling the box that, but evidence to the contrary proved it was a clock, "and he gets some of its juice."

"Believe me when I tell you it's a bad thing when Chaos Wizards start talking about chaos reigning supreme," Angel said.

"No kidding, but we can't stop him right now anyway, and the longer you try the worse Willow gets. Besides, what if he decides to kill everybody when he's done shootin' up on steroids? Maybe we shouldn't be stacked in a neat pile."

Angel pondered this for a moment then nodded and scooped up Buffy. "Willow first, Angel," Xander said, voice tight as a noose. His temper rising when he saw the temptation on Angel's face to ignore everybody else to save his girlfriend. But to Xander's surprise Angel put Buffy down gathered up Willow and ran out of the cavern with her. While the vampire was gone Xander watched Rayne begin to glow with a soft white light, his chanting rising in crescendo and speed. Obviously the wizard was building towards something explosive. Xander felt magic charge the air, which meant there was a lot of power involved because even he could sense it.

Minutes later Rayne was still going and Angel returned. He grabbed Buffy and Xander didn't protest this time. He was sure Giles would agree Buffy needed to get to safety before him. Xander certainly wanted her out before himself. Angel was gone in a flash. Rayne was screaming his spell by the time Angel returned a second time, and the light surrounding him was nearly blinding.

"Giles!" Xander shouted to be heard over Rayne's voice. Xander knew Giles definitely had to be around to help them understand what Rayne was pulling off. Angel seemed to agree.

Xander was counting the seconds until Angel came back for him. Judging from the vampire's previous trips, Xander had four minutes to go before sweet freedom was his. He couldn't even look at Rayne now, so he turned his face away and bound the kerchief around his hand like a bandage. Then the light began to strobe and eventually flickered out altogether. Xander eyes needed a few moments to adapt to the dimmer torchlight. When his vision could make out shapes and dimensions he saw Rayne standing and the Clock back to its original configuration on the ground. Rayne looked at Xander and smiled. Hinky is what Xander'd call that smile.

"Hey, man! A deal's a deal, heh," Xander said with a whole bunch of camaraderie, but inside his head was pleading for Angel to get the lead out. "I guess you'll be going now to do whatever it is you evil Chaos Wizards do."

Rayne didn't reply. He continued to stare at Xander, and Xander noticed the man's body was swaying a little. Uh-oh, looks like somebody's drunk with power. Well, great! 'Cause nobody ever does anything bad when they're hammered!

"You know you look very vulnerable laying there," Rayne said. "It's very arousing." To illustrate, Xander's eyes couldn't help but notice the bulge in front of Rayne's tan slacks swelled.

"Mr. Rayne, I think you're kind of confused right now, so why don't you take a step back, " Rayne took a step forward instead, "and, uh, calm down. Please?"

The wizard suddenly appeared beside Xander, kneeling, one arm supporting Xander's upper body, and positioned his other arm above Xander's chest. His fingertips began slowly tracing up and down between Xander's pectorals. He said, "You know chaos isn't always a negative thing. Chaos is where all possibilities get their beginning." Rayne's voice was somewhere between Giles's lecturing tone and hypnotic. Xander opened his mouth to say something but there was a distracting warmth spreading from the invisible lines Rayne's fingertips drew on his chest.

"And from possibilities anything can be born."

Xander watched Rayne's fingers stroke the front of his shirt. They felt so hot those fingers and poured that weird heat through his skin and into his lungs. "What are you doing?" he asked the warlock, every word was a gust of flame rolling off his tongue.

"Opening you up to the possibilities," Rayne answered and placed his hand flat against Xander's stomach. Xander gasped as heat filled his belly like he'd chugged a mug of piping hot coffee. Rayne's hand slipped further down bringing that heat to Xander's abdomen. Xander tried to gasp but simply had no more breath left. Then Rayne raised his hand until just his fingertips remained in contact with Xander's body and moved them to Xander's groin. Now he found the air to scream as fire consumed his genitals; but the funny thing was it didn't hurt at all. The sensation was beyond any feeling of burning Xander could understand. It almost felt natural, like…

Rayne covered Xander's mouth with his and sucked the breath right out of Xander's lungs. His tongue licking here, there, everywhere—and Xander let him, probably couldn't have stopped him the way his brain was working, which was not at all. He closed his eyes and tried to figure out what was happening to him.

Then Rayne was a dragon breathing fire into Xander's mouth, down his throat, the heat clashing with the pyre already churning within him, meeting somewhere in the middle… and exploded. Xander felt like he was combusting from the inside out, but it still didn't hurt. Immolation was nothing like he imagined it to be. Xander writhe on the ground, sweat and other fluids pouring from his body until his clothes were soaked through and he was lying in a muddy puddle. Rayne took his mouth away and stroked his heatless fingers through Xander's hair soothingly.

"This will be so exciting, pet, you'll see," he said.

Xander tried to open his eyes, but the goop on his face made the process slow and painful as the fluid oozed stingingly into his eyes. Rayne was a dim, ill-defined figure in front of him. "Please, stop…" Xander said.

"Yeah, please stop."

Angel entered the cavern and saw Rayne leaning over Harris while the teenager pleaded. Angel ran and swung his fist at the warlock's face. "Yeah, please stop," he said as the blow sent Rayne flying to the back of the cavern. Angel looked down at Harris and saw her covered in a liquid that smelled like afterbirth. "Angel," she whispered when she saw him. The weakness in her usually assured voice brought out the chivalrous streak in Angel.

Angel leaned down to pick her up, but stopped when he felt Rayne directly behind him. Stunned Rayne could sneak up on him so quickly and quietly Angel turned and swung his fist around to strike the wizard. Rayne leaned back and avoided the punch though, straightened and pressed his right hand flat against Angel's chest. Then a cold so deep and biting it hurt pierced through Angel and brought him to his knees. He almost didn't recognize what the feeling was. The closest he's come recently to experiencing legitimate cold was just before he lost his soul.

"I had no idea, Lord Janus," Rayne said, his voice reverent, jubilant. Angel looked up at the wizard from his knees and saw Rayne holding a yellowish ball of light in the palm of his hand. "I never dreamed such power lie in your domain."

Angel shivered wondering what Rayne held in his hand, and then he noticed a faint tendril of light leading from the ball of light to the center of his chest. "Oh, no! God, no," Angel cried. Rayne looked down at the vampire, his features eerily distorted by the glow emanating from Angel's soul.

"Don't worry, your soul-less antics are not my brand of chaos," Rayne said. "As a matter of fact, I think it might be interesting to see what kind of mess I can make giving you your soul, and so much more."

The blood in Angel's body was freezing, taking muscle with it. He didn't want any part of what Rayne had in store for him but he couldn't move. He could only watch as the wizard placed his other hand above Angel's soul and send a stream of blue light into it. The yellow and blue light warred for a few moments before deciding to coexist and swirled together in slow, yin-yang fashion. Rayne studied his handy work and smiled, then said, "I think this will do nicely."

Rayne theatrically blew on Angel's soul and it fluttered into Angel's chest, and warmth immediately returned to his body. Angel bowed his head in relief and gasped for much unneeded breath. When he raised his head Ethan Rayne was gone.

Angel stood and ran to Harris and scooped her up with his arms, took one last look around the cavern and realized Mythr's Clock was also missing. Cursing silently, Angel knew he couldn't do much about the missing artifact and left. He needed to make sure Rayne didn't make his way to the entrance and find the spot where Angel left the others to retrieve Harris. As he ran Angel wondered why he left the girl alone with the wizard in the first place. Giles would have been safer with Rayne.

Coming upon the cave system's entrance, Angel slowed and carefully slinked to the opening. When he was satisfied Rayne did not lie in wait he exited and jogged with Harris still in his arms to a small copse of trees where he placed his unconscious comrades. He was happy to see Buffy stirring, mumbling something about not wanting to wake up.

Angel set Harris down beside Giles. Harris was unconscious. Angel inspected his hands and sniffed them. The slimy substance transferred from Harris's clothes did smell like afterbirth, and once again Angel wondered what the hell happened to the girl. But since she didn't appear injured he forgot about her and checked Buffy. He placed his hand on the Slayer's shoulder and shook her gently, and after a moment or two she regained consciousness.

"Wow, what happened?"

"I'm not sure. Antonia said some magic hit you. How you feeling?"

Buffy did some quick internal inventory on herself. "I'm okay. What about the others?"

"Giles is good, but Willow needs medical attention. Harris is alright, as far as I can tell."

Buffy found her feet and rushed to Willow, as she assessed her friend's well being Giles was beginning to wake to the world. Buffy looked at Angel, her eyes glistened with concern for Willow. "Can you watch them while I get Willow to the hospital?"

"I know you're strong and fast, but I have a better idea," Angel replied.

Buffy gave the vampire a questioning glance as he knelt beside Harris and turned the girl on her side. Angel saw the small, square protrusion in the rear pocket of her blue jeans. Looking up at Buffy with a sheepish expression, Angel eased his hand into the pocket and pulled out the girl's cell phone. He tossed the phone to the Slayer and she deftly caught it in midair, she did not look happy with him. Buffy flipped the contraption open dialed 911 and asked for an ambulance. While she gave the dispatcher directions, Giles struggled up to awareness.

"Bloody hell, not again," the Watcher muttered, holding his hand to his forehead. Giles bolted upright. "Mythr's Clock!" he shouted.

"Gone. Ethan Rayne has it," Angel said.

"Good Lord, how did that happen?" Angel recounted to the Watcher everything that happened after Angel tried and failed to reset the Clock right up until he left the cavern with Willow, and then the snippets of information he noted retrieving Buffy and the Watcher and finally Harris. He left out the disturbing soul removal part, however. Angel wasn't sure how Giles would react, considering the last time Angel lost his soul a bunch of people died, including the woman the Watcher was in love with. Giles mulled over what Angel related then said, "I'll have to research much of what Ethan claimed, but it makes sense Mythr might place something like a "sacrificial barrier" on the Clock. We might never truly know what Ethan gained from siphoning power from it."

"I didn't see any other way to reset the Clock, if I had I wouldn't have given it to him."

"I'm not blaming you, Angel. Nothing of the sort, you had no choice."

"Are you okay, Giles?" Buffy asked, Harris's cell still in her hand but closed. Buffy was sitting on the ground legs extended, and had Willow's head resting on her lap.

"Quite alright. Willow?"

"I don't know, but an ambulance is on the way. Should be here in ten minutes."

"And Miss Harris?"

"Unconscious. I'm pretty sure Rayne did something to her, but I can't tell what," Angel answered.

"We'll tell the paramedics to look at her after they diagnose Willow," Giles said.

Xander snuggled into the bed beneath him and made sure the warm blanket over him covered every inch of his body, especially his feet. Except for a slight pinching in his left forearm, Xander was comfy. He was close to waking up but refused to give in to the urge to open his eyes. He was good at finding sleep in situations like this, good at finding ways to snatch a few more moments of sleep before his alarm clock bellowed at him. It was thinking about a clock that dredged up memories from the previous night.

He jerked up then jerked backward and covered his eyes with his forearm to block out the stark brightness in his bedroom. "Gakk! Shazbot!" Xander grunted, and thought he might have some idea what vampires went through when they got a dose of sunlight. Sans the burning and smoking, of course. After blinking away the blobby spots on his retinas, Xander saw he was not in his bedroom, but in a hospital room. "'Splains why the sheets smell so spankin' fresh," he said murmured. His voice sounded croaky.

During a hearty yawn and some stretching Xander saw why his left forearm felt pinched. After looking over the IV line taped to a vein in his forearm Xander noticed his arm looked really, really scrawny and pale below the sleeve of his hospital gown… a hospital gown with pink flower print. Oooo-Kay. It was curious, of course, but then he noticed the TV attached to a small platform bolted to the ceiling and wall across from his hospital bed. Sufficiently distracted, Xander searched for the remote, wondering if his room had cable.

Xander was flipping through channels when a male nurse came into the room. Xander barely glanced at the nurse before he resumed avid television watching. "How are you feeling?" the nurse asked.

Xander grunted. He decided to find the Cartoon Channel. They always had on something worth watching.

"Uh, the doctor said you'll be off the Rehydralyte drip in no time. Can I get you another pillow?"

Xander shook his head. He found the Cartoon Channel and settled into an episode of Cow and Chicken. "How about some lunch? You missed the cart, but I can run down to the Cafeteria and pick you up something," the nurse said.

Xander thought about eating for a second, but dismissed the notion. He wasn't really hungry. He shook his head and focused on the TV again.

"Well, uh, okay. But if you need anything I'm just a button push away. My name is Danny, by the way."

The nurse was getting on Xander's nerves with his overly eager chatting and Xander wanted to ignore him until he went away. However he tore his gaze from the TV and acknowledged Danny with a polite smile. Xander had manners; he wasn't born in a barn, despite his mother's claims. The nurse was young, like twenty-something, freckled and redheaded. Danny looked like Opie Taylor all grown up, or at least the way Xander imagined the kid would grow up to look before Ron Howard totally screwed his prediction. The blue scrubs Danny wore hung loosely on his skinny frame. Xander said, "Nice to meet you. Name's Xa--"

Xander's voice broke off when his ears registered the way his voice sounded. He sounded so squeaky, like a girl. He cleared his throat and tried again. "My name is…" Nope, he still sounded like a girl.

"Antonia, I know. I read your chart," Danny said.

Xander stared at the nurse like he was crazy. Danny smiled brightly and came to stand by Xander's bed. "Like I said, if you need anything just press the call button and I'll come running."

Xander stared at the guy for a beat longer before he looked down and saw the front of his hospital gown had two protruding bumps that shouldn't have been there. And how the hell did he miss these… these… "Oh, my God! I got breasts!" Xander cried and grabbed the collar of his gown and pulled it away from his throat and looked down his front.

"Uh, excuse me?" Danny asked.

Xander looked back up, panic-stricken. "I've been given breasts! This hospital gave me breasts! You bastards!" he screamed.

Danny looked confused and backed away from the bed. "You weren't given any cosmetic surgery. You were admitted for acute dehydration and a laceration on your hand," he said soothingly, because he was obviously dealing with an unstable woman.

Xander didn't hear a word the nurse said because a horrific thought came to him. Throwing the blanket down to his knees, Xander gulped and with a lot of trepidation reached down and felt his crotch. He was definitely lacking bulge. Feeling faint, Xander squeaked, an honest to goodness squeak only a female, or a testicle-less men can accomplish, and collapsed onto his pillow. His vision was going dark and he felt cold all over. They took his penis. It was in a jar sitting on a shelf someplace… like a pale pickle. OhGodOhGodOhGod! Just before Xander slipped into a psychosomatic coma, he guessed in a year or two—assuming he didn't shoot himself first—he'd be a rich transsexual, because he was going to sue the hospital into oblivion.

Xander opened his eyes slowly, just a crack, he felt fingers gently brushing through his hair. His mother was sitting beside the bed; her expression was warm and gentle. He smelled the faint scent of moist flowers, his mother's perfume. And a hint of an aloe based moisturizer, which his mom applied religiously to her skin. Wrinkles thrive on dry skin, his mom claimed. His mother noticed his eyes were open and she took her hand away and placed it in her lap beside the other. The expression on her face was unreadable now. It was cold and very still.

"How are you, Antonia?"

Xander blinked at his mother's clipped voice. He didn't know why she was calling him Antonia or why her voice was so cool towards him. He was used to her nit-picky, passive aggressive tone and to some lesser extent her whiny, drunk too much wine voice, and this tightly controlled coldness from her was entirely something new. His mother frowned, an air of impatience surrounding her, still waiting for Xander to answer.

"Uh, I'm fine. Fine." The sound of Xander's voice brought back the fact he now had bosoms and no penis. He felt woozy. He was going to pass out again.

"Good. Your father is talking to the doctor. He's very worried about you."

"Is that right? I guess it's a good thing he's already in a hospital then, with him on the verge of a crack overdose and all," Xander said, quipping on autopilot while he staved off fainting. His mother's frown deepened to almost anatomical improbability.

"There's my little girl!"

Xander turned his head and saw his father rushing toward him, grinning like a mad man. Before Xander could get a word out he was enveloped in a mighty hug. It was then Xander realized not only did he have breasts but he possessed a smaller frame as well. His dad's embrace practically swallowed him up and felt bone crushing.

"Hi… Dad," Xander greeted haltingly, this much affection coming from his dad was freaking him out. Hell, that the man bothered to show up to see him in the hospital at all was extremely odd, like Hellmouth odd.

Anthony Harris' hug tightened a little more before he released Xander and moved away. Xander flinched when he got a good look at his dad. For one, the tall, burly man appeared years younger than Xander remembered him ever looking. There was more dark blond hair on top his head, and his skin, usually rough-looking with a perpetual five-o'clock shadow and gin-blossoms, was clean-shaven and clear. Anthony's face had the same amount of age lines, but more of them originated from laughter, not years of hard alcohol abuse and bitterness.

"What's wrong, kiddo?" Anthony asked, flicking his thumb lightly across the tip of Xander's nose. The pad of his dad's thumb was soft.

"Nothing." Xander could still feel the tingle of his dad's touch on his nose and bowed his head and looked down at the swell of his shiny new breasts. Out the corner of his right eye, Xander noticed strands of dark red hair. He lifted his right hand and held the strands between his thumb and forefinger. Xander was a redhead, like his mother. Obviously everything is wrong and Xander was the only one aware of it. Xander was well versed in science fiction and he figured he was in an alternate reality, a reality where he happened to be a girl named Antonia. And his dad likes him… sorry, her.

So the question is how did this happen? Duh, stupid question, Ethan Rayne was responsible for Xander's current situation. Sending Xander to a different dimension and pouring him into his female doppelganger's body must have taken a massive effort of magic on the wizard's part, so the boost Rayne got from the box-clock must have been substantial—like Godzilla substantial.

Under normal circumstances Xander's first and only option would be to run like a little gir— baby to Giles, but given how he was in another reality or dimension or whatever, Giles could be a complete stranger here or not in the United States at all. If Buffy was a Slayer the odds of Giles being in the hemisphere went up significantly. Unless Buffy was dead… the thought chilled Xander and he shivered. No, no use thinking like that! Let's be positive, okay? Xander scolded his pessimistic side. Okay, positive… this world probably doesn't have demons at all… or could be ruled by a secret Cabal of demons that kidnap people off the street and have them for dinner. And, okay, so Xander wasn't the most positive person in the world, he was well aware of this. But the fact couldn't be ignored Xander might find this world to be completely different than his own. If his dad acted like Ward Cleaver and, let's face it, wasn't three sheets to wind by now then the limits to the freakiness were boundless.

"There is something wrong, young lady," Jessica Harris snapped, breaking Xander out of his thoughts.

Xander let go of his hair, looked at his mother and saw the same cool expression she'd worn when Xander woke up from his self-imposed coma. Her smooth, slender fingers locked together over her lap, her knees pressed together so tight you'd think she was wearing a skirt instead of a navy blue pantsuit.

"Honey," Anthony began, "she just woke up, let her alone."

Jessica shot a scathing glare at the man. Xander flinched and he wasn't even its target. His dad met the stare steady enough but didn't look like he wanted to volunteer more protests and fell silent. Wow, Xander expected a full-blown screaming match. Tony Harris never backed down from confrontation, and there was definitely an 'I dare you to keep talking' flavor to Jessica's glare.

"I for one would like to know why our daughter was running around the foot hills at all hours of the night, without permission!" Jessica said.

"I'm sure she has her reason--" Anthony started.

"Oh, for God's sake! You're always making excuses for her poor behavior, Tony! In case you haven't noticed she's laid up in the hospital and I demand an explanation as to why that is!"

Xander was at a loss, what could he to come up with so off the cuff? He remembered from his reality how Buffy and Willow thought up lies to tell their parents when they got hurt badly enough to warrant a hospital stay, but the few times he'd been hospitalized he never once needed to come up with an excuse for concussions or broken bones to tell his folks. That obviously wasn't going to fly here, his mom wanted an answer.

Explaining staying out late was easy, but the dehydration was going to be a problem. Wait. Dehydration happens when your body loses a lot water, right? Xander considered. So maybe I can say I went hiking and forgot to bring water. Xander mentally chided himself. Yeah, right, because I take midnight hikes all the time! That's stupid… wait; maybe girl-me might get away with something like that. Xander decided to try the lie out.

"I went for a hike and got lost."

Jessica's eyes pinned Xander and he saw that his excuse set off his mother's BS O'meter. "You went hiking. That's your excuse?"

Dad's always telling me to take a hike, Xander nearly blurted before he choked off the words. That might have been true where he came from, but here it wasn't God's Honest. "Well, yeah. It ended up that way. I just needed some time alone to think…" Xander said, then he had a burst of inspiration. "I'm graduating this year and I wanted to consider my options."

The best lies are always the ones mixed with the truth. Xander was pondering his upcoming graduation and what kind of future he was going to have. Willow and Buffy were off to college. The best schools in the world were seducing Willow, and Buffy already got her acceptance letter from Sunnydale University. Xander suspected his post-high school life was going to involve Burger World or their only real competitor in Sunnydale, Double Meat Palace.

Jessica suddenly looked pale and her lips pressed together so hard they were whiter than the rest of her face. Aware he made a mistake, Xander looked at his dad and saw a similar look of dismay on Anthony's face. "Are you saying you're reconsidering your enrollment at UCLA?" Jessica asked.

"UCLA?" Xander parroted back at his mother.

"I suggest you reconsider again, young lady! Your father and I have already paid for two years worth of tuition. It's non-refundable."

Xander quite simply had no response to that.