Xander knew exactly when it happened - when he first tasted desolation, and realized that the world was never, ever going to be the same. It was the night Jesse died. Not even a week into their friendship with Buffy and someone was already dead. He cried silently in bed that night, the taste of ashes in his mouth and the deconstruction of his best friend's face reeling and unreeling in his head. A scene worthy of a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster and all his, to cherish forever. Xander remembered lying there and hating everyone. But mostly hating Buffy, for making it all real - for embodying the worst moment of his life. He hadn't thought he'd be able to face her the next day at school without wanting to slap her. He armored his heart in ice, that night - ice to keep the sullen rage from blasting everyone around him, and ice to keep the burning pain of loss from consuming him.
But after a few days he knew that Buffy hadn't actually caused any of it - her presence had just made it all real. They'd all lost friends over the years; they'd all averted their eyes from milk cartons and leaflets tacked to telephone poles, so they wouldn't have to really see... And now he was seeing and now, he realized, he could do something about it. So he did - following along behind, doing his best to not get vamped or killed, doing his best to do something, to help. To make that taste of ash go away, and to make the picture-screen in his head go dark, so he didn't have to watch the special effects festival that spooled out in his sleep night after night.
The thing with the hyenas actually kind of helped. It was a little easier, after that, to feel that he was part of something. To have that belonging feeling. As if he'd gotten into a tight little nest and every time he moved or turned he could feel them, and he was safe in the middle. Once the spell was broken, the dark, hungry thoughts of the hyena persisted. When he brought an axe down on the neck of the monster-of -the-week, part of him howled in triumph and pushed aside the thought that these things - these demons - perhaps had packs of their own...Jesse's of their own. He had his pack, and all else was not-pack, and it was good.
It was even better when it was him *Me, I did that!* who brought Buffy back to life after fighting the Master. That it was himself - Xander Harris, guy in the middle - who had shamed a centuries-old demon into helping. He'd told Angel that night that he needed proof; proof that Angel was a person and not a monster. He wasn't sure he'd gotten that proof - he still didn't trust Angel - but at least Angel had come; at least he'd been there, because of him.
Things had changed more, though, after Spike had come to town. It sure hadn't helped Xander's trust issues with Angel when the older vampire had offered him up like a snack to his...not friend, no... Things were just not right when you almost felt you could trust the psychopathic vampire over the souled one. Spike and his Drusilla managed to almost kill Angel. Luckily Kendra was there - poor, dead Kendra, another Hellmouth casualty that Xander tried not to think about too much.
And then there was that thing with the Judge. But by that time, Angel was Angelus and Angelus had kind of screwed the whole Judge thing up in that gloating, overconfident way the demon had. Xander remembered being angry at Buffy again when she just couldn't seem to kill Angelus. When Ms. Calendar being murdered and the end of the world coming didn't seem to make a dent in her self-pity. He'd agonized over telling her about Willow and the spell she was doing, but in the end, he hadn't. Angelus had to die - even Spike - Spike! - wanted him dead, so who was he - middle-guy, tagging-along guy - to thwart that?
But that feeling - the feeling that all was not right - had come over him again, and again it was because of Spike. Supporting a half-fainting Giles, desperate to get away from the mansion, Xander had watched as Spike had tenderly lain Drusilla in the seat of that battered DeSoto. Watched Spike brush her hair back and arrange her dress, watched his fingers linger on her cheek. And then Spike had driven away into the sunlight, and Xander had gotten Giles to the hospital. Lying in bed that night he remembered what Buffy had said - that Spike had made a deal: all, everything, Angelus, this place...all for Drusilla. The books and Giles said vampires didn't love; they were sharks, out for the blood and the kill, and nothing else. But that hadn't been what Xander had seen, and now sometimes even the hyena didn't seem so triumphant when another vampire - another demon - fell at the Slayer's feet. He didn't love them. He didn't want to be friends with them, or let them roam his city unchallenged. But he wondered if the black-and-white version of the world that the Council and even Buffy and Giles seemed to embrace was really the best way. The soldier - who lingered long after that Halloween, just like the hyena - seemed to think he was crazy. There was the Enemy and there were Friendlies, and that was that. Xander tried to persuade him that some enemies might be friendlies but the soldier sided with the hyena on this one, and Xander grimly ignored his own confusion, knowing hesitation could kill him one day.
It got more muddled when Spike came back - snatching Xander and Willow away, ranting drunkenly about Drusilla. She'd left him and he wanted her back. Love spell...and wasn't that just too hysterically familiar. As Willow looked through the box of supplies, Spike leaned unsteadily against the musty bed, broken bottle clutched loosely in one hand and the other going out to twine in Xander's hair.
"My Dru...she's got dark hair too, did'ja know? Just like this...dark eyes..." Xander had stared up at the vampire - his heart pounding and his breath coming in frightened pants - and seen devastation in wide blue eyes. Devastation and fear and a frantic need. Xander understood those things - understood what drove the vampire to such an extreme even as he plotted how to knock him down and get Willow to safety. The long fingers petting through his hair had been...gentle. Then Spike left to get more components for the spell and never came back. In the insanity that followed - Cordelia lying bloody and dazed in the rubble, Oz grim-mouthed and solemn - he'd not thought about the vampire at all. But the look came back to him in the night, and the fingers, so gentle in his hair. More fodder for the night-time horror-show. Only he wasn't horrified. In fact, he found himself thinking about the blonde vampire a lot. It was - confusing.
Xander was glad when school was over; their final year had held so much pain and so much anger and so much despair. The new Slayer showing that she could be as evil as the demons she fought. Angel coming back and all, seemingly, forgiven. Even a Watcher who somehow had given in to the 'dark side'. And seeing childhood friends on the front lines of the final battle with the Mayor. Knowing he'd put them there, and seen them die, only added to the armor on Xander's heart. The soldier, whispering about honor and duty and acceptable losses only made him sick and angry. Xander hoped that a few months away - *Anywhere but here...* would help him put things into perspective. And they had, only in ways he'd never imagined.
And now he was back in Sunnydale, trying to slot the new shape of his life into the old space and it just wasn't a fit anymore - he just couldn't do it. He was trying, trying so hard. But the looks he got from Willow and Buffy, when he couldn't contribute to their college talk... And Giles' little sighs when he made some joking remark, trying to be that same old Xan-man. Even Anya, pushing and pushing at him for something...and a few months ago he would have jumped at that, been Xander-and-Anya and told himself he was happy. But he couldn't, not after Oxnard, and it made the former demon confused, unhappy and angry, and it made Xander just want to hit something.
Lying on Giles' couch, wracked with chills from the Chumash-inflicted illnesses, he'd thought his life couldn't get any more surreal. Until Spike *Spike, for god's sake!* was at the door, babbling something about needing help, being...broken? Looking different - thinner, and ragged around the edges. He barely rose to Buffy's taunts, didn't even fight back when she decked him and Xander finally understood that Spike couldn't. Something in him raised a cheer even as something else cringed in disgust and horror at the thought of a secret military base and white-coated scientists cutting open the vampire's head, for fuck's sake, and sticking some sort of silicon chip in there. That was so - 1984, or something - and it gave Xander the creeps. What if they thought Buffy was a threat? She could as easily kill a human as a demon - what if this military group decided they were all a threat? Would they stoop to doing experimental surgery on humans?
When the fight with the Indian spirits was over and the fever was finally gone, Xander helped Giles get the Chumash arrows out of Spike, wincing inwardly as they pulled them free from pale, pale flesh. Spike didn't act like it hurt too much - he just bitched on and on about being tied up, being left in harm's way - but Xander saw the little lines of pain around his eyes and felt...something. Something he shouldn't feel. He squashed it viciously and concentrated on the food Buffy'd made, and tried not to care that Spike looked like a fallen angel; bloody and disheveled, bound to Giles' chair and looking at them all with eyes dark with pain and hate.
Not long after that Spike was sent to live with him and then, well...things just got weirder. And Xander finally admitted to himself that he was falling for William the Bloody.