Richard opened his eyes to find that he was lying on Jean-Claude's bed, surrounded by a mass of blankets and overstuffed pillows.
"Wha... what happened?" he asked, forcing himself to sit up.
The cool presence at his side was thankfully a fully dressed Jean-Claude. "You fell asleep after we strengthened your mental shields. How do you feel?"
Richard thought about it for a long moment, then felt a large smile spread across his face. For the first time in what felt like years there wasn't a simmering pot of rage bubbling just beneath the surface of his psyche. When he felt around with his mind it was to feel the joy of being the only one in his own mind.
"I can't feel her," he said. "She's finally quiet."
"With your shields strengthened she should no longer be able to overwhelm you," Jean-Claude said, reaching out slowly to brush Richard's hair off his forehead. He moved carefully, giving Richard a chance to slap him away if he wanted. Grateful for the quiet in his own mind, Richard let him have the little gesture. He knew it would make Jean-Claude happy, though the vampire would never say anything about it.
"How come she was able to overwhelm the Marks like that?" Richard asked.
Jean-Claude sighed. "It seems that we have allowed her too much freedom," he said. "Because there were no limits set on her, she did not feel the need to control her thoughts and emotions. But now that we've strengthened your shields, from now on she will have to ask permission before being able to enter your mind."
"I'm just glad that she's not in here with me right now," Richard said. "I know that if I reach out I would be able to touch her, but she's not constantly in my brain. I feel like I can be a real person again."
"I am glad," Jean-Claude said, "and I'm sorry that I never realized what was going on. I suppose that I listened so much to her version of events that I just took it as fact that you had lost yourself completely to your anger."
"More like lost myself to her anger. Though I don't know how she can be so angry all the time and still manage to function."
Jean-Claude's shoulders hunched a little bit, just for a moment. "Somehow she managed to control the Marks to such a degree that she was using your mind as a kind of dumping ground."
Richard raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Huh?"
Jean-Claude looked straight at him. "Whatever emotions she did not wish to feel, she siphoned off into your mind. All of her fear, anger, hate, guilt, love, everything that she did not wish to experience herself. She has been pouring herself into you for the last few years and it is only by a miracle that you have not completely lost your mind. Because the feelings were alien to your psyche, they latched on and began to grow within you, poisoning you from the inside out."
"Cancer," Richard said slowly. "She gave me mental cancer. That's what you're saying, aren't you?"
Jean-Claude's eyes were sad. "In a sense, yes. But now that we've fixed your shields, it was an easy thing to excise the foreign emotions and free you from the... the cancer."
Richard drew in a shuddering breath, wondering if he was going to cry, then deciding that maybe he would hold that option for later. "So I'm going to be all right from now on, right?"
Jean-Claude laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Mon ami, you will once again be the man we have all been missing."
Richard smiled a little. It had been a long time since anyone had called him their friend. "I'm glad. I've been kind of missing me too."
Jean-Claude rose to his feet. "Is there anything else that I can do for you? Do you need anything?"
Richard shook his head. "No. I'm good. Better than I've been for a very long time."
"Then I shall go attend to other business and give you a chance to rest," Jean Claude said.
"You know I'm not ever going to really like you, right?" Richard asked. "I mean, I'll always be grateful, but we're not going to be best friends forever or anything."
A slight smile quirked Jean-Claude's lips. "Of course not."
"And I'm not ever going to turn gay for you or anything," Richard went on. "But... thank you anyway. Of all the vampires I had to be tied to for the rest of my life, I guess you're not the worst one out there."
"I am truly honored," Jean-Claude said, but there was a smile in his eyes.
Richard sighed and laid back down on the mass of pillows. "I'm going to nap for awhile longer," he said. "I haven't really had a full night's sleep for the last few years and I really think I need it. It might probably make me be a little less cranky. Then everyone won't be calling me a dick behind my back."
"Ah, you too have heard the whispers about you," Jean-Claude laughed.
Richard rolled his eyes. "Please. I didn't really need preternatural hearing to be able to hear what everyone was saying about me."
"Well, mon ami, I suppose that I should leave you to your rest." Jean-Claude gracefully rose to his feet and fairly glided across the floor toward the bedroom door.
Richard sighed and closed his eyes. "Thank you," he said again.
The only answer was the gentle click of the door closing, but that was all right.
For the first time in a long time he felt like himself again. Richard Zeeman, non-psychotic werewolf.
It was a truly great feeling.
* * *
She felt terrible.
Something had happened that she couldn't really explain. It felt as though someone had stuck a blade made out of ice directly into her chest and never bothered to pull it back out again.
It was after closing the door behind Dr. Lillian that it had happened, just WHAM! Heart full of cold pain.
She had tried calling for Jean-Claude, and then for Richard, but there had been no answer. No warm rush of beastly energy or cold wave of strength. It was just her alone to face whatever had happened to her.
She clutched her chest and fought the pain-tears that wanted to fill her eyes. She was too strong to let herself cry. She just kind of squatted down on the floor, pressing her back hard against the door to keep from screaming and tried to push the pain away.
"You know what happened, don't you?"
Anita opened one eye to squint at Buffy. She couldn't even talk to demand what the hell she was talking about.
Buffy laughed, a surprisingly cheerful sound. "Oz has poisoned Richard and Jean-Claude against you. They've blocked the Marks. You're all alone now."
"Damian," she ground out, "pard."
Buffy shook her head, still smiling. "Please. Having them is the only thing keeping you from shattering like an old china plate. But Jean-Claude and Richard... they were the seat of your power. They were the only thing holding you together, and now they've closed themselves off from you. You're all alone. Worthless and all alone."
"No!" Anita ground out.
"Well then. If you want to prove that you're still as tough as you think you are... maybe you should put a leash on Oz before he takes everyone away from you all together."
"Oz," Anita growled. "Oz."
Buffy just smiled.
* * *
"Where the hell is Oz?" Willow asked herself, peering into the mirror that was gradually showing a clearer and clearer image.
Right now it was showing the blurred image of a strange dark set of buildings. It would eventually become crystal clear then hone in directly on where he was, but for now she would just have to wonder what kind of world he had landed on.
She sighed and sat back on her haunches. It would be several hours before the image was clear enough for her to be able to really get an idea of what was going on.
She stood up. She might as well go get herself one of the strawberry-blueberry-kiwi-banana smoothies Xander was making a mess out of down in the kitchen.
There was nothing like smoothie goodness to be able to settle her down for whatever was going to happen.
Either Oz was going to be coming home later tonight... or she was going to have to say goodbye to him for the last time, with no chance of meeting him on some dusty street in some sun-melted country somewhere.
It made her kind of sad, since she knew there was no real letting go of a first love. But things would happen the way they were meant to happen.
"What will be, will be," she murmured, then laughed at her own foolishness. "I think I have way too many issues for a single smoothie to handle. Guess I'll just have to have two then."