The Loft of an Artist

The light from a street lamp,
Paints a pattern on my wall.
Like the pieces of a puzzle,
or a child's uneven scrawl.
Pattern, Simon & Garfunkel

The truth lies somewhere, if we knew but where.
William Cowper, Hope

The truth is more important then the facts.
Frank Lloyd Wright

What was that about? And why do I always attract the weirdos? Willow began to reach out a hand to touch the man, but stopped. I'd better not. There's no telling what might happen if I do. After a moment he looked up at her. Willow risked speaking to him. "You're safe now. Can you walk? I've brought you to my studio, but it's on the second floor, and there's no way I can carry you up."

"Do we know each other? Are we… are we friends, lovers, relatives? You said you know me." He looked around. He ran his hands over his injuries, then looked back at her. "Eyes, such beautiful eyes." He reached out to touch her. "Are you real?"

"Don't touch the merchandise, bub. I'm as real as the nose on your face," Willow said, knocking his hand away. "I've never seen you before today. I said I knew about you, kind of. Listen, you may want to sit in my car and chat all night, but I don't think that's such a good idea, what with the cops probably looking for you and all." Willow sent him a glare. "You'd better not be a murderer or something, or trust me, you'll regret it. Now, get out of my car and your ass up into the studio."

Willow undid her seatbelt and got out of the car, restraining herself from slamming the door. She walked around to the passenger side of the car.

He stepped out of the car once she opened the door and looked her up and down slowly. His expression was thoughful, curious and strangely innocent, almost childlike. Following her lead, the man went with Willow to the entryway, where she turned to him again.

"So, who's this Hanes guy? And what's with this 'do you know me' stuff? I'm not exactly someone a person tends to forget. Don't tell me you've got amnesia or something stupid like that."

"Who's Hanes?" he asked softly. "Amnesia."

After rolling it in his mind, he recited, "A loss or impairment of memory. It may be caused by organic disorders, such as brain injury or cerebral arteriosclerosis, or by functional nervous disorders, such as hysteria. Amnesia may be total, with complete loss of recall; or partial, occurring only immediately before or after a traumatic event; or systematic, relating to a particular type or group of experiences. Amnesia is a symptom rather than a disease, and treatment attempts to determine and remove the basic cause."

"My name? Blank. My age? Blank. What was I doing? Blank. No wedding ring. No memories. Blow to the head. Continuing nausea, blackouts, blurring and pain. Possible concussion," he muttered to himself. Then he looked at her, "Yes, Willow. I think I may have amnesia." He began to laugh softly, but continued up the stairs.

Ooookay. Not only a weirdo, but one that doesn't know why he's a weirdo or even what the hell is going on. Great. Just great. Now what do I do? Wait a sec! "How the hell do you know my name? I certainly didn't tell you." That bastard, eavesdropping. I'll fix him. She fixed the back of his head with a stare. If you're listening to my thoughts, keep the fuck out of my head.

She kept the words within her mind, not projecting them. Willow ducked, passed him on the stairs and stood on the landing before her door. She looked at the man as she inserted the key in the lock. "Don't say a single word about the condition of my studio, or it's out on your ass for you." She opened the door and stepped in, letting him enter, then dashed over to the board where the bust was and hastily threw a cloth over it. "Close the door behind you. So what should I call you, eh? Any name pop into your head? Something you'd like me to call you until you can figure out who you are?"

The man looked around as if trying to remember the place. He shrugged. "Choose a name you like." He gave Willow a well-practiced devastating smile. "Is there someplace I can clean up? Also, do you have something I can wear?"

He's one of those, is he? Hmph. As cute as you may be, buddy, those smiles aren't going to work on me. "To the best of my knowledge, you've never been here. The bathroom is the first door on the left. I have some clothes that my models use occasionally, though I'm not sure I have something that'll fit you. I'll check while you're doing what it is you need to do." Willow started to walk towards the hallway leading to the small rooms in the back. As she passed the man, she looked at him closely. "No funny business in the bathroom. If you've got anything illegal on you, get rid of it right now. And I'm asking you again. How did you know my name?"

Willow tried very hard not to blush when her stomach growled loudly. Shut up, you. I'll feed you in a second. I think there's some peanut butter cookies in the cupboard.

"I don't know. Would you prefer Sara? I don't suppose you have anything to eat either?" He gave her a puppy-dog look, trying very hard not to smile as her stomach growled. "I am ravenous."

With that he headed for the bathroom to shower. After finding some old clothing for him and grabbing a quick couple of cookies from the cupboard, she dropped the clothes off at the bathroom. Just as she placed them down, the door swung open and there stood the mystery man, stark naked. He was still slightly damp from the shower, the slender, athletic build hinted at under the suit quite evident now. His skin was slightly tanned with a hint of dark hair on his chest and belly quickly thickening at the base of his member, which was thick and slightly erect. There was no embarrassment on his face only a slight smile as he chewed away on something. Willow looked him over with a professional eye after she recovered from the surprise. Now he would be a great one to sculpt. I don't think paint would do him justice. I wouldn't be able to get the right textures… What are you thinking about, you twit. You don't even know who he is. She tore her eyes away from the study of his physique and looked up at his face.

"Here's the clothes for you to wear. Put them on before you come back into the kitchen." Her eyes narrowed. "What are you eating? It better not be any of the towels or the face cloth."

He grinned at her expression and held out the Snickers bar. "Snickers. Clothing? Thank you." He dressed, not quickly or slowly and stood. He again looked over Willow thoughtfully. "You indicated that you know something about me. Could you please tell me? And a little less sarcasm would be nice."

Following her into the kitchen, he sits down on the closest chair. "And thank you. You did not have to help me. Why did you?"

Willow fought back the urge to apologize. He's right, I could stand to be a bit politer, but I'm sure not going to let him know I agree with him. "Let's just say that I have a tendency to pick up strays," Willow replied, indicating the various cat food and water bowls on the floor, a smile softening her words. "Their highnesses seemed to have moved on to their next stop."

She sat down cross-legged on her chair and looked at the man who had come crashing into her life. "What do I know about you? I have to say not very much. I don't know your name, or where you come from. I just knew what you looked like, where you were, and that I had to be there for some reason. How?" Willow said before he could voice the word. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Let's just say I happened to be in the right place at the right time. After all, you're the one who got into my car and passed out. What else was I supposed to do? Push you out into the street and leave you there? In that neighbourhood? I couldn't do that. Besides, I had a really bad… feeling about that place."

Willow shook her head, trying to rid herself of the unpleasant feelings the memory of the vision left in her, then continued. "I'm going to have to come up with a name for you. I've thought of a couple. Which do you prefer? Ed, Bill, Clay, or perhaps Buck?" A wry grin touched Willow's lips.

"Buck? Buck?" He laughed. "No, I think I could do without that one. It doesn't matter, whatever you like will be fine. I can't pay for the clothes or the food or the help. Perhaps we could take it out in trade," again he smiled, a little boy smile, "though I have no idea what skills I could offer you. I'm strong, in good shape, relatively. That's about all."

The phone rang. "Clay it is, then. Help yourself to the cookies, but please leave some for me. We'll work out a repayment plan later." Willow moved over to the counter where the receiver to her cordless phone was sitting.


"Sara, dear," her mother's voice came over the line, nasal and slightly annoyed. "Your father and I were expected you home hours ago for dinner." Inwardly, Willow winced. The weekly family dinner thing. They insisted on it. Sitting around a table and staring at a plate for an hour or so while they subtly berated her career. Joy. "Something came up. I'm working on…" Willow's eyes darted to the weirdo—no, Clay—sitting at the table. "A new project. It's in a very critical stage right now, and I can't afford to leave. I'm running some tests on some clay, checking the properties of it. If I leave now, it'll be ruined. Mother, listen. I really have to go. There's a million things I still have to do and they're very important. I'm sorry I wasn't home for dinner, but you know how things get when you're working. The sample I'm working on is just about ready. Gotta go, bye." Willow finished in a rush.

She quickly ran over to the answering machine and turned it on, setting it to pick up on the very first ring. I've got to get out of there. They're going to drive me crazy. How did I manage to get stuck with such bastards as parents? I'm glad I don't have a brother or sister. They'd either be as tortured as I am, or yet another weapon used against me in the fight to bring Willow to the Right Side.

Willow tried not to stomp back to her seat. She grabbed a cookie and shoved it whole into her mouth and chewed in silence. Willow slammed down the phone, cutting off her mother in mid-complaint. "Clay" had left her a couple of cookies on the plate. In the background she heard the bathroom door close. Her stomach growled, evidently not satisfied with the meager filler she'd provided. Great. Yet another strike against me. Dinner next week is probably going to be at least an hour and a half because of what just happened. What did I do to deserve this? Yes, yes, I hear you. I'll feed you now.

Willow got up and went to the fridge to see what she could scrounge up for two people. A couple of red and green peppers, an onion, fresh garlic and a large unopened jar of tomato sauce. I guess I could whip up some spaghetti. Cheap and fast to cook. She turned a burner on and set a pan to heat so she could sauté the veggies, then walked to the bathroom door and knocked lightly. "I'm making spaghetti. Do you remember if there's anything you're allergic to?" What is he doing in there? I'm sure he doesn't have to go to the bathroom so quickly after showering.

He called out through the door, amusement in his voice, "Well, no… and just what sort of tests are you running on clay? Is that why you chose the name? So you could talk about me to your family without them knowing that a strange man is in your loft?"

Arrogant jerk, Willow thought, folding her arms… then regretted it. She was getting cranky, tired, another sign her mental "eye" had been open too long. "My parents are rabid scientists," Willow replied, unable to keep her dislike out of her voice, "and absolutely hate the idea that their only daughter chose not to get into science and is instead starting a promising career as an artist. If I tell them I working on something remotely scientific, it gets them off my back for a while. I'm a sculptor and experiment with different types of medium, and I run tests on them occasionally to make sure they will be able to do what want them to."

Willow was suddenly glad that her diploma for her science degree was hidden away at the bottom of her junk drawer. "I came up with the name Clay because that's what I was working with when I… found out about you." Willow bit her lip. Be more careful about what you say, gal. He'd probably think you're a loony if you mentioned your visions, just like almost everyone else does.

"I'll be in the kitchen if you need me." Returning to the kitchen, she started her meal. Some food and a nap should do her a world of good. Willow grabbed the remote for the stereo and started the CD player, causing the soft notes of Tchaikovsky to float through the air. No, that's not my mood. She turned off the CD player and tuned the stereo to the local radio station. Thinking she might have just enough to make a salad, she looked in the refrigerator. Where the hell did that head of lettuce go? Willow dug around, looking for salad fixings. Here's a tomato. And another. Eww. I don't think I'll be using that one. Into the compost bucket you go. A half-dried up stalk of celery. I could use that. Here'ssome carrots. They'll do nicely shaved into the salad. An apple? Yeah, that'd work. No, better yet, I think there's a can of mandarin oranges in the cupboard. I'll toast these almonds and throw them into the salad. If he doesn't like it, too bloody bad. He won't have to eat it.

Willow took out bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to make the salad dressing and put them on the counter with the rest of the ingredients, then started chopping. Soon the smell of onions and garlic filled the studio. Willow was startled from her chopping by the sound of Clay's voice.

"Smells good, can I do anything to help?"

Damn, she thought. He is quiet. It wasn't easy to sneak up on her. "How are you at making salad?" She gestured to the pile of veggies. "Everything needs to be washed. The large salad bowl is on the top shelf in the cupboard at the far end of the counter."

He replies, with a hint of lingering humour in his voice, "You do good work."

Willow whipped around and immediately looked over to where the covered bust she had sculpted of him was sitting. She gave a mental sigh of relief. It was still covered. "So, I don't suppose any more of your memory came back while you were in the bathroom?"

Clay paused with the knife in the air. The smile on his face and the humour died. "No."

"Sorry. Sometimes memory comes back very quickly." Willow felt like a heel for making him upset. "Anyway, it'll come back when it needs to." What are we going to talk about? He doesn't remember anything. "What is the last thing, or rather the first thing you remember?" Was it because of him I saw the room full of blood?

"I would rather not talk about it right now." Tensing suddenly, he gripped the knife, cutting himself. He stared at the blood for a few seconds, then ran it under cold water.

"Here, let me get a bandaid for that." Willow rummaged around in a drawer and found what she was looking for. She handed the sealed package to Clay. "There you go." Willow finished making the meal in relative silence, Clay assisting her a bit but with a sense of melancholy hanging over him.

During the meal he played alot with his food, looking up at her. After a while, he asked, "Why did you ask who Hanes was?"

"After you got in my car–you remember that? You went unconscious and were out for most of the drive here. Just before you came to, you became agitated, and said the name, and some other stuff about Templates, and about a woman. Something to do with getting to her. Sounds like you wanted to help or warn her about something."

He sighed and rubbed his eyes, feeling another headache coming on. "Templates and death. What the hell…? I need some sleep. Where do you want me?"

"The back room has a bed, and there's aspirin in the cabinet. I usually work late and start early, so I'll try not to disturb you. Sleep as long as you want. We can work on what we're going to do next in the morning."

Retiring to the studio, Willow tried to get a little further on the piece she was working on, but felt fatigued. The stress of the day and her powers caught up with her in one quick rush and left her drained. Yawning, she put away her tools and prepared for bed. Pausing a moment, she looked over the sleeping form of Clay. For the first time since she met him his face looked almost completely untroubled… She headed for her room and to bed.

Seemingly a few moments later, she awoke. There was someone in the room with her. In the darkness, she couldn't quite see, but she knew there was someone there in the shadows of the room.

"Who's there?" Willow reached out with her left hand to grab the baseball bat she kept between her bed and the nightstand. She reached out gently with her mind, ready to recoil quickly if she encountered Clay's burning signature.

A form melted out of the darkness, a woman, small, almost dainty in build and, Willow noted with a bit of shock, absolutely naked. She walked—no, drifted—over to her bedside, eyes glowing a dim yellow and her silver hair caught in some unfelt wind.

The man… he's dangerous… I come as a warning… he has plans for you… The voice formed in her mind, quiet and compelling. Get away from him while you can.

"Who are you? And who is he? What are you talking about?" Willow instinctively threw up her mental barriers. I don't like this. She still readied the baseball bat, knowing that it might have no effect, but taking comfort in it nonetheless. This has been such a strange day. What the hell is going on, and why am I the centre of it?

Willow took a closer look at the woman. Is she really there, or is it some sort of projection? The woman glowed slightly, a dim yellow light the made her outline hazy, indistinct. She smiled warmly. A friend… Heed me… please…

"Why the hell should I?" Willow demanded. "You show up in my bedroom completely uninvited, not to mention naked. I do not take kindly to having my home invaded by people, let alone some woman who speaks to me telepathically, whether physically or though some sort of projection. Get out of my house. Now!"

The door burst open, spilling light in from the hall, momentarily dazzling Willow. She heard someone enter, saw motion near the door. Who?! The woman vanished. Willow brandished the baseball bat and prepared to let loose a mental blast of fear and hatred at the intruder. "Get the hell away from me!"

She lashed out with her mind harshly to see who was there, if it's another stranger who had entered her home. Instinctively Willow launched a psychic probe at the intruder's mind. It barely brushed the surface of it before recoiling. His mind seethed with a familiar fire… Clay! Her eyes adjusted a moment later and confirmed her mental instincts. He was crouched by the door, holding one of her kitchen knives?

"Clay! What the hell do you think you're doing." Was the woman right? Does he intend me harm? "Put the knife away." Willow moved to reach towards the nightstand to turn on the light when she felt a breeze. Her eyes widened, suddenly realizing the only thing covering her torso was her waist-length hair. Shit! Why didn't I put on a nightshirt when I went to bed tonight?

She clutched at a sheet and brought it up to just above her breasts. "Just what the hell is going on? First I have a vision about you and that I have to go somewhere. Then I see a room with the walls covered in blood. Then some naked bimbo appears in my room telling me to get away from you, that you're dangerous and you intend to harm me." Willow's anger got the better of her tongue, and she was beyond caring she had revealed her secret to Clay.

"Who are you? Why are you so important that the fates have chosen to fuck up my life?" Willow felt like screaming, her nerves frazzled, all of her mental senses on edge and straining. Clay walked into the room, looking Willow over in a clinical manner, head cocked to one side.

"Are you OK?" he asked softly.

"How do you think I feel?" Willow's demanded. "I can't get any of my work done because of… everything. Then you show up, throw someone or something out of a second story window, then without a by your leave get into my locked car–and I know the doors were locked–then pass out, mumbling things that don't make any sense. You have no memory of who you are or what's going on, then that woman appears in my bedroom in the middle of the night telling me the man I helped intends to do me harm and that you have some sinister purpose for me, then you burst into my room wielding a knife and the woman disappears. Does this sound like a normal day to you? I don't think so."

He sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. After assuring himself that she was unharmed, he lay down beside her, one arm behind his head. The other hand made small circles on his stomach with the blunt side of the knife. "I had a dream… well, several. So I was up pacing. I heard you. You sounded scared. Do you often have visions? Can you describe this woman?"

"I have visions all the time. Well, not all the time, but often enough. Clay, would you mind putting that knife away? It's making me nervous. The woman that was in my room was small, very dainty in figure. She glowed kind of yellowish and her hair moved like a gentle wind was blowing, but there wasn't any here. She floated too, so I think she may have been a projection of some sort, especially when she disappeared when you came bursting in. The woman also spoke to me telepathically, and I think she may have been trying to convince me to do something against my will. I just had this feeling from the way she was talking. Too smooth, to calm for someone trying to give a warning."

"I would never hurt you, Willow. Are there any parts of you life that you don't remember or seem odd? I can not get over the feeling that I know you." He paused and looked up into her eyes.

"There are lots of times I don't remember. Whenever I have a vision, I lose complete track of time and what's going on around me. The time varies from a few minutes to hours. And my entire life has been odd. My parents work for a chemical and pharmaceutical company that has contracts with the government. They did everything they could to ensure that I'd follow in their footsteps. They had me tested a zillion times when I was little and when I was certified a genius with an IQ so high it's almost off the scale, they started to teach me their profession."

"By the time I was 10, I was synthesizing advanced formulas and could name almost every psychoactive or psychotropic drug there was on the market, describe its composition and its uses and side effects. If I ever did anything against the 'Plan,' I was punished." Willow shrugged. "I went to university and got a double major in chemistry and pharmacology by the time I was 16. Then I did the most daring thing in my life. I told my parents I didn't want to be a scientist, won a scholarship, and got a second degree art and art history."

"My parents are extremely disappointed with me, and take every opportunity to belittle my being an artist, and it gets worse with each favourable review I receive. The weekly family dinner is their whipping hour." Willow put the bat down and put her hand to her head.

"What is going on?" She sighed and looked at Clay. "I'm sorry. You keep seeing me at my worst. It's just been a really bad day. Hand me that shirt, will you? The one on the back of the chair."

Clay smiled. "Am I making you nervous? No need, I've already seen you naked…" He quickly shut his mouth. He sat up, retrieved the shirt for her and lay back down. "It was a memory, I think. You were naked, lying on metal slab, under fluorescent lights. Maybe it was you. I don't know. I dreamed about you too."

The emotions surged through him as the words brought the dreams back to the fore of his mind. "But I don't know if they were memories or not," he sighed. "I think we are both in danger. Is there someplace else we can go? Someplace that doesn't have so many windows? More escape holes? Preferably at least one not readily visible?"

Willow's eyes widened at Clay's words, then she shook her head. "This is the only place I have that's my own." She tried to suppress a shudder at the image Clay brought to her mind. "I don't like the sound of your dream at all. What sort of feelings did you have during the dream? Good? Bad? What were they?"

"I think maybe you are the one I am to warn. I don't know about what. But I do have a picture of you." He laughed softly. "Wow. If the positions were reversed, I probably would have shot you by now."

"I am against killing. It's my parents' stock in trade." Willow's voice was cold, almost harsh. "If you intended to harm me, I would know, and you would become extremely intimate with this bat."

"As for your having met me before, I'm almost positive you haven't." Willow carefully put the t-shirt over her head and pulled it down, revealing one last flash of skin, then pulled her hair out from under the garment. "I'd have remembered you if we had. Maybe you saw my picture in the newspaper or in a magazine, especially if you're into the arts. My work is becoming a favourite of some of the eclectic and surrealistic crowd, and I've been mentioned in several articles. You may have seen me around the university campus too." Willow hesitated for a moment, then continued.

"The visions I have, sometimes they come on when I'm working. That's when some of my best things are made, actually. I was sculpting when the first vision, the one of you, came on. Would you like to see it?"

"You did a sculpture of me?" he asks, delighted. "Yes, I would. Very much."

"Do you want to know everything I remember?"

"Do you think you are strong enough?" he asked quietly in reply, averting his gaze a bit.

"I'm not as frail as I look. At least, not mentally. Come, take a look at the art I've done, the things that have never been shown to the public. Then you tell me if I'm strong enough." Willow took Clay by the hand and led him out of the bedroom and to the large area where she worked.

Across the street, atop an abandoned warehouse, Hanes lay. He watched the couple, image enhanced by a computerized scope. He scanned the crosshairs over their bodies. "Bang…" He grinned. Couldn't pop Ol' Jason without maybe capping the girl too, and Karr wanted her warm. Still had to track down the Templates, too. But this surveilance shit bored him to tears. Zooming the image in, he looked over that chick, Willow. Nice body, needed some more meat on her though, little more up top, too, but they were perky. Jason would like her though. That fuzzbuster loved chicks barely old enough for tits anyway. Hanes shrugged and settled in. Maybe he'd get it in gear and do something worth watching…

"Stand here," she instructed, and turned on the lights. Willow walked over to a large covered shape against one of the walls and pulled the cover off. Behind it was a large stack of paintings, leaning up against the wall. One by one she showed them to Clay, each scene more horrific than the last. Scenes of bloody warfare and murder. People hanging tortured from walls, their intense pain obvious.

Willow then walked over to another pile and pulled the cover off. Twisted figures tried to escape from the blocks of stone and piles of clay. Mutilated bodies hung in the air, falling, never quite reaching the ground where they might find the peace of death. "I have been seeing these things since I was less than 15 years old. I've shown these to only a very few people, and they never understood why I painted them, and why I wasn't insane."

Willow dropped the cloth on the floor and moved over to the workbench where she had sat earlier in the day. "Why aren't I? Because I work against what my parents do, and because those are not the only visions I see. I see these," she said, pulling the cover from the statue of a little girl playing happily with a doll. "And this." Willow pulled the cover away from another piece of work and stepped back. She bit her lip, watching him carefully, to judge and gauge his reaction to seeing himself, so lifelike, reproduced so perfectly in clay.

He stands perfectly still. Then walks over, mutely he looks from the sculpture to her then back again. "'There she stood in the doorway, I heard the mission bells. I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell,'" he quotes softly.

"You want to know my feelings? My dreams?" He places the knife beside the bust and takes one of her hands. He places it on his chest over his heart and pulls the dreams to his mind's eye, letting himself react to the vividness.

"I can't bring them into real focus. Not like the one this morning." He takes her other hand and places it over his manhood. "This is what I feel, these are my dreams. You and me." He takes a steadying breath.

Willow held her breath for a moment, barely believing this is happening. What is going on? This is all like a dream. A really strange dream.

"I woke up in the back of a van, there were dead people there. One was lying on me. She looked bad." He brought the memory up, describing it for her in detail, down to the time on her watch; he shivered. Willow wants to move away, but she can't bring herself to. She stands there transfixed, the only motion she can do is to bring her hand up and place it next to the one on his chest. She felt curiously detached, as if she were about to slip into one of her trances.

"I remember a little black girl, her mother said she brought me home because I was sick." Once again he brought the memories up, relating them detail for detail. "I felt something touch my mind. You. So gentle, so sensual. Your eyes will haunt me forever, I fear," he gently brushes her cheek.

"While I was unconscious for the ride over, I think I relived the events before I awoke. They wanted something." Again he recited it thought, for thought, action for action. "Then when I was getting out of the car, the vision of you naked. A different tattoo, but you." He stands still waiting for her reaction, curiously unconnected to the possibility of rejection, revulsion.

"What tattoo? Where?" Willow asked. She instinctively looked at her arm in the place where Clay had his tattoo.

"You don't see it? Odd," shakes his head and sighs, "maybe I am seeing things." He describes it for her, outlining it on her arm as he does.

Peering at the birthmark, Willow thought back. He must be mistaken. It's just a birthmark. It's always been there… She felt a wave of nausea. Hadn't it? Her vision seemed to blur for second, a dull throbbing beginning in her temples. No, it was just a birthmark was all… it had to be…

"Your mind is so full of pain. It burns like a raging fire, so much that it hurts when I touch it. I wish I could help you. Help you remember. If you did, we may have a chance against whoever it is that's after you, orpossibly both of us." A look of helplessness crosses Willow's face. "I know I could help you, if you'd let me."

He puts his head down on her shoulder, and whispers, "I don't know how."

Willow puts her arms around and pulls him close, comforting him. "It's all right. We can work through this. Come, sit down over here with me." Willow releases Clay, takes his hand and leads him to the reclining couch. She motions for him to sit and she takes a seat opposite him, covering her lap with the blanket on the couch so she could sit cross-legged.

"Close your eyes. I'm going to touch your mind again with mine, and this time, let me in. Picture your mind like a house, with all the doors and windows barred and locked up tight. My mind touches your, like ringing the doorbell. You know it's me, and you open the door so I can come in. I will be the only one who will enter that house with you." Willow takes Clay's hand in hers.

He squeezes it, and whispers, "I'm afraid."

"There is no reason to be afraid, I won't hurt you. Let me do all the work. I will go from room to room in your house, looking for the answer to two questions. Who are you, and why would someone be after you or us. If you know, and it's normal amnesia, where trauma of some sort made you forget, then there's a good chance I can find the answer."

She squeezed his hand lightly, her voice serious. "But you can't fight me once I'm in there. If you do, you could do serious damage to both of us. You're going to have to trust me. It's the only way this is going to work."

He takes a deep breath, "What if I can't stop? What if that's how my mind reacts? I trust you. But what if my mind doesn't? And," he drew a deep breath, his grip becoming painful, "what if you do find the answers? What then? What if I don't want to know who I am? What if I don't want you to know? What if what you find is horrible?"

His words struck a chord in Willow. She couldn't answer any of them fully. Doubt nagged at her… or was it her talent?

He is breathing hard now, as if he as run a long distance. "What if I can't bring down my shields. Or worse—what if they go up again after you are in? What happens then?"

"If you can't bring them down, then I can't help you, not this way. If they go up again," Willow feigns a nonchalant shrug then shuddered slightly.

He looks at her, forcing himself to calm down, "Why? Why are you willing to try? I am a stranger to you. I could be here to harm you. Why, Willow? You want to go into my mind. We haven't even joined our bodies yet, and you want to join our minds?"

"Why? Because I have to. Don't you understand? My parents make a living developing new and more evil ways of tormenting people's minds, and worse. They absolutely delight in their work. They could have been the ones who did this to you, took away your memory and God knows what else." Willow springs up from the couch and begins to pace, hugging herself distraughtly. "If you really wanted to hurt me, you would have by now. Or I would have sensed it. If you don't want me to help you, then fine. I can't force you. But we have to do something," Willow pleaded, the haunted air around her making her appear weak and vulnerable. "How can we deal with those people if we don't know what we're up against?"

He watches her, touched, and wanting to protect her. He held out a hand, "You're right. I can't protect us with my memory like this. Do it."

Willow took his hand, something compelled her, a deep seated feeling. What was this? He kissed her gently. Before her stunned mind could muster protest Clay guided her into his lap. "I find it unnerving to think of someone going through my mind." He pulls her closer, making her comfortable. "I will trust you, I give you permission."

Willow could feel his manhood stiffen urgently against her, straining the material of his pants. Willow's breath caught in her throat, and she was filled with anxiety and excitement. She knew him, she could feel him, the smell of his sweat and another vaguely medicinal scent. Was that actual or a memory… A breathless excitement built in her and her hands moved over his chest unconsciously.

He closes his eyes, lies back on the chesterfield, pulling her on top. He relaxes, or tries to. Fixes a vision of a house, all locked up. A house. He tried to capture the image in his mind. But it wavered and shifted, a house yes, but a house aflame! Willow could sense his mind writhing in such torment, the proximity of their bodies bridging their minds to an extent. He was trying to open to her but could not. She would have to pass into the fire… Willow, swept up by the pain and torment he was feeling, the need to soothe him taking precedent over any anxiety she may have over her lying on top of Clay.

She closed her own eyes and projected her mind out to the edge of his and formed an image of herself there, at the end of the front walk to the house. She was dressed in a gown of layers upon layers of cool white gauze and a mist formed around her feet and spread out behind her. She took a step forward, the soothing mist following her and gently moving forward, trying to soothe the flames. Can you feel me, Clay?

The mental Willow put her hand out towards the flames, feeling the heat as a wide ribbon of mist followed her motion and reached out, caressing the edge of the fiery wall. How cool I am. Will you let me touch you? Willow began to walk forward, calmly, non- threateningly, keeping her hand out in front of her. She could feel the heat from the flames swirling and raging before her. The mist rose up and surrounded her hand like a moving, living aura.

Willow stopped just a breath away from the burning house. She took a deep breath, braced herself for the shock, and touched the flames. Will you help me part these flames so I may enter? Will you trust me with this? I have no weapons. I cannot harm you. Willow steps forward into the flames, sending calm, cooling, almost loving thoughts to Clay, reassuring him, encouraging him to let her in, let her do all the work, to let her be the one to explore. She stepped into the fire. There was some pain but she forced it back burying it by sheer will, leaving only a cool soothing mental touch.

God, the pain… she eased deeper into the surging mental heat, the cooling mist all but gone leaving her soul naked, bare to his own and raw with pain. She could feel his torment, warping. It was not his thoughts but the structure itself, his physical mind that was seething and twisted. It was a testament to his control that he held it in check. What did this? She could help. Reaching out she caressed the tortured contours of his mind, soothing away some of the fire, calming it at least.. Clay felt her inner touch, pure and light… soothing. A long dull ache seemed to fade for a time.

Willow could read little through the twisting maelstrom of Clay… Jason… He was Jason. The strength of his identity was strong enough for her to grasp even through their mutual pain. Images then flooded her as she touched him. A number of faces, mocking, screaming, pleading. Her own face contorted in pleasure/pain, another woman screaming for mercy. A great wolf, dark grey lunging at her with slavering jaws. Reflexively she snapped back, the contact was broken. She lay atop Jason, panting, her entire body soaked with sweat. Clay too was heaving. A stream of blood was running from his nose and his eyes were distant glazed. Slowly he smiled, one of relief, and almost childlike.

Willow slid off of Jason and to the floor where she sat, huddled and dazed. "Dear God," she whispered. "Who are they? What have they done to us?" She could still feel the burning, the fear, the pain, the lust. But whose? Hers? Did she see her face through his eyes? Why didn't she know? Why didn't she remember? Who did this? An image of her parents flashed into her mind. God, no. The pain and the betrayal clawed away at her bleeding soul. They couldn't have. I'm their daughter. No, they wouldn't care. I'm just another pawn to them. Willow began to rock slightly back and forth, unaware of the tears sliding down her face. What have they done to me that I don't know about? The pain and betrayal began to turn into rage and abiding hatred. How dare they! Her mind surged, the emotions blasting outwards like spears of pure energy, uncaring of who or what might hear her.

Willow stood and turned, eyes blazing in the direction of her parents' home. Her face was a mask of pure hatred as she sent out a powerful mental blast of pure thought. Do you hear me? Mother? Father? I know what you've done. You won't do it again. You are going to pay!

Willow's mental scream echoed across the city, ringing in the awareness of those even slightly sensitive to such things. Animals howled, children woke screaming and the dreams of adults were troubled in that brief instant. She felt her bolt strike home, brush the cold minds of her "parents". They shuddred under her rage-fueled assault. Always they were so hard to read… but no more. The barriers on her mind shattered. Years of suggestion and implanted thought were washed away. Willow.. how? their minds echoed in the unison, startled then slipping into cool analysis. There was emotion, the pride in a creation… not love for a daughter.

Then the contact was broken, leaving Willow shuddering at the foot of the couch, weak and tired. Above her on the couch, Cla—Jason moaned lowly. He swings his feet around, taking a deep breath, he waites for the pain to subside. He then surges to his feet and picks her up. Willow was pale and trembling, her skin gone even more pale and was clammy to the touch. Her eyes were distant as if focused on something only she could see. She weighed little, feeling as frail as a bird in Jason's arms. Ignoring any protests, he strides into the bathroom. Reaching in he turns on the shower. Then he deposits her in it. Quickly doffing his pants, he climbs in beside her. Grabbing her shirt hem, he pulled it over her head. The hot water stung her back to full awareness, stinging her hypersensitive skin.

She yelped at the shock noting her surroundings, naked with Jason. Her stomach did a small flip flop, nausea and excitement battling for supremacy in her mind. She felt weak yet strangely energized. Doors in her mind had been unlocked, she just needed to look behind them. Quickly he soaps her, washes her and then sees to himself. Turning the shower off just before it runs cold, he climbes out and grabbes two towels. Handing her one, he dries himself. Willow dries herself off methodically, unthinking.

He then grabbed her firmly by the shoulders. "Don't do that again." He emphasizes his point by shaking her. With a low growl, he suddenly kissed her, hard, demanding. He slips his hands over her ass, and gripping her, lifted her up, pulling her against him. Squeezing her ass, he reluctantly lowers her down his body.

"Go pack a few things. How much money do you have? How much gas?"

"I'm not sure how much cash. I have bank accounts I don't think my parents know about. I filled up the car this morning. I'm sorry if I hurt you." Willow wrapped a smaller towel around her head, catching up her hair. "I was so angry at what they had done. Stupid move, eh?" A wry smile twisted her lips. "I guess they know now their experiment was not a failure."

Willow left the bathroom and headed for her bedroom. She started pulling clothes out of drawers and the closet and stuffing them into a duffel bag. "Could you get me everything that's in the medicine cabinet, please?"

Jason's body, the feel of his hands on her had left her more excited than she cared to admit. It was an instinctual, primal reaction unlike anything she'd had with another man. That made it suspect. But she couldn't quite think clearly, emotions running a mile a second and still a little shaken from her "scream". The hunger pangs were already hitting, knotting her stomach. She felt cold and shaky, classic symptoms of low blood sugar levels. Willow went to the foot of her bed and pulled a long box from underneath it. She opened it up and dug around a bit, then pulled out a fabric case and several packets. She tossed them into the bag along with the rest of her things. A tiny probing tendril brushed her mind then someone "spoke".

Willow… the man you are with… Jason… is the reason this has happened. Whirling on the "source" of the mental voice, she found herself facing the glowing woman yet again. Her form seemed more diffuse now a wraith barely visble in the light. He has deceived you and his fellows… he is murderer and traitor several times over… listen to me… you cannot go with him, he will lead you to destruction… let me show you…

The phantom extended her hand. Who are you? Willow asks, refusing to follow, still unsure of everything. Why should I trust you?

She seems to be pained for a moment. Please… I am… Astra… listen to me, it is difficult to speak like this… you know how the power can be… taxing… She keeps her hand out to you but the image wavers, nearly fading completely. Jason killed a man, you saw him… he's a killer just like your parents.

I don't understand. I'm so confused. So tired. Show me. Help me to remember. Willow reached out a mental hand to Astra, but readied herself to pull back should she perceive any danger. Astra touched her, a soothing cool mental touch that eased some of Willow's tension. Yes… I will show you.. come to me.

Her "voice" sounded so soothing. Willow felt her eye grow heavy. You never had a family… you were created as an experiment by your miserable excuses for parents… let us help you, sweet Willow… Willow sank to the bed. Images of her childhood swam to the surface. Her childhood spent in private schools, intense tutoring.

Then other images… sitting before a screen, rapid fire images being shown to you. Injections and hypnotic therapy. The doors are opened in her mind. She remembers her parents testing her abilities. Relentless grilling covered under a haze of psychotropic drugs and post-hypnotic suggestion. Then the onset of puberty. Her body being coldly probed, things extracted. Jason… Jason was there. So handsome, sweet. Even through the haze of memories, she could feel her body responding with a frightening speed and intensity. Was that programmed too? He had been with her. She watched as if from outside her body as he coupled with her on a cold steel lab table. She moved like an animal against him, no inhibitions, but mindless, her higher mind removed from the act completely. This happened a lot. Then… then… you see your father… looking down at you, moving hard inside you… God! You couldn't move… the pleasure adding to the stinging shame as you climaxed, him calling you his sweet little girl. Then it ends. Willow laypanting on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

Let us take you from this misery… Astra's voice faded slowly…

Who are you? How do you know all this? No. I have to remember this. Remember what happened. I swore… Willow fought to regain her strength and composure, her mental voice getting stronger as the shame fueled her anger, trying desperately to remember more, not wanting to believe the man her Talent told her to find, told her–she thought–to help him, would do such a thing of his own free will.

How. Do. You. Know. This. Willow repeated, tightening the channel of her thoughts to a sharp, wedge-like point, willing to do whatever it took to get the information out of the woman.

It was locked in your mind. I opened the door. Her voice and image faded completely, leaving Willow alone in her room and in her mind. Willow lay on the bed, her breathing slowing. She reached out with her mind, to see if Jason was still there, half afraid to find him.

I have to get out of here. I need to be alone to think. To figure out what's going on, and what I'm going to do. But where am I going to go? I can't go home. Willow got unsteadily from the bed and moved to finish packing her things. She scrounged in all her hiding places in her bedroom for money, gathering up every coin she could find. Despair began to fill her.

What am I going to do? Can I trust Jason? Should I? Do I trust Astra? If I go with Jason, how can I trust him, or myself? If I ask him not to touch me, will he do as I ask? She said he was a murderer. I don't remember that, just what was going on in that lab… Summoning her mental powers again made her head whirl sickeningly. She didn't want to think of the feeding frenzy this would invoke.

Her mind brushed Jason's, it was still hot, but not as painful to touch. An instant later, she felt his frenzied thoughts, he was in trouble! The sounds of a scuffle in the hall reached her a split second later! I can't believe they're here already! I've got to help him! She leapt for the baseball bat and with it in a firm grip, moved to the doorway, ready to defend herself and Jason. After what I've remembered, why do I feel the need to protect him? For all I know, he could have been working with them. Willow peaked around the corner to see what was going on.