The agony descended on them with a crackling roar, ripping through trees and thorns as it came. Alice tripped. Severus caught her around the waist and tried to drag her onward, but it was too late. The curse seized them and slammed them to the ground, as ruthless as the Dark Lord in its fury.
Severus thought hours might have passed by the time he was aware of himself again. His edges were shaking, unformed. It was only as Alice stirred beside him that his body, or their joint imagination of it, returned to solid form.
Severus could see Alice's fingers clutching at the mud, her teeth clamped down over a protruding root. The wood had splintered beneath her bite. His own jaw felt tight, from clenching it or stretching it in a scream, he wasn't sure. His hands were buried under him, clenched around his robes.
"What did you mean?" she whispered. "Before? We're in my mind…?"
He was pleased that she seemed too tired to be condescending about it. "You were tortured," he said, "brutally, beyond anything most humans would survive -"
"That," she muttered, "I can believe."
"To all outward appearances, you lost your mind. You have been only minimally responsive in the years since."
She was silent for a long time. Severus tried, briefly, to move, felt spikes of agony shoot through him, and gave up. The mud was comfortable enough.
"This is my mind?" she asked, finally.
"Yes. As far as I can tell, you have constructed some sort of fantasy -"
"Fantasy?" she spat, fiery once more. "Fantasy?"
"In the sense of an imagined reality, not, obviously, an ideal one -"
"I didn't construct this!" she snarled, trying to stand and falling to her knees in the mud. "You think I chose -"
"I think you retreated to a reality in which your mind could maintain some semblance of integrity. Rather than surrender to complete destruction, you created an environment in which you stood a chance of survival."
She stared at him, anger and desolation warring in her features. "What chance?" she asked bitterly.
He forced himself to sit up, biting back a groan. "You are better off than Frank was."
"He was tortured with you. I have been helping him rebuild his mind."
She frowned at him, frustrated. "Frank. I know that name."
"He is your husband."
"Husband!" She stared at him with wide eyes. "Husband?"
Her eyes narrowed suddenly. "How do I know you're not lying? They could have sent you!"
"To do what?" he sneered. "Suffer with you?"
She gave him a defiant look as she struggled to think of some flaw in this argument, then slumped, Potter-esque, in defeat.
"I don't remember a husband," she said accusingly.
"Do you remember anything about your life before you came to this Forest?"
"No," she admitted grudgingly. "And it always seemed…"
Severus arched a questioning eyebrow at her.
"It seemed like there should be something more." She looked almost embarrassed by the admission. "I just don't know what."
"School, a job, a home, a husband, a son," Severus rattled off.
"There!" she said, suddenly very focused on him. "I know what school is! And a job! But those things don't exist here." She glowered at the misty trees around them.
"I assure you," he said, "you experienced all of them before."
"I had a son?"
"Have," he corrected. "His name is Neville."
"Neville," she said, with a soft, confused smile that looked out of place on her hard face. "I just don't remember."
"You will," he said, with slightly more confidence than he felt. "I simply need to understand where your memories are located. I doubt they were destroyed; your mind is not in tatters like Frank's was."
She grimaced. "Is he… okay?" she asked, with all the awkwardness of a wife who has no memory of her husband.
"He is recovering beyond all expectation," Severus replied. "There are some memories which will never be reformed, and it is likely that speech will always be a challenge for him, but on the whole he should be able to return to ordinary life soon."
"I don't know where my memories are," she said.
Severus strongly suspected that he did know, but at present he had another concern. "How far is the River?"
"Perhaps it would be wise to continue this conversation there."
Alice nodded, standing up and holding a hand out to pull him to his feet. Rather awkwardly, Severus took it.
"You seem familiar," she told him. "But I don't know why."
"You'll remember eventually," he replied, hoping he would not be trapped inside her torture-forest when she did.
Neville tried to keep his hands steady as he settled the Popping Peony into its temporary home in the garden just outside Greenhouse Two. Popping Peonies were tricky; if you touched a blossom, it would explode with a loud pop, showering petals everywhere. Neville had already popped four of the bush's paltry dozen blooms, and he suspected Professor Sprout would be less than pleased to find him covered in pink petals, especially considering this was a task even third years could do.
He just couldn't seem to concentrate. Snape was still in St. Mungo's, lying unresponsive in his dad's old bed (Frank had been released, but unfortunately Gran hadn't decided yet whether to let him live in Neville's new flat), and the Healers had no idea how to wake Snape up. What was worse, his mother was acting - normal. Completely normal. Once the sobs had abated, she had gone back to chewing gum and peeling crayons, and there was no outward indication whatsoever that anything was wrong.
But if Snape wasn't in his mum's head, then where was he?
Or was he there? Had he gone too deep, and gotten stuck, like Neville's dad had suggested? Neville didn't know enough about Legilimency to even be able to hazard a guess. Apparently, neither did the Healers. Which was, of course, how all this had come about in the first place. If they had known more about Legilimency, they could have brought his dad back years ago.
Thinking about Gran's rant to that effect, Neville shuddered, and accidentally brushed against another blossom. With a decidedly annoyed-sounding pop, the petals burst all over him. He spat a pink mouthful out on the ground.
"Wow, Neville, I don't think you ever popped one in third year. What's up?"
Neville tried not to cringe. For one thing, cringing might pop another blossom. For another, it was bad manners to cringe at your friends.
Carefully, he backed away from the bush.
"Hey, Ron," he said, turning. "Hey, Harry, Hermione."
They were all eyeing him curiously. Neville noticed they were all carefully observing the border of the garden, and strongly suspected Professor Sprout had warned them off stepping onto the new plants. She'd almost throttled Professor Slughorn when he'd casually wandered by and trampled her newly replanted Butterscotch Cups.
"So?" Ron prompted. "What's got you bothered?"
Neville shrugged. "Long day." And a long night before it - he hadn't left St. Mungo's until past midnight. "What are you three doing here?"
"Dad sent us to see McGonagall. Snape skived off this morning, he figures she might know where he is."
"Skived off what?"
"Resetting the wards! Remember, Dad and Bill were going to fix Grimmauld Place so the Death Eaters can't get in. Only they wanted Snape's help, because he's such an expert on Death Eaters." Ron wrinkled his nose. "Git never showed. Probably having a lie-in -"
"He's not," Neville said sharply, standing up.
Three pairs of eyebrows arched skyward. "How d'you know that?" Harry asked, curious. "Has he been here?"
Neville hesitated. He hadn't wanted to talk about his parents with anyone yet, but Gran knew, and pretty soon the Daily Prophet would know, too. Enough people had seen his dad leave to guarantee that.
"He's in St. Mungo's," Neville said.
Hermione gasped. "Is he all right?"
"Was it Death Eaters?" Ron asked, at the same time Harry said, "Was it Lestrange?"
"No," Neville said, shaking his head. "It was… er, an accident." He took a deep breath. "Snape's been helping my dad recover -"
"What!" the three exclaimed.
"- and yesterday he tried with my mum for the first time, only something went wrong, and now he's not responding."
"You kept that quiet!" Ron said. "He's helping!"
Hermione's eyes were full of tears. "Neville, that's - that's wonderful!"
"Why didn't you tell us?" Harry asked.
Neville shrugged. "We weren't sure it would work."
"So these past few weeks, when you've been defending Snape at every turn," Ron said, "this is why?"
"Oh, who cares about that?" Hermione took a step closer to Neville, remembered the garden border, and stopped. "Neville, how is your dad?"
"They let him out last night -"
"You mean he's actually better?" Ron asked, stunned.
"But how could Snape help when the Healers couldn't?"
Harry and Hermione answered before Neville could. "Legilimency."
Ron looked at them. Hermione sighed. "It has to be, hasn't it?"
"But what went wrong with your mum?" Harry asked. "Is she okay?"
"We think so. She's acting normal. I mean - normal for her." He flushed slightly, but Harry didn't seem to notice.
"But something went wrong for Snape? That's weird."
"We think he might have gotten… stuck."
The others looked horrified. "That can happen?" Ron asked, appalled. "Blimey - Harry, what if he'd gotten stuck in your head?"
Harry looked a little green at the thought. To Neville's satisfaction, Hermione scowled at them both. "Oh, honestly, is that all you can think of? I'm sure it wouldn't have happened with Harry, anyway, his mind was always easy to break into -"
"- but with Neville's mum..." Hermione bit her lip, looking worried. "Are they - are they trying to get him out?"
Neville shook his head. "None of the Healers know Legilimency. No one's really sure what to do. They're sort of just hoping he'll snap out of it."
"He might," Ron said. At the others' looks, he said defensively, "Well, it's true! I mean, maybe this is just a bit more complicated than Harry's mind -"
"- and he just needs a bit of time to work it out!"
"You know," Hermione said hopefully, "Ron might be right. I'm sure it must be more difficult to navigate a mind that's been, well, damaged." She gave Neville a guilty look.
Neville, however, felt rather encouraged. "So you think it's possible? That he might make it out?"
"This is Snape we're talking about," Harry said. "He's a survivor, even when he doesn't want to be."
They all nodded grimly at that. "But what about my mum? I mean… with her acting normal… it's almost like he isn't there."
"Maybe he's being sneaky?" Ron suggested.
Harry, however, looked doubtful again. "I don't know… I could definitely feel it when he was in my head…"
"He's probably in her subconscious," Hermione said thoughtfully.
"What, you mean her dreams?" Ron asked.
"Her dreams," Hermione said, "or just the part of her mind that's below the surface, you know."
"No," Ron said, "we don't. What are you on about?"
Hermione sighed. Neville suspected Harry and Ron were trying not to roll their eyes.
"The subconscious isn't just your dreams, Ron. It's the part of your mind that underlies everything you do, even when you're not aware of it."
"Er… is it?"
"Muggles have done all kinds of studies about it," she said. "But it's really rare for a Legilimens to go that deep. Usually they just see the things you're consciously aware of, you know, memories and feelings and things."
"You're saying there's more stuff besides that?"
"Wait a minute," Harry said. "So what I saw at King's Cross, with Dumbledore and that weird piece of Voldemort's soul - was that my subconscious? Dumbledore said it was in my head, but it definitely wasn't, you know, a memory."
"Maybe," Hermione said. "I think that makes more sense than that you were, you know, in between." Hermione wrinkled her nose a little, as if the notion of an in between was rather distasteful to her.
Harry looked half-disappointed, half-relieved.
"So what would that be for my mum?" Neville asked.
Hermione hesitated. "I'm not sure. In dreams, the subconscious is almost like another world. It's all about symbols -"
"Hang on!" Ron interrupted. "You hate Divination! Now you're saying we should believe in dream symbols?"
"It's not Divination," Hermione said scathingly, "it's psychology. And it's still very woolly, but at least there's logic behind it. For example, whenever exams are coming up, I have an anxiety dream about not being able to find my socks."
Ron looked at her like she'd lost her mind. "What do your socks have to do with exams."
"Obviously, they're a symbol for my level of preparedness! Not being able to find them symbolizes that I'm not ready to take the exam."
"You're always ready to take exams," Ron said dismissively.
"Well, I don't always feel ready. And the subconscious is about feelings."
"You just said it was about logic."
"I said there's logic behind the Muggle study of -"
"Anyway," Ron said, pointedly turning away from Hermione, "how'd all this come about, anyway? What made you think Snape would help?"
"I didn't," Neville said. "I didn't ask him, I mean. I went to visit my parents one day, and he showed up and said he was helping."
"Doesn't seem like him," Ron said, a little suspiciously.
"Of course it does," Hermione said. "He always helped us without being asked."
"No, he didn't! Dumbledore asked him!"
"Dumbledore made him, you mean," Harry said.
"Dumbledore didn't make him try to save your mum," Hermione countered.
"That was different," Ron said. "He fancied her, didn't he? Unless you're telling me he fancied us all those years -"
"Don't be disgusting."
"Or that he fancies Neville now -" Ron cut off, staring at Neville. "Hang on. Your mum's about the same age as Harry's, isn't she?"
Neville frowned at him. "Snape doesn't fancy my mum."
"How d'you know? No one ever said a bloke can only fancy one girl at a time."
Hermione gave him a scornful look. Neville shook his head. "If he fancied her, he'd have gone to St. Mungo's as soon as they put her in there."
There was a pause as they all considered that.
"Why didn't he?" Ron asked. He shot a glance at Hermione. "If he's so eager to help -"
"He didn't know they could be helped," Neville said. "Not until I told him -" He broke off.
"Told him what?"
"That - that my dad had said something to me." Neville hurried past this. "But he didn't tell me then that he thought he could help. He just went and did it without saying anything."
"He probably didn't want you to know," Harry said. "He didn't want anyone to know he was helping me."
Neville nodded. "He's like that." He sighed. "Even when he shouldn't be."