The Cactus and the Toad

Chapter 13

13

Alice's River was a hideous shade of brownish-black, thickened here and there by clumps of scum and muck that swirled nauseatingly over the sluggish water. A small, evil-looking bridge crossed the water. On the other side, a narrow strip of barren land edged an impenetrable fog bank.

"This is where you have spent the last seventeen years?" Severus asked, appalled.

Alice didn't answer. She was busy picking her way across the death trap of a bridge. Severus watched her movements carefully, then mimicked them exactly until he, too, was safe on the other side. Dead grass crunched pitifully beneath his boots. It was a miserable place.

"Better than the Forest," Alice pointed out.

Severus nodded, glancing up and down the riverbank. "Where is the Hill?"

Her expression darkened. "Why would you want to go there?"

"To see Alice."

"Alice doesn't matter! I'm the one you're supposed to be helping!"

"Has it not occurred to you that she is a part of your mind?"

Alice swore, stomping away from him and sitting on the hard, dead ground. "She's weak," she spat. "I don't want to go see her."

"Then point me in the right direction."

"Jump in the River," she countered. "It'll take you there."

Severus eyed the black sludge distastefully. "I take it there is no boat?"

Alice rolled her eyes. "Precious, aren't you?"

"This is your mind. It is not unreasonable to think that you might be able to create something."

Alice scrunched up her face in what Severus was certain was entirely feigned concentration, then relaxed it and said, "No, sorry. You'll have to swim."

Scowling, Severus steeled himself. The water was imaginary, of course, but that only made it marginally less vile. Alice's imagination was unfortunately intensely detailed.

As if to prove his point, a repulsive smell began to emanate from the water. He glanced back at Alice. She was watching him in scornful amusement.

Rolling his imaginary eyes and holding his imaginary breath, Severus waded into the imaginary water.

It felt disgustingly real.

The current, slow though it was, swept him along immediately, while unidentifiable stringy bits of slime insinuated themselves into his clothing and along his skin. He leaned back and tried to ignore the sensation as he floated along, a gray, ugly sky above him. Wetness oozed into his ears. He shivered.

To his right, the Forest crackled ominously, but whatever storm was transpiring in its depths didn't reach the River. To the left, the fog remained steady, unmoving, and opaque. Ahead, Severus could only see more of the same.

Idly, he wondered if Alice had ever tried to walk into the fog. Was it solid? Did it conceal a deeper, unwounded part of herself, or was it the way out?

For a moment, he considered hauling himself out of the River and into the fog. Hours must have passed in the waking world, hours in which he had sat behind wards by the Longbottoms' beds. Had Frank begun to grow worried? Had Fiend? Did they know something was wrong?

The longing for his own body, his own mind, for sleep and most of all solitude filled him with an almost anguished ache.

He suppressed it, and floated on.

Ahead, against the white of the fog, he thought he saw a shift in color. As he approached at a snail's pace, the color grew brighter and brighter, until he recognized a vivid green, not grayed by mist but lit by a single, brilliant ray of sunlight that swept through the clouds above. Severus blinked at the sudden light, resisting the urge to start thrashing his way toward it. He had never been much of a swimmer, at least not without the aid of Gillyweed.

As he drew closer, he saw that Alice's Hill was less of a hill than a steep, steep slope, disappearing into the fog high above. Severus felt a twinge of vertigo at the thought of having to climb it - the closer he got, the more the Hill resembled an only slightly slanted green wall.

The River carried him right to its base. Severus crawled out of the water, resisting the urge to strip off his sullied clothes. The grass beneath his hands and knees was wonderfully green, dotted with wildflowers of every color, dandelions, buttercups, columbines, daisies, snapdragons, but most of all with bluebells, thousands upon thousands of bluebells.

Severus couldn't understand why Alice - the first Alice - would avoid this place. Looking down, he found that even his clothes had become clean. They had also, most unfortunately, turned from black to the same purplish bluebell color that so seemed to fascinate Alice (this Alice, at least).

He could see her, halfway up the terrifying slope, sitting on a rainbow blanket among the flowers with her bare feet buried in the grass and her hair braided through with clover. Her eyes were closed, her face tilted to the sun as if she, like the flowers, could feed off its rays. Her entire body leaned backward, balancing against the gravity that threatened to pull her down the slope.

Self-consciously straightening his vividly-hued robes, Severus started up the slope toward her. He almost instantly sank to his knees, his head thick with dizziness at the steep incline. It was absurd; if he fell, he would only slide back down into the water. It wouldn't hurt. And, in any case, it was imaginary.

The vertigo persisted.

Clutching at the grass, Severus couldn't help but feel that thin strands of greenery were hardly sufficient for this undertaking. He needed a sturdy rope. Or, better yet, stairs.

As neither appeared, he resigned himself to a long and torturous climb. To his relief, the grass proved sturdier than it looked, and none of the fistfuls he grasped parted ways with the ground, no matter how tightly he gripped them. Blinking against the rainbow of flowers all around him, Severus scaled the slope up to Alice's spot.

"Hello," she said, without opening her eyes. "You're new."

He collapsed, panting and sweating, into the flowers beside her blanket. "You're Alice."

"Yes. Did she send you? The other one? It can't have been them. They can't come here."

"She sent me," Severus confirmed, trying to look at her without also looking down the slope, which appeared even steeper from this angle.

"She doesn't like me very much," Alice confided. "I think she must not like you, either, or she wouldn't have sent you here."

"She doesn't like me," he agreed. Perhaps it was better simply to keep his eyes closed.

"Do you like to braid hair?" she asked suddenly.

Severus, despite himself, opened his eyes and stared at her. He remembered clearly the scene she must be reliving. Frank's wand twirling through the air as her hair folded and curled among sprigs of blossoms.

"I don't know how," he said. He knew how to braid, of course, but he'd certainly never attempted to braid anyone's hair. He couldn't remember a time when he had ever touched another person's hair.

"That's a shame," she said, eyes still closed, face still tilted to the sun. "Frank used to do that."

Severus arched his brows. "You remember Frank?"

"Of course I do. Why wouldn't I?"

Severus hesitated. "Do you know where you are?"

"The Hill."

"Do you know how you got here?"

Her expression tightened a little. "I can't go in the Forest."

"Do you remember where you were when you knew Frank?"

"I was at Hogwarts," she said, smiling again.

"What is the last thing you remember, before you came here?"

Alice frowned, blinking in the sunlight. "I don't like all these questions. Who are you?" A moment later her eyes found him. "Snape!"

She stood up suddenly, horror and hatred etched on her face. The movement was too sudden. She swayed horribly, slipped, and started to slide down the slope with a terrible scream.

Severus, who had started to move the moment she swayed, caught her by the arm, slid a few feet with her, then managed to stop them both by grabbing hold of the unbreakable grass.

Alice was sobbing. "Don't let go! Don't let go!"

His back was pressed as flat against the hillside as possible, his heels digging into the ground. Straight below him, the green slope seemed to steepen, to curve, as if trying to throw them off. He couldn't see the River. The Forest seemed to be directly below.

Severus shut his eyes and tightened his grip on Alice's wrist as well as the grass. "Climb up!" he commanded harshly, yanking on her a little.

With a little whimper that would never have come out of the other Alice's mouth, she began crawling back up through the flowers, her tears landing like dewdrops on their petals. When she reached the blanket, she threw herself face down onto its rainbow and sobbed, leaving Severus to make his own way back.

A few heart-stopping moments later, he had made it to his precarious spot beside the blanket.

"Snape!" Alice gasped out. "Severus Snape! What are you doing here?"

"Trying to help you," he retorted, disgruntled by the familiar loathing in her tone.

"Trying to help me?" she asked in disbelief. "You?"

He scowled at her. "Perhaps now you will answer my questions? So we can leave this abominable place?"

She sat up, careful to grip the ground as she did so. "No! I'm not answering your questions! What are you doing here? How did you get here? Why would you help me? You're awful!"

Severus took a closer look at her. She didn't sound like Alice the Auror. She sounded like the Alice he had known and intensely disliked in school. The Alice who hadn't wanted Lily to be friends with him. The Alice who had always been a little vain, a little shallow, a little too concerned with popularity and reputation. Severus had seen enough of Frank's memories of her to know that dating him had made her more sensible, had drawn away her conceit and left a passionate, righteous person behind. Perhaps, when Severus had a chance to recover Frank's memories of being an Auror, he would find the hard Alice he had met in the Forest as well.

This Alice, though, was the Alice of that day beneath the tree, when Black and Potter had Stunned him and he'd set Alice's blanket on fire. Severus doubted she was a day, or even an hour older.

How strange, that she and Frank both placed so much value on that day.

And did this Alice always value it, or had she assumed this form because of his presence? Because this was the only way she knew how to relate to his intrusion in her mind?

Though Severus hated himself for it, he longed to talk to Dumbledore. Dumbledore would have known. Dumbledore was five times the Legilimens he would ever be.

And yet, Dumbledore had never tried to save the Longbottoms. He had never ventured into their minds.

Shaking aside the frustrating thoughts, Severus focused on the angry, petulant teenaged girl in front of him.

"And why," she added, as if to emphasize his thought, "are you so old? You look almost fifty."

"I am thirty-eight," he said, slightly annoyed. "As are you, in the waking world."

That baffled her. "The waking world? What do you mean, the waking world?"

"Look around. Does this look like Hogwarts to you?"

"No," she said. "But I'm not thirty-eight. Look at me." She looked both haughty and concerned as she said it, as if afraid that he would confirm she had lost her youthful good looks.

"At present," he said, "you appear to be seventeen or eighteen -"

"I'm eighteen."

"- but this is merely an illusion. You seem to have assumed the form you possessed when we last spoke to each other."

She glared at him in disbelief. "Spoke? You call that speaking? Maybe Slytherins set each other on fire as a means of communicating, but normal people use words."

"As I might have," he said, "had Black and Potter not attacked me."

"You were spying on us!"

"I was there first." Severus breathed out hard, trying to stop himself from sounding childish. "What was I supposed to do, reveal myself to them? They would have hexed me no matter what I said! My only chance was staying still and hoping they would leave without noticing me."

Alice stared at him, completely taken aback. He doubted he had ever spoken so much in her presence before. He had certainly never acknowledged aloud the extent to which he had modified his behavior to avoid bullying from Potter and Black.

"Frank said," she murmured, "Frank said that was what you were doing…"

Even as Severus watched, the clover blossoms fell from her hair, which cascaded down in a tangled mess. Her face paled, its veil of makeup vanishing.

A different memory, Severus thought. Yet the wildflowers around them remained unchanged.

"We fought about it," she said accusingly. "We fought about you. It was our first fight."

Severus frowned, trying to remember Frank's memory of the event. But so many of Frank's memories had rewoven themselves on their own, without his direct assistance. He couldn't remember encountering a fight about himself. Perhaps Frank had deliberately obscured it.

"He sided with you," Alice said, disbelievingly. "Against James and Sirius! As if they were worse than you!"

Severus flushed, half in irritation with her, half in pleased embarrassment toward Frank.

"And then…" Alice's features changed again, her hair flooding up into a ponytail, her makeup back in place. "And then I realized he was right. I could have told Lily about it, but I didn't, because I knew she would feel sorry for you, and fight with James. And when I realized that -"

Her makeup was streaked suddenly, as if by tears.

"- I realized Frank was a better person than any of us, than me, than the boys, than Lily - and I knew I had to fix things -"

Her makeup was still smeared, but the worst of the streaks had been wiped away.

"- and he forgave me." She reddened with shame. "I still didn't tell Lily, though." She fixed him with an angry look. "You were so creepy!"

Severus remembered this insult well. It had stung more than most. "In what way was I creepy?"

"Oh, I don't know - the way you looked, the way you walked -"

"The way I walked?" Severus asked, affronted.

"It was so twitchy!" she exclaimed. "Like a spider, all horrible and spindly. And your hair. Why do you never wash your hair?"

"Potter and Black put a Hair Removal Potion in my shampoo bottle on the way to school at the beginning of second year. Fortunately, I discovered it in time, but I was disinclined to use shampoo thereafter."

Alice gave him a horrified look. "So you just never wash your hair? Ever?"

"I use soap."

"Soap!" She twisted her mouth. "Soap isn't for hair!"

"Solid objects are more difficult to imbue with potions. They can still be cursed, of course, but curses are easier to detect."

"You are so weird!" Alice shook her head. "Do you check your soap for curses every time you bathe?"

"Only when I am at Hogwarts."

Alice made a strangled noise in the back of her throat, then burst out laughing. Severus tolerated it for perhaps ten seconds, then interrupted, "Is there any other criticism you would like to level at me? Any other superficial feature you found creepy?"

"Oh, all of them," she said, still laughing. "Everything. Except your voice - you have a rather nice voice."

Severus rolled his eyes.

"All right, fine. I was shallow. I admit it. I liked Lily because she was pretty, and I hated you because you weren't. Does that make you happy?"

"No. But I doubt Frank Longbottom would have married you if you had not improved somewhat."

Her face was suddenly transported with delighted wonder. Her robes morphed into a dramatic white wedding gown. Her hair was full of white flowers. "We did get married!" she said, aglow with the memory. "He was so handsome."

"You had a baby as well," Severus said, hoping to speed things along.

Her robes were suddenly much looser, her cheeks fuller, her hair messy and, in one place, clumped with what looked suspiciously like regurgitated milk. "Neville," she sighed, in a tone of mingled bliss and exasperation.

"You completed your Auror training."

Her face hardened suddenly. Her hair was cropped short, though she had still managed a little braid above one ear. Her expression was one of triumph and stress. "The war," she said, in a dark tone. She looked at him. "We wondered if you…"

"I was a Death Eater," he acknowledged. "I turned spy for Dumbledore a year before the war concluded."

"Lily," she whispered, tears coursing down her cheeks. "Oh - Lily! And poor Harry!"

Severus allowed the familiar wave of guilt and self-loathing to crash over him, but it was tinged with something else now, something uncomfortable. It had been easy, all these years, to think that he was the only one who had truly mourned Lily, the only living person who had still loved her, but how arrogant, how foolish such an assumption had been. He had loved the nine-year-old Lily he had seen floating down from a swing, the eleven-year-old who had cried on the train to school. Alice had loved Lily at seventeen, when she had started dating James, at eighteen, when she had graduated, at nineteen, when she had married, at twenty, when they had given birth to their sons a mere day apart. She had loved the Lily who had died at twenty-one, the mother of a child Alice had also known and probably loved. She had loved all of Lily, long after Severus had stopped knowing her.

He felt sick, and sad. Tonelessly, he said, "You and Frank were abducted by the Lestranges."

Alice's entire aspect changed horribly. Her face was pale, stained with blood and tears, the sweat of torture and fear. Her robes were torn half off her. Her wrists were dark with the bruises of shackles, her face dark with other bruises Severus had seen on his mother many times.

"I don't know!" she screamed. "I don't know! Please! Please! Please!"

She struggled violently against something unseen. Before Severus could stop her, she was on her feet, falling, falling -

"Alice!" he shouted, reaching for her, but the green seemed to slip out from under them. Down they slid, wildflower petals bleeding into the air around them. The mist over the trees reached for them like a Dementor's chill breath -

Something hard slammed into Severus's shoulder. An instant later, Alice cried out in startled pain. Severus caught his breath, staring up at a familiar silhouette.

"I leave you alone with her for a few minutes," she said, "and already you're taking her into the Forest."

The first Alice, the hard, fierce, warrior Alice, stood over him, rubbing her knuckles. He was fairly certain she had punched him to a standstill. She herself seemed to have no difficulty balancing on the treacherous slope. Beside them, curled up on the grass, the second Alice was gasping for air, tears glistening on her cheeks, still whispering, "Please, please!"

"Shut up!" the first Alice snarled, grabbing the second Alice's torn robes and shaking her. "Shut up!"

"Please!"

"Don't beg, you pathetic little girl! How dare you!"

"Please!"

"You're DISGUSTING! STOP BEGGING!"

"Please!"

"SHUT YOUR WORTHLESS MOUTH!"

"Alice," Severus said sharply.

"She can't hear you," the first Alice snarled.

"I was talking to you."

There was a moment's pause. The second Alice watched them with wide, frightened eyes.

"What did you say?"

"I said, I was talking to you… Alice."

"I'm not Alice! She's Alice!"

"You are both Alice."

A look of rage burned across the first Alice's face. "I'm not her! I'm nothing like her! She's repulsive!"

"Because she begged for mercy?" he asked quietly.

"Yes!"

"They wouldn't stop!" the second Alice whimpered. "It hurt, and Frank… Frank…"

"Then you should have told them to fuck off!"

"I couldn't -"

"You should have killed them! You should have killed yourself, before begging!"

"I couldn't -"

"YOU COULD!" The first Alice shook her, hard. The second Alice shut her eyes over tears.

"Please," she whispered.

"SHUT UP!"

"This is not constructive," Severus pointed out.

The first Alice snarled at him through bared teeth. "This is none of your concern!"

"On the contrary. Frank sent me here to help you."

"Frank?" the second Alice asked, gazing at him in tortured hope. "Frank is alive?"

"Yes."

"Where?" she sobbed.

"In St. Mungo's. He is safe. He is recovering."

"I have to see him!"

"I thought you said Frank was my husband," the first Alice said, scowling.

"He's our husband," the second Alice said. "You're me, don't you understand?"

"I am not you."

"You are," Severus said, "and you are not. It is obvious that a fundamental split has occurred. Alice begged for mercy. You are the part of her that didn't break."

They both stared at him in silence for a few moments. Then the first Alice said, "So you admit she's broken."

"She suffered a hideous trauma," he countered. "More horrific than most could survive. I think," he added, rather coldly, "that if you are so lacking in compassion that you cannot forgive her for begging, then it is perhaps you who are broken now."

She looked shocked. He took it as a good sign that there were tears in her eyes.

She looked at the other Alice, whose torn robes were still clutched in her fists. Tears and fear had stained her bruised face. She looked altogether fragile.

"I -" The first Alice flushed in shame. "I'm sorry," she said.

"I'm sorry, too," the crying Alice whispered.

The hard Alice shut her eyes, as if she couldn't bear to see the other's weakness. But she said, "I forgive you."