In a cramped front room hundreds of miles south from her old school, an iron-haired, severe-looking woman dozed upright in an old chair, one hand lightly curled around a wand on her lap. The large old fireplace to her left side crackled and hissed as it slowly burnt the ash wood. As the clock ticked away the small hours of the morning, a small pale cat turned and lay sleepily on the hearth, its coat reflecting the orange of the flames.

So still and noiseless, yet for a few seconds one could almost swear a thin wind could be heard whistling across the chimney top. The cat twitched its ears backward and stood up fluffing its tail slightly as the fire suddenly glowed brighter.

"Mother!"

The dozing woman snorted, but did not wake. The voice cursed to itself.

"Mother! …Oh, for damned…MAM!"

The woman's eyes had snapped open and her wand raised in a moment. As her gaze focused on the fireplace, though, her eyes widened.

"Severus! What-"

But something about her son's expression so shocked her she was unable to complete her sentence. She felt a small tingle run down her back.

His eyes, they looked almost…wild.

"Never mind the shock, Mother, listen to me – be especially on your guard – step the wards up – stop sending by owl - consider using-"

The woman's eyes widened slightly. "But what is the meaning of this? What's-"

"DON'T…no…just…don't ask questions, mother!" snarled back the son, momentarily losing all control over his words. "All you damn well have to do is listen, and do as I say for once, just for once – unless you want to end up dead!"

The woman's eyes sparked annoyance, her ugly mouth turning downward. "Severus Snape! Are you going to explain your reason for insulting me through floo at this hour of the morning, or will I-"

"I CAN'T! You-"

Whether he read the fright in his mother's eyes, or whether he suddenly had a moment of fright himself, Severus Snape's face paled and he fell silent. His mother stared back at her son's head, eerily hovering in the flames, before looking quickly away. He was both paler and thinner than when she last saw him, and there were ghostly hollows under each of his eyes.

"Severus…you are scaring me."

Her son gave an odd mocking laugh and sneered. "Why…that's comforting to know Mother, thank you."

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Always acting so secretive, Severus; how am I supposed to know what you are at?"

Severus's sneer widened and there was a weird gleam in his eye. "Well, well…maybe you should have -"

But his snide comment was cut short by the abrupt change in his mother's voice. "Six years and no contact, Severus," she replied softly. "An only son refusing to answer his worried mother's owl. An only son refusing to speak to his mother for six years. And then one night, he returns only to act like a stranger. How do you think she feels?"

Severus clenched his jaw and looked angrily to the side. "I did that for your own good, mother," he hissed, "you know I did."

Eileen Snape's eyes began to glisten with tears.

"And I'm doing this for you, too," he added, more quietly.

She looked up irritably. "But what is this, Severus? If you will just explain -"

"I cannot – I cannot – it may put you in danger-"

"But you haven't explained-"

"And you will have to be content with that!" He hissed back. "If I tell you to step up the wards then it is for a damned good reason!"

It was her turn to look angrily away.

"Your father -" she began, her voice wavering slightly.

Severus gave an ugly scowl. "Has no place in this conversation. Leave him out."

Eileen gave a long and bitter sigh, before giving reign to her snappish temper. "I don't know what has happened to you tonight, Severus, but I will not tolerate you speaking about your father in that tone of voice."

"And why on earth should I not?" He challenged her, his eyes glittering oddly.

There was an interminable pause where mother and son looked closely at one another's faces.

"Because he loved you," she replied bitterly. "And because he was ill."

Severus was less sympathetic "Cowardly, more like," he sneered, then stopped, his face contorting with the effort of containing his emotion.

"You never had the patience to bother to see it, did you?" she continued bitterly. "Judging him on things he couldn't help-"

"Mother – will you just-" Severus began.

"No!" She snapped back. "Not until I've-"

"But I know!" He shouted back abruptly, crazily, his face contorting. "I saw it – I know he damn well did now, don't I? You stupid woman! But now it's bloody irrelevant, isn't it!"

Eileen Snape was momentarily stunned, so stunned that she quite forgot to berate him for the insult. She watched as her son made to speak, but the realisation of what he'd just said seemed to sink in. Words appeared to fail him, and he paled. Droplets of sweat were beading on his sallow forehead, He really did look quite ill.

"Who is safest to speak to regarding letter charming?" she asked tentatively.

"Silas Morgan," he replied in a quiet, strained tone, not meeting her eyes. "And do not, in whatever circumstances mention this recommendation to him. In fact, do not mention me at all. Whatever you do-"

"Don't talk down to me like I'm an idiot, Severus."

"Then don't treat me like one, Mother," hissed back her son. "Do all as I tell you, and also block the floo when I'm gone."

Eileen frowned, suddenly suspicious. "Where are you now, Hogwarts? What's-"

"No more questions mother, please, for the love of Merlin, no more," he hissed quietly.

There was an uneasy pause. "Well?"

Snape bit his lip hard and forced himself to look his mother straight in the eye. "Just whatever you may think and feel in the next few days - DO NOT - believe all you read."

As Eileen Snape stared back at her son incredulously, an awful look of pain crossed his face, almost as if he couldn't bear her looking at him anymore, there was a sudden abrupt whoosh of flames and his head disappeared.

She sat for a few moments trying to comprehend what had just happened, but couldn't. All she could deduce was that her son looked very ill, but as he was extraordinarily tough, she knew only something really, really awful…

The fear began to mount, but true to family ways she stoically kept it inside.

For her son.