Severus Snape had managed to resist the temptation to read all the way through his text book.

His rather scruffy copy of 'Advanced Potion-Making' had been his mother's before him and the blank pages, margins and even, in places, the spaces between the lines were annotated in tiny, spidery writing. Eileen's comments and observations were sly, funny and perceptive by turns. He loved reading her notes and adding his own.

At home, he and his mother had scarcely to speak, or gesture, to understand one another. Of course this was just as well because, when Severus was eight, shortly after the tragic death of Severus' cousin Eugenia in a fall from a balcony, old Mr. Prince had insisted that his younger daughter and her son moved into the family home with him. Severus' grandfather had determined to assist his only remaining heir in his studies and, in the intervening years, hadn't mellowed much at all. When the boy had first come to Hogwarts, he'd been instructed to owl only to his grandfather. This year, the potions book had become something to share with his mother while he was away and he rationed his pleasure with the hoarded, unread pages.

Still, he was only on page a hundred and sixty-six and he'd just had a message to pack for the holidays. A little early for Christmas perhaps but there was something that, because it was written along the very bottom of the back cover, he'd been finding it hard to avoid seeing. With a small grin, he flipped the book open and found: 'This Book is the Property of the Half-Blood Prince.' Severus' eyes closed and the classroom faded.

In the backroom of a nondescript terrace house, in a rain fraught, unimportant town, a woman is bathing a child of five or six. There isn't much coal left and the room is cold but there can be no more warming charms as she no longer has a wand. The immersion heater runs away with the electricity, and there's no money for the meter, so a kettleful of water has to suffice to take the chill off. The teacup scrapes across the bottom of the tin bath as the woman rinses the small boy's hair. He shivers but does not complain. 'Up now, darling.' The child climbs out of the tub and the woman lifts the towel from the fireguard and wraps it around him. She pulls her son close and quickly dries him.

He gets into his pyjamas bottoms and struggles to fasten the top. 'Let me.' She smiles and, playfully tugging, she does it up correctly and then helps him into his red dressing gown with the buttons that look like ladybirds.

'Mum,' Severus asks, 'can I sleep in your bed tonight?'

'No, love. You're too old now. Remember what your grandfather said.'

He stares at the rug. 'My grandfather said I was a "half blood prince".

'Yes?'

'Am I really a prince?'

She smiles. 'A half-blood is a witch or wizard who has a muggle as a mum or dad. Your father Tobias was a muggle and . . .'

'Where is my dad?' He's looking straight at her now.

'I don't know.'

Again the scrutiny of the rug while the child searches for the words. 'Mum, I had a bad dream. Grandfather was hurting daddy. Daddy was crying and I really wanted to go to him but I couldn't move.'

His mother pulls him close again and wraps herself around him. 'Just a dream, love' she says. 'It wasn't real. But, if you have horrible dreams, all you have to do is call me and I'll come and sit with you for a while. Do you remember how to wake yourself up?'

'Rub my eyes?' comes the muffled response.

'That's right. Well, sweetheart, my family are called Prince. And you are a half-blood. So that's why your grandfather called you that.'

Small hands tangle in her cardigan. 'Grandfather says that a half-blood Prince is a disgrace and abomination.'

She pushes the child back and meets his dark eyes. 'You're not a half-blood Prince, Severus. You are the Half-Blood Prince. You're the only one. Your grandfather doesn't realise how very special you are.' Severus' damp hair slips forward, hiding his features and she brushes it away. 'Always remember that. And always remember that I love you.' She bends to kiss his forehead and rests her face against his.

'Oy, Snivellus. Wake up.' Something struck his brow and Severus glanced down to discover a salamander foot, that hadn't been there before, on the bench beside him. He closed the potions book carefully and bent to put it in his bag. Don't snivel, Snivellus, he told himself desperately knowing that, this time, even the aegis of that hateful name wouldn't be enough. He knocked the salamander foot off the desk into his cauldron and, within seconds, the dungeon began filling with choking black smoke.

'James Potter!'

'What? He did it himself, Lily!'

'I cannot believe you!'

'That's enough,' interrupted Slughorn. 'Nevis, take Snape to the hospital wing.' Clutching his bag to his chest and coughing, eyes streaming, Snape was led from the dungeon classroom.

He knew that he'd never see his mother again.


Author's note: most of this is between the lines. I have tried to suggest that Eugenia (then name means 'well born' did not survive the sort of experience that Neville reported; the Eileen might have had a very good reason to flee the magical world and marry a muggle and that her family, when they did catch up, were disinclined to forgive.

Alternatively, Snape is Volde's love child.