Disclaimer: All JKR's. No profit made here.

Author's Note: I will not write fanfic that abuses Severus Snape. I will not write fanfic that abuses Severus Snape. I will not write fanfic that abuses—oops. Well, darn. O_o Is it clichéd? Probably, so run away now if that bothers you; I, however, never seem to tire of some good ol' H/C. Enter Minerva McGonagall, anyone…? ;)

It was funny how midnights tended to set the tone for the next twenty-four hours. Being awake and pacing when the clock struck twelve usually didn't bode well for the day ahead.

Screaming in agony didn't quite cut it either.

Severus found himself wishing very much it had been the former, when, several hours after midnight, he was preparing to Apparate back to Hogwarts. The Dark Lord had been in a particularly nasty mood, and none of his present Death Eaters had been spared his wrath. It was, Severus supposed, somewhat fortunate that he had been among the first of the Dark Lord's victims—at least he'd had a few hours to gather his strength in preparation to Apparate; he would probably manage it without splinching himself.

What a comforting thought.

He sighed and turned on the spot as gracefully as his aching body could manage; a few disorientating moments later, he felt the hard-packed gravel and ice of the path outside the Hogwarts gates slam into his feet.

And the jarring snap as one of his ankles decided to give out in the wrong direction.


He was able to stifle the howl sufficiently enough for his pride, but the pain did not abate; leaning on one of the wrought-iron gates in irritation, he began the laborious task of fishing his wand from his pocket. He winced as his fingers brushed damp cloth at his side—he hadn't thought the wound was that bad, but there had been significantly less blood the last time he'd checked.

Idiot. Get to the castle. Now.

He was now glad Dumbledore had made allowances for his circumstances in the school's protection; murmuring counter-charms would not have done anything for anyone else. As it was, it was some time before he heard the lock on the gates suddenly click, and he limped through them as quickly as he could, feeling the enchantments reseal themselves once he was over the threshold.

And now for the fun part, he thought bitterly, eying the expansive lawns with dismay. Snow would hardly be a cushion to his leg; trying to walk unsupported would be a challenge. Not impossible, in his opinion, but certainly unpleasant. A single step proved him wrong: shockwaves of pain raced from his foot through his entire body; he overbalanced and fell, barely registering the drops reddening the snow as he cursed.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…bloody sodding hell!"

Merlin, there was no way he was going to make it to the castle, at this rate… He reached again for his wand, but then sighed. He had no energy for a Patronus, nor was he confident he could envision anything cheerful enough to produce one at the moment.

Dragging himself it was, then. Typical.

Well, Happy Birthday to me.

"Albus, I'm so sorry to disturb you, but…have you seen Severus?"

If the headmaster was surprised to see Minerva McGonagall at his door at half past four in the morning, he did not show it; he immediately invited her in and conjured a steaming tea tray.

"Voldemort called him," Albus sighed. "Last night. I would have thought…but he may still be there. Is something wrong, Minerva?"

Minerva pulled her tartan dressing gown more tightly around her and settled into one of the armchairs. "I—not particularly," she admitted, looking a bit embarrassed, "but I couldn't sleep, and Poppy was out of the potion I usually take. I was ready to forget the whole thing, but she insisted I go to Severus…and he's gone. I know he sometimes wanders the halls at odd hours, but I didn't dare send him a message in case he was with You-Know-Who."

"Understandable," Albus murmured, his light blue eyes creased in a frown. Minerva knew that look, and it did not always bode well; she set down her teacup and peered at him over the top of her spectacles.

"Albus, what is it?"

He glanced up at her, his face clearing slightly. "I'm sorry, Minerva, I was just—did you still need your potion?"

"I can do without, I suppose. It's no matter if it catches up to me in a few hours; what else are Saturdays for?"

Albus smiled faintly. "Indeed. No, Minerva, it's only that I was reviewing the wards, and Severus has now returned. I daresay he won't be opposed to helping you himself."

"Oh." Minerva's voice sounded surprisingly relieved, even to her. A Dreamless Sleep sounded wonderful, of course, but she had found herself increasingly worried every time her younger colleague was called to the Dark Lord's side. To have him back safely once again put her a bit more at ease. "Oh, I—thank you, Albus. I'll just—wait for him outside his office, then."

"I won't keep him long, Minerva. Goodnight."

Severus was very quickly remembering why he hated snow.

It was cold.

Not that he was opposed to cold in itself. The dungeons were quite chilly, even damp, and he was rather used to it by now. In fact, it was extreme heat he couldn't stand. But snow… It was a tangibly wet cold, one that soaked through his robes and numbed his hands as he half-crawled towards the castle.

At least, he mused, he had stopped shivering so badly; that had meant more time huddled in a ball trying to warm himself, and it was much slower going. He wasn't really dressed for this, and in the end it was this fact that got him moving again: The quicker he dragged himself to shelter, the quicker he could get out of the cold.

A particularly nasty gust of wind stole the breath from his lungs; he paused in annoyance and again looked up at the ground still left to cover. It was more than he wanted, but less than it had been a few minutes before…he could afford to rest for a few moments.

He shut his eyes as he curled up again, removing the weight from his hands. It would be all right. Better, in fact. He would be able to move faster if he allowed himself to warm up for a few seconds…just a few more seconds…

Minerva was not often cross with Albus. She did, however, become marginally annoyed, as was the case when she sat down, in cat form, outside of Severus's office. And waited. And waited.

Honestly, Albus, it's not like I'd be sleeping anyway, but I'd have thought you'd let him go by now. He's got to be exhausted, she thought.

The more she thought, she frowned. Albus did not often break his word; there must have been something in Severus's news that could not wait. Minerva suddenly stood up decisively. Important or not, the lot of them couldn't do much against the forces of evil tonight…could they? Rest was surely more important, especially to Severus, than Albus's occasional overzealousness.

Outside of the headmaster's office, Minerva transfigured herself once again and spoke the password ("Strawberry taffy"). As she climbed the stairs, however, she heard no voices from above, and Albus's greeting as she knocked was very worrisome indeed.

"Severus! Finally, my boy; you got back ages ago—oh, I'm sorry—Minerva?"

She stared at Albus in alarm at this revelation. "Severus—Severus isn't here?"

"I thought perhaps he was with you," said Albus, looking no less troubled. "He does occasionally visit his own office before reporting to me, and I thought if you had gotten to talking—well—"

"No, I haven't seen any sign of him," Minerva replied. She hesitated. "Albus, I—he'd probably think I'm a paranoid old fool, but I—it's not like him at all. Something's wrong."

Albus nodded thoughtfully, though he reached for his cloak. "I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why he hasn't contacted either of us," he said slowly. "But all the same…I will check the hospital wing. Poppy usually waits up for him if she knows he's gone."

Minerva felt a stab of self-reproach at this; why had she never bothered to do the same? True, she was no healer, but a friend's face would surely be welcome after spending hours at Voldemort's side… She brooded over this all the way across the Entrance Hall, but she cleared her features as Albus pounded on the nurse's door.

"Yes—I'm coming! What's the matter?" she called.

Poppy's breathless, harried face appeared moments later. She glanced once at them, pushing a few stray strands of hair out of her face, and frowned.

"Headmaster—Minerva. What's going on?"

"Poppy, I'm very sorry to disturb you at this hour, but have you seen Severus?" Albus asked quickly.

"No," said Poppy, looking immediately anxious. "I thought that maybe he'd managed to make it back without needing to see me—was I wrong?"

"I've no idea," said Minerva. "We can't find him anywhere."

Poppy's face darkened. "What do you mean? He hasn't returned?"

"Oh, he's returned," said Albus firmly. "I'm sure of it. The wards weren't wrong. I think, however, it is time to call on Fawkes's assistance."

As he said the name, the phoenix appeared with a shriek and a flash of fire; Poppy jumped and stared at it. "What in heaven's name—no. No animals in this ward, Headmaster! What do you expect he could do?"

"I need," said Albus quietly, stroking Fawkes's plumage with one finger, "for you to find Severus and come back to me. Then, if it is both necessary and safe to do so, I need you to take us to him."

The phoenix ducked his head and nipped at Albus's finger, then vanished in another burst of flames, leaving a single feather floating behind him. Minerva watched it fall to the floor and bit her lip. She could not quell the uneasy feeling gnawing at her stomach; the whole situation was just so unusual that she could see no good reason for its occurrence.

What are you playing at, Severus? If it turns out you've got us all in a panic for nothing…

Fawkes's reappearance ended that line of thought; she instead watched Albus observing his familiar. Fawkes keened softly and rustled his long tail feathers, and Albus frowned.

"Minerva, come with me. I may need your help. Poppy, I sincerely hope it is not necessary, but we may be in need of your assistance soon as well."

Poppy nodded and drew herself up to her full height; if she was puzzled by Albus's words, she hid it well. Minerva glanced at her before taking Albus's proffered hand. She had the peculiar sensation of Apparating through a particularly warm rubber tube before her feet hit something soft, and she gasped at the sudden chill. Her heart plummeted as she saw the answer to her questions.

They were outside, only about halfway across the grounds. The wards hadn't been wrong—Severus had returned to Hogwarts.

He just hadn't made it to the castle.

Author's Note: Thanks for reading! Any comments, questions, etc. are welcome, as usual. ;)