A/N: We always read about the students, and how they have responded to Voldemort's coming. What about the teachers, whose duty it is to protect these students? I wrote this to find out.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter and related characters belong to J.K. Rowling, unfortunately, no matter how much I wish it were otherwise.


Professor Minerva McGonagall strode down the corridors of her school. The hour was late, by rights she should have been in bed – but this was no ordinary night. And she was going to the Hospital Wing to watch over one of her students.

McGonagall entered the hospital wing at a brisk pace and nodded curtly to Madam Pomfrey. She headed straight to the only occupied bed at the back. There she stood and simply stared at the boy before her. His pale skin looked so frail in the dim light of the moon, and his disheveled black hair lay over his forehead like a bruise.

She could not see his scar.

Oh, Harry, she thought, but refused to let that thought go any farther. She could not even begin to understand the horrors he had been through that night, and she had no doubt that without Poppy's Dreamless Sleep potion, he would be screaming with nightmares even now. How was it fair that one boy should have to endure so much?

Here, in the silence of the night, when she had no witnesses save one sleeping child and a large black dog beneath his bed, she could make her apologies to Harry. In her mind, she recited them over and over. I'm sorry, Harry. I'm sorry I couldn't protect you. I'm sorry this had to happen. I'm sorry…

A sudden movement caught her eye. She turned to see Professor Severus Snape sweeping towards her, his gaunt frame and ashen complexion illuminated by the moonlight. She waited for him to speak.

"Dumbledore thought you would be here."

An innocent-seeming comment, but McGonagall had traded words with the tall man too many times to take it at face value. "And where else would I be, with one of my students the victim of the Dark Lord's attack?"

Snape shrugged. "The Headmaster sent me to instruct you to go to bed, as this has been a rather distressing evening." The barely veiled scorn in his voice reflected what he thought about being Dumbledore's messenger boy.

"A distressing evening?" McGonagall gaped. "Distressing is hardly the word I would choose! Why, I – "

Snape interrupted her smoothly. "We could stand here and argue semantics all day, but we are in a hospital wing. The patients need rest. And we have to go to bed like good little children."

McGonagall glared at him, but took one last glance at her young charge before heading out of the room, Snape a dark shadow at her side.

He caught at her arm as she prepared to head upstairs. "I don't believe your quarters are in quite that direction," he pointed out. His eyes reflected his unvoiced questions.

"I need to check on my students," McGonagall returned stiffly. Unaccountably, she glared at the man in front of her. He, as Head of the Slytherin House, should understand the duties a fellow Head had to her students! She had to make sure none of them were reacting too badly to the night's happenings.

Her glare intensified as her anger grew. How dare he stand there in front of her? She transferred her eyes to his left arm, where only hours ago she had seen the Dark Mark burned black upon her colleague's arm. Her anger deepened to hatred. He had caused so much damage, taken so many innocent lives, and now he stood here arrogantly before her while his old master had returned! Her mind told her that Severus had been a spy, that he was on Dumbledore's side, but her heart, weary and sickened by the night's events, desperately latched onto this oh-so convenient target.

Snape, unaware of the direction of her thoughts, merely nodded. "Of course. As do I." The faint undercurrent of sarcasm and malice that always colored his voice grated at McGonagall's nerves.

"And why is that?" she challenged. "Do you need to ensure that the celebrations are not making too much of a mess in the Common Room?" She plunged on, regardless of the rage that crossed Snape's face or the angry, helpless tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. "Your students are probably rejoicing – and well should they be; their master is back! And you don't have to worry!" Her voice was becoming hysterical. She was so worried, so worried about her students – her poor, innocent students, many of whom would lose their parents and friends in this war – and here was a man who was safe, not responsible, safe! "The Dark Lord will stay away from Slytherin – your students are safe!"

Snape took two steps forward, viciously backing Minerva against the wall. For a few terrifying moments, she was sure he was going to strike her – but she didn't care; she didn't care about anything except that he be made to feel some of the overwhelming weight of responsibility and fear that crushed her now –

Severus's voice was low and hard. "My students," he ground out, "are never safe – and neither am I."

"Oh?" she returned. "So you take no pleasure in the fact that your master has come back from the dead?" That was unfair, and she knew it was unfair, but an unreasoning rage riddled with fear had taken control of her. She needed someone to blame.

"I have prayed every night that my instincts were wrong, and that he would not return," Snape hissed. "Do not presume for a moment to know my thoughts." He released her and began to walk away.

"Pray?" McGonagall returned sarcastically. "I wouldn't think the great Head of the Slytherin House would believe in the presence of God."

Snape whirled around and turned on her. His voice was low and harsh as he replied, "I have seen Hell, Minerva. I have looked upon the face of Lucifer himself. That much evil can only be counteracted by something equally good." He sneered unpleasantly. "It would be most…unwise of me to not believe in God."

He turned to leave once more. Minerva was gripped in a fury like no other. How dare this man parade his old alliance before her like that! He always did this; the moment a discussion turned serious, he made a casual reference to his servitude with the Dark Lord to shock the speaker into silence and make good his escape. She was sick and tired of his guilt trips, and how he always transferred the blame to others. How dare he try to gain sympathy, or attempt to use his old experiences to end conversations?

"And whose fault is that?" she demanded harshly, before she could stop herself. "Whose fault is it; that you have seen Hell?" Minerva stepped closer to Snape, who had frozen. "You chose, Severus. Do not even attempt to lecture me about Voldemort and how horrible he was to you. You chose that life." She was breathing heavily now. "Now you have turned spy for us, but that was still your choice. Live by your choices, Severus, but don't try to drag me with you."

He turned away. Minerva felt a flash of triumph. Finally, something she said had gotten though to him!

But then his voice came to her, interrupting her exultant haze. "Not all of my students have cause to celebrate," he said, returning to their earlier topic. "And those that feel they do have been…dealt with." He had called Malfoy into his office and explained that it would not be beneficial to openly celebrate Voldemort's return, especially while still in Hogwarts. By the end of their conversation he had Malfoy convinced that keeping silent was all his idea in the first place – and once Malfoy stopped rejoicing, the rest followed.

He finished darkly, "Rest assured, there are no parties in the Common Room tonight or any other night." However, one could hardly miss that the aura of fear that pervaded the rest of the castle was mysteriously absent here. Rather, it was one of nervous anticipation. Even those students not affiliated with Voldemort were calculating how this would affect them, how it would change the delicate power balance in Slytherin House – and most importantly, how they could use it to their advantage.

"Oh, I see," Minerva answered. "The party will have to wait until they get home, then. I'm sure that many of their fathers can supply much more entertainment then they can receive here at school." Deep inside she was partially horrified at her remarks. Her tongue had run away from her tonight.

To her surprise, Snape decided to respond to her comment – and not with the roar of fury one would expect. "We are Slytherins, Minerva," he said through gritted teeth. "We are not the Devil incarnate. Ambition does not always equal evil." Minerva was about to say something, but Snape continued, "Just like courage does not always mean good. Or need I remind you of Peter Pettigrew?" Minerva closed her mouth and simply glared. "In that case, courage was surely used – courage to turn away from everything that was accepted by his house, perhaps?"

Minerva found her voice. "Pettigrew was a coward, Severus, and you know it. He is also the exception, not the rule, to Gryffindor House. Unlike your Slytherins, who hold class reunions at Death Eater get-togethers!"

"And what else is offered to them?"

"Everything else is offered to them! They have every chance possible to turn away from the Dark Lord and pursue a normal life; they just choose not to take it!"

"Oh, of course, how silly of me. All Slytherins should love being packed away in some insignificant corner of the Ministry, where they can't cause any trouble!" At Minerva's slightly confused look, Snape sneered at her. "Haven't you noticed? How many job offers do graduating Slytherins receive that aren't orchestrated by their parents or Lucius Malfoy?"

"How should I possibly know?"

"Excuse me for thinking you had an actual interest in you classes. Let me enlighten you, then." He fixed Minerva with a cold glare until he deemed she would stay quiet long enough for him to finish. "Slytherins can, of course, "choose the right side" as you have said. However, in Slytherin, the "right side" is often the one supported by the most powerful people in your House – and your parents. And as you so kindly pointed out, many of my students' parents are former Death Eaters. They have been training and preparing to follow their parents nearly since birth."

"That's no excuse," Minerva insisted. "When they come to Hogwarts, they are exposed to several different value systems and ideas. They come to know the difference between right and wrong. They are fully capable of making such a choice."

"I never doubted their capability. Rather, I think they are a bit too capable. By the time they reach that particular decision, most have already figured out how little the "right" side has to offer them. And to answer my earlier question: Slytherins receive almost zero job offers. The only ones they are offered are bit jobs, ones with no opportunity for advancement. The Ministry wants all their Slytherins tucked safely away in a back corner where they can keep an eye on them. They will receive no money, no power, no fame. In contrast, the Dark Lord offers all of these things. He promises that his connections in the Ministry will win them high positions, and that his power will soon be theirs. More than that, he understands and accepts them. He understands their lust for power and feeds it."

He let Minerva digest that for just a minute. "So these students, who were specially selected as the most ambitious, the most cunning, have two choices. They can choose the right side and gain nothing – nothing materially, mind you, most Slytherins couldn't care less about the state of their immortal soul – or they can join the Dark Lord and gain everything they have always dreamed of. To further color this situation, these students are typically those who have had no moral grounding whatsoever during their childhood." He smiled sardonically. "Which do you think the majority will choose?"

Minerva looked shaken. She had never considered that before. Still…she shook off Snape's cold logic with an effort. It didn't matter that all Snape said was true. The ultimate choice, the one between good and evil, was still there. And she was convinced that no matter what the circumstances, a person always had the choice. Snape had even admitted that himself. His students had no excuse for turning towards the Dark.

"I understand that," she said finally. "But that still doesn't excuse their actions once they have made those decisions." Yes, she was sure of it – killing and torturing for the sake of power was wrong, and nothing Snape said could make it right or even excusable.

"Of course it doesn't," Snape agreed. Minerva looked at him in shock. "I give no excuses. They are, however the reasons why so many of my students act the way they do. They feel it is their best option."

Minerva felt her head spinning. It was too late for this – this debate on morals in the middle of a darkened hallway at night. Her body ached for sleep, and she heard her voice say, "Why are you telling me this?"

She was shocked into a greater awareness when Snape turned on her, eyes flashing and fists clenched with rage. "Why am I telling you this? Good God, woman, don't you understand?"

She stood limply in the hallway. What had she said to make him so upset? Severus ran his long fingers through his greasy hair in frustration, nearly tearing clumps of it out. Would he have to explain everything?

"You need to understand," he said with such intensity that Minerva jolted into full awareness immediately. "You need to understand where my students are coming from. Understand them, listen to them, and for God's sake don't treat them as if they are about to stab you in the back! Help them!" The frustration and helplessness that he had buried for so long was pouring out now, great floods of harsh stringent emotion. "Help my children, Minerva!"

He saw her eyes widen in sudden understanding. He continued, riding the tidal wave of anger though. "Don't preach your morals to them; they don't understand that. They literally do not comprehend the basis behind right and wrong, or at least, not all of them. Give them lectures in terms of power, gains over losses. Tell them what they can gain from following you; give them something concrete, something solid! So many of them, so many of them, Minerva, would join the Light side if they could see any advantage in it! Give them a reason to believe in it, to believe in Dumbledore and the motive behind doing right." Give them what I cannot. Give them hope.

He finished in a tight, strangled voice that he barely recognized, "I cannot…" He clenched his fists ever more tightly. Oh, it hurt. It hurt to watch his young students follow him down his dark road and do nothing to stop it. He could watch over them, yes, care for them and listen to them, be a confidante – but he could do no more than listen. He wanted to tell them the truth about the Dark Lord's service; he wanted, more than anything, to take them all away from this.

He wanted them to be safe.

And he knew, painfully clearly, just how short his life would be if he ever gave into one of those urges. He could not help them, not directly, if he wanted to live. He could only keep returning to Voldemort, time and again, and glean the information that might end up saving one of their lives.

Minerva watched the gaunt man lean against the corridor wall. And in that moment, just that moment, she understood. She understood his frustration, his desire to protect his students, and his fear that no matter what he did, it would never be enough.

 The moment of insightfulness disappeared as quickly as it had come. But it had been enough. It was enough to know, even for a moment, that she and Severus Snape were not as different as she had once thought. It was enough to know, irrefutably and undeniably, that they were on the same side. That they had the same goal.

Save the children.

Even if they did have different ways of going about it, and even if she would never understand his reasons, it was enough to know that he cared. It was enough to know that he would do anything to protect his students and all the others as well.

Severus opened his eyes and stared at her. It was like gazing into bottomless pits.

Help me save them. The wordless plea struck deep into her soul.

I will.

And that was enough.

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