A/N -- And so we reach the end of "Gifts," and I thank you all so much for reading and reviewing. I may post something a little more upbeat next Sunday.

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Chapter 3: McGonagall

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Minerva McGonagall scorned the idea of using alcohol to escape the things one was afraid to face: pain or truth or oneself. Life had many pleasures, to be sure, but on the whole, to live was to struggle, to know sorrow and sting, and it was best simply to accept that fact and get on with it. To do anything else was simply weakness.

Yet here she sat, next to a half-empty bottle of firewhisky that had been full only an hour earlier. She'd opened it after she'd arrived back at her rooms to find Pomona waiting for her, dear, brave Pomona, her kind face pinched with concern, her shoulders squared in her determination to stand with Minerva no matter what the cost. Pomona rarely imbibed, so the swiftness with which she'd accepted the offer of a dram let Minerva know that it wasn't a drink she wanted so much as the normality of it, the chance to reassure herself that nothing had really changed. She'd wanted to be told that everything would be all right, and Minerva had even been willing to say it. But they had both known it as a lie.

Pomona hadn't stayed long after that; the truth hung too heavy in the air, and Minerva was left alone with her open bottle.

The whisky had been a present from Horace Slughorn at Christmas -- the same gift he'd given to all those on the staff whom he deemed of no social use to him. It proved to be an inferior distillation, cheap and raw, an insult. It was a spirit unfit to consume except as punishment, and Minerva knew she was going to sit and drink it until it was gone.

Or at least until she could forget what she had seen in Severus's eyes earlier. Not his contempt or derision, although he had worked hard to make her think he felt them, and probably he did. She'd given him enough cause, in their last horrific argument, and he had done the same to her.

Still, she had missed Severus sorely these past months, had missed him, in fact, ever since their liaison ended. Missed him despite the lingering pain of their fight and the anger she felt over his obvious collusion with Albus in the old man's death.

Both the rage and the loss had filled her again today when she had looked at Severus and realised that he fully intended to die in the battles that were surely coming.

She knew, of course, that he had not really gone over to Voldemort's side. Her continued existence was proof enough of that. Had Snape been a genuine enemy, he would have taken the first opportunity, once Albus was gone, to neutralize the danger that she and the rest of the Order represented. The fact that he had not done so told her where he stood.

It was proof, yes, but proof she hadn't needed. She knew Severus was not a true Death Eater because she knew Severus. She knew him, and not just physically. Sex was only the consequence of her knowing him, not the cause.

Which was not to say that she had any illusions about him, romantic or otherwise. He was not a kind man or a particularly well-meaning one; he could be cruel, vicious, chillingly indifferent, and he was mostly content to be so.

But for all that, he had a code that he lived by, a difficult code that had led him, ultimately, to worthy ends, and he had an equally worthy mind, and in any case, she herself was not so free of viciousness and cruelty that she could afford to judge him. She had failed him, as boy and man, in ways that he had not failed her. And she was worse than he, she thought, for she had justified her own unforgivables, curses and otherwise, in the name of good.

So when he had ordered her to her knees, she had done it, because she knew the price he'd paid and still paid. She had dropped down and taken him in her mouth as of old, and a foolish part of her had hoped that he might recognise and accept her action for what it was: an offer of the only gift she had left worth the giving -- her permanent submission (or as much of it as she could afford), the surrendering of her will to his, if only he would be prepared to live.

She should have known better, of course; one couldn't bargain with Fate, and even before she knelt at his feet, she had seen in Severus's eyes that he had already chosen his. He would let himself be destroyed, perhaps even welcomed his destruction, and there was nothing she could do.

It infuriated her as much as anything he'd ever done. She didn't know who she'd find harder to forgive: him, or herself.

Her glass was empty again, and she moved to fill it. It was weakness, she knew. But it meant that for tonight, at least, she didn't have to think or feel or imagine what this next year, spent under Severus, would bring. Or how it might end.

She lifted the whisky bottle and poured herself another substantial measure.

Coward, she thought, and downed the lot.

Her throat burned, though whether with the taste of the whisky or the taste of Severus, she couldn't have said.

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Outside, the late-summer sun had finished its slow descent. It had been a lovely day, this last but one before the students arrived for the new term at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Around the castle's current occupants, the wards arched and circled and hummed, and darkness settled on the ceiling of the Great Hall.

--end