Well, Snape thinks, standing in the front room of the house that is now his, this is it. Your new life. But even in his own mind, the words sound flat and unconvincing. Surely there was a time when the prospect of a normal life would have given him some pleasure, or at least a sense of relief. But right now he feels tired, and the scars at his throat hurt, and other than that, he feels nothing. He is, he thinks, as empty as this house.
Not that it is, quite. His great-aunt had surprisingly good taste, for an American, and the furniture is sturdy and solemn and entirely acceptable. They've kept most of it. All the old woman's personal belongings have long since been removed, though, and for a moment Snape almost regrets the fact, as if the debris of her life might somehow have provided answers. Did she choose to leave her ridiculously Muggle home to a great-nephew she'd never met out of some desire to atone, some belated acknowledgment of how much harm her husband's family had done in rejecting its most disappointing branch? Had she heard about his role in the war -- surely, even in the isolated wasteland of Wizarding America, that conflict had been news-- and, like other misguided souls he could name, thought of him as some sort of damaged tragic hero, deserving of tribute, as long as it was offered at a safe distance? More likely, he supposes, she was simply a lonely old woman with no one else to remember.
Not that it should matter. The past is the past, or so he keeps telling himself. Eventually, he may even believe it. But for now, this is a place to be that isn't Spinner's End or Hogwarts, neither of which he has any desire to see again, and that will have to be enough. It isn't as if he has anywhere else to go.
Perhaps it will feel less empty once they've unpacked, although they've brought little enough. He's kept his books, the accumulated library of a lifetime that's held few pleasures other than reading. No one else would appreciate them properly, he's sure, and some of them are not works that should fall into the hands of the vulnerable. Some of them should never have fallen into his. And, of course, Minerva has hers; she's the only person he's ever met who owns as many books as he does. Other than that, he has dried herbs for potions, and his brewing equipment, because he must have something to occupy his mind and his hours in this place. Clothing, of course, most of it Transfigured to blend in with the Muggle neighborhood as much as possible without being too embarrassing to wear. And Minerva has no doubt brought a few keepsakes: family heirlooms, presents from students. He hopes she's discreet about displaying them; he doesn't want to spend every day staring at nonsense from the past. He himself has kept nothing, not even a once-cherished picture from his childhood, and he refuses to let himself regret it.
The quiet of the house is interrupted by a thud from upstairs, and a muffled exclamation. Minerva has been moving furniture around up there, he thinks. Putting things in order; she was always good at that. But when she appears at the bottom of the stairs -- to check up on him, no doubt, thinking he's been quiet down here too long -- he sees that she's been fussing with her hair again, still unused to the looser style she's begun wearing since they left Hogwarts, and a strand of hair has straggled down to lie across her cheek.
Through force of habit, he quickly suppresses the impulse to reach out and brush it from her face, then, with a faint sense of surprise that he wonders if he'll ever stop feeling, he remembers that it's all right now, and does. The students would find it scandalous, he thinks, and the thought almost makes him smile.
"Minerva," he says.
"Hello, Stephen," she says, pointedly. Her eyes twinkle a little, taking the sting out of the correction, but it seems a little forced, and he wonders, not for the first time, if she is rethinking this arrangement.
But he only grunts an agreement. Because she's right, of course. If they're going to live with this decision to use Muggle names, they should use them, and the best way not to slip up in public is to police one's responses even in private, something he knows entirely too well. At least he doesn't mind his new identity; he never particularly liked Severus Snape in the first place. But there's never been any shame in being Minerva McGonagall. And he's always thought that "Minerva" rather suited her. Even if he has had reason lately to question its associations with wisdom.
He wants, suddenly, to ask her again why on earth she decided to come with him. But he knows she'd only give him the same answers she gave him the first time.
"I'm ready for a change." She set her teacup down with a clink on what had recently been his desk and was now hers again. "I've given decades of my life to Hogwarts, and I've been very glad to do it. But I was there when it needed me, and now it doesn't. And if I'm perfectly honest, I'm tired. It's time for me to retire." There was no trace of self-pity in her voice. She sounded as matter-of-fact as if she were discussing a change of textbook.
"So, retire, then." He could certainly understand her reasons. They weren't very different from his own, with the small but significant exception of the fact that every witch and wizard in Britain wasn't clamoring to either lionize or demonize her. "But I don't see why you should wish to do it with me."
She gave him a very small smile. "Hard as you may find it to believe, Severus, I do very much enjoy your company. And I don't care to be deprived of it again."
"I would think," he said, "that you would hardly care to be in the same room with me, after..." He had no desire to say after what, and she didn't need him to.
Her lips thinned into a disapproving line. "Do you think that little of me?"
"I think enough of you," he said, "not to want to see you rotting away in America in the company of someone like me." But he could already feel a small, treacherous worm of hope gnawing in his mind. She had been a comfort to him once, a sharp, bright spot in a world of gray. But he had no right to expect her to be that again.
"I'll be the judge of that, thank you," she snapped. Then, more softly, "Do you not want me to come?"
He knew he ought to say no. "Do what you like."
"Good. I will."
On the day he left, she showed up at his door with a packed bag and an American Portkey. And he still didn't understand why.
"This might not work," he says suddenly, voicing a fear he hadn't intended to admit. At the look of hurt that flickers across her face, he clamps down hard on his thoughts and amends the statement with, "The little girl across the street already appears to be suspicious." Which is true. He hopes he won't eventually have to Obliviate her. Somehow, he's lost his stomach for messing about with other people's minds.
Minerva -- Miranda -- laughs. "Honestly, Severus. You fooled the Dark Lord for years into believing you were something you're not. You even managed it with me for a while. I think you can convince an eleven-year-old that you're an ordinary Muggle man trying to live a quiet life. Especially when half of it is true."
"Stephen," he corrects, almost automatically, and her lips twitch as if she's trying not to smile.
He looks around the room again. Outside, an automobile passes by, and somewhere a lawnmower splutters into inefficient mechanical life. It's all so very Muggle here, he thinks. He'd never wanted a Muggle life. He'd tried very hard to escape it, once.
"Come upstairs," Miranda says. "I want to see what you think of the bedroom."
"I have very few opinions on the subject of interior decorating," he mutters, but he follows her up. And stops short in the doorway.
The bed is large and comfortable-looking. Sunlight filters through the curtains, neither too bright nor too dim. A wardrobe stands open, filled with their clothes. There are already books on the nightstand, her well-thumbed copy of Prewlett's Handbook of Advanced Transfigurations nestling against the novel he's been trying for weeks to finish. She really is trying to make a home for them here, he realizes suddenly, despite the fact that she must be almost as unpracticed at it as he is. He tries to imagine living in a place like this, sleeping here with her, waking up every morning to that light. Much to his astonishment, he thinks he can almost do it.
"I think it might do," she says, and under her usual brisk and confident tone, he thinks he can detect an odd hint of nervousness, as if she's found something she wants and isn't certain whether she'll be allowed to keep it.
"It might," he says. He twines his fingers in hers and squeezes her hand, a little tighter than he'd meant to, as if frightened she might pull away. But she only stands there, solid and reassuring as she always has been, holding his hand.
"I think," he says finally, "that we should plant a garden. I can't be expected to make do with whatever passes for fresh herbs in this place."
"Well, of course," she says. "I've already asked Pomona to send some seedlings for us."
"I see." He can't quite decide whether to be irritated by her presumption, or amused.
"Is there anything else you wanted?" she says. She certainly looks amused.
He looks around the room again, at the sunlight, the books, the woman holding his hand. "No," he says. "Nothing else."