Disclaimer: nothing you recognize belongs to me.
“I should stay.”
I could feel Neville’s eyes from across the table, but I couldn’t manage to look at him. I’d spotted the podium at the front of the hall before I had sat down and fixed my eyes on it. It was the only thing in the room not touched with holly or something else unnaturally green. My jaw tightened a little as the resolve settled over me. “Stay?” Neville’s voice jolted me just enough to make me turn my head. “Here? The whole time?”
“I’ll write Mum tomorrow. She won’t like it, but—“
I caught a glimpse of a dark red silk ribbon over Neville’s shoulder and re-directed my attention to his eyes before I could take in the whole tree. I glanced over at the Professor’s table long enough to watch each of the Carrows scan one side of the room. My eyes shot back to Neville and my voice volume dropped far enough to nestle underneath the confused, gentle buzz of conversation that everyone made a point of keeping up.
There were days, a thousand year ago now, when that underlying hum had left me with a clinched jaw and a head ache. Since the Carrows took us all under their benevolent wings, I had learned to taste something sweet in that sound; learned to breathe it in and take some kind of strength from it. We had never discussed it directly, but I was pretty sure that everyone did it on purpose. We took these few opportunities that we had as a unified whole to create cracks in the rigid, enforced silence that hung over us. Silence was fear and control. Our relentless rhythmic voices, whenever we could gather them together, were a quiet chorus of resistance.
Neville leaned toward the plate of toast between us and rested his fingers on a burnt piece near the edge. His eyes were on the food, but his attention was on me.
“Why would you stay here?”
I tore my eyes from the podium, and a brief, undisciplined moment put me in direct eye contact with a small porcelain angel that someone had slipped into the six-foot tree a few feet behind Neville. My jaw clinched for a second as I shifted my gaze down toward his hand. There was something perverse about a castle full of reminders of Christmas under the Carrows’s watch. I glanced over my shoulder at the backs of three first years at the Ravenclaw table.
“Can’t exactly leave them here, can I?” I leaned toward Neville until I was sure that he could hear me, forgetting to make an attempt at acting naturally as the fingers of my left hand gripped the edge of the table. “The…the ones that are staying behind. There aren’t many, as far as I can gather, but I know that at least five of us will be here over Christmas.” I swallowed and forced myself to stay quiet until I was sure that my voice volume was back under control. “I’m supposed to just leave them here?”
His fingers slipped off of the plate between us as a smile edged up his face. I swallowed as a flash of heat cut through me, there and gone like the dying breath of a firework.
“Notice something funny, Longbottom? Because the last thing I heard was us considering leaving a bunch of barely trained kids here with no protection.”
His expression didn’t even flicker as he leaned back a little and studied me across the table.
“Send them to me, and I’ll make sure that they’re on the train with the rest of us tomorrow.”
I blinked as the divergence between the subject at hand and his damn smile tugged at the edge of my sense of reason.
“Good.” My voice was flat in my own ears. “Brilliant. Thank you.”
His eyes hovered on mine as he reached for a plate of butter somewhere to the left and pushed it toward me. My fingertips rested on its edge, but his didn’t move. I blinked.
“It’s not your job, you know.” His voice hovered just under the room’s general volume, but I had a bizarre feeling that the shift had more to do with me than with any desire to avoid Carrow’s notice.
“To look after them,” his eyes flickered to the table around us before coming back to me. “To protect them. They aren’t your job.”
I opened my mouth to argue before I realized that I didn’t have anything to say. The heat pressed into me again, all at once, ripping up and down my body and feeding on the sudden, irrational anger that the observation drew out of me. I watch him watching me and felt suddenly like I had lost a chess match.
I slid a second slice of toast off of the plate and the suspended pause between us was broken. My fingertips went to work taking my breakfast apart as I studied the man that, somewhere on this strange, surreal ride, I had come to think of as my partner. After another minute the heat slowed to a quiet smolder and I managed to find my voice.
“You have somewhere safe for them to go?”
Merlin take him, that damn smile flickered up on the edges of his mouth.
“Of course,” he answered. “They’ll be taken care of like you’d done it yourself.”
I let a full minute of silence hover between us as I watched his eyes.
“I know,” I answered finally.
“Good.” He looked down at my full plate for a second before nudging it toward me. “Now eat.”
I tugged a little harder than I should have and watched a thin, knotted web of hair flutter to the floor. My muscles took over where my mind refused to act, searching out the next knot, manipulating the dead extension of my living cells until another delicate collection of strands pulled free from my scalp and hit the floor. The soft knock on the door hadn’t quite reached me when her voice pulled me out of my own mind.
“If you put it up it wouldn’t tie itself like that.”
Charlotte hovered on the edge of the doorframe in a way that made her look small, even for a third year. I took a deep breath and felt the tension in my muscles release. I bit my lip and felt the sudden need to apologize. Charlotte was good at reading those things: the little poison- tipped messages that we send each other without even noticing it. I rested the brush in my lap and did my best to smile.
“Thanks.” Actually, I kind of liked the knots. Ripping them out and watching them fall to the floor gave me a minuscule bit of mastery over chaos; a little illusion of power that, I was pretty sure, helped me stay sane when I needed it most. Of course, I had no idea how to explain that without sounding clinically mad, so maybe it was better to skip the details.
I glanced over her shoulder as a breath of torch smoke floated in from the hall. “Shouldn’t you be packing?”
She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and shook her head.
“I think I’m staying behind tomorrow—but my brother will be here, too. We’ll be alright.”
She looked me up and down, and then caught my eyes, pressing her gaze into mine so hard it almost knocked the wind out of me. Her desperation for me to believe her, to stop worrying, made me a little sick. I took a breath and pushed back as I claimed her eyes. The silence hovered over us for a second as I wondered, for the ten thousandth time, how much the walls of these rooms could hear now. What I should and should not say.
“You know Neville Longbottom?”
“Do I–” she paused, and I saw her look over her shoulder into the hall before taking a step inside. “Yeah.”
“Go see him tonight. Say goodbye before he leaves.”
I watched her blink at me until a glimmer of understanding broke over her face.
“Right,” she answered finally. “I’ll do that.”
A still moment passed, and I finally offered her a stiff nod that seemed to give her permission to move. I turned my eyes back to the floor and started in on the next knot as the echo of her steps in the hallway anchored me deeper into the stones bellow us.