"They're not exactly trying to be subtle, are they?" Megan asked sardonically as she lifted up the bauble for Ernie to see. A coiled green serpent had been etched into the silver-tinted glass. "It's green and silver all the way this year."
"Don't let them hear you say that," he replied, surreptitiously looking around the crowded Great Hall, which was filled to the brink with students putting up Christmas decorations, to see if anyone was close enough to have overheard her. Fortunately for the pair, no one seemed to be within hearing distance. Still, he rather thought it was better to be overcautious than to be flippant and risk their safety.
No one had been foolish enough to expect that the Christmas season would be merry, but it felt like the Carrows had gone above and beyond in their quest to subjugate their young charges. A new law had been implemented, giving the Headmaster the power to approve or deny parents' requests for their children to go home for the holiday. Naturally, they were almost exclusively sanctioning requests by families who were in cahoots with the Death Eaters. The rest of the students were, essentially, collectively being held hostage. Those who remained had theorised that it was either to ensure they didn't make a run for it or to keep their families in line. To add insult to injury, the Carrows had ordered the remaining students to decorate the entire castle without magic – and, to their dismay, with decorations that all somehow acted as a homage to You Know Who. Every bauble or garland of tinsel put up felt like a betrayal to their cause and to the school that had once felt so safe.
She scoffed dismissively and replied, "I'm not stupid, Ernie," before standing on her tiptoes to hang the bauble on a bare section of the tree.
"I know you aren't, but you can never be too careful."
Lowering her voice until it was uncharacteristically quiet, she said, "We need to step up with this rebellion thing. It's going well, but it's not doing nearly enough. Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and love, and look at us; we're stuck at school with tyrannical professors and no way of protecting ourselves from them."
"As loathe as I am to say it, I don't think there is much more that we can do," he admitted under his breath as they both fetched new decorations from the overflowing box they'd been assigned to. "It's not as if we can overthrow them or walk out. The situation is much worse out there, anyway. At least, here, they won't kill us."
"Because torture and repression is so much better."
"Isn't it?" He paused to let that rest between them before continuing, "Besides, they might try to keep us down, but we have something they don't have."
"And what's that?"
"Hope. It's the only thing that's stronger than fear."
"Hope won't keep Sophie, Justin and Roger safe," she retorted bitterly. It was, objectively speaking, probably a good thing that none of them had heard anything about their Muggle-born friends since they'd disappeared, but that didn't make the uncertainty any easier to bear.
His voice was soft as he replied, "It might pull them through."
Noticing his gloomy expression, she huffed and said, "Let's just hope that it's enough."
"Hope that what's enough?"
Ernie almost dropped the black skull ornament he was holding at the familiar sound of Amycus Carrow's grating voice, and both students whirled around to face the wizard who seemed to count making their lives unbearable among his life's ambitions.
"If you're referring to your pitiful attempt at decorating, then I'm afraid that no amount of hoping will do you any good. If the half-blood is distracting you, Mr Macmillan, we can send her elsewhere and find you a new partner."
Megan's face whitened in the face of the obvious threat. They all had enough experience with the term 'elsewhere' to know that it was really the code word the Carrows used for 'to be punished' on the rare occasions they decided they wanted to be civil about it.
"It's my fault, Headmaster," Ernie announced, forcing himself not to look at his friend in case it gave his ruse away. "We have an important History of Magic test coming up – every test is a vital part of our learning journey, of course, but this one comprises a significant portion of our marks, too – and I've been struggling to keep all of the dates straight. Megan offered to quiz me. She wanted to wait until we finished here, but I insisted that it wouldn't slow us down. But then my exam anxiety was getting to me, so – "
"That's enough," Carrow cut him off. A displeased expression had taken over his face, but Ernie couldn't tell whether it was because he'd been denied an excuse to punish a half-blood or because of his usual aversion to anything academic. "Don't let it happen again."
The older wizard hastened away, most likely to find some other student to terrorise.
"You are such a swot," Megan feebly teased him as she turned and, her hands trembling from the lingering tension, reached up to put the next bauble on the tree, "but thank you."
"They're less likely to punish me than you," he pointed out.
"Still," she replied, "less likely isn't a definite no."
"Hope," he said offhandedly by way of an explanation. "I had it, and it paid off."
He watched out of the corner of his eye as a smile lit up her face. Throughout all of the years he'd known her, Megan had never been anything but pessimistic. Now, however, he had a feeling she was beginning to get it.