A week after Sirius Black nearly killed Ron, he pulls his head out of his arse and apologises to Hermione. The cessation of the tension between Ron and Hermione means the Gryffindors can relax again in the common room, although the general mood is still charged with fear and anxiety.
Astoria makes a resolution to do her best to avoid the crazy events happening and focus on her school work, a decision her friends seem to accept wholeheartedly.
Even Leo seems to be putting more effort into his work than usual. Astoria doesn’t know if it’s because he’s trying to avoid thinking about the mass-murderer on the loose around school or if it’s because Derek’s suddenly improved and he wants to catch up, but either way, she finds him in the library more often than not.
With the Easter holidays approaching, Maisie gets more and more snappish. Astoria finds her in the classroom they use for the study group one afternoon, and sighs.
“Maisie, where’s Mattie?”
She looks up, eyes wide, her hair messy and falling out of her plait. “With Leo,” she says, doubtfully. “I think.”
Astoria sits down next to her, gently moving the work away from them. “Maisie, do you think you might be doing a bit much?”
Maisie shakes her head, flapping her hands. “I’m not.”
“Yes, you are,” Astoria says firmly. “Does Mattie know you’re here doing work?”
“Mattie’s not my keeper,” Maisie bristles.
Astoria sighs, and reaches up to fix Maisie’s hair. Maisie shudders at the touch, edging away from her.
“What can I do for you?” Astoria asks, as quietly as she can. Maisie just shrugs, hitting her leg softly.
Astoria’s never seen Maisie like this, and doesn’t know how to fix it. The only thing she can think to do is the things that help her when she has a migraine, so she gets up to blow out the lamps, and takes Maisie’s robe off her, careful not to touch her directly.
Neither of them say anything for a while, sitting together in the dark and the silence. Maisie’s breathing slowly evens out, and Astoria takes the liberty of being the first to speak up.
“Your hair’s going to bother you if you leave it like that,” she says softly. “Can I redo the plait so there aren’t any bits falling out?”
Maisie nods, shifting to give Astoria access. She does her best to finger comb Maisie’s long hair, and pulls it into as tight a plait as she can without hurting her.
When she’s finished, Maisie takes her hand and squeezes it, and Astoria breathes a sigh of relief.
“Do you want me to go and find Mattie?” she asks, but Maisie shakes her head, her plait swinging. “Okay. Do you want me to stay here and keep sitting with you?”
Maisie nods, the movement small, and Astoria barely picks it up in the darkened room. She pushes the table away as much as she can, and watches Maisie quietly.
“The philosopher’s stone,” she starts, doing her best to remember the passage of the book she’s been reading most recently. “The most sought-after alchemical process, and a muggle myth. It’s become a thought experiment in recent times - is it possible to turn one element into another? Why would the same process also give eternal life? Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel are still around, still claiming they’ve used a philosopher’s stone, and the majority of the alchemical community mostly ignores them and focuses on their own research.”
Maisie snickers. Astoria grins, and carries on.
“Muggle science would indicate that the philosopher’s stone must have some effects on an atomic level. All legends are very specific on lead to gold, which is - um, gold is 79 on the periodic table, lead is…”
“82,” Maisie fills in softly.
“82, yes, thank you. So it’s um - taking away three protons, which is. Not that much on the grand scale of things. Other atomic swaps would be a lot more impressive really, but it’s interesting that it’s going from a higher atomic weight to a lower one - iron is more abundant, less toxic, and probably would have been a better choice, but it’s been proposed that the philosopher’s stone works as an oxidation reaction… which could then mean that the eternal life bit is the inverse to balance it out? A reduction reaction, and gain of electrons.”
Astoria chews her lip, trying to think. “Although I don’t see why negatively charging someone would give them eternal life. It’s the theory of this author, though, and he’s had some good takes so far.”
“And that gives him academic integrity?” Maisie asks, almost as cuttingly as normal.
Astoria giggles. “Are you saying my faith in someone isn’t enough to give their theories credibility?”
“Where are these electrons going, hm? Are they delocalised? Can the Flamels conduct electricity?”
Astoria pouts, wrinkling her nose. “It’s just a theory, Mais.”
Maisie shrugs. “Well, you can keep looking into the philosopher’s stone. Raza and I are going to ask McGonagall about alchemical transmutations. Did you know it’s called chrysopoeia? Trying to turn metals into gold?”
“Nope,” Astoria says, stretching across the table. “Nor do I know how you managed to make your mouth say that word, nor do I know how to spell it.”
Maisie laughs helplessly. “Oh, Astoria,” she says, flapping her hands. “Anyway. Mattie went off on one the other day about panaceas, which you’ve clearly forgotten all about.”
Astoria hums. “Maybe I’ll write Miss Stick and ask her if any of her friends at university are studying chemistry.”
“You don’t like chemistry.”
“Correction - I don’t like chemistry as much as other subjects, like maths, for example. I prefer chemistry to biology, at least.”
Maisie sighs, and leans back suddenly on her chair. “Are we going to talk about it?”
Astoria blinks, adjusting to the sudden change in conversation. “We don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”
“Oh,” Maisie says quietly. “It’s- well. I just.”
There’s a heavy pause. Astoria reaches up to tousle her hair, feeling self-conscious.
“I get- stressed. And I don’t like noise or touch or bright lights sometimes. And people don’t make sense, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people make no sense whatsoever, and normally Mattie helps, but- I just- I was-”
Maisie trails off, looking frustrated, and Astoria tugs as lightly as possible at her plait.
“Is there anything we can do for you? Do you want us to do anything differently?”
Maisie shrugs, fingers twitching by her sides. “What you did today was good. Just talk at me until I feel normal, I guess.”
Astoria nods decisively. “Well, let’s go find the boys and see what they’re up to.”
Maisie reluctantly leaves the classroom with Astoria, and the two of them find their way to the Hufflepuff common room, lingering awkwardly outside the barrels.
“Leo said it was here,” Astoria says after they’ve been standing around for a few minutes.
“Well did he say how to get in?” Maisie says scathingly, shooting Astoria a withering look.
Astoria shrugs. “Nope.”
With a stroke of luck, a Hufflepuff third year comes around the bend fairly soon. He freezes when he sees them, eyes wide.
Astoria squints at him, peering at his familiarly crooked nose. “Oh my God, are you Annabelle’s brother?”
The boy stutters out something in the affirmative.
“Hey, Kevin! She never shuts up about you!” Astoria crows. “Let us in?”
Kevin doesn’t even question them, just knocks on a barrel and lets them crawl in first. Astoria laughs quietly to herself, giving Maisie a hand once she’s through to the other side.
“Let’s just find Leo quickly,” Maisie groans, shooting a glare at Kevin. The Hufflepuff common room is warm, and the armchairs are covered in pastel quilts. There are students dotted about, sitting on the fluffy carpet or perched at the low study tables, but Astoria doesn’t spot Leo’s familiar sandy hair.
“Can I help you?” A tall, handsome boy asks them, face marred with concern as he takes in Maisie’s Ravenclaw tie and Astoria’s tastefully red silk headband.
“Yes,” Maisie says slowly, and stops. Astoria nudges her as inconspicuously as possible. Maisie shoves her back.
“I’m Cedric Diggory,” the boy sighs, and Astoria notices the shining prefect badge on his lapel for the first time.
The name twigs something in Astoria’s memory, and she clicks her fingers. “Seeker. Ginny was saying you were quite good. Hello, yes, we’re looking for Leo Abbott?”
“Stori!” comes a shriek of a cadence Astoria recognises, and she grins.
He runs up to them, nearly knocking Diggory over, and beams at them. “How in Merlin’s name did you get in?”
“How did you get in?” Diggory echoes suspiciously.
Astoria waves a hand. “Where are Mattie and Raza?”
“Am I supposed to know?” Leo shrugs.
“I thought they were with you?”
Leo shakes his head earnestly. “I finished my potions homework with Derek in the library, I don’t know where Raza and Mattie went.”
Astoria purses her lips. “Hm.”
“Hm,” Maisie echoes.
“Hm,” Leo joins in.
Diggory stares at them. “Hm.”
There’s a pause.
Astoria snaps her fingers. “It’s Lupin’s office hours on Tuesday afternoons!”
“Of course,” Leo sighs.
“I do not understand first years,” Diggory mutters.
Astoria scoops up her friends and they leave the common room in peace. She shoots a longing glance at the quilts, and resolves to come back and steal one another time. For now, they are on a mission: locate Raza and Mattie before they leave Lupin’s office.
“We were metres away from them when we were in the classroom,” Maisie grumbles, striding ahead. “Literally metres. This is why I’m the one known for my common sense and Astoria’s the one known for doing stupid things.”
Astoria speeds up to fall in step next to Maisie, struggling to catch her breath. “You were also involved in the decision process that led us to Hufflepuff.”
“It was a sensible idea!” Leo chirps, throwing his arms around Maisie’s shoulders. “Cheer up, Mais, I’m sure Mattie’ll be there when we get there.”
“Will he,” Maisie mutters darkly. “And I’m worried about that prefect getting us into trouble.”
Diggory’s a Hufflepuff, so Astoria highly doubts he’s going to report them for something as small as infiltrating a common room, but if it makes Maisie feel better to have something to worry about, she’s not about to say anything.
Tuesday afternoons almost always end up with at least two of them monopolising Lupin’s office hours. There are often other students there, but whenever Astoria’s been over, she’s been the only one brave enough to pilfer from the stores of biscuits or demand cups of tea.
Other people’s lives would be greatly improved if they learnt to bend the rules a little, she’s sure.
Raza and Mattie are hanging out in Lupin’s office when they get there, though the man himself is nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s-” Leo starts, eyebrows furrowing, when Lupin steps out of his office, a tatty piece of parchment clutched in his hand.
“Well, according to the, er, wards, they’re right-” he looks up, eyes widening as he catches sight of Astoria, Maisie and Leo. “Well, right here,” he finishes with a laugh.
Raza and Mattie spin around, and Mattie runs forwards to grip Maisie’s shoulders. “We didn’t know where you’d gone!”
“Rebels,” Raza tuts, grinning.
Lupin snorts softly, raising an eyebrow. “They were very insistent that I do everything in my power to find you.”
“As you should have done,” Astoria says haughtily, chin up. “We could have been dying in some tiny corridor, or we could have fallen through the trick step, or I could have collapsed and Maisie and Leo might not have been able to move me, or we could have been stopped by Snape, or-”
Leo slings an arm around her neck, bright smile dimming somewhat. “Stori, we were in the Hufflepuff common room.”
Astoria sniffs. “I’m still touched that they thought to look for us.”
Lupin sits down on his desk, running his fingers over the old parchment, and Astoria walks over to sit down next to Raza. His books are laid out over the desk they share in class, and Astoria flips a page over, wrinkling her nose at the descriptions of horklumps.
“We were just going over yesterday’s course material,” Lupin says mildly, “if you care to join.”
“Mattie and I have important things to be getting on with,” Maisie informs them, flicking her plait off her shoulder. “But you’re more than welcome to stay here, Astoria, we don’t need you.”
“Harsh,” Astoria says, blinking, “but fair, I guess. See you later!”
Leo leaves Maisie’s side to pull a chair up to their desk. “Horklumps? Ew.”
“Astoria, how can we defend ourselves against horklumps?” Lupin asks, waving as Maisie and Mattie leave.
Astoria’s face lights up. “Kick them!”