Clint pressed his palms over his face. He was going to kill Stark. The cauldron that had formerly been their potion was still sparking. He felt a warm glob land on the back of his hand and roll down his wrist.
"20 points from Hufflepuff." Professor Snape said, stopping in front of their table. "Potions is a delicate art, Mr. Stark, requiring precision and care. As you are currently incapable of either, you will join me for detention this evening to practice. Mr. Barton, since you did nothing to prevent this travesty, you may join him. Now, clean this up."
Detention. Again. Murder Stark. Clint gathered up their knives, cutting board, and other supplies, leaving the cauldron for Stark to handle.
"A travesty, maybe," Stark said, as he scraped out the remains of the potion into the dangerous waste box, "but an amazing one, right? Did you see how the potion turned into liquid light before the weight made it all start popping?"
"I don't like detention, Stark," Clint said. This was his sixth in his two-and-a-half weeks ordeal as Tony Stark's Potions Partner. Sixth detention and--judging by how Stark just popped his finger through the side of the cauldron--second cauldron. Stark wiggled his finger around and looked up at Clint as if this were an accomplishment. Clint dumped their rinsed supplies in a towel and carried them back to their table without another word.
Bill Weasley caught Clint's eye as he returned to his seat and gave a sympathetic smile. Bill had been Stark's first partner in class. The professor kept switching them around, seemingly as desperate as they were to make the explosions and such stop. Clint was his third partner. If the pattern held, he only had to last the rest of the week.
After class, Clint met up with Bill in the hall. "You all right?" Bill asked. "You've got something in your hair."
"Bloody potion," Clint said as he pulled the drying glob of potion from his hair and flicked it against the wall. "Stupid Stark."
Bill laughed. "He's probably the worst partner possible in this class, but if you think he's bad, you need to meet my younger brothers."
"Evil, are they? Because at this point, I'm only putting 'evil' as worse than Stark."
"Go on, you need to get cleaned up." Bill nodded toward the staircase leading up to their tower. "I'll let Flitwick know why you're late."
"Great," Clint grumbled. "Now I'm going to be late for my favorite class."
"I thought that was Flying?" Bill asked as he started in the other direction.
"Academic class," Clint shot back. Detention, he thought as he trudged up the stairs. At least he hadn't also lost any points this time.
The stone room beneath Ravenclaw tower was approximately six meters by six meters. An alcove set into one wall held a shelf for a change of clothes and a small writing desk with some parchment and books. At sunset, the alcove, like the door to the room, would close seamlessly against the stone walls. The floor and walls were stone, but had some bounce in them, like hard rubber. Tapestries covered the walls and a false skylight let in the illusion of daylight. After his first full moon at Hogwarts, only three days into the year, Bruce had been horrified to wake up surrounded by the tattered remains of those tapestries. Professor Flitwick, however, had simply twitched his wand at them, returning them whole to the walls.
"You're not the first werewolf to attend Hogwarts," he had explained. "We've learned from his experiences."
The first werewolf, Bruce had learned, was a man named Remus Lupin. He'd been a prefect and had finished with several, impressive N.E.W.T.S. Bruce had written him immediately. Though he knew other werewolves existed, he'd never met one before. He had so many questions he wanted to ask.
Remus had yet to reply, however.
"Don't be too discouraged," Professor Flitwick had told him after the first fortnight with no response had crept past. "The war was especially difficult on Mr. Lupin. He might not be ready for owls, just yet."
Bruce had already gone years without answers; he could stand waiting longer, but having the answers in reach made him impatient. He stared down at the half-written letter--the third he would send--when he felt the tightness growing in his shoulders and hips. Bruce returned the quill to its inkpot--the shuddering of his limbs sent splatters of ink over the desk--and stepped out of the alcove. The walls slid shut over the space just as the first scream took him.
The night passed in a haze of bloody steaks and shredded tapestries. He woke in a nest of cloth, his mouth still bloody. He wasn't covered in as many scratches as he was used to, though. The food each night helped satisfy his blood lust, while the wall hangings gave him something to destroy. Bruce wiped his face on the cloth around him and retrieved his clothing from the alcove. He was signing his latest letter to Lupin when Flitwick returned to open the outer door.
Later that day, after his required check-in with Madame Pomfrey and a good meal, Bruce took his letter up to the Owlery. "Make sure he reads it this time, please," he said to one of the school owls as he secured the parchment. The owl hooted and took off. Bruce watched the owl fly away and hoped that, this time, Remus would write back.
Two days later, at breakfast, the owl returned. The letter read:
I apologize for not writing sooner. Yes, I was a werewolf at Hogwarts. My first few years I changed in a dungeon room. After that, I changed in the Shrieking Shack and the Forbidden Forest. During those changes I was always supervised. My best friends and my worst enemy are the only ones who figured out my secret. I have learned that many people in the world are too self-absorbed to notice what is happening around them. If your friends do find out, I suggest you trust them. Despite all the stories and fear surrounding our kind, people may still surprise you.
As for any advice I have--if you're like me, you are probably extra hungry around the full moon. Beneath the Great Hall, on your way to the Hufflepuff rooms, if you know where those are, there is a painting of a bowl of fruit. Tickle the pear and it will turn into door to the kitchens. Just tell the House Elves that Lupin sent you.
I hope I will hear from you again. Let me know how your first year is going.
The last two sentences warmed Bruce. He'd written home his first week at school, but his mother had written back saying that, while she was very happy to hear from him, it might be better if he just waited until his Christmas holiday to tell her everything. Bruce carefully folded the letter away and pushed his breakfast aside so he could write a reply.
"Want to share my ink?" Jane Foster asked. She was sitting across and a few seats down from him. Her wand was stabbed haphazardly through her hair and she had ink brushed along her cheek where she'd got the wrong end of her quill wet. Bruce was surprised she'd noticed he was going to need ink.
"Sure," he said, letting his ink pot fall back into his bag.
Jane moved down so she was sitting across from him and set the ink on the table between them. "I'm writing a letter, too," she said. She blushed. "My friend back home is threatening me with Howlers if I don't start sharing juicy stories about my friends." She looked down at her parchment. Jane, like him, was a bit of a loner. He tended to avoid close relationships because of his condition--he'd seen what it had done to his parents; he didn't want to cause that to anyone else. Jane, on the hand, just seemed to live half inside her head. He'd seen her muttering to herself in the library, the full table covered with books and notes, for hours, even skipping meals. Bruce thought of the letter he'd just read. Remus had told him to trust his friends, but, like Jane, first he needed some.
"Do you like chess?" he asked.
Jane looked up, smiling uncertainly. "I've not played in a while. Darcy, my friend, prefers card games."
"I like cards. Want to play a game this evening?"
Jane's smile strengthened. "I think I'd prefer chess."
Bruce smiled back. "Chess it is." He dipped his quill and started his letter.
Natasha stared at the rather fat lady in ridiculous pink ruffles who guarded the entrance to the Gryffindor tower. The woman refused to meet her gaze. "No password, no entrance. Especially for a Slytherin."
"I don't want in," Natasha repeated, affecting a bored voice. "I just want to let Clint Barton know I am here."
"I'm not an owl."
"Then I'll wait." Natasha leaned back on the stone wall opposite. Though she kept staring, she let her gaze relax and her mind wander. She and Clint always spent their Saturday afternoon together, but he hadn't shown up outside the Great Hall where they usually met, forcing her to seek him out. Another minute passed.
The portrait swung open and Steve Rogers stepped out. He was carrying a satchel and a large sketch book. He froze when he saw Natasha staring at him. "Can you please inform Clint that I am here and he is late?"
Steve's brow furrowed. "Clint isn't here. He and Bill went out to watch the Quidditch practice."
"Is that so."
Steve shifted his weight nervously. "I'm going out to draw. Would you like to come with?"
Natasha cocked her head. Steve was a Muggleborn and a Gryffindor. Clint never had anything bad to say about him, but that didn't mean much. "Don't tell Clint I was here," she said as she pushed off the wall and went to the stairs. Steve caught up with her, jumping just as her staircase started to move. He opened his sketchbook.
Despite herself, Natasha looked. He'd drawn the Forbidden Forest. The tree bark looked rough to touch. A long flower with pale blue petals seemed to sway in the wind. He turned to another page showing a flurry of leaves dancing. She could mimic those leaves--the music and movement rippled through her. "All right," she said. "Show me where you drew these."
Steve grinned. He led her out of the castle, away from the Pitch, and toward an area between the Whomping Willow and the gamekeeper's cottage. Then he surprised her by going beyond the edge of the forest to a small clearing not far in, still in view of the castle, but still out-of-bounds regardless. "I thought you didn't break the rules."
He shrugged. "Some rules make more sense than others." He sat on a towel he'd laid on the moist ground and leaned back against a tree trunk.
"How Slytherin of you."
He laughed. "I thought rule-breaking was a Gryffindor trait."
"Your reasoning is not." Natasha surveyed the clearing while Steve started sketching. She could hear Steve's pencil, the leaves shuffling against one another in the wind, animal calls that Clint likely could have identified. The long flower she'd seen in Steve's sketchbook still stood, though a petal was missing. A tree he'd drawn now lay across one edge of the clearing. The tree was slim and young with few branches and not yet given to rot. Natasha tested her weight on the trunk and smiled, delighted, when it held. She practiced walking, getting used to the bounce of the wood. Then she jumped. When the trunk neither shifted nor broke, she turned a cartwheel, landing perfectly.
"You know," Steve said some time later, startling her. She'd nearly forgotten he was there. "I bet Hagrid has some spare wood. We could probably build you a proper beam."
Natasha hopped off the trunk. "Explain."
Steve turned to another page in his sketch book and quickly drew something. He held the book up for her to see. It was a long, narrow strip of wood held up on either end by more wood. "Gymnasts in the Muggle world use them, when they do what you were doing."
Muggles did that? Natasha thought, nonplussed. No wonder her parents were against her practicing her acrobatics where they could see. She should probably stop, but in all the blurry memories of her childhood, this was the one thing that felt completely true and right. "How do we build it?"
"We ask Hagrid," Steve said. While he packed his pencils away, Natasha swiped his sketchbook. On the page before the beam was her. He'd made her hair glow like flames. She was smiling as though the world were perfect, as if she weren't in a forest with a Mudblood, stood up by her best friend. Behind her shoulders he had started to sketch in butterfly wings. "Hey," Steve said, tugging the sketchbook back, his cheeks slightly pink. "That's not finished."
"I want it when you're done," Natasha said, releasing the book.
The pink in his cheeks darkened. "Yeah, all right. Come on. Let's go see Hagrid." He walked out of the forest and toward the gamekeeper's cottage. Natasha followed, amused and wanting her beam.
The beam was built within a week. Natasha tested the polished wood the following Saturday, not caring if Clint showed up for the day or not. Steve helped her carry the beam into the clearing where he sketched. Natasha returned every week until the snow covered the low beam from sight. Sometimes Steve was there, sketching. Sometimes he was not. They never talked much. Natasha liked that he could appreciate silence and decided that he was one of the exceptions to her parents' rules regarding blood status.
She asked a few times about her sketch, but Steve always said he wasn't ready yet. Then, on the Friday before their holiday, he walked up to the Slytherin table, shoved a package into her hands, and then left the Great Hall before she could stop him or say a word.
"What was that?" Virginia asked.
Natasha shook her head and opened the package. Inside was a framed painted version of her sketch. Natasha felt beautiful and inadequate just looking at it. An upper year tore the frame from her hands. "What's this? Lil' Tasha the butterfly princess?"
"Give it back," Natasha said, standing on her seat.
"Why should I?" the older student asked.
"Because I am a Romanov," Natasha said in her lowest, scariest voice. "I learned to brew my first poison when I was six."
"So, girls are allowed into the boys' dormitories and I know where you sleep. Now give me back my painting."
The older student squinted at her, then smiled. "Not bad." He released the painting and patted her on the head. Natasha glared. "Just want to make sure you firsties are up to snuff." Natasha continued glaring until he'd returned to his seat down the table. She sat back down.
Virginia looked amused. "Did you really learn to brew poisons at six?"
Natasha shook her head. "That's what they think of my family though."
Natasha smiled. "Want to see my painting?" she asked.
Virginia carefully wiped her hands and then held them out to her. "Sure." Her brows raised slightly. "This is gorgeous." Natasha preened. "Steve Rogers did this? I thought you didn't like Muggleborns."
Natasha shrugged and took back her painting. She smoothed her hands over the frame, admiring again the choice of colors and the life in the lines. "He is an exception," she said.
"Fair enough." The conversation then turned toward the upcoming holiday and their plans. Natasha did not take the painting home--she was certain her parents would not understand either the source of the gift or her actions within it--but she did hang it in her dorm room at Hogwarts for the rest of the year.
Most nights Jane felt restless. At home she would have climbed onto the roof and looked for constellations, planets, and the like until her mind calmed enough for her to sleep. At Hogwarts, however, only the Astronomy Tower had open access to sky. Unfortunately, the older students seemed to think that such a view was romantic. She'd tried going to the tower seven times over the first few months of school. Each time she'd stumbled onto a different kissing couple. She didn't have the patience to try again. So, instead, she spent hours reviewing old star charts and only falling asleep when sheer exhaustion allowed nothing else. When the holiday came, Jane spent nearly every night on the roof, huddled under a charmed blanket and grateful for the clear view of the sky.
A solution to her problem presented itself at dinner about a week into the new term. She was lingering over dinner, not wanting to return to the tower while Bruce wasn't there. He was sick again and quarantined in the Hospital Wing so that she couldn't even visit. Something about his illnesses bothered Jane like an unsolved puzzle, though she wasn't sure why.
"Hey, where's Bruce?" Jane blinked out of her thoughts and looked up at the Hufflepuff boy standing across the table from her.
"Tony?" she hazarded, remembering some of Bruce's complaints and stories about the boy.
Tony grinned. "Yeah. Tony Stark at your service. Now, Bruce, is he around?"
"He's ill. Why?"
Tony shook his head. "Just something I wanted to figure out. Thought about it when I'd first arrived, but forgot about it once classes started up. Thought he could help."
Something to 'figure out' was an even better excuse than continuing to pick at her food. Jane pushed her plate aside. "I'm a Ravenclaw, too. Maybe I can help. Bruce can join in when he feels better."
Tony gave her a long look, then sat down in the seat across from her. He learned forward on one elbow and jabbed another hand toward the ceiling. "So how accurate do you think that thing is?"
Jane's breath caught in her throat. In all her longing for a starry sky, she'd never even considered the Great Hall. "I have star charts," she said, quickly. "We could compare them. Meet down here tonight?"
Tony's face widened in a grin. "Sounds like a plan. Meet here around midnight?"
Jane nodded, already mentally cataloging what she was going to need. "It may not be our sky."
"Even more fun," Tony said, shrugging. "We can figure out whose it is. I wonder how they set it." He looked up at the ceiling.
Jane's eyes widened. "We could set it for different places. Study skies far off from here. America even. Or Japan. We just have to know how they did it."
Tony and Jane looked at one another. Jane hadn't felt this excited since she'd gotten her Hogwarts letter. "Meet in the library tomorrow?"
"Hogwarts history or charms?"
"History. Could also be runes. Bruce is going to love this. What if they'd incorporated a potion somehow?"
"How?" Tony asked skeptically.
Jane laughed. "I have no idea. Let's find out."
"Let's. But first, tonight."
"Midnight," Jane agreed, standing up. "I'll meet you here." She was already halfway to her dorms before she realized that she probably should have been more polite when she'd left. Oh well, she thought, she'd see him later; she could be polite then. She tripped up the stairs to her room, still smiling and imagining everything she could do with a perfectly accurate planetarium.
They got caught. Jane wasn't sure if it was the smell of Tony's food or the noise of her dropped charts that had brought Mrs. Norris their way, but find them she did. Filch dragged them to his office, wrote up their violations, and then escorted each of them to their dorms.
The next day, Professors Flitwick and Sprout called the two of them together during lunch. Their actions were entirely out-of-line, bad for their health, and dangerous. Jane glanced over to Tony and noticed that he looked bored. The professors' recriminations did bother Jane, but they didn't realize what she and Tony had been trying to accomplish. "Thirty points each for being out of bed and detention all this week. Since you were sneaking down to the Great Hall, you can spend your evenings cleaning it," Professor Sprout said.
Jane winced. She hadn't lost that many points at once yet and she knew her housemates would not be pleased. After being dismissed, Jane followed Tony out of the room. She could hear the professors still talking about them in hushed tones. "Merlin, they're only first years." and "They start younger every year." Her cheeks burned with the implications.
"They think we were--"
"Yeah." Tony scratched at his neck, stopping outside the Great Hall. "So what now? Do we try again?"
"Of course! We just need to be--"she struggled for a word "--sneakier." She bit her lip, wishing Darcy were around to help.
"Sneaky?" Tony repeated, glancing at the door to the Great Hall. Then, with a grin, he burst through. Most of the students were still eating or using the table space to study. Tony walked over to the Slytherin table. Jane chased behind him. "Pepper!" he called out. "Lend me your beautiful, Slytherin brain."
A girl with red-blond hair palmed her face. "My name is not Pepper," she said.
"Sure it is," Tony said, dropping in the seat beside her. "So, Pepper, we need your help."
Pepper sighed. "What now, Tony?" she asked, looking up at them.
Tony glanced back at Jane. "Jane? Care to explain." Jane ran through the previous night's events and their goals with the ceiling. She didn't mention the idea of changing where the sky projected, instead focusing on just the question of accuracy.
"Talk to Sinistra," Pepper said, turning back to her books.
"But she hates me," Tony protested.
Pepper rubbed at her temples as though she had a headache. "You wore pajamas to our Astronomy class and asked if we could tell ghost stories."
"Children our age shouldn't be out that late," he said primly
Pepper took a deep breath and looked up, past Tony, to Jane. "Your objective is academic. If you talk with Professor Sinistra, you may get her to approve it as a special project for class. That will get you the access to the Hall that you want, with the possible added bonus of extra grade points. Don't let Tony do the talking."
Jane nodded. "Thanks, Pepper," she said.
"My name is not--" Pepper stopped and sighed. "You're welcome. Now get, both of you, I'm trying to study."
Jane grabbed Tony's shoulder, tugging him back toward the doors. "Let's go see Professor Sinistra." Jane talked with her favorite professor while Tony waited in the hallway. Professor Sinistra agreed with the project and wrote a pass for Jane, Tony, and Bruce to study the Great Hall sky at night. She said she was pleased they were taking initiative. Jane thanked her and met with Tony back in the hall.
"Did you get it?" he asked.
She held up the pass. "For next Saturday evening. She said she didn't want to interfere with our detentions."
"Fantastic. We should go tell Bruce."
Jane nodded in agreement. "I think he's still with Pomfrey." She hoped he was well enough for visitors.
Madame Pomfrey let them in, but not before reminding them that Bruce was still feeling weak and they shouldn't excite him too much. Too bad Madame Pomfrey didn't realize that their showing up together was excitement enough. Bruce leaned up as they entered his area of the wing, took one look at them, and fell back onto his pillow.
"You've teamed up," he said, starting to laugh. "God help us all."
Virginia did not know how Tony had accomplished it, but she wanted to throttle him. She had tolerated being called Vergie for much of childhood with the expectation that once she entered Hogwarts, she could leave all nicknames behind and simply be Virginia. Then, however, she had had the great misfortune of sharing a train compartment with Tony Stark. Within minutes he was calling her "Pepper," and now the name had spread. She'd started keeping a tally after Easter, since that was the first she'd noticed someone outside of Tony's small group of friends use the name. In one day, approximately half of the people she talked with had called her "Pepper" instead of "Virginia." Even her fellow Slytherins used the name.
"You might as well give up," Natasha said one night as they were getting ready for bed. She was stretching and Virginia was reviewing Charms work. Natasha spoke quietly as Mimi, the other girl in their year, was already asleep.
"On what?" Virginia asked, setting her book on her night table and reaching upward until her shoulders popped.
"I saw your Pepper tally sheet. Stark convinced his housemates to use the name. I heard he told them that it would make you feel more included in the school culture."
"Did he say why I required such inclusion?" Virginia asked, shoving her blankets down with a particularly vicious kick.
"I don't know, but some of the upper years have noticed that it bothers you. They've been advising their first years to use the name. I know Connors spoke with Weyland."
Virginia pulled her blankets up over legs. "Lovely. So I should just claim the name then. Give in to Tony."
Natasha shrugged and then slipped soundlessly into her own bed. "I do not know. I only know that your irritation is giving some ideas."
Virginia sighed and thought about being known as 'Pepper Potts' for seven years. Perhaps if she accepted the name, fewer would use it. This did not strike her as very likely, however. "Stupid Stark," she muttered. She flicked her wand at her canopy, causing it to fall and enveloping her in darkness.
"Indeed," she heard Natasha agree. Then her canopy quietly closed as well. Virginia stared up in the darkness, her eyes slowly adjusting while she considered whether the battle over her name was worth it. All nicknames eventually passed and she had more important things to worry over. Sighing again, Pepper closed her eyes and fell asleep.