Vila appeared just inside the Three Broomsticks' door and stood for a moment, savouring the warmth, noise, and the smell of hot foaming butterbeer. He sighed as he felt some of the tension and depression melt away, even if just for 24 hours.
The annual Hogwarts reunion was a reliably high point of Vila's year, to Avon's scorn.
Avon had realised on the London that Vila was using more than sleight-of-hand with his tricks and lock-cracking, which of course gave Avon's own wizarding background away. Naturally they had to keep it to themselves as Federation society's hatred and deep distrust of "mutants", as they called witches and wizards, was unlikely to be any less severe among their fellow criminals. They only risked talking about it once they were on the Liberator.
"I suppose you're Ravenclaw," Vila said, moving his knight.
"Hardly a difficult deduction. As for you, Hufflepuff, I would assume," Avon had said dismissively.
"Give over. They follow rules, that lot. Griffindor, actually."
Avon raised his eyebrows. "The sorting hat appears to have made a serious mistake in your case."
"That's what I thought, but no. It gave me a choice." Vila smirked. "It said I could be Ravenclaw or Griffindor."
"Raven--" Avon almost dropped his bishop. "Unlikely," he said, recovering.
"True as I'm sitting here! Thing is, I thought being a swot sounded like too much hard work so I picked Griffindor and it said people who are afraid are the bravest of all." Vila shrugged. "Not exactly what I wanted to hear, really, but it wasn't as if I was ever going to stop being scared so it seemed the easiest option."
Vila regarded Avon with narrowed eyes. "I could have guessed Slytherin, you know."
Avon held his gaze. "The hat gave me a choice too."
"What are you two talking about?" Blake said, stopping beside their table. "Slithering and hats?"
"Word game," Vila said, his face innocent. "Want to play? You have to be as illogical as you can but still make sense."
"No, thanks." Blake moved rapidly on, and Vila sniggered.
He'd never found out, and neither had the rest of the crew although in Avon's opinion Vila's ability to sense danger was skirting far too close to a black hole.
The first time Vila had invited Avon to the reunion, he said, "Those who say schooldays are the happiest of their life have no ambition. I have no wish to go anywhere near the place again."
The second year Avon had said that he'd enjoy the 24 hours of holiday Vila's absence would give him.
The third year he admitted to an intolerance for butterbeer, and the year after that, snapped that he was allergic to drunken idiots, singly or in huge, milling extradimensional mobs.
So Vila hadn't bothered to ask him this time. In fact he hadn't even said he was going; if Avon had forgotten the date, serve the bastard right when he found Vila had disappeared and had to explain it to Tarrant, which mightn't be as easy as in the past given the pitiful size of the rustbucket of a ship Vila had nicked on Gauda Prime.
Pity you couldn't stay here, Vila thought, but "here" wasn't really a place or time. It was a place outside those (possibly a bubble universe, Avon had said once) created by a witch in the far future who had named it 3B-space. Say "Accipe me ad publicam" on the right date and you were suddenly there, and when the whole thing collapsed or popped or whatever it did, you were right back where you started, more's the pity.
As always, Vila had ended up in the room where his year were gathered, but this time he didn't want to stay. There were too many missing faces due to the Federation's "mutant" extermination policy, and after losing Gan, Cally, Blake, and Dayna (and Soolin who had simply left, saying that she wasn't going to throw good life after bad), the gaps were just too painful. There were two doors in the opposite wall, the left leading to the year before and the right to the year following (Vila had once said it couldn't be a bubble, but a long, tangled string and Avon had said, "Fool," and then frowned for a while looking thoughtful) but this year Vila wanted to be far away from anywhere he'd ever been. No one had noticed him yet--story of his life, that--so he touched his wand, said, "Alias locus", and was promptly in an identical inn filled with a completely different group of people.
Not a good move. There were five ancients huddled around one table, obviously the last of their year. Vila shuddered; he'd stop coming long before it got like that for him (mind you, that might account for the low number too). "Alias locus!" he said hastily.
Ah. This lot looked much happier but they were all about 20 by the looks of them and Vila, now 35 and feeling considerably older after the last few months, felt decidedly out of place. He was about to move on when someone said, "What are you doing here?"
"Eh?" Vila looked around and saw a slender white-blond man, sprawled discontentedly in a chair. "Oh, hello. I was asking myself the same thing, actually. Just having a bit of a wander. I'll be on my way."
"Wait." The guy raised a languid hand. "Why aren't you with your year? Didn't the spell work properly?"
"Yeah, but I just felt like a change. A major bloody change in just about everything," Vila added, mostly to himself.
White-hair hooked a chair with his leg and pushed it out. "Sit."
Vila hesitated, then shrugged and slid into the chair beside him and opposite a fellow built like a brick cellblock. "Thanks, mate. I'm Vila."
"Draco. That's Goyle."
Short for Gargoyle? Vila thought, but decided to keep it to himself. "Want me to get in some butterbeer?"
"Goyle can do that." Draco waved at Goyle. "Three pints and a large jug, hot. And something to eat."
Goyle lumbered to his feet. "Like what?"
"Use your initiative." When Goyle just stood there, Draco sighed. "What we usually have. Fish and chips."
"Bit big and clumsy," Vila said as Goyle headed for the bar.
Draco frowned slightly. "You obviously never met Hagrid, then."
"No, I mean your wand." Vila pointed at Draco's wand on the table. "Haven't you ever heard of miniaturisation? How would you ever hide that?"
"Why would I need to?"
"You must come from a nice safe time, then."
Draco's mouth twisted in an ironic half-smile. "At present. What's yours like?"
"Full of utter bastards out to eradicate wizards and me personally, even though they don't know I'm one."
Vila said it so airily that Draco almost laughed. "I meant your wand."
"Ah, sorry." Vila plucked it from a tunic pocket and held it up.
"That's not a wand," Draco said scornfully. "That's just a splinter."
"Polished silver birch. With--" Vila grinned delightedly, "the hair of a veela inside. Asked for that specially."
Draco tilted his head. "Aren't they unpredictable to work with?"
"Well, so am I, so it worked out fine." Beginning to relax, Vila slid down in his chair and hooked his thumbs in his belt.
"So why do you have to hide your wand?"
"Mainly to prevent being pursued by vicious mobs with an unreasonable fear of mutants."
"These are so small they get overlooked and they're just as effective."
"Who would-- Muggles?" Draco's lip curled in disgust. "They don't even know about us, and besides we're the ones to fear."
"You wouldn't say that if you lived when I do. Oh, subtle stuff like making troopers miss is all right, but any suspicion and you're in a dampening field and you're history. Or an experiment. Personally I'm glad they only ever caught me for--" Vila hesitated. This Draco bloke didn't look as if he'd be impressed with Muggle crimes. "Antisocial activities."
"Here ya go." Goyle put down a tray of hot, foaming butterbeer.
Draco raised an eyebrow. "And the food?"
"Couldn't bring everything at once."
"And you didn't think of an onmiporta spell?"
Draco sighed. "Go and get it." He shook his head slightly at Vila as Goyle went off. "Frankly he's not the brightest, or the best conversationalist."
"Why do you spend time with him, then?" Vila asked.
Draco looked taken aback. "He's a friend. He's very loyal."
"And so are you, obviously. I'll drink to that," Vila said, and did. "Nice to see someone who sticks by his friends," he said bitterly.
"Right." Draco leaned forward. "That's why I wanted to talk to you."
"You're here because you're trying to escape. But what?" He tapped his fingertips together. "Yourself? Something you did? Mistakes you made and wish you could go back and change?"
"Why would you want to know?"
"I detect, let us say... a certain something in common."
"Really? All that stuff applies to you, then?"
"Perhaps." Draco leaned back and regarded Vila through narrowed eyes. "You first. Are you running away from yourself?"
"I'm quite happy with myself, thank you very much. It's just that no one else seems to be." There was a sudden burst of cheers and whoops, and Vila twisted in his chair to look. "What's all that about?"
"Harry Potter just arrived."
"The Harry Potter? Hero of the Voldemort thing?" Vila saw Draco wince slightly and draw into himself. Couldn't be easy, being in the same year as someone like Harry Potter, could it? Vila resisted the urge to go and take a closer look, especially since he'd just been talking about loyalty. "Your turn. What about you?"
"No." Draco's hand tightened on his mug of butterbeer. "Things might have turned out better, but I wouldn't want to be anyone else."
Vila nodded. "Good point. After all, you never know how much worse it could be."
"Precisely." Draco smiled slightly. "Over to you, then. Was there something you did, or didn't do?"
"Lots of things, I daresay. And all the big things, like almost being killed by a friend, or someone I thought was, and seeing him kill another friend, well I can't see what I could've done about either. It all happened too fast. Always did, really," Vila said reflectively.
"Let's narrow it down, then. If you had a time-turner, what one thing would you go back and change?"
Vila looked alarmed. "Don't think I'd fiddle with one of those things. You can unborn yourself and mess up time. And anyway aren't you only allowed to go back a few hours?"
"You don't seem the sort who might care about what the Ministry says."
"I care about me. Wouldn't want to disappear into a temporal anomaly. Could be painful to say the least."
Draco sighed, the way he had at Goyle. "Assume no side effects. Just play the game."
"Oh well, if it's just a game," Vila said, somewhat relieved. "There's a lot of things I could change here and there, like not dropping my gun on the London, but I don't think that'd make that much difference in the long run. No. everything really went wrong from when they caught me and sentenced me to Cygnus Alpha. So I'd pass up that bank job. Seriously bad wiring they had on that vault lock, slammed me against the opposite wall and knocked me right out so I was still there when the cops arrived."
"I can hardly pretend to understand half of that." Draco wrinkled his brow. "Do I gather correctly that you were trying to break into Gringotts?"
"Do I look that crazy? I never was all that good at a lot of wizarding stuff but it turned out I can see inside Muggle security systems. Very profitable, well, up to that point anyway."
"Oh, Muggle banks." Draco dismissed them with a wave.
"And rich bastards in general. Anyway, if I hadn't been caught, I'd still be back on Earth living a nice peaceful life. So that's my pick." Vila drained his mug. "Your turn."
Draco frowned in thought. "Given my family's allegiances and actions, I'm not sure I could have acted very differently."
"Blood being more viscous than water and all that, yeah. Couldn't change your family, I suppose."
"Certainly not! I'm still a Malfoy."
"Fair enough. Wait--" Vila's eyes widened. "You're Draco Malfoy?"
Draco's face went cold. "What of it?"
"We studied you in Potions! Imagine! You're so old and bald and, you know, venerable in the text book photos. I don't suppose students ever think of professors as being young, and--" Vila clapped his hand over his mouth. "Sorry. Shouldn't have said that."
Draco had gone pale (or at least paler). "I become a professor at Hogwarts?"
Vila decided it wouldn't hurt to put the guy's mind at rest. "No, you went into potions research."
"Tell me more."
The great Draco Malfoy had come up with new and powerful non-traditional ingredients and turned potion-making on its head, but telling him that would really be messing with time. "I think I've said more than enough."
Draco sat back with a look of speculative wonder on his face. "And that's what I'm remembered for?"
"Pretty much. I mean, apparently you got into trouble at school but who doesn't?"
"You know," Draco said thoughtfully, "You could go into a future year's reunion and find out about yourself."
"No thanks. I like to live as if it'll be forever and I'd rather not find out when that stops being a possibility." Vila reached for the jug for a refill and caught sight of a girl at the next table staring speculatively at Draco's profile. "I think someone over there fancies you."
Draco gave her a quick glance; the girl blushed and ducked her head. "Daphne Greengrass's little sister? She's probably looking at the gate-crashing stranger."
"Pull the other one. Who'd notice me with you sitting beside me with your hair and all?"
Draco considered this, then shook his head dismissively. "So. Back to the game. My pick would be right back at the beginning of it all too." He took a deep breath. "I'd make friends with Harry Potter."
"And why didn't you?"
"I said all the wrong things when I met him." Draco pulled a face. "I was trying to impress him and get onside with him but I got it wrong. I realised later but it was too late by then."
"I know the feeling. The sort of things that made people laugh down the pub back on Earth went down like a freighter in a gravity well with the Alpha types I ended up with, but did I stop? Nah, not me. I kept on doing it because changing to suit them would be, I dunno, denying who I was. And it probably wouldn't've worked anyway."
Draco nodded. "Something very like that, the relatively comprehensible last bit, anyway. But I found out in the end that Potter would have been worth it."
"Well, never mind, mate. You've got friends."
"Yes." Draco looked away, at something Vila couldn't see.
"Some of 'em missing? You and me both."
"And nothing we can do about it," Draco said austerely.
Vila would have agreed, but he wanted to cheer the bloke up. "I dunno. We could drink to their memory, and to the ones we still have. And will have."
Draco smiled suddenly and startlingly. "Why not?"
And, thought Vila, watching Goyle weaving his way through the growing crowd, maybe I can help a bit there. He surreptitiously stroked his wand, and Goyle tripped, tipping his tray and depositing a plate of fish and chips into the Greengrass girl's lap.
"Ugh! You great clumsy oaf!" She jumped up, shaking the food onto the floor and wiping ineffectually at the grease stains down her dress robes.
"Let me help," Draco said smoothly, rising to his feet, wand in hand. "Tergeo," he said, waving it.
"Oh! Thank you!" The girl looked up at Draco and smiled shyly.
As Vila moved quietly past, Draco flashed him a sudden look, and Vila winked. Draco's right eye closed solemnly, then he bent to speak to the girl.
For some reason, going back to his own reunion to see his friends who were still there held a lot more attraction than it had, so Vila said, "Anno mea," and did.
"So now you show up," Tarrant said as Vila stumbled onto the flight deck, yawning.
"Your shift started 25 minutes ago." Tarrant unfolded himself from his chair and ran his hands wearily back through his hair. "I'm off to bed."
Vila watched him go, then raised his eyebrows at Avon.
"I obliviated him," Avon said.
"Can't have been hard."
Avon looked briefly startled, and Vila realised that he hadn't joked to Avon since the whole Malodar thing. And now that he noticed, Avon looked tired, older, and somehow lost, just like Vila had been feeling. "Look." he hesitated. "Never guess who I met."
"I don't intend to try."
"The potions man?" Avon's eyes narrowed. "What were you doing in his reunion?"
"Felt like a change." Vila folded his arms defensively.
"And it didn't occur to you that you could affect time almost as badly as with a time-turner?"
Vila shrugged, deciding not to mention the small fact that he'd probably set Draco on his life's career. "Nah, we just talked. Then I went back to see my lot. Um, Avon?"
Avon closed his eyes briefly. "The use of my name is particularly redundant in the absence of anyone else."
Vila was encouraged by the mild snark. "See, Draco Malfoy was a Death Eater when he was at school." He considered a joke about the resulting indigestion and decided against it. "Because of his family, you know."
"I do, yes. I read the potted biography, just as you rather surprisingly did."
"But the thing is," Vila leaned forward, "he changed his mind. He switched sides."
"So he realised he was wrong. And he became a famous research wizard."
"As I am well aware." Avon sighed. "Your point, assuming you have one, is?"
"My point is that making a big mistake--"
"Yes, dammit! It wasn't the end. He turned his whole life around and what he did at school is just a minor thing compared with the rest of his life."
"You would call it minor that I--" Avon stopped, unable to go on.
"No, not minor at all." Vila grabbed Avon's arm. "You bloody know how I feel about what you did. I just wanted to say I'm never going to forget, but that, well, we could both go on. Start again. All three of us, considering that what Tarrant said about Blake betraying us was part of it all." And how withdrawn Tarrant had been since they'd escaped.
Avon's eyes widened and he abruptly pulled his arm away. "Nothing can change what happened."
"Yeah, but the future's open." Vila looked at Avon's profile, hard and almost expressionless as he stared straight ahead at the flight screen. "That's something we can change."
"I would assume then that you weren't tempted to look at ours from a century or two ahead."
"Absolutely not! Firstly I really don't want to know, and secondly..."
Vila grinned. "We might not even be remembered."
Avon turned to look at him, and he almost seemed like the old Avon Vila had regarded as a friend. "Very well. Where to from here, Vila?"
"You're asking me?"
"So it seems. Choose a course."
"Um. Hadn't really thought that far ahead."
"Our next planet-fall, Vila," Avon said patiently.
"Oh, that!" Relieved, Vila leaned back in his seat, hands behind his head. "Lindor," he said finally. "Nice place, and old Sarkoff is someone who had a second start too." And really, in the reddish light cast upwards by the flight controls, it almost looked as if Avon was smiling.