A moon-faced barn owl landed on a windowsill silently and tapped its beak against the cold glass. Its owner, a young man with dull brown hair and freckles on his nose, opened the window and let the owl in.
"Any answer, Muldoon?" Cyril Cresswell asked the owl as it fluttered over to its favorite spot on top of the bookshelf. It ruffled its feathers and tucked its head under one wing in answer. Cyril sighed, settled back in his armchair and returned to staring out the window.
Snow gleamed white on every surface outside and windows glowed warmly from within. Fairy lights, both literal and figurative - it was, after all, not entirely a Muggle street – twinkled on trees and houses, and wreaths tied with red bows adorned every door. By every indication outside, it was Christmas. But there was no such evidence of holiday spirit in the dark first-story room.
The room, chosen more because of its low price than anything else, was sparsely furnished. It had come with a rickety bed, a bedside table, a wobbly wooden chair, a cooker and a dresser to put his clothes in. The only changes he had made were to transfigure the chair into something more comfortable (he had a feeling the landlady wouldn't mind) and cram his bookshelf into the tiny room next to the dresser. Not a single bit of tinsel or sprig of holly had made it into this room; Cyril had decided that he wasn't going to celebrate Christmas this year. It was more good cheer and joy to the world than he felt up to at the moment.
Nothing in his world felt particularly cheery right then. It had been seven months since he had fought in the battle that had seen the end of Voldemort, nine months since he'd learned that the Snatchers had murdered his father, and a full year since he had lost the girl he loved.
Only the girl he loved hadn't been lost to death like his father. She was still walking and breathing and living in her parents' house in Tinworth. She hadn't spoken to him since Christmas Eve last year. In the first months, Cyril had sent endless letters, Apparated over to Tinworth every few days to knock on her door and try to convince her to talk to him, and even, when drunk one night – not at all a usual state for him – gone straight into her living room via the Floo Network. He had escaped back through the Floo to his flat (formerly theirs) and promptly collapsed, his legs having gone out from under him; she'd cast a Sponge-Knees Curse on him. After that, he'd kept sending letters – one the first Sunday of every month, regular as clockwork - but he'd given up on talking to her in person and moved to cheaper lodgings.
And despite the fact that it had been months since he'd had any hope of getting her back, Cyril had spent his Christmas Eve writing and sending at least five different letters to her, each more plaintive than the last. There had been not a single reply. It hurt, but deep down, Cyril thought she had a right to hate him.
Cyril stared at the lights in the windows across the street from him, seeing nothing. It had been exactly a year since the night Sarah Fawcett had ceased to be his girlfriend, and Cyril couldn't help but remember why. She blamed him for what she'd lost. She –
"No Christmas decorations, Cyril? This isn't like you."
Cyril jerked upright in his seat, gasping. That voice…
His eyes, when he turned to look at the rest of the room, confirmed what his ears had heard. "D-dad?" he asked faintly.
The figure in the center of his room was a man of medium height with a very definite paunch and smiling eyes behind round glasses. But for the transparency, he looked in every way exactly like Cyril's father had in life. It couldn't be, though; his father wouldn't have come back as a ghost. And even if he had, surely he wouldn't have waited this long to contact Cyril. "This can't be real," Cyril said. "I must be dreaming."
"Believe me, it is real," said the apparition who looked like his father. "It's as real as anything can be. Don't ask for explanations. I know you're dying to know how, but just accept this for what it is: a father coming to give his son some advice."
Cyril took a shuddering breath, his fingers grasping the arms of his chair so hard that his joints creaked. "But – you're –"
"Dead? I know. And no, I haven't been a ghost all this time. This is something special." Cyril opened his mouth, and his father said quickly, "No – no questions, Cyril." His father gazed at him a moment, smiling a little. "It's good to see your face. I only wish it was on a happier occasion. This should be a happy occasion; it's Christmas Eve, after all! You should be celebrating, not sitting alone in the dark sulking."
"I'm not sulking, Dad," said Cyril, sighing. "I'm – well, I don't see why I have to pretend to be happy on Christmas Eve. Christmas doesn't exactly have the happiest memories for me right now."
"No?" said his father. "Are you sure?" And with that, he swooped over to grab Cyril's arm, tugged – and they were gone.
A/N: Thanks to Natalie/hestia-jones28 for being an awesome beta.