Cyril's question hovered in the air for a moment.
His father sighed. "I don't know for sure," he started, "but I can guess. I know a little something about grief, and a lot about you, and I've seen a lot of the moments that led up to this one. You're…" He paused, rubbing his forehead. "I'm not saying you're a coward, Cyril, but you don't always face up to things. We've talked about the guilt, but there was also the grief. That Cyril, he ran away from it all – not just the pain of losing Sarah, but his grief about me, a grief he never really let himself feel.
"His friends made him think of his former girlfriend, who wouldn't even talk to him anymore; his family reminded him of his murdered father. It just hurt too much, so he shut them out. He made that choice over and over, until it wasn't a choice anymore but just the way things were. And now, given that choice again, he's made the same stupid mistake he's made every single time. Because that's just the way things are for him now."
Cyril crossed to the chair by the window and sat down wearily. He looked up at his father for a moment, rolling the question he desperately wanted to ask around in his mind. Finally he said, "Can I stop it?"
His father smiled, then grinned. "Certainly. It's why I came here. Everything I've shown you, it was to show you what you can have, and what you stand to lose. The future I showed you is one of many possible futures. Every choice you make changes your future. If you follow the path you are taking now – cutting off your family and friends – that is your most likely future.
"But," he continued, speaking very seriously, "if you change things, if you can have to courage to continue to love people who remind you of loved ones lost, then your future could be very different."
Cyril looked out the window, saw the fairy lights and snow, and said, "But why Christmas? Why is Christmas so important?"
"It's not just Christmas," his father admitted, "but Christmas is a good place to start. It's a day of the year when family and friends get together to share the joy of the season. People especially need Christmas this year, with so much sorrow left over from the war. It gives them chance to heal." He added, "You need that, too. You haven't been living properly, just hiding away from everything: the guilt, the grief, even missing the very people you've been actively ignoring." Cyril opened his mouth, not even sure how to reply to that. His father gave him a wry look. "Don't argue; I've seen you. Listen, Cyril, you have as many reasons to be sad as anyone else, and as much right to be happy. Don't ruin your chance to move on past what's happened to you."
Cyril's father locked eyes with him, looking both serious and unbearably kind. "Believe me, Cyril. I know what it's like to think there's no hope for happiness left. But there is so much hope for you, and you don't even see it. You have a chance to change things for the better; take it."
"How?" Cyril asked helplessly.
"What do you want to do?" Cyril shrugged. "I mean right now. In this very moment, what would make you most happy?"
"I…" Cyril thought for a moment. "I'd like to go to Mum's for Christmas. And-and then…I want to get together with Algy and Patricia afterwards; we haven't talked in ages, I've been so shut off –" Cyril took a deep breath, a wide smile breaking out on his face, and added, "– and then I want to try and get that job after all." Cyril paused and went on, his voice uncertain, "But…it wouldn't feel right if I didn't at least try to get Sarah to celebrate, too. It wouldn't have to be with us, it's just…she's just as bad off as I am. She's not really living either, or at least she wasn't the last time I saw her. I want her to have the same chance that you've given me."
His father smiled. "Then I think you should try."
"I will, then." Cyril squared his shoulders. "Even if it means getting hexed again."
"Do try to avoid that," his father said dryly. He raised his eyes to the ceiling, looking startled for the first time since he had appeared in Cyril's room. A wry smile replaced the surprise, and he told Cyril, "Time's flown. I must be going."
"But –" Cyril couldn't help the wave of disappointment that washed through him. He'd almost been hoping…
"I can't stay," his father said kindly. "This isn't my place anymore. We all must move on."
"I'll miss you," Cyril said plaintively.
"And I you." His father grinned, his glasses winking in the moonlight. "But we'll meet again someday; be sure of it." And with that he was simply – gone.
It took Cyril a moment to process this; even spending part of a night journeying by that same mysterious method of translocation hadn't quite accustomed him to its abruptness. Once his mind had caught up with things, he immediately sprang to his feet, grabbed his cloak and, with a quick turn, Apparated to Tinworth.
The house in front of him was bleak and dark, covered in a patina of snow, scars from the battle that had taken place there a year ago still visible. Cyril hesitated a moment before knocking. He felt hot and nervous; his heart pounded in his ears. What if she didn't answer? What if she answered only to jinx him?
The door creaked open, and Sarah stood there in the doorway, her face expressionless. "I can't do this tonight, Cyril," she said wearily. "Just...don't even bother." She went to yank the door closed, but Cyril lunged in through it before it shut. He stood panting in her sitting room and watched her eyebrows furrow and her hand go to her wand.
"Wait!" he said. Her hand paused on the handle of her wand, and she glared at him. "I–I –" He searched frantically for the right thing to say. "I – tonight something happened, and I realized –" He stopped, surprised to hear his voice crack. A lump had formed in his throat, and he felt tears gathering behind his eyes. He was supposed to be trying to convince her that it was a good thing to celebrate Christmas and that she needed to move on with her life, not dissolving into tears before he'd even had a chance to explain his presence.
Trying to keep his voice from shaking, he told her the truth: "Look, what happened last Christmas wasn't my fault or your fault. It was the Snatchers' fault – You-Know-Who's fault. And you know what? I'm really glad you were with me that night instead of your parents. Because you're alive. And even if you've been….avoiding me all year, I'm really glad of that."
Then words began to spill out of his mouth before he could even consider them. "I've blamed myself all this time for that night. It broke my heart that you wouldn't see me or talk to me or even answer my letters, but I thought I deserved it, that what you were doing to me was justified. That what I felt didn't matter next to your grief. That I didn't have a right to mourn my own – my own father's death –"
He couldn't speak anymore; a sob escaped before he could suppress it. He stood there, not looking at Sarah, until he had controlled the impulse to cry. He'd done this so many times since his father had died, and he was tired of it, but now was not the time.
When he looked up, Sarah looked uncertain. She stepped forward, slowly, and placed her hands on his shoulders. Their eyes met, and Cyril held his breath. Sarah shaped her next words deliberately: "I'm sorry. I can't even begin to tell you how very sorry I am for all the hurt I've caused you. I couldn't possibly tell you everything that was going through my mind, but I never blamed you. If anything, I blamed myself. I convinced them to take in the first Muggleborn, you know."
Cyril inhaled sharply, surprised. She nodded. "I haven't been dealing with this very…" She looked down for a moment, then back up. "Look, it wasn't healthy or right, the way I've been acting. I know that. I've known it for a while now, but it's…hard to break the habit, hard to crawl back to all the people you hurt and bare your heart to them in hopes that they'll take you back into their lives. It's risking so much. It was almost more comfortable to keep going on the way I was."
She smiled now, and Cyril remembered that he hadn't seen her smile – not outside memories, anyway – since last Christmas. If his heart had been shrinking in his chest earlier as he waited for her to answer the door, it was swelling now, until he felt as if he would burst with the joy that filled him.
He laughed, letting some of that exuberance out. "Someone wise once told me that I had as many reasons to be sad as anyone else and as much right to be happy. I came here to tell you the same thing. And to ask you something: would you like to come celebrate Christmas with me?"
Sarah looked uncertain again. "I –"
"Come on. Everyone's lost something, but do you see Christmas being abandoned this year? Listen, Mum's got the tree up, and she's baked ginger snaps. Mattie's probably rigging my stocking with some stupid jinx or another, and even Henry's come home for once. They'll all be glad to see you; it's been a year for them, too." Cyril waited, hoping she would give him the answer he wanted.
She considered for a moment, the smile slowly creeping back onto her face. She looked up at him and said, "Sure. It sounds lovely."
They Apparated to Cyril's mother's house and were greeted with grins and hugs. There was plenty of delicious food – his mother's heavenly ginger snaps included – much teasing and telling of embarrassing stories, and a lot of laughter. When they had run out of stories, Cyril's mother tuned the wireless to some Christmas music and Mattie made Sarah dance with him, while Cyril took his mum for a turn round the carpet and Henry sang along in a corny voice, in imitation of their father. When the song was over, Sarah approached Cyril shyly and asked him to dance.
"Sure," he said, and she stepped into his arms. His every nerve ending came to life as she laid her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. They swayed gently to the music, and Cyril couldn't think of a single word to say. In the end he decided not to say anything, and closed his own eyes.
When the song came to an end, Cyril hesitated, not wanting to step away from Sarah. She raised her head, but didn't step back either. They locked eyes, and any pretense of a dance between friends fell away. He didn't know who initiated it, but suddenly they were kissing. Mattie and Henry immediately let out twin wolf whistles, while Mrs. Cresswell said reprovingly, "Boys!" Sarah and Cyril broke apart, embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," Cyril and Sarah chorused, and then laughed.
"We can discuss this later," Sarah promised, smiling, and Cyril couldn't help but grin back. A day ago, he'd thought he would never have another conversation with Sarah Fawcett that didn't involve incantations for nasty hexes – and she had just kissed him and was willing to talk about it later.
Things weren't back to usual quite yet. There were still reparations to be made, and a lot of talking to do. But all in all, this Christmas was turning out to be much better than he could possibly have expected.
A/N: And so my first finished chaptered fic comes to an end. Lots of thanks and hugs go to Natalie/hestia-jones28, who beta'd, and anyone I moaned to about this fic over AIM.