It was the worst night of Neville Longbottom's life.
It could have been worse, the others told him. The Death Eaters had been coordinating this attack for weeks, if not months. Others could have died too. Ron and Hermione Weasley could have been the first of many casualties, not the final deaths that promised to hail the end of the bloodshed. Voldemort was gone now - really gone, not merely banished to a shadowy half-existence. His followers were scattered, and being rounded up almost faster than the Ministry could process them. People were dancing in the streets and setting off fireworks.
The war was finally, truly over.
None of these things made Neville feel any better. None of these things undid what his former friend had done. And none of these things - none of the what-ifs or might-have-beens - brought back Cecily Weasley's parents.
The little girl was crawling around the small office he shared with Anthony Goldstein, utterly heedless of how special she was or what her future might hold. She was both adventurous and inquisitive, a combination of traits that bespoke her heritage as surely as her wild brown hair and clear blue eyes. The part of Neville that hadn't quite accepted the reality of the situation pitied whoever wound up raising her, because the Girl Who Lived was going to be a handful.
That was what they were calling her already: the Girl Who Lived. Never mind that her fame was tainted by her predecessor's actions - that no one would be able to look at her without wondering, deep down, if she shared more with Harry Potter than an honorific. The comparisons were already coming fast and thick. Cecily was different from Harry. She had to be different from Harry. The other Aurors were latching onto those differences like a lifeline, as if they would change the fate that awaited the little girl.
Cecily would spend the rest of her life living in the shadow of the man who had betrayed her parents.
Neville put his head in his hands and tried to blot out the memory of Harry calmly saying that yes, he had sold out his two best friends to Voldemort. Nor had Ron and Hermione been his only victims. Looming large over those memories was Harry calmly explaining that he had planned to kill Neville's fiancée and fellow Auror - Ron Weasley's little sister Ginny. He still planned to kill Ginny, in fact. He had said that over and over again: Ginny was going to die, Ginny was going to pay, Ginny was as good as dead.
There had to be something Neville was missing. There just had to be. But Harry had admitted his crimes under hastily administered Veritaserum, and the record was sitting on his desk, right in front of him.
For the first time, he was glad that Sirius Black hadn't lived to see what his godson had become. It would have destroyed him.
The man he had summoned didn't bother to knock. He just slid into the office as if he owned the entire Ministry. "You wanted to see me?"
Neville looked up at Draco Malfoy, whom he trusted about as far as he could throw a dragon. Dumbledore trusted him, though, and right now that had to be enough. Besides, it was a well-known fact that Neville and his former classmate couldn't stand the sight of each other. No one would expect him to entrust such a dangerous man with such a precious burden.
He lifted Cecily off the floor and handed her over.
For a moment Malfoy stared at him as if he had grown another head. Then he held the little girl at arm's length and glared. "What am I supposed to do with...this?"
"That's Cecily Weasley," Neville pointed out in his most emotionless voice. "I'm sure you've heard about her."
He obviously had. Still glaring, Malfoy turned his attention to the squirming toddler and attempted to get a better grip on her. Cecily responded by whining and battering him with a little fist, face scrunched up in outrage at being manhandled. As she struggled, the bloody bandage wrapped around her forehead came loose and fluttered to the floor.
"That's..." Malfoy shook his head and tried to hand back the little girl. "No. Hell, no. I don't want anything to do with her."
"I'm not asking you to adopt her," Neville said tightly. "I want you to take her to her relatives. Answer any questions they have, and give them these." He handed over a packet of letters, hoping that Dumbledore was a better judge of Andrew and Louise Cunningham than he had been of Vernon and Petunia Dursley.
Malfoy didn't look convinced. "Why me, Longbottom?"
Neville glared at him, and for a moment he nearly shouted that if he had his way, he would have taken Cecily to his home and raised her himself. But he didn't say a word. He just stood behind his desk, fuming, attempting to get his rage under control. It was all he could do not to leap over his desk and throttle the bastard then and there.
"Dumbledore says you can be trusted," he said finally.
Whatever answer Malfoy had been expecting, that clearly wasn't it. He was silent for a moment, still holding Cecily awkwardly as she fussed. When he did speak, it was in that sly, calculating voice Neville had come to loathe. "What's to stop me from handing me over to the first Death Eater I find?"
"The Death Eaters hate you almost as much as I do," Neville pointed out. "And if you hurt her, I'll kill you." It wasn't a threat, just a statement of fact.
Malfoy sneered, but said nothing. He just adjusted his grip on the Girl Who Lived, his lip curling in disgust as she stopped whining and began to gnaw on his obviously expensive shirt. "I don't want to hear from you after this," he said. Neville could hear how strained his voice was, as if it was taking every ounce of will he had to stay civil. "The next time I see this brat, I'll hex her."
"Get out of my office," Neville growled, and had the slight satisfaction of Malfoy turn and stalk out without another word. He could hear Cecily babbling as she vanished down the corridor and out of the magical world.
Less than a minute after Malfoy had left, another individual slipped in. She didn't bother to knock either, but then again, she had never needed to.
"Neville..." Ginny said softly, and threw herself against his chest in a desperate, crushing hug. He didn't bother to say anything. He just wrapped his arms around her and tried unsuccessfully not to cry.
Somewhere high above England, very far removed from the Ministry of Magic, Cecily Weasley peered at Draco Malfoy's pale, pinched face and babbled happily. She was unaware of who she was or what she had just become -- or of the fact that there was only other person like her in the world.
On her forehead, half-hidden under an untameable mass of bushy brown hair, was a bloody cut that would become a lightning-shaped scar.