Harry stumbled downstairs to the kitchen. His hands and wand moving on automatic, he prepared three bottles for Sky’s consumption. He’d learned enough from Mr Weasley in his time to adapt a steriliser to work on magic instead of electricity. Harry had never felt the need for electricity, even though he’d glimpsed something of the delights of television and internet the last time he’d been at the Dursley’s house. As far as Harry could see, both of them involved more interaction with other people than Harry was prepared to commit to. And now he had a baby.
While the bottles were heating up, Harry went to check if the milk had arrived. It hadn’t. “Okay,” he said. His cupboards were practically bare. He scrabbled around the top-most shelf and discovered an ancient Mars bar. He chewed it stoically, although the caramel had caramelised further to the consistency and flavour of concrete. He resolved to go shopping soonest. At that moment, the timer on the steriliser went off. Harry levitated the bottles and sprinted upstairs.
To his surprise, Sky wasn’t cooing and blowing bubbles in anticipation of her breakfast. Harry had to peer into her crib to ascertain that she was awake at all. When he did so, his heart turned over in fear.
Sky was in pain. Her body was curled up like a fossil, her mouth opening and shutting like she was screaming with the mute button on. What was worst was her utter noiselessness, for Sky was a baby who was never completely silent.
“Okay,” said Harry, “oh, God.” He picked her up and cradled her against his chest as though she was made of porcelain. Then he feared that moving her would upset her further, so he hastily returned her to the crib. He compared their foreheads. Sky’s was warmer, but she was warm all the time. Harry made sure of that.
He Summoned every book he owned to the nursery. The picture books provided such helpful information as ‘Kisses make it all better’ (Harry, who had never done more than absently press his lips to Sky’s hair, leaned in over the crib and kissed everything he could reach; he found he liked it very much) and numerous improbable remedies involving bits of unicorns, mermaids and fairy wings, which would have been more helpful had Harry any potions ingredients on the premises. What few schoolbooks had survived the ravages of time and war didn’t seem to consider childhood diseases a curriculum-worthy topic of study. In despair, Harry turned to the Dark Arts books, rather surprised to discover he owned so many.
Although Harry searched their indexes under B for Baby, C for Child and I for Infant, he found nothing remotely pertaining to childcare, and several recipes suggesting that B, C and I were good with tabasco sauce. Harry chose to dismiss that implication for the foreseeable future.
An hour later nothing had turned up except Harry’s hair, which was standing on end from the dozen times he’d crunched his hands through it. His lap and the surrounding floor were covered with books and bits of parchment he’d started to write on before realising the hopeful information was yet another recipe. He’d tried to feed Sky, but she’d prissed up her mouth and refused the bottle. This coming from a child with two hollow legs worried Harry intensely.
He rested his head against the side of the crib and pressed a thumb to Sky’s pale cheek. One of her weakly flailing hands came up and wrapped around his fingers. The rush of love Harry felt then was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. It gave him the courage to survive the next ten minutes, as he took up yet more parchment and began to write.
Three hours later, Harry was beginning to give up hope on his plan ever coming to fruition. Sky was still refusing to eat and Harry was now concerned about the possibility of her starving to death. One more hour, Harry thought, and I’ll go find Mickey and ask him to help. He was loath to do so, because the fiction that Harry was not harbouring Lily White’s baby was fragile and required much deception to keep it alive. He knew if he admitted out loud that he was caring for Sky, even to get help for her, then the other men would have to admit out loud that they had connived to give a baby to a stranger, who had then turned out to be grossly incompetent.
All the same, Harry would do it. For Sky’s sake. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to -- even though the only alternative was almost as bad.
He was lying in a half doze, his stomach growling with hunger, when he heard the unmistakable pop of Apparition downstairs. Stumbling to his feet on legs that were weak as wet cotton wool, Harry made it to the nursery door in time to see a flare of red ascending the stairs. Harry blinked and the flare emerged out of the dusk, snapping into focus.
“Bloody hell, it’s dark in here,” complained Ron Weasley. “Haven’t you heard of candles, Harry?”
“What?” said Harry, with more than usual stupidity.
“Candles. Long yellow things, made of tallow, you light the wick with magic and you can suddenly see things in the dark. Like enormous great holes in the stairs.”
“I’ve been meaning to get that fixed.”
Harry meant nothing of the sort. He was adroit at leaping over the hole in question and in previous times had used it as a short-cut rubbish bin to the coal-hole below. He made a quick note to stop Ron going into the coal-hole, which probably housed an army of mutant potato crisps by this point.
Ron gave him an owlish stare that put Harry in mind of Percy. There the resemblance ended. A sudden shaft of light speared through the infantry of dust between the skylight and the corridor, throwing Ron’s features into sharp relief. His nose would always be large and more aqueduct than aquiline, and the freckles still seemed intent on their mission of world domination, but -- and the realisation made Harry grip the side of the doorframe, risking tetanus with barely a thought -- Ron had grown up. His hair was no longer stuck to his head like manically depressed seaweed, but was cut into a sweep that fell a little over his eye. The semi-permanent bits of blood-stained tissue stuck to his chin were not in evidence, suggesting that Ron had at last found a tameable magical razor. Lastly, his robes didn’t hang from him like a fistful of rags, but were tailored, dark-blue and made his spare tall frame appear unfairly macho.
“Harry,” said Ron in a soft voice that Harry had never heard before, “what’s going on?”
“Um,” said Harry diplomatically.
Ron sighed and scrubbed his hand through his hair. His action left it standing up at the back like a cockatoo’s ruff. Harry felt abruptly more comfortable. This was more like the old Ron -- the one he knew.
“Come in,” added Harry. He heard Ron follow him into the nursery and the resultant gasp.
“So you really did adopt a baby.” Ron sounded flabbergasted. In the light of the many crazy stunts Harry had pulled throughout his life so far, he thought this reaction a little unjust. After all, normal people who weren’t heroes had babies all the time. Harry’s method of acquiring one had just been a little more unconventional.
“Why are you here? I wrote to your mother.”
“I know.” Ron glanced around the room, which barring the floor was devoid of anything on which to sit. He frowned as he continued, “I was at home when your letter came. And a good thing too -- I thought Mum was going to have a coronary. It took me half an hour to figure out who’d written the letter and prise it out of her hand. I take it you never got a new owl after Hedwig died, then?”
“Muggles don’t use owl post,” Harry reminded him. Using a public Post Owl was as easy as casting a Summoning spell for one, but the real reason he’d never replaced Hedwig was because it would be a betrayal of her memory.
“I know that!” snapped Ron. “You’re not a Muggle. You’re a wizard.” He took a deep breath, but that didn’t stop the tips of his ears from blushing scarlet. For some reason this reassured Harry. “Anyway, Mum was half-crazy -- going on that you had a sick baby, and starting to make it some booties one minute and wanting to find you and shake some sense into you the next. When I figured out what was going on I convinced her to let me come instead. Once she’d calmed down she realised it would be a better idea than haring off herself although --” he jerked his thumb at the door “-- she sent a bunch of toys Bill and Charlie left behind.” His gaze appraised the nursery. “Looks like you might need them and all.”
“Wait a minute.” Harry shook his head, as if that would help him absorb the information faster. It had never been known to work before, but Harry was nothing if not optimistic. “You are a better option than your mother? She’s had seven kids -- how many have you had?”
“None -- yet.” Ron’s voice was cool. “However, I am a Healer. I think I might know something about illness, don’t you?”
Harry was too shocked by the news to marvel at the sarcasm in Ron’s rhetorical question, which was a rarer occurrence than nightingales singing in Berkeley Square. “A Healer? Since when?”
“I applied three years ago. You were occupied at the time. Drowning your sorrows and shagging your way through London.” Ron's voice was too carefully neutral, and he wasn’t meeting Harry’s eye. “I was going to tell you, but you seemed busy. And then you left.”
“I didn’t shag my way through London,” said Harry weakly. In fact, it had only happened the once -- a squalid encounter that left Harry feeling as soiled as the bed sheets. He’d paid twice what was owed and never went again. He couldn’t deny that he’d been drinking heavily when the war ended, or that he hadn’t paid attention to his friends during that time, because both were true. Acceptable, even in other people’s opinions, but true.
“Yes, well.” Ron’s face suggested that he was entirely indifferent to the knowledge. Harry was more hurt by that than was reasonable.
“You never told me since then,” said Harry, warming to the accusative.
“You never asked.” Ron pushed up his sleeves, and now Harry had a chance to notice the crossed wand and bone emblem of St Mungo’s.
Ron crossed the room and, after a moment’s hesitation, knelt beside the crib. He picked Sky up with competent expertise and pressed the tip of his wand to her forehead. Harry had to laugh -- the symbols and figures that floated out from under the wand’s tip were a bright, glowing pink.
“The preliminary diagnosis is colic,” said Ron. “Is she bottle-fed?”
“Yes,” said Harry, and had the impish urge to add, “My breasts just weren’t up to it.”
Ron’s look was scathing. “Colic can be a problem with bottle-fed babies -- air from the bottle can get trapped in their gastrointestinal passages and cause cramping pain.”
Harry immediately sobered. “Is it dangerous?”
“That depends on the severity of the problem.” Ron quirked his lips at Harry. “Look, we’re never supposed to tell people that a problem is one hundred percent fixable. That would be irresponsible. But I don’t reckon your kid is going to take lasting harm from it.”
“Oh.” Harry hadn’t realised how much tension he’d been keeping in before it disappeared. He sagged against the doorway, and his stomach took the opportunity to forcibly remind him of his hunger.
“Who’s her mother?” asked Ron, looking at the baby in his arms with a strange expression. Harry was too famished to analyse it closely.
“Woman called Lily White. Does she need medicine?”
“I can get it for you. I’m sure the Muggle doctors would have had something for it, but I don’t really trust them. Then again, I’m a wizard. Why didn’t you trust them?”
“I don’t not trust them.” Harry’s voice sounded thready even to his own ears. “I just couldn’t take her to them. It would have created too much … disruption.”
“So you decided to write to my mother instead -- a woman with no medical qualifications, whom you happily abandoned two years ago.” Ron placed Sky back in her crib. “Rollicking good idea, Harry. Well done.”
“You don’t understand.” Harry wilted further.
“That’s true. Not that you’ve ever given me a chance to understand, mind. Not that I couldn’t have helped you more if I did understand or anything. But it’s all fine, because I don’t understand!”
He ended on a shout. Harry leaped towards the crib to see if Sky was disturbed by this unique increase in decibels. She wasn’t, but her small face was screwed up in pain. The hand Harry reached out to her trembled without his prior knowledge or permission.
He missed the look on Ron’s face as he said, “I’ll be back with a stomach-calming potion in an hour. Less than an hour.”
“Okay,” said Harry. The pop of Apparition had already sounded when Harry remembered to say, “Thank you.” Wearied beyond all imagining, he closed his eyes.
Harry awoke to a sensation so unusual as to be almost unprecedented. It was the feel of sheets around his bare skin. During his life in Paradise Place, he slept on the sofa more often than not. His drunken stupors had led him to seek a place of rest in such disparate locations as the attic, the floor and, in one unfortunately memorable instance, the coal-hole. Since Sky’s arrival he’d spent more nights than he cared to count in the floor of her nursery, where the carpet was softer than his mattress.
Harry squinted against the glasses-deprived blur and felt his way down the bed. Someone, with great if ruthless efficiency, had tucked him into what felt like an apple-pie bed wearing nothing but his boxers and socks.
A slight creak preceded Ron’s entry into the room. All Harry could make out was an enormous red and navy blur, but it was enough to make him relax as much as the confines of the straightjacket sheets would permit.
“Your glasses are on the other pillow,” said Ron. His voice was as cool and featureless as snow; he seemed to be making up for his burst of rage by going to the other extreme. “I would have put them on a table so you didn’t crush them, but you don’t have a table. Of any sort. In the entire house. Either you’re being ridiculously frugal or you’ve just been robbed.”
“Neither,” sighed Harry. He fumbled his glasses on to his face. “I haven’t got around to buying anything yet.”
“Hmm. You just moved in then?” The bed sank slightly as Ron perched on the end of it, as far from Harry as the perimeter would allow.
“That’s right.” Harry nodded, grateful for the legitimate excuse for owning barely a stick of furniture. He noticed his ‘desk’ -- a broken floorboard propped up on two crates -- and wondered why Ron of all people had dismissed this as a table. Then he felt guilty for assuming that Ron’s previous poverty would allow him to recognise an admittedly crude piece of furniture as anything other than misplaced lumber.
“I guess I’m easy to lie to,” said Ron. He sounded as if this was a failing worthy of ritual castration. “The thing is, when I know the truth it’s hard to lie even to me. You’ve been living here for two years, although from the looks of things you’re squatting in a house marked for demolition. I think it would be a nice place if it were fumigated, completely refitted and moved to an entirely different neighbourhood. I also think you don’t care what I think. But I still don’t understand why you didn’t at least buy a sofa, Harry.”
“There’s a sofa here already,” Harry pointed out.
“There is?” Ron raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise. Harry guessed that the camouflage sofa had outdone itself in the disguise stakes. “This is a terrible place to bring up a child. I can’t believe Muggle authorities don’t check out adoptive parents thoroughly, like wizard ones do. No offence, Harry mate, but you shouldn’t have made it past the first assessment.”
“I didn’t.” Harry wriggled, accidentally bringing his foot into contact with Ron’s leg. Ron jumped a little. “Hey -- how did you know I’ve been living here for two years?”
Ron’s expression was almost pitying. “I’ve known where you lived ever since you left. I made it my business to know -- just in case.”
“In case what?”
“In case you hurt yourself -- in case you died, Harry! Believe it or not, not everyone in the world is the heartless bastard you’ve turned into. Some people actually care a lot about what happens to you and -- and would be bloody upset if you kicked the bucket.” Ron turned away, but not quickly enough for Harry to miss the way his eyes glinted with more than righteous anger.
Harry wanted to say he was sorry, but he wasn’t sure enough that he meant it. Instead, he said, “Look, the reason Sky is here isn’t because I adopted her. I found her.”
“Where? Under the cabbage patch?”
“Close. On my doorstep.”
“Now you have got to be kidding me.” Harry stared Ron down. “You’re not, are you? But you know who her mother is. Why don’t you return her?”
“It’s complicated,” Harry began.
“Try me,” Ron challenged.
“Well.” Harry tried to marshal his thoughts, but it was hard with Ron’s unflinching blue gaze fixed on him. “This is a kind of rough area.”
“But some people are sort of -- worse than others. I mean, they’re all pretty much violent and insane, but Lily’s husband -- Sky’s father -- puts her in hospital all the time --”
“Don’t tell me.” Ron’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “You just had to do your little heroic thing and rescue the poor, ignorant Muggles from themselves?”
Harry stared at his friend, wondering when he’d started to hate Harry. “Actually, no. I play cards with some of the men from around here and they’d sometimes talk about Norm -- Sky’s dad. I didn’t think anything of it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I found Sky on the doorstep. From what I can tell, Lily knew that whenever Norm came back from his ship, he’d hurt Sky -- or worse. He doesn’t like kids. In fact he doesn’t seem to like anyone very much. They left her with me because Norm would never think to look for her here.”
“So what’s going to happen when Norm returns to his ship? Lily’s just going to pick up … Sky, and go on with life until Norm’s back for his conjugal rights again?” Ron scowled. “God, Harry. Talk about thinking things through.”
“Yeah, let’s talk about that,” snapped Harry. “You were so excellent at it too, as I recall.”
Ron narrowed his eyes. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“Any mission might or might not work, you idiot! Plans are for minimising the amount of people that die as a result of them!”
“We were talking about you and now, not me and four years ago,” said Ron. “Are you seriously expecting to hang around here for the next eighteen years until Sky’s old enough to move out, and look after her while her dad’s at home? Don’t you think she’s going to find that strange? What if you want to move away and actually start having a life of your own?”
“So I was supposed to leave her to die on my doorstep.” Harry tried to cross his arms, but found that his hands were trapped under the sheets, which in turn were pinned down by the weight of Ron’s body on them.
Ron ruffled his hair again. This time it flopped into his eyes as he bent his head forward, his wrists resting on his knees. “No. You were supposed to act like the sensible adult you look as if you are, take her in, alert some authorities, and let them deal with it.” He gazed at Harry, who wanted nothing so much as to be able to untangle himself from his sheets and walk away from the situation. He’d developed a taste for that, and a strong dislike of being brought to heel as he had been all the way through Hogwarts.
“But I forgot,” Ron murmured. “I forgot who I was dealing with.”
“Lay off. You sound like Hermione.”
“Really?” Ron stood up. With some relief, Harry extracted his hands. “Do you mean I sound like someone who possesses an iota of sense? I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Don’t.” Harry tossed his hair. He realised too late that this would only serve to shake his long shaggy hair all over his face, so that he looked like a brunette German Shepherd.
“Just look at yourself.” Ron stomped closer and brought his face level with where Harry’s nose parted the sheaves of hair blocking his vision. “You’re dressed like a tramp. You live in a hovel! Your skin’s unhealthier than when you were fourteen and you have more spots than you did then. You haven’t washed yourself or your hair in God knows when and you smell. Even your bloody teeth are yellow.”
Harry recoiled from such a no-holds-barred appraisal of himself. True, it had been a long time since he’d tried to look even moderately attractive, but he was sure it wasn’t as bad as Ron was making out. He’d just been busy with Sky, who wasn’t the most stringent of fashion critics.
“Bloody hell.” Ron grabbed Harry’s jaw and pulled it down. Harry was frozen by shock and the strangeness of having Ron’s warm, dry palm against his skin. It had been a long time since anyone except Sky had touched him, and she didn’t really count. “Abstergo dentis.”
“Ow!” howled Harry. He clamped his teeth shut, narrowly missing the tip of Ron’s thumb, which was resting on his lower lip.
“I could say the same thing,” Ron grumbled. “You should either grow a beard or shave. Your stubble is in the enraged porcupine stage.”
“It’s always like that, even after one day.” Harry rubbed his fingers over his aching teeth. The sensation of having eaten a box of bicarbonate of soda was beginning to subside. “And don’t even think about shaving me!” he added, his voice muffled by the hands he clamped over his mouth to preclude such an event.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, mate.” Ron looked around the bare room, a frown furrowing his freckled brow. With the air of someone making a momentous and life-changing decision, he announced, “I’m staying.”
Harry, still sore about having his teeth cleaned by main force, did nothing but clench the same and swing his legs out of bed preparatory to getting up.
The wave of weakness that washed over him came as the greatest shock in a day full of shocks. He swayed, but before he could even consider the possibility of falling Ron was there. One arm propped him up and the other guided him back to bed.
From far away, he heard Ron’s voice. “You’re suffering from malnutrition -- you twat. I’m staying to look after you for a week. God knows someone needs to. I’m going to get some stuff from home and I’ll be back to make you something to eat. In the meantime, stay here, or I’ll Owl the police.”
Harry wanted to point out Ron’s mistake and congratulate him on mastering the pronunciation of ‘police’. He wanted him to go away and leave Harry in peace, and to feed him until the fuzzy greyness on the edge of Harry’s vision went away again. He wanted Sky. Above all, he wanted to apologise. However, he had energy for none of it.
“Okay,” whispered Harry. He felt Ron’s sigh against his forehead before Ron straightened up and prepared to Apparate. He couldn’t place the look on Ron’s face as he observed Harry falling asleep again. If he’d only known, it was the same one he himself wore every time he looked at Sky.
The last thing he heard was Ron’s voice. “Sky. What an abominably American name, Harry. You really should change it.” He was gone before Harry could explain his choice -- which, all things considered, wasn’t a bad thing. Even Harry still wasn’t sure why he’d named Sky after Ron’s eyes.
The next time Harry woke, night was trickling in through the spaces left by dust on the window. He had a vague sense that something had changed, but the sight and smell of a tray on the floor next to his bed distracted him. At that moment, it was the most beautiful thing Harry had ever seen. It contained a glass of pumpkin juice, a chicken and ham pie and a bowl of treacle tart. Comfort food. Food from the childhood he had almost had, before his own sense of adventure had robbed him of the chance of ever having a real one.
His legs were still wobbly, but it was simply a matter of submitting to gravity to slide to the floor beside the tray. The first mouthful made him feel more alert. He kept eating as his gaze travelled around the room, taking in the cleanliness of the stripped wood floor, the absence of long peels in the wallpaper and the solid square desk in one corner. A squat leather bag sat by the door. Harry presumed that it belonged to Ron, unless a misshapen species of mushroom had sprouted there during his sleep.
His first full meal in -- how long? Harry was disturbed to find that he couldn’t remember -- if it did not restore him to full health, at least gave him the strength to don a pair of grey tracksuit pants. Ron had seen him in considerably less than boxers and socks and had tended to situations far more drastic than a bout of nutritionally-spurred fainting, but Harry didn’t intend to inflict the sight on him for longer than was absolutely necessary.
His first port of call was Sky’s nursery. The stars on the ceiling glowed like a celestial welcoming committee. Just stepping into the room relaxed him more than he could say, and the feeling was only compounded by the sight of Sky sleeping deeply and with no evidence of pain.
“There you are.” There was mingled worry and exasperation in Ron’s voice. “I thought you’d done a runner.”
“In this state, more like a crawler.” Harry reached down to tug Sky’s duck blanket closer under her chin.
Ron had a battalion of bottles tucked under his arms. He had changed into loose jeans and a fraying Weasley jumper. He would have looked exactly as he had at sixteen if it weren’t for the new, fancy haircut and an unmistakeable air of authority that separated him from his past self. He handed the bottles to Harry and watched in silence as Harry fed Sky.
“I have never seen a human being drink so much,” marvelled Ron. “Two bottles.”
“Is that abnormal?” Harry was instantly worried, and he wondered why Ron’s face broke into a grin.
“I doubt it. She’s probably comfort eating.” Ron looked around the room and made a tutting noise. It reminded Harry irresistibly of Mrs Weasley. “Do you have something against tables, Harry? Oh, and I brought some of my paediatric textbooks with me. From what they say, you should be able to introduce solids soon.”
“Solid what?” With practised ease, Harry dropped into an Indian squat.
“Solid food, Harry. You know -- mashed carrots and turnips and other gourmet delights? Haven’t you been around babies before?”
“Nope.” Harry leaned his head against Sky’s crib and prepared to spend the night watching her sleep, as usual. “When was I ever around babies? I held Bill's daughter once or twice, but I don’t think that constitutes a detailed working knowledge of their feeding milestones.”
Noiselessly Ron sat down beside him, almost startling Harry with his nearness. “At the risk of, yet again, sounding like Hermione, why on earth didn’t you buy a book? There are people who make fortunes doing nothing else but prating about how to deal with the under-fives.”
“I can’t go back to Diagon Alley. Not yet.” To Harry it was simple.
“So go somewhere else. Go to Muggle London. Go to New York. Sydney. Dublin. It’s not like you can’t afford it. I know Muggles aren’t that advanced, but even they can see when there’s a chance to make a quick buck. Hermione bought half a dozen Muggle baby books for Fleur when she was pregnant with Amelie.”
A laugh bubbled out of Harry’s throat. “I didn’t know that. What on Earth did Fleur do with them?”
“Well, she is French.” Ron paused. “I assume she used them for toilet paper.”
Harry smiled, the wood cool against his forehead. It was so long since he’d talked to someone like this that his voice felt rusty, but it still felt good. A large part of him still wanted Ron to leave in the morning so that he didn’t have to deal with all the concomitant issues he raised, but a growing opposition to this was making its position clear.
“I guess,” he cleared his throat, “I guess it just didn’t occur to me. At first it was such a hassle just figuring out how to feed her, and what she wanted when she cried … I bought some kid’s books with the formula at the grocery shop, but I just haven’t had time for much else since.” Except for gambling, but Ron didn’t need to know about that.
“Typical new parent. We see it all the time. Someone comes in complaining of exhaustion, or after feeding the kid a potion instead of breakfast. Usually, though, there’s at least one other person to take up the slack, if not several.” There was a hint of censure in Ron's voice.
“I didn’t have anyone else,” Harry reminded him.
Ron’s sigh came like a small localised hurricane. “Why do you think I’m here?”
Harry hid his smile against the side of the crib.
“Speaking of which --” there was a rustle of paper “-- Mum sent this along. If I’d known what your house was like, I’d have brought a furniture one too. As it is, we’ll have to go shopping tomorrow.”
“Oh, really?” said Harry, but there was no strength in his voice. For once, it was nice to have someone else saving the day.
“Yes, really.” Ron pressed something into his hand. Harry looked down, barely catching the gleam of his own skin in the starlight. There was an exasperated noise behind him, followed by a soft “Lumos.”
It was a baby catalogue. It didn’t sell babies, but it came pretty close. Everything Harry could imagine a baby would need, and plenty that he couldn’t, as well as a considerable amount of stuff that no one who wasn’t a millionaire Martian could need, lay expertly photographed between its glossy covers.
“Mum buys presents for Bill and Charlie from it,” supplied Ron, “and for use as a weapon in the face of the remitting failure of the rest of us to get hitched and procreate.”
“Never been tempted, then?” Harry kept his voice light as he flipped through the pages. “You never mentioned any girlfriends.”
“Not even Lavender --”
“I mean, nope, you aren’t allowed to ask that question.” At Harry’s amazed look, Ron continued, “You forfeited the natural rights of a best friend for the last two years. You don’t just get them back like that.”
“But -- you’re here,” spluttered Harry. “You’ve taken time off work to look after me, you’re cooking for me -- you’re minding my baby!”
“Yes.” Ron gave a grave nod. “I’m a better friend than you are.”
“I -- I saved the fucking world!”
“Don’t wake the baby, you plonker,” said Ron, seemingly unfazed.
Harry took a deep breath and checked on Sky. She was fast asleep, blowing the ever-present bubbles.
“Concerning the world,” said Ron, “it would have been pretty nasty for you if you hadn’t -- one way or another. It wasn’t what you’d call a truly altruistic gesture.”
“And this is, I suppose.” Sarcasm seeped through Harry’s words like creeping damp.
“No.” Ron smiled a lazy grin that was entirely new. It was the sort of smile that could melt ice-sculptures. Perhaps it was a coming-of-age present from Ron’s genetics. “But it is personal. I’m here because I want to help you. For that, I’m getting a week of unpaid leave, missing out on a round on the Dai Llewellyn ward and spending time with a best friend who likes to pretend I don’t exist and his kid, whose most scintillating conversation consists of ‘baa’ and ‘gaa’ and blowing bubbles all over my shirt.”
“You’re an uncanonised saint,” said Harry. Ron didn’t look duly chastened, and Harry reflected that stealing Aunt Petunia’s rejoinders was perhaps not the canniest move in the witty repartee wars. “Anyway, I don’t just ignore you.”
“Well, that’s a step forward,” observed Ron. “I didn’t think I’d be able to get you to admit that’s even what you’re doing.”
“I --” Harry scowled. “What do they teach you in Healer School, how to be sneaky?”
“No, we throw that in for free.” Ron grinned again, and Harry couldn’t pretend indifference to its liquefying effects any longer.
“I had to,” he muttered. “My head was all over the place.”
“Sure,” said Ron. “Although how that made a difference from how it always was I can’t imagine. No, don’t say it. Your opinion of that is more important than mine. Are you coming to bed?”
“I am in bed,” said Harry before he could think.
“Oh no you don’t,” said Ron. He hauled Harry to his feet, inadvertently quelling Harry’s protests by wrapping his hands around Harry’s upper arms and propelling him forward. The casual intimacy of the gesture made Harry's cheeks flame. “I am not going to treat you for spinal curvature and osteopathic defects on top of everything else. There’s a reason why we in the modern world scorned sleeping on the floor post the invention of the twelve-tog duvet.”
“We’ll have to share the bed.”
“Logical reasoning! I never expected it of you, Harry.”
“If it weren’t for Sky, you’d be looking at some very nasty boils right now,” said Harry with deep conviction.
“I’ll always remember to use her as a body shield from now on.” Ron let go of his arms and fell into step beside him. “That’s the main reason I wanted you to have a sofa -- so I could kip on it. When I came to stay.”
“A sofa.” Ron nodded. Harry rubbed his left arm where Ron’s grip had left the faintest of pink finger marks. “I’ll buy one tomorrow.”
In Harry’s opinion, Ron had always had the best bottom in the dormitory.
It was mainly because of Seamus that Harry had noticed such things at all. He didn’t think Seamus was in the least bit interested in men as sexual objects; rather, he was purely and simply lacking in any kind of natural inhibition. Discussing the merits of his dorm-mates’ physical qualities was to him standard practice. It clearly disturbed Neville, who was the shyest of the five, but apart from him Harry had felt himself to be the only one who found it remotely uncomfortable. Dean and Ron had no compunction about accusing Seamus of eyeing them up and calling him a dirty fag, but Seamus took it in his stride -- often a completely naked stride. To be fair, he didn’t have anything to be ashamed about.
Harry was the only one who couldn’t take it as a joke. He'd blushed whenever Seamus brought up the topic. Neville blushed too, but as everything from a slight wind to Professor Sprout asking him to pass the marigold seeds made Neville blush, it was not overly remarked upon. It wasn’t like the other boys paraded around naked a lot, but even Harry admitted that it was silly to be humiliated by forgetting a towel and thus having to walk back to the dormitory in the buff.
After seven years, Harry had conquered his blush. He had also found multiple covert ways of doing what Seamus would unhesitatingly call ‘checking someone out.'
Neville was pudgy and Seamus scrawny. Dean was an undisputed beauty, an Adonis carved out of chocolate. It made no difference. Harry didn’t have eyes for any boy. But if he had had eyes, they would have belonged to Ron and Ron alone.
Harry had almost forgotten what Ron’s bottom looked like unclothed, and the baggy jumper he was wearing even obscured the sight of it in jeans. Harry made a show of flopping into bed from exhaustion, mumbling something incoherent to Ron’s query of if it would be all right to leave the light on a bit longer while he changed. As soon as Ron was bent over his bag, Harry quietly turned over inside the sheets. The rustle was miniscule. All the same, Harry waited a few moments before wedging one eye open.
Ron had already divested himself of his jumper. His nude back had deep dark hollows from the angle of the wand light, but Harry could still see the dark clusters of freckles on his shoulders. They lessened to sprinkles as Harry charted down his back, to where the slight swell of his bottom rose above the waistband of his jeans.
Ron moved the wand the better to rummage in his bag. This new slant illuminated Ron’s lower half completely as he shoved down his jeans and kicked them away.
That arse. Harry felt his chest tighten and his heart beat faster, and knew a moment’s despair that these night-time feelings, the ones he had hidden away in the depths of his mind, were as visceral as ever. They had not been a teenage phase after all. He had not grown out of them as he’d desperately hoped he would.
He couldn’t dwell on the guilt now, however, not with such beauty before him. There were freckles on Ron’s bottom. Harry had always wondered how on earth he got them -- after all, it meant that he’d have to be naked, outside, in the sun. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could ask. It also wasn’t the sort of thing you should imagine while you masturbated, but Harry did that regardless.
Then Ron leaned forward to pick his pyjamas out of his bag. Harry was almost sure Ron heard his quick intake of breath, for his legs stiffened -- but a moment later he was equally sure that he’d imagined it. As quickly as it had appeared, the vision of Ron’s long, firm thighs and rust-dusted globes had disappeared beneath his pyjama bottoms.
Harry didn’t wait for Ron to finish changing. With an orchestrated sleepy mumbling, he rolled over again, the better to curl around and hide his erection.
“Harry, you awake?” Ron whispered.
Harry didn’t reply, but feigned the deep breaths of sleep. He wasn’t sure if Ron was fooled, but he’d played this trick so often that Ron probably wouldn’t recognise true slumber if he heard it.
He felt more than heard Ron climbing into bed beside him. It was the strangest feeling in the world, to have someone else in the bed with him. He’d shared rooms with people, dormitories and wards, bedrooms and base camps; he’d had sex in beds; but never before had he simply slept beside someone in one.
Exhaustion claimed him before he could decide if it were a good thing or not.