Notes: Set in the interlude between PS and CoS. Tweaked a little from canon, but not so you'd notice.
It had only been two days since Harry had arrived at the Burrow, but Ron was already of the opinion that it was the best thing that could have happened to improve his summer.
The days were just more fun with his best mate around. It was fun waking up with Harry in his room, blinking owlishly in the sunlight, then looking around with a broad grin of contentment that made something stir in Ron's heart. Breakfast was more fun with his friend there, even though Harry never sat at the table for more than a few minutes, seemed acutely uncomfortable, and hardly touched his Mum's enormous breakfasts; Ron supposed his friend was shy, and he and his mother did their best to persuade him to eat, but to no avail. Ron supposed Harry wasn't used to rich food, and that gave him a new appreciation of something he usually took for granted.
The days were sunny and bright, and with Harry there, it was even fun doing chores, as his Muggle-raised friend was unfamiliar with the Wizarding way of doing things and was genuinely interested in mundane tasks such as de-gnoming, pixie bribes and ghoul control. Harry seemed to tire easily, which always gave Ron an excuse to skive off work. Since Harry got there, they had always had lunch in the shade of the big beech tree behind the house, Ron lounging lazily with his back against the tree, Harry lying on his stomach in the grass. Ron would end up shedding his clothes and diving into the little pond behind the house as he usually did on hot days, but had so far been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince a steadfastly resistant Harry to take a dip.
It amused Ron that Harry was so reticent, almost like a girl; he refused to undress in front of anyone, not even Ron, always changing his clothes in the bathroom. Half the time Ron supposed it might be out of a fear of his Mum or Ginny walking in; he knew his friend wasn't used to living in a house with so many people in it. The other half he supposed that Harry might be shy about how thin he was. Ron was lean, but Harry was positively scrawny; his cheeks were hollow and his wrists far too bony. Ron knew, from growing up with the twins, how it was to feel inadequate in the midst of boys who were more fit than you, and had bigger muscles than your own, so he humoured Harry. The way his friend ate, it was hardly surprising that he was so thin. At mealtimes, his Mum's frustration with Harry's birdlike appetite was obvious; she was forever trying to fatten him up and clucking over how thin he was, and when Harry would rise five minutes into the meal with some excuse or other, she dropped broad hints about the pantry being always open if anyone got peckish in between meals.
Their afternoon routine for the past couple of days had tended to be pleasantly occupied with Chaser-and-Keeper-only Quidditch; the twins, grounded for blowing up the tool-shed, would only be able to play next week (Harry had been most impressed at the way his Mum had taken the Levitation Charms right off the broomsticks, and Ron had had to explain that it was a parental option that only worked by special activation through blood and was normally used only when there were very young children in the house). Ron had trounced Harry both times because, Harry explained sheepishly, he was out of practice and seemed to have forgotten how to even sit on a broom. The matches were followed by half-hearted discussions of how they really ought to be doing some of their summer homework, and mutual decisions to put it off till tomorrow, which, as everyone knows, never comes. Evenings after the usual sumptuous dinner had been spent sprawled on the rug chatting casually about nothing, playing Exploding Snap, chess and other board games, plus, yesterday, a spot of letter-writing ("No, Hermione, we haven't started our Transfiguration essays yet. Ron says to tell you we thought we'd wait till next week when you get here and then we can copy yours"). Finally, pleasantly drowsy, the boys would go up to Ron's room, where Harry was set up on the spare bed. There was a delicious pleasure in saying "'Night, Harry" to his friend in his own home, and more than once he'd caught himself thinking that this was what it would have been like to have a younger brother, then feeling vaguely guilty towards Ginny.
All in all, it felt as though Harry had been there forever, and it was funny to think he'd only arrived the day before yesterday.
Ron stirred lazily in bed. As far as he was concerned, he could certainly stay like this forever. Soon, he'd have to be getting up, but he could have a bit of a lie-in until the sun woke Harry. Right now, the bright shaft of light slanted into his eyes through that one annoying gap in the curtains that Ron could never seem to get to close. He turned his back on the sunbeam, turning to where Harry lay in the spare bed. Still in a comfortable haze of sleep, Ron fondly watched Harry, asleep on his stomach, arm flung out, messy hair all over the pillow. Ron's room faced west, which meant it got a bit too warm in summer, and Harry had kicked the covers off as he slept. His pyjama top – one of Ron's, baggy and too big for him – was riding up his back, leaving his waist bare.
He'll catch cold like that, Ron thought. After wrestling with his conscience for a few moments, he regretfully bestirred himself to tug Harry's shirt back down. Or wake him up, he thought wickedly. Sliding his legs off the bed, he padded barefoot over to Harry…
…and stopped dead.
For a moment he just stood there in incomprehension, unable to register what he was seeing. There were marks standing out on Harry's bony, pale back – long, raised purple marks. From the small area where the pyjama pants were sliding down, Ron could see that the marks went down further beneath the clothing.
Oh no! Ron thought in a panic. You-Know-Who's got to him! He only ever made his scar hurt before, but now he's doing Goodness-knows-what to him in his sleep! Possessed with the idea of warning Harry and seeing if he was all right, Ron shouted urgently, "Harry! Wake up!"
He grabbed Harry by the shoulder and shook him, then snatched his hand away as Harry winced. "Harry!" he said more urgently. "Get up!"
Ron recoiled as Harry started, then exploded violently up from the bedcovers. He shuffled backwards in bed until his back hit the wall, shrank back as though expecting a blow, and shielded his face with his arm. "I'm awake, Uncle!" he gasped out, and then a torrent of words burst from Harry in a strange, high voice, trembling but resolutely defiant. "I'll get started on the magnolias right away, I'll make up for oversleeping," he babbled, then went on very fast, "don't worry, wouldn't want to make you knock the stuffing out of me again and tire out your arm or break your precious Smeltings Stick over my stupid back again, now would I—"
Harry slowly lowered his arm, his suddenly-wide-awake eyes meeting Ron's dumbfounded stare.
For a moment the two friends just stared at each other, Harry in shock and mortification at what he had just revealed, Ron with his mouth hanging open, gears turning in his head trying to make sense of what he had heard. It couldn't mean what he thought it meant, it couldn't… Yet it all made sense, as he remembered with painful clarity the bars on his window, the shock he'd felt at seeing his brilliant best mate locked in like an animal… But who could possibly want to beat Harry? Nobody would dare do that, he'd kill them!
And yet… there was no other meaning to what he had heard, no possible way to misunderstand it. Harry's words rolled around like marbles in his brain: "…knock the stuffing out of me again… break your stick over my back…"
Ron's whole body seemed to blaze with fury. A refiner's fire of protectiveness blasted through him so forcefully that he almost felt lifted off the ground. But there was nothing he could do with his friend in a funk like this: Harry was still shrinking back, staring at him with wide eyes full of panic. In this state, he put him in mind of a skittish unicorn, and the last thing Ron wanted was for Harry to bolt. He fumbled for something to break the silence.
"Muggles been thumping you, have they?"
Though he wanted to scream, to break something, Ron forced his tone to be casual, almost bored, as though what he was seeing was a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence. "Let's have a look at the back then," he said in the same matter-of-fact tone.
Harry just sat with his back to the wall, and tried a thoroughly unconvincing grin. "Funny the things you dream about, isn't it?" he said, too brightly.
"Harry," Ron said, trying hard to keep his tone under control, "I saw the marks under your shirt. Um, it's all right. Happens all the time," he improvised in an attempt to put Harry at his ease.
Harry stared at him. "Really? Y-you mean your Dad – or your Mum…"
"No," Ron snapped with a vehemence that surprised him. The shame on Harry's face drove him to qualify it with, "Well, um, Dad smacked our bottoms a few times when we were little, mostly when we'd done something really dangerous or stupid." He cast about for something to make Harry feel it wasn't so awful. "The twins got the worst of it. He even leathered their bums with the belt once or twice." It would kill him to say the next bit, but he did. "Um, your Muggle relations most likely just got carried away a bit, that's all. Just let us have a shufti, there's a good chap. Mum's got some salve that'll probably make you feel bett—"
"No!" Harry said vehemently. Ron met his eyes, surprised. "I don't want anyone to know! You can't tell anyone, Ron! Promise me!"
The wicked exultation in Ron at having something to blackmail Harry with made him wonder if he shouldn't have been sorted into Slytherin. "If you don't show me the marks, I will tell Mum," he said.
Harry's gaze wavered, and he seemed to deflate. With a resigned sigh, he slowly moved off the bed, and stood next to the dresser. Making sure Harry could see him, Ron went to the door and locked it. "Pants too," he said. Harry shot him a venomous look, but nodded. He stripped off his T-shirt, facing Ron. Then he turned around, bent over, and slipped off his pants and pyjama bottoms, shivering a little as he stood there naked, and straightened up with a certain dignity.
Ron opened the curtains, letting sunlight stream into the room. Turning to see the slight figure in the sunlight, he almost cried out, but clamped down on it with a great effort so as not to embarrass Harry. No wonder he'd left the dinner table so quickly; Ron wondered how his best mate had been able to sit on that swollen, beaten bottom at all. The buttocks and thighs were ridged with raised welts, some crusted with dried blood, standing out angrily against the pale skin in the sunlight; the center of each buttock was covered with a dark brown scab. The scabs seemed to have split from the movement and were weeping fluid and a trickle of fresh blood. What kind of beating would have taken the skin off his poor bum like that? Ron thought, his stomach churning. In a wide circle around the center of the damage, the flesh was bruised black and blue.
Ron gulped and forced himself to look upwards, taking inventory of the damage. Harry's lower back, where the kidneys were, seemed all right, but his entire ribcage was worse than he thought it had been. His shoulders and sides were green, yellow and blue under the skin; the back itself was eerily white, scored with rough, purple double lines, punctuated by white blisters full of fluid, and cuts trailing black streaks of still more dried blood. Even his upper arms were full of funny-looking small black bruises. Bloody hell, Harry, you must have been in terrible pain, and you trying to make us believe that nothing was wrong with you…With an awful shudder, Ron remembered how quickly Harry had tired of his chores, how bad he had been at Quidditch… the thought of his scarred bottom being split open by sitting on the broomstick… He closed his eyes against a wave of nausea.
"Come on. Lie down before you drop," Ron ordered, his voice rough. He manhandled Harry gently back into bed, and was even more alarmed when Harry just sank gratefully back into the mattress. Harry usually did not take kindly to being ordered around. "Harry," he went on, "I can't leave you like this."
"You promised!" Harry's eyes flashed.
"Yeah, I did, mate," Ron sighed, "but I can't…" He had an idea. "If it was me in this state, would you let me just cover it up?"
"'Course not," Harry snapped, "but that's different."
"How is it different?"
"Boys! Breakfast!" Mrs. Weasley rapped on the door, calling cheerfully. Harry almost jumped out of his skin, flipping himself over onto his back to hide the damage. Ron's head snapped round to him in alarm. He was moving so fast that he rose into the air as he flipped over, and thudded violently down onto his sore back with an impact that forced a huff of breath and a cry out of him, and made Ron wince. He saw tears of pain spring to Harry's eyes, and felt like punching somebody.
"Harry! What do you think you're doing? Take it easy, will you?" Ron snapped. "We're not decent!" he sang out cheerfully to his Mum. "Be right down!"
As her footsteps died away on the stairs, Ron turned to Harry, whispering fiercely with barely contained anger, "Get back on your stomach, would you? What are you trying to prove?"
Harry looked at him helplessly, eyes burning with frustration, and Ron gazed back down at him with a sickening realization dawning: He can't move.
"Come here, you," Ron snapped, cursing the underage magic restrictions that stopped him using a simple Leviosa as he gripped Harry's unbruised forearms, trying to turn him over without aggravating his hurts. He was shocked, but not really surprised, to see smears of fresh blood on the sheet from where Harry had landed. Placing a hand on his back, a hand on his side, was unavoidable, and Ron winced when his friend did, flinching with every whimper forced from him. Finally, Harry was settled on his stomach, panting with the effort. Ron shook out a cotton sheet, letting it billow through the air as it settled gently onto Harry's back. "Just stay here, I'll sort things out with Mum," he ordered, wondering when he'd become so bossy. "I'll lock the door," he said reassuringly. Then he bolted from the room before his Mum could come knocking and upset Harry again.