Comic interludes being over for now, we now returnto your regularly scheduled h/c. Thanks to my fabulous reviewers, especially Harry Lvr, and toLeviathan, who knows why.
The rest of their time before Harry woke up was taken up with Hermione's explanation of the different ingredients she had brought with her. The 'rocks' turned out to be gourds full of potion – "Liquid's one of the heaviest things you can carry" – to be used in a bath. "He's got to soak in it for half an hour, well, that's how I interpreted the "from the moment the sun reaches its zenith until the shadow of the Maypole can be seen to occupy two handsbreadths to the side" instruction, anyway." The rest of the packages were less esoteric – a skin-repairing salve called Derma-Gro "which is only supposed to be sold to licensed Healers, but your marvellous owl managed to get some from Goodness knows where" – and another to be massaged into Harry's bruises, two or three potions – "mostly to rebuild strength" – and mysterious Muggle things: a vial of what looked like rat droppings, only white, which Hermione said were the Muggle equivalent of pain-numbing potions, and more colourful rat droppings called "vitamins" which she explained at length – "The C and E promote healing and help tissue to rebuild itself, and the B works on the nerves and skin – can't hurt, anyway – and the calcium is to help build his bones, he's very undernourished…" Her voice faltered and he patted her hand.
"You've done us proud, Hermione."
Harry's sleepy voice sounded through the room. "Done who proud?"
Harry rolled over on his side, caught sight of Hermione, and froze. "Um – hi, Hermione – wonderful weather we're having, isn't it?"
Hermione fixed Harry with a steely glare. "I know all about it, Harry."
Harry's response was to glare weakly at Ron. "I told you…"
"…not to tell anyone," Ron finished. "And I haven't. Hermione's not just anyone, is she?"
"Well, no," Harry conceded, looking, if anything, relieved that his other best friend was there, but with the air of one wishing to keep up appearances, "but…"
"But what?" said Ron challengingly. Harry blinked; he wasn't used to seeing his easygoing friend this forceful.
"It's all right," Harry said, "but I don't want anyone else knowing."
"No-one does know," Ron said, surprising even himself at how strong his voice was – he'd expected to be grovelling to Harry at this point – "except us. And I'm not telling anyone. Not the twins, not Mum, not Dad, not Dumbledore, nobody. All right?"
Harry mumbled something and grinned, flashing the V for victory sign.
"What was that, Harry?"
"It sounded like 'Dumbledore already knows.' Is that what you said?" Her voice was harsh, but not with anger. "You can't mean he knows about – about this?"
Harry didn't question how Hermione knew what the sheet-covered 'this' was, which Ron felt was pretty lucky. "No," he said hurriedly. "Just thinking, that's all…"
"Thinking about what?"
Ron cursed Hermione's persistence. Harry stammered, "Well, erm… you know the checkup we got when we went to Hogwarts? It… I mean, Pomfrey must have seen…" His face burned with bright colour.
Ron's heart sank and a sick feeling coiled into the pit of his stomach and settled there. Not trusting himself to speak, he watched as Hermione went pale. "You mean… that day we met on the train…"
Ron had never in his life been so glad to hear his Mum's call of "Breakfast!"
"Hermione, do you think you could get out of here? We've got to get dressed," Ron said in his most gentlemanly tone, coupling his movement with a chivalrous nudge towards the door. "Stop embarrassing him!" he whispered furiously as he shoved the door open.
"It's important that we find out…"
Ron marvelled at her insensitivity. "Look, can we just please discuss this later?"
"It's getting cold!" Mrs Weasley sang out from downstairs.
"Oh, all right," Hermione said, looking unconvinced. "Harry, don't take any of the potions on an empty stomach!" she called as she left.
Ron pulled his clothes on and studiously avoided looking at Harry at all. His mind was whirling. All he could think of was that first day on the train. The scene replayed itself in slow motion: Harry popping into his compartment, perching on the seat, his own stupid, selfish comment about how he didn't like corned beef, Harry cheerfully volunteering how his family locked him in the cupboard – that whole thing with the snack cart, the Chocolate Frog cards – did Harry mean he'd been in pain all that time? That if he, Ron, had lifted up his shirt in the compartment, he'd have seen injuries like the ones on Harry now? Ron's stomach clenched painfully; there was no other meaning to Harry's words.
He barely registered walking downstairs and having breakfast: all he could think of was his perceptions that day. How diffident Harry had been when he'd looked into the compartment, asking permission to sit there; he'd liked that, liked it a lot, after his boisterous and pushy brothers. He remembered how it had instantly made him feel just a little bit protective of the short, thin boy, made him want to take him under his wing. He'd warmed to Harry for just this reason, his politeness, his shyness and reticence—
—but he had never thought that the quietness had been beaten into him.
Ron stabbed his roll savagely with a fork. Beaten into him! Into his Harry! He caught the possessive pronoun and refused to take it back in his mind. Yeah, he'd take Harry if his relatives didn't want him. At least he wouldn't beat him with a stick hard enough to make him bleed—
Ron swallowed hard, his Mum's wonderful sausages tasting like ashes in his mouth. Now he came to think of it, that first meeting on the train, Harry hadn't sprawled in his seat as Ron had, but had studiously avoided relaxing in his seat and letting his back touch the cushions – Ron felt sick. That meant his back had been hurting, his first day at a new school, and poor old Harry had had to contend with being sore and hiding his pain and acting as though nothing was wrong on top of everything else. He couldn't stop remembering: the encounter with Malfoy, Harry's stiff insistence that he could decide for himself who to make friends with – on the strength of what? A few chocolate frogs? It wasn't as though Harry knew anything about Malfoy. It couldn't have been just because he'd complained about the corned-beef sandwiches and wearing hand-me-downs and having no money…
…or could it? It made sense that Harry would feel more OK with a fellow-sufferer than with someone who was wealth and privilege on a stick. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Harry was rich, but he'd grown up poorer than he, Ron, had ever felt; at least he'd known that if his parents could have given him something, they would have. And now to know that Harry had been in actual physical pain all that time… during the boat-ride, during the Sorting, during Dumbledore's speech… He fixed his eyes on his eggs and blinked hard. And he'd just sat there like a prize ass, knowing nothing and caring less! Well, he amended, he wasn't really to blame for that. Harry was a past master when it came to hiding pain; the past few days had shown that well enough. But no more, he thought vehemently. No more.
Slightly fortified with this thought, he glanced upwards to find Hermione looking at him with much the same expression on her face as he felt: passionate, grim determination. They locked eyes in a pact. Harry would not suffer in silence while they drew breath.
And really, the twins were impossible. Now what were they sniggering at?