Note: At this point it's really just me wallowing in my own h/c tendencies, mainly at the request of Leviathan, who wanted a sequel. Stay away unless you have a really strong stomach. Not for hurt – for schmaltz.

After he signed the Punishment Book, Ron had fully intended to run to the Hospital Wing and see how Harry was, but he soon found out that in his current state, he could hardly even walk properly. The pain in his bottom seemed to get worse as the adrenaline wore off, and he found himself taking tiny, careful steps, wincing as the material of his trousers, tight against his swollen rear end, chafed his throbbing, beaten flesh. To make matters worse, his underpants were getting sodden with the fluid weeping from his welts.

Frustrated, he tried to walk faster, but the insistent pulsing and throbbing radiated down his legs, turning his knees to jelly. Finally stopping in the middle of the corridor, he announced, "Bugger it," to a rather shocked suit of armour, and bent to strip off his trousers and underpants altogether, stuffing the pants into a trouser pocket and tying the whole boiling high up around his waist, where it wouldn't touch the affected area. Pulling his robes tightly closed, he immediately felt a definite improvement as the cool air caressed his raw, blazing skin. "Oh, Merlin, that feels better," he sighed, and hobbled off to the infirmary at a much faster – if not entirely painless – pace.

"Woah!" Ron was momentarily distracted by the pandemonium that greeted him as he stepped into the Hospital Wing. The entire Quidditch team seemed to be in there. Oh, that was right. There'd been a match while he was in detention, Hufflepuff versus Ravenclaw. Obviously it had been a pretty rough business. The place looked like a war zone: the beds, and most of the available floor space, too, were all occupied with students, moaning and groaning in various degrees of injury. He counted several broken bones and one rather gruesome severed hand, which Pomfrey was frantically reattaching as they entered. The normally friendly mediwitch was bending over her wandwork, sweating profusely, her hair standing out at all angles. She had recruited two impossibly tall seventh year students as assistants, and they were rushing about, tending to the injured at incredible speed. Madam Hooch was shrieking at someone Ron didn't recognize – wait a minute, shrieking. Hooch never shrieked.

"And the next time you Ministry idiots want to try a Blanket Magical Field Suppressor," she was yelling, "you might have the decency to warn us so it doesn't take effect when the entire student body is a hundred feet up in the air! Do you think Levitating Charms are a joke? Do you think Quidditch is a safe sport? Do you see us running around in the GRASS on TOY BROOMS?" She seemed about to strike the shrinking, bowler-hatted official.

"My dear Madam…"

"Severus!" Pomfrey cried, too harried to stand on ceremony. "We need more Skele-Gro and Blood-Replenisher, now! Some of these will have to go to St. Mungo's as soon as the bloody magical field suppressor is down…"

Ron blinked. A teacher, swearing?

"My office is warded against such things, Poppy, if you need to use the Floo in my…" That was Snape's voice. Ron sought him out and finally caught sight of the tall, dark figure, still carrying Harry.

"Harry!" he called, hoping for a response, but his friend was still slumped unconscious in the teacher's arms. Snape's eyes alighted on Ron, and he actually seemed relieved to see him.

"Weasley," he snapped. "Come here. Wingardium Leviosa!" And with that, he dumped the now-weightless Harry unceremoniously onto Ron just as Hermione appeared at the door of the infirmary, her face flushed and her hair flying wildly all over the place. "There is no time to heal your – Ah."

She caught sight of Ron, shifting Harry into his arms, and gave a little shriek. "Ron! What happened to Harry?"

"It's all right, Hermione, he's…"

Snape interrupted, stepping between Ron and Hermione. "Time for explanations later, Miss Granger. What do you have?"

Ron blinked again. He settled Harry's weightless form snugly against his chest, trying to take everything in as Hermione went even redder, seemingly hiding something behind her back. "H-have?"

"SEVERUS!" Madam Pomfrey screamed.

"Come, come! This is an emergency! I have no time for this," Snape rapped out briskly. "What? Loverra Oil? Solcoserilis? What?"

"A-a…" she stammered.

"Come on, girl, spit it out!" Snape snapped. In the background, somebody began to screech hysterically.

Her eyes were like a bird's transfixed by a snake, but she finally managed to stammer out, "Ar- Argentosolcerilus Barbaden-dentist. Densis!" she seemed to catch herself. "Barbadensis," she stammered. "S-sir."

Ron saw Snape's mouth drop open. "How… In first y… never mind. Let's see a sample." He whirled over to her in a flurry of robes, ignoring a seventh-year helper whizzing by, and snatched the small cauldron from her grasp. He dipped a finger in the violet paste, brought it to his nose, sniffed it and finally tasted it. "Hmm," he nodded. Ron could have sworn he saw a look of approval on the dour Potions master's face as he turned and herded both Ron, carrying Harry, and Hermione out of the infirmary. They melted through the crowd with such ease that Ron was never entirely sure that he hadn't used magic. "There is no time for minor injuries right now," Snape snapped. "Granger, Weasley. Apply Granger's paste to yourselves; use this," he pulled a small vial out of his robes, "on Potter's back first. Then use your paste, Granger, on all his damage as well." And in a swirl of black, he was gone.

Ron had let Harry float in the air for a moment while he pocketed Snape's flask, as Hermione seemed too shell-shocked to actually move. Now, he hitched up Harry in his arms, acutely aware of the warmth of the dark head pillowed against his chest, right over his heart. He stared at Hermione. The feeling of being on a broom out of control intensified when he saw her looking at him in total bewilderment. Well, he'd best take control then, hadn't he?

"What's that there then?" he asked, gesturing with his head at her little cauldron.

She flushed even more, if that was possible, but answered with her head held high. "It's a cream for, well… I know you two were punished as well…"

Now it was Ron's turn to blush. "Oh. Oh! Right-o, then."

A Hufflepuff streaked out of the infirmary, screaming, with her hair emitting green and purple sparks, followed by a flying bedpan, closely followed at a dead run by one of the seventh years who had been assisting, apologizing profusely, her wand still sparking. "Right," said Ron determinedly. "Let's get out of here."

"Where to?" Hermione asked.

Ron paused to think for a minute. If he'd understood it right, Snape was too busy to help Harry, and he wanted them to use Hermione's potion on their bums – pretty decent of him, really – and use something else on poor old Harry's back. Where to do it, then? They were going to have to apply the ointment to some pretty, um – private – places. Good luck doing it in the Gryffindor Common Room, the place was like Lake Windermere on a Bank Holiday weekend. And Hermione was a girl and all, so they couldn't use their dormitory. There was a place; he wasn't blind to the irony, but…

He smiled and pulled Harry closer. Why not?

"You won't believe this…"

"I don't believe this, Ron!" Hermione said incredulously as he proudly led her into the very same girls' toilet where the trouble had all started.

"Any port in a storm," he said cheerfully. Even though his friend was weightless and he was not, technically, carrying him as such, there was something about the warm 'weight' of Harry in his arms that made him feel strong and powerful, ready to take on the world – certainly strong enough to reassure Hermione.

He hadn't felt so powerful when he was on the way there. Twice he'd had to stop, the tremors in his legs too strong for him to go on. Now the excitement had worn off, he was ready to drop. He'd noticed Hermione stopping along with him too, which had led him to wonder just how much pain she was in. It didn't seem right, somehow; yes, he and Harry had got a good whacking, but Hermione was a girl. Girls shouldn't get – well – they just shouldn't, that was all. Particularly not her. Then again, he had no particular desire to ever see Harry get whacked again, either…

"But we could get punished again!" Hermione was still wittering on.

"No, we won't. It's not a caning offense to be in here after curfew, anyway," Ron said, trying to stay bright. Unable to stay on his feet any longer, he sank to his knees and laid Harry out in the air a few inches above the ground, turning him onto his front.

Hermione dropped to her knees as well, and he was grateful for the Cushioning Charm she put on the floor moments later. "He really had a flashback?" she queried him, setting her little cauldron down. She'd got most of the story out of him on the way there, but not the details of the trip into Harry's mind.

"Yeah," Ron said unwillingly. He had the idea that Harry was the sort of chap who liked to keep his own counsel, but he couldn't very well see how to keep this from Hermione – and anyway, it couldn't be worse than greasy old Snape knowing. Besides, she might help. "It wasn't very nice." Oh brill, Weasley, how lame was that?

"You didn't tell me what was in the flashback, though."

"Er, well—" How could he say this in a way that would protect Harry's privacy and not shock Hermione?

"Was he molested?"

"What?" Ron spluttered, feeling his face flame.

"Well," the eleven-year-old girl continued clinically as though she were discussing the weather, "I've read that you don't ever get a flashback unless something really, really awful happens to you. Usually people our age get them if they've been molested. Or worse. I've been imagining all sorts of horrible things all the time we've been on the way down here. So you might as well tell me."

Ron rolled his eyes. So much for not shocking Hermione. "All right then."

And he told her.

She looked positively relieved. "So he wasn't molested, thank goodness!" she said.

"No," said Ron, wondering how she could be so cool about this, and whether there was something wrong with him to be reacting so badly. Poor excuse for a Gryffindor, a treacherous voice in him whispered. Embarrassed and ashamed, he blurted, "Well, we'd best be getting on with that potion Snape said to treat him with, hadn't we?" With that, he reached out and pulled up Harry's robes and his shirt, all the way to his neck.

Immediately he had done so, he saw that in all the excitement, Snape had never bothered to pull Harry's pants back up; they lay bunched around his ankles along with his underpants. The thin, white body lay before them naked from nape to ankle, the beaten flesh of his poor back black and blue with deep bruises, swollen and inflamed with the lacerations and scars of repeated batterings. The abused skin of his buttocks was puffy and engorged, ridged and welted from the cane, littered with blisters weeping fluid. Ron gulped and looked away. Good old Harry, his best mate, the most decent fellow in the world, subjected to this… How could anyone ever want to hit Harry, how could anyone ever do anything other than stand by him and care for him and protect him? His eyes filled with tears all over again and he had to steady himself by placing his hands on his knees. He had no idea how Hermione could be so cavalier about this. He felt like throwing up.

But he looked up as Hermione's anguished cry rang out, just short of a scream. Then she burst out: "Oh—oh—oh, Harry!" and dissolved into sobs.

Ron's jaw dropped in shock. He'd thought Hermione as cool as a cucumber, and now this. "You all right?" he assayed lamely.

"Oh, Ron," Hermione traced the wounds on Harry's back with her hands in the air, not touching, "you said he'd had a flashback, but – but – but you didn't tell me it was like this!"

"Yeah, I did," Ron said mildly, feeling inexplicably better now he had some proof he wasn't a freak for getting so upset at seeing the marks on Harry. "Thought you were the one who'd read all those books on psychology."

"Well—yes—I have, but I've never seen—besides in books—and not on—oh, Harry!" Hermione bent over the sleeping form and wept.

Ron sucked in a deep breath through his teeth. Spots were dancing before his eyes. He had to get started healing Harry – and himself and Hermione, for that matter – before he actually fell over. "Well, let's get a move on, eh?"

"Yes," Hermione agreed, too brightly, wiping her eyes with the heels of her hands.

Ron pulled out Snape's vial. It contained a about two cupfuls of clear liquid, looking just like water, but thicker, with a consistency heavier than oil. "Um, here." He held it out to Hermione, pouring some into her cupped hands. They trembled a bit, but he could only watch in admiration as she lowered them to Harry's back, her fingers slowly releasing the potion onto his shoulder blades, smoothing the 'oil' downwards towards his waist. He chilled as he saw her lay her hands upon the damaged skin, careful not to rub or chafe; her touch was hesitant, but grew more confident as she went on. She raised her eyes to him, and he blurted, "Very good, Hermione." What a thicko thing to say, he thought, but she seemed to draw strength from his comment.

Ron found himself reaching out to stroke Harry's hair, ruffling it gently. He was gratified to see instantly that the transparent potion seemed to be clearing the bruising. Remembering that Snape had said to follow his potion with Hermione's brew, he scooped up a little of the purple cream in the cauldron with one of his own shaking hands. Noting coolly how he seemed to be losing control the more tired he got, Ron rubbed the salve between his palms and laid his hands on Harry's back, on an area so welted it was beginning to get infected.

The moment Ron's palms made contact with the rough sores, it was as though lightning crackled up his arm to his entire body. He gasped and quivered. He hadn't had any idea what it might feel like, but he'd never imagined this. It was as though there was something alive under his palms; as though every particle in the surface of Harry's skin was sending a bolt of – something – up Ron's arms, making his breath quicken and his heart pound. And he didn't know what to call it. So he didn't, concentrating instead on getting the smooth cream to soak into the rough, red areas where the flesh was rubbed raw from the repeated friction of Harry's clothing against the sores left by the stick. He saw red all over again when he saw Harry being beaten in his mind's eye...

"…a bit more?"


"I said, can I have a bit more?" Hermione asked, cupped hands outstretched.

"Oh yeah, sorry," he apologized, giving her more of Snape's oil.

"Was it his uncle?" she asked quietly as she bent over Harry again, her face obscured by clouds of hair.

"Yeah," Ron sighed deeply, bending to his task too, finding it easier to talk when he couldn't see her face. The oily potion Hermione was applying seemed to clear the mottled black and blue, but not heal surface inflammation. He doled out a little more of the cream directly onto a particularly angry and swollen patch of raw skin on Harry's ribcage, trying to soothe the fire there. He cringed in sympathy at even touching it, but braced himself and sort of patted the cream into the blazing-hot, puffy skin. "With a stick. And he was telling him he was a useless freak."

She let out a sound which was half indignant gasp, half sympathetic whimper. Finally, she said in a steady voice: "It wasn't the first time." It didn't seem to be a question.

"Snape seemed to think not," Ron murmured as he worked. The liquid had healed the deep bruising, and the cream had brought down the swelling in the awful raw patches. Harry's shoulders and upper back were almost back to normal now, and it filled Ron with quiet pleasure to look at the smooth skin beneath the shoulder-blades. He followed Hermione's touch with more of the purple paste on Harry's lower back. The blazing heat radiating off the tightly-stretched flesh was palpable; as he creamed it in soft circles with his potion-slick hands, he was impossibly gratified to see it subside, the redness settling into normal, cool skin. How had Harry even managed to act normally in pain like this, he thought?

"But why didn't he tell anyone?" Hermione fussed.

Girls! Finally looking up at her, Ron asked, "Would you?"

Hermione met his eyes indignantly. "Of course! I'd…" But Ron kept staring at her steadily, and her gaze dropped. "Well, I can see how he might be – embarrassed – but he ought to tell a teacher."

"Get hit worse if you do that," came Harry's voice out of the blue.

Ron was so shocked he was lucky he didn't drop Snape's flask, juggling it in his hands to prevent it shattering on the flagstone. "Harry!" Hermione exclaimed.

But Harry was still talking, in a dull monotone. "Teacher noticed, in primary school. Sent a note asking to see Aunt Petunia. They waited till the Christmas hols and gave it to me with the belt so hard I couldn't walk till after New Year's. Sort of a Christmas present."

Ron gaped, anger building inside him. He sat back on his heels, then jerked upright again at the pain in his bottom. Hermione was sniffling openly now. And Harry was still talking, Ron beginning to doubt that he was even conscious. "The worst was when I got Dudders," a tinge of bitterness coloured the monotone, "into trouble. That was when they'd get out the stick. Sometimes I'd think my back would break. No such luck, though. At least if it'd broken, they'd have stopped hitting." He sighed, the sound tearing at Ron's insides. "Got a proper hiding when the Hogwarts owl showed up, didn't I? And every owl after that."


"Ron, I think he's talking in his sleep."


"Harry, can you hear us?"

"At least I got a bit of my own back. I'd always given as good as I got with Diddy Duddykins – he'd thump me with his friends; I'd tell him what I thought of him – so we were about even. But I'd never shouted at Uncle Vernon before!"

The sleep-talking was really unsettling Ron, and he reached out to turn Harry over gently. Harry bobbed around, now floating face-up. He smiled in his sleep, as though astonished at his own daring. His eyes were open, but stared ahead, fixed on something only he could see.

"I don't like this, Hermione," Ron said, and he was astonished at how small his voice had become.

"Don't wake him," Hermione said, surprisingly firmly. "My parents are trained, I mean it. He'll wake up when he's ready."

"…made me pay for it when we got to the island," Harry sighed. "Took me outside when everyone was asleep and let me have it. I told him I wasn't responsible for the owls," he smiled in his sleep, "but that if I had been, I'd have made them pick him up by the hair and throw him into the ocean." The smile faltered but stayed there. "He used the belt, buckle end. Half killed me, but it was well worth it. The skin on my back can always grow back, right?" He smiled again. "That sounded funny."

Hermione whimpered. Ron swallowed, afraid he might be sick. He grabbed for Harry's hand and held it. "Harry…" he stammered, unable to help himself.

Hermione, looking resolute, instructed, "Ignore it for now," and turned back to her little cauldron. She scooped out a little of the cream and reached under Harry, but paused with her hand stilled underneath Harry's caned bottom. She looked up at Ron across Harry's sleeping form, embarrassment obvious in her face.

"It's all right," he tried to reassure her.

"Of course," she said. "Doctors do it all the time, right?" But her cheeks began to pinken and she made no move.

"I'll help," Ron volunteered, eager to ease Harry's pain, and brought a handful of cream up in his hand, cupping Harry's buttock on the side closest to him. The small amount of flesh filled his hand easily. He shuddered to feel the blazing heat of the whipped skin, rough and ridged with the welts left by the rod. He heard a similar gasp from Hermione, and he knew that she had felt the same thing. Setting his jaw, he began to smooth the cream into the poor caned flesh in a gentle, circular motion, feeling embarrassed himself as his fingers followed the welts where the cane had struck the stretched flesh slightly between the buttocks. He was pretty sure that sticking your fingers between the cheeks of your best mate's arse was Not On, but he also knew that it was the welts in these areas which had made walking so painful for him. So he kept at it, creaming everywhere he felt heat or inflammation, filling with joy as he felt the intense heat dissipating, the angry swelling subsiding under his touch, the inflamed skin around the injuries levelling out. "This is an amazing potion, Hermione," he whispered, awed, and she actually smiled though her discomfiture. "Does it make it stop hurting as well?"

"I think so," she said, a note of pride evident in her voice. "It heals, so…"

"One good thing, though," Harry said, almost as though he was answering, "at least the Dursleys didn't give it to me on the bum before I came to Hogwarts. That might have been dodgy, sitting and all. They never hit you on the bum for big things, only the back. They think it hurts me worse. Well, it does, but at least no-one found out." He smiled, slyly. "Now it's even better, getting the cane – now I won't even have to pretend it doesn't hurt, they'll just think I'm sore from the punishment." He sighed happily.

"Oh Harry," Hermione whispered. Ron wanted to lunge for Harry and hold him, but the room was spinning now, and it was all he could do to hold on.

"It's like a dream, being here, having a best mate, being friends with Hermione. Never thought I'd belong anywhere, or have friends. Always did want at least one person who didn't think I was a freak or a wally…"

"You could have told me, mate," Ron said, anguished.

"No," Harry said, and Ron looked to Hermione in shock, "can't ever tell you. Or Hermione. Can't risk it, you see."

"What?" Ron gaped. "Harry, can you hear me?"

"Sorry, Ron," Harry went on, staring unseeing at the ceiling, "we'd only just made friends. You told me all about your Mum making you corned-beef sandwiches and being skint and everything, it was really decent of you, and I tried, I really did, but I got as far as the cupboard and couldn't go on. You're a smashing fellow, and you're my first real friend – but what would you think of me if you saw what I'm really like at home? If you saw me lying there whinging on like a baby, getting thumped?" He drew in a shuddering breath. "How could I bear it if you looked down on me, if you called me a freak?"

Ron felt his eyes burn. He wasn't sure how much more of this he could take. "Harry – can you hear me?" he choked out. "I'd never – how does it make you a freak? They're the freaks, they…"

Harry started awake, jack-knifing upright. "Huh!"

Ron fell backwards onto his bottom, then rolled over in pain. "Harry," he gasped out – the room was spinning – "you're not… I…" But he was unable to continue as the room went black.

Ron snuggled in among the blankets. It was nice and warm in bed, but he really wanted some breakfast. He hadn't had supper last night…

Something was wrong. Last night? What had happened to the rest of the night? Last thing he remembered, he'd been with Harry and Hermione…

He struggled to open his eyes. There was a roaring in his ears. The feeling of warmth enveloping him evaporated, replaced by awareness…

He opened his eyes and it all came crashing back. "Oh…" He was still in the dank and gloomy fifth-floor toilet. But what had happened? The last thing he remembered was healing Harry and listening to that awful confession. What was going on? "Wha' happened? How's Harry?" he slurred.

"Ssh," came Hermione's voice from above him. "You fainted." There were no blankets, he realized – all he could feel was the warmth of her hand on his hair and her knuckles stroking his cheek. His bottom throbbed painfully. But then he felt a soothing touch easing the pain, rasping over the welts in a way that made him shiver… Hang on a minute. If Hermione's right hand was on his face and her left was in his hair, then who was creaming his bottom?

"Harry!" Ron blurted. He tried to look around, barely managing to see Harry's form above him, applying the potion to him with a look of fierce concentration that sent a funny fluttery feeing into Ron's stomach. There were so many important things he had to tell Harry! He pushed himself up onto his elbows, only to flop back down with a groan. Lord, but he was dizzy! "I don't think badly of you, you prat. I never could, and certainly not because someone thumped you. What's the sense in that, you… ooh, that's bloody brilliant, Harry!"

"Belt up a mo, all right?" Harry said, and Ron could hear the embarrassment in his voice. His soothing fingers slid across Ron's welts, spreading shivers and shocks through his body as blessed coolness replaced the blazing, painful throbbing.

"You missed a spot there," Hermione instructed.

"You could always help, you know," Harry retorted.

Ron smiled. This was bliss, being worked on like this. "Doctors do it, Hermione," he said cheekily.

"Oh, shut up."

"Harry, I don't think less of you," Ron babbled. "I know, I know all about it now – you – they…" Hermione added her hand, hesitantly spreading the cream onto his upper thighs. "…ooh, Hermione… thanks …" His eyes fluttered closed as the fire in his rear end was cooled and soothed, but valiantly struggled to collect his thoughts. He had to enlighten the stupid git! "Harry, I'd never think less of you, ever, all right?" He paused, breathing heavily, nearly moaning aloud with relief. "Huh. You'll always have me, you hear me? Hmm?"

"And me, Harry. I told him we knew everything, Ron," Hermione chimed in.

Harry was silent, and for a moment Ron didn't speak, frissons of relief and delight spreading through him. As their fingers worked on him, bolts of lightning seemed to shoot down his legs, making his thighs tremble; the tender flesh was super-sensitive, and the touch of their hands upon the skin made him quiver and clench his fists in something that was definitely not pain. His head was spinning, and for a moment he could only concentrate on the physical sensations rippling through him.

"Not hurting you, are we?" Harry asked gently, diffidently.

"Oh, no. That's – brilliant, you two," Ron managed to get out. His shivers subsided as the sensitivity receded, the pain eventually disappearing.

"That's all right," Harry said, a little too cheerfully. "Good as new."

He heard a murmur of assent from Hermione, and felt one of them, probably Harry, pat his calf bracingly, while the other – probably Hermione – stroked his head soothingly. He began to come back to himself, the strength returning to his limbs. Ron was tired and ready to drop, but not having to fight off the pain meant he had a bit of energy to spare for other things. And there was one thing that had to be dealt with.

He rolled over onto his side, delighted at the absence of pain. "Harry, did you hear me?" he asked.

Harry looked at the floor. "Yeah," he muttered. Ron wanted to hug him.

"There's nothing to be ashamed of, mate," he pressed on.

"I already told him that, Ron!" Hermione cut in. "While you were unconscious, I told him there are plenty of cases like this, and it's never the victim's fault…"

"Oh thanks, Hermione." Ron grimaced. Just what Harry needed to make him feel less like a freak, talk of cases and victims. He turned to his best mate and locked his eyes onto Harry's in a hard stare. "You're just a regular bloke," he said firmly. "Yeah, so you've got a set of right bastards for relatives, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, all right old chap?" He never took his eyes off Harry's as he said clearly, "You're just the same. I saw everything, I saw that bastard hitting you, and it doesn't make any difference. I like you just the same. I could never think less of you because somebody thumped you."

He paused, Harry looking back at him with eyes that held mortification, relief and something else – a tiny spark of hope. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Ron's heart hurt as he remembered Harry saying, "What would you think of me if you saw me getting thumped?" and "How could I bear it if you looked down on me?"

Ron took a deep breath, knowing they had to get this sorted now. Harry had to believe him. "Harry, do you look down on me because I'm – because I'm not rich? Would you look down on me if Mum and Dad hit me?"

"'Course not," Harry was jolted out of his shock enough to say indignantly.

"There you are then," Ron finished. "You're a great chap. You're my best mate. Nothing can change that, least of all your bloody relatives. Your relations don't mean a thing to me. Except," he had to be honest, "I want to hex them for hurting you. You don't deserve that." He held his breath, hoping Harry would understand and accept what he'd said.

He saw the trust gradually blossom in Harry's face, saw the hesitant but decisive nod.

"You sure?" Ron asked, and waited to see the affirmation in Harry's face. There was one more thing that had to be said. "Any time they hit you, let us know; we'll always be here to help. Don't want you to hide it any more. All right?"

Harry remained silent, and Ron had to repeat himself, slightly more forcefully, before Harry bobbed his head, looking at the floor, and said a barely audible "Right," followed by a mumbled, "Thanks," which Ron chose to ignore.

"We can help, you know," Ron said encouragingly. "Did you know Hermione made this amazing potion all by herself?" he enthused.

"Really?" Harry turned awed eyes on Hermione, who blushed and looked pleased.

"Yeah, and we're going to use it on her next," Ron grinned, judging it was about time Harry was taken out of the hot seat.

"Oh no you're not!" the girl said in a high-pitched voice, getting to her feet painfully and taking a step back. "I'll do it myself!"

"Doctors do it, Hermione," Ron grinned, rising.

"It's improper!"

"What's wrong with her?" Harry turned to Ron questioningly.

"Barmy," Ron shrugged, "all girls are."

"Boys! You just don't understand!" she snapped. "Give me that!" And Hermione snatched up the cauldron and disappeared into a stall, slamming the door.

"Hermione," Ron called out, amused, "I've got a sister, I've seen girls' knickers before…"

"Shut up, Ron Weasley!" the muffled voice came from behind the door, followed by a cry of pain.

Harry was on his feet now, looking uncomfortable. "You all right, Hermione?"

Silence, then a whimper.

"Open up, Hermione!" Ron yelled, rapping on the door. "You're scaring Harry half to death!" At Harry's indignant glare, he tipped him the wink, and Harry barely had time to give him a conspiratorial nod before the door swung open to reveal Hermione, her school knickers bunched around her ankles, her face white and forlorn, her eyes full of tears. Ron's heart went out to her. "What is it, Hermione?"

"I can't reach behind me," she sniffled, "it hurts too much."

"Don't cry," he said sympathetically. "We can put it on with our eyes shut if you think it's not proper for us to – um, to look, seeing as you're a girl and all," Ron volunteered gamely.

"N—no," Hermione gulped, her voice vulnerable and small, "d—doctors do it, right?"

"Yeah," Ron nodded, and had to clamp down on the urge to say "Doctors do it better" and wiggle his eyebrows. It'd be just the comic relief that Hermione needed. Not. "You did it for us, Hermione," he reminded her.

"Yes," she said in a small voice.

"Just pull up a little of your robe at a time," Harry spoke up, looking embarrassed as well, and Ron remembered that Harry didn't have a sister. "We don't have to see anything."

For some reason, Harry's reticence seemed to reassure Hermione more than all of Ron's valiant attempts to be cheerful and bracing. Girls, he thought with amused exasperation. He supposed he'd better get used to it, being friends with Hermione and all. "It's all right," she squeaked, and handed Harry the cauldron of potion. Turning, she visibly set her shoulders and bent over to 'assume the position,' bracing her hands on the closed toilet seat.

"All right there, Hermione?"

"Y—es." Reaching behind her, she pulled her robes up, all the way to her waist. Ron heard Harry's sharp intake of breath next to him.

"Flaming hell, Hermione!"

Her bottom wasn't welted; it was all one solid bruise. From the tops of her tightly-clamped-together thighs to the highest point of her bottom, all the way around to the sides of her hips, her flesh was black and blue, punctuated by tiny white blisters as though floating on the surface.

Ron heard Harry gulp, and had to swallow his rage. Who would do that to a girl? How could they damage Hermione like that? He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again, remembering 'least said, soonest mended'. But Hermione was explaining, haltingly. "First year girls don't get the cane like boys. We get the slipper."

It took Ron a couple of tries to work that one out, but Harry seemed familiar with it. "But I've had the slipper before, and it didn't leave bruises like that!"

"It's a heavy slipper," she said, her voice strained. "A plimsoll, really."

Ron noticed the fine tremors in her legs and thought how she'd been holding in her pain all evening while she tended to them, and the desire to spare her another moment's suffering welled up in him, strong and sure. "Let's have a bit of that, Harry," he said, reaching over to the cauldron. Then a thought occurred to him. "Is there any of that other potion left?"

"I think so," said Harry, retrieving the flask. It still had about half a cupful in it.

"Let's have some," Ron commanded, holding out a hand. Harry poured some out, looking hesitant. "It clears bruising," Ron explained, and to get over his embarrassment, clapped his potion-filled right hand down quickly on Hermione's left buttock.

She gasped and flinched.

"Oh, bollocks!" Ron grimaced. "Sorry, I didn't mean to!" That was all he needed, to inflict further pain on her! How stupid can you get, Weasley? Very, very gently, he stroked the potion into her battered flesh. The smooth skin was hot and inflamed under his hand, and he felt a powerful wave of protectiveness towards this girl, who had sat there suffering all evening just so he and Harry could go first. "All right?" he asked warmly.

"Yes," Hermione squeaked with a little sigh of relief, and pleasure began to spread through Ron as he saw a patch in the centre of the deep black begin to fade towards a yellow-green shade. "Let's have a bit more, Harry," he extended a hand again. "Come on, don't be a prude, you can do the other one."

"All right, Hermione?" Harry asked.

"Yes," she answered valiantly, and Ron's respect for her soared. Hermione was the last person in the world who should ever be hurt, look at all she'd done for them, look at the way, even now, she was holding her pain in… He saw Harry's hand move into his field of vision. Hesitantly, the hand spread a little of the potion onto the very edge of the bruising marring Hermione's hip, rubbing it in lightly. The expanse of black receded as he ministered to the injury, the edge of her hip now back to being pink, healthy skin.

"Good job, Harry," Ron said encouragingly. Lightly so as to spare the girl any further pain, he massaged more of the oil in, hearing her exhalation of relief as the black-and-blue discolouration cleared. She looked so lonely, facing into the stall like that, as though getting ready for the chop… On impulse, he reached out with his left hand and gave her shoulder a brisk, encouraging rub. She jumped. "Sorry," he apologized quickly.

"No, it's all right. I was just… startled."

"Better?" Harry asked. He was working methodically on her right side, the bruises nearly all gone now.

"Much, thanks."

Ron inspected her bottom with relief. The mottled discolouration had cleared, all except a small area at the top of her thighs. He took a deep breath and poured the last trickle of oil onto his hand, tenderly patting it into the soft skin. "You got the other stuff, Harry?" he asked.

"Yeah," Harry held out the cauldron for Ron to get some cream, already spreading the goop over Hermione's right hip. She whimpered aloud, and Harry snatched his hand away. "Sorry."

"No, no, it's all right," Hermione whispered, and Ron found his hand straying back to her shoulder and staying there. "It's cool, that's all, I was a bit…startled."

"It's all right then?" Ron confirmed.

"Oh, yes," she said, a trace of embarrassment in her voice.

Harry returned his hand to her hip, and Ron scooped up some of the purple potion and followed suit. While the bruising had disappeared, the area was still hot and blistered; he was acutely aware of the feel of her skin under his palm and fingers as he massaged in the balm in a circular motion. He could hear her sighs and feel her tense shoulder relax under his left hand as the fingertips of his right hand soothed the blisters away. He could see them fading before his eyes, feeling himself made whole again as her skin returned to its unblemished state. "That cream's brilliant, Hermione," he babbled to cover up the inexplicable pounding of his heart, which was so loud he was half-afraid the others could hear it. His hand was still clamped to her shoulder, and the sensation of touching her bare hip with one hand and her clothed shoulder with another was causing a sort of buzzing in his head – it was like the time Bill had brought back a magical acupressure point detector from China, and it whistled when it touched the two corresponding points on one's body. Only this was sending a kind of magical current through him, and he wasn't sure what to call it.

Hermione was cooing now – there was no other way to describe it – when he finally lifted his hands from her smooth, intact skin, and Harry did the same. "Um, we'll let you get dressed in private, shall we?" Ron babbled, clapping her on the shoulder one last, comradely time, letting the door swing shut as he and Harry backed out of the stall. He heard the rustle of clothing and saw Hermione's hands reach down to pull up her knickers through the gap under the door, and turned away. Yeah, he'd seen Ginny do it a hundred times, but it probably wasn't right to watch a girl who wasn't your sister putting on her underwear.

Harry was very quiet. "All right there, mate?" Ron asked, clapping a hand on Harry's thin shoulder. Bloody relatives, he fumed inwardly.

"Oh yeah," Harry tried a smile. "Wasn't so bad, was it," he went on.

"Oh no," Ron said airily. Casting about for a subject of conversation to cover up the awkward pause, he said: "'S all right for boys, but I don't think they should hit girls, do you?"

"No," Harry said firmly.

"Why not?" Hermione demanded indignantly, appearing at the door of the stall. "We can take it just as well as boys, Ron!"

"Didn't say you couldn't," Ron said mildly, deliberately avoiding any mention of how bad he'd felt to see her bruised, "but girls are weaker," he suddenly said impishly, knowing it would get a rise out of Hermione, if he'd read her right at all.

"We certainly are not!"

"Hate to mention it, Ron, but she's the only one of us who didn't actually faint," Harry said, amusement colouring his voice.

"Oh, that's nice! Are you on my side or on hers?"

"Look, can we argue in the Common Room, we're in enough trouble as it is without getting caught after curfew?" Hermione prompted.

"Oh, all right," Ron pretended to grouse. Collecting the paraphernalia, they turned to go. Ron could see the obvious relief in the other two's movements as they bent to pick up their things, and felt himself healed as he watched. "Come on, then," he said, affecting a prissy tone.

"Keep your hair on," said Harry, gratefully joining in the light banter.

"That reminds me," Ron said as they started out of the bathroom. "The twins told me this one, have you heard it? What do you call 100 rabbits jumping backwards in unison?"

"Ah, no lame jokes, please, Ron!" Harry moaned in mock horror.

"…A receding hare line!" Ron chortled with laughter at his own joke, and he noticed that Hermione was laughing too, and Harry was trying not to.

"That was truly awful, Ron."

"Well, Hermione's laughing." He thought of another one. "How about this? What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?"

"I don't know, Ron," Hermione's voice seemed to regain confdence as she fed him the straight line. "What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?"

"A nervous wreck!"

The three of them giggled in spite of themselves. "How about this one. What's..."

"Oh no, Ron, not another..."

As they started back, Ron nonchalantly slung an arm over Harry's shoulders and swung his other arm so that it was touching Hermione's. It was silly, but he felt comforted when they were together.