James yawned loudly and stretched his arms out over his head. He then sighed contentedly and placed his hands on his stomach, smiling sleepily as he said, "That was good."

"That it was, my dear Prongsie." Sirius replied with a small, crooked smile. The Welcoming Feast had ended and the four boys were now lying in their beds, getting ready to call it a night. Now safely in his dormitory, Sirius could feel the tension that had built up in his body slowing leaking away. Darkness was slowly seeping protectively around him, luring him to sleep. He rolled over so he was on his side facing James, and he closed his eyes as he sighed softly.

James studied his best friend carefully, concern showing plainly in his eyes as they raked over every feature of Sirius' face. His usually tan skin and lightly flushed cheeks were now unnaturally pale, contrasting starkly with the dark circles under his eyes. His normally lean and muscular body looked thinner- too thin, and James knew that under his shirt his torso was probably scattered with multi-colored bruises. The differences were subtle, but to someone who knew Sirius as well as James did, they were painstakingly obvious.

James sighed sadly and glanced around, making sure Remus and Peter had their hangings shut before crawling out of bed and leaning over Sirius so he was speaking quietly into his ear.

"Sirius," he whispered.

"Mhmm?" his friend mumbled back, eyes still closed.

James hesitated slightly before saying, "Is there any way I can get you to go see Madam Pomfrey?"

Sirius' eyes flickered open and he sat up, looking at James' face. He opened his mouth to ask why, but before he could say anything James interrupted him and said, "Don't ask why, Sirius, you know why."

Sirius looked at him sheepishly and abruptly snapped his mouth shut. He then moved over so James could sit on the bed next to him and said, "I don't need to go see her, James. It's not that bad, really."

James sat down and gave him a calculating look, saying, "If it's not that bad…then let me see."

"What?" Sirius asked him incredulously. "James, it's only my cheek—"

"It's not only your cheek, Sirius, and you know it." James said sternly. His expression then turned pleading. "Please?" he whispered. When he saw Sirius hesitate, he spoke again. "Sirius, please, let me help you."

Sirius looked sadly at him and said, "I don't think you can, James."

James turned away, a pained look on his face. He closed his eyes, feeling miserable, angry, and hurt. He heard Sirius suck in a breath, but he still didn't look at him as he said, "Fine, Sirius, fine." He stood up and made to walk back to his bed, but a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. James turned and looked into Sirius' face, which wasn't looking at him, but his arm was pulling him back down onto the bed. James pulled the hangings shut before sitting back down and casting a silencing charm. He then looked at Sirius, waiting patiently for him to continue.

Sirius looked up at him hesitantly. "If I show you, will you stop worrying about me?"

James shook his head and said, "No, I'll still worry, but… I'll stop nagging you to go see Madam Pomfrey, as long as you let me heal anything I can."

Sirius nodded and started blankly at his duvet for a moment before slowly tugging his shirt over his head. He had several small bruises dotting the right side of his collar bone, and further down his torso his entire left side was a nasty shade of purple, turning an ugly blue and yellow around one rib in particular.

James bit his lip to stifle a gasp and asked, "And your back?"

Sirius shook his head and said, "No, it healed earlier in the summer."

James took a deep breath. "Oh, Sirius…" he sighed.

Sirius tugged his shirt back on and said, "Don't, James." He was looking down, playing with the fringe of his bedspread. James put one hand on his shoulder and put the other under his chin, raising his head until their eyes met. "You didn't deserve it, Sirius" James whispered.

Sirius' eyes slid shut and James felt him tremble slightly. He gave his shoulder a light squeeze before releasing him and saying, "That rib looks broken, cracked at least. I'll look up a spell tomorrow to mend it."

"…thank you" Sirius said quietly, and James knew he meant it for more than just the spell. James nodded and smiled at him, which Sirius weakly returned.

James then cancelled the silencing spell, whispered a goodnight, and went back to his own bed.

Sirius lay back onto his pillow and listened as James shut his hangings and settled into bed. He brought a trembling hand up to his face and covered his eyes, willing himself not to cry. It was much easier to be emotionless around people he hated. But even though he was upset, for the first time in months- he felt safe. Sirius sighed deeply and rolled over onto his good side, falling almost immediately into a much needed sleep.

When Lily, Annmarie, and Gwen walked sleepily into the Great Hall the next morning, Annmarie's eyes immediately found the person she was looking for. She turned to Lily and said, "Lils…I know you hate James, but… can we sit with the Marauders this morning? Please?" she asked hopefully.

Lily looked over at them and saw an empty seat next to Sirius and two across from the boys, and she nodded her head as she said, "Sure, as long as you sit next to Sirius. There's no way I'm dealing with him this early in the morning."

Annmarie grinned happily and said, "Thanks, Lily." She then walked over and plopped down unceremoniously next to Sirius, leaving Lily and Gwen to follow.

"That was very smooth" Gwen muttered in her ear as they sat down.

Lily smiled and said, "Of course it was."

Meanwhile, Annmarie was looking at the dish of bacon that was all the way across the table, meaning she would have to reach two feet for it, and then eyeing the bacon that was on Sirius' plate, which was right next to her. Her eyes slid between the two for a minute before she reached over and took Sirius' bacon from his plate and put it on her own.

He looked at her and laughed as he said, "Well, good morning to you too, sunshine!"

She smiled sleepily at him as she chewed the bacon. She swallowed and then questioned, "How are you so cheery in the morning?"

He shrugged and said, "Once I'm up, I'm up!"

"Yeah, but it's getting him up that's the hard part" James grumbled next to him.

Sirius laughed good naturedly and threw an arm around his shoulders. "Aww, Jamie, you know you love me."

James rolled his eyes and shoved Sirius off of him, but nodded his head all the same as a sheepish grin slid across his face. Lily and Gwen had sat down across from them and were slowly eating their breakfasts while shooting little knowing glances at Annmarie. James raised an eyebrow at Lily, who merely raised her own right back at him and said, "Can I help you with something, Potter?"

A wicked grin suddenly shot up on his face and his eyes twinkled merrily as he opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by their timetables suddenly appearing on the table. His grin faded to a small smile as he picked up his timetable and started scrutinizing it, the others following his lead.

"Oh, bloody hell, Potions first thing…" James grumbled.

"Really, James, I don't know why you complain so much about it, it's not like you're bad at it. You're actually quite good at it." Remus said logically.

"Well, of course I am." James replied matter-of-factly.

Lily scowled and said, "Yes, because James Potter is the best at everything."

James turned to her and said, "Well thank you, Lily! I didn't know you felt that way! Although, I do have to agree with you…"

She glared at him and replied coldly, "You sicken me."

James' smile slipped slightly and he said, "Now now, Lily, no need to get nasty…"

"I'm not being nasty," she replied haughtily. "I'm being honest."

"Well of course you are!" James exclaimed, his smile now completely gone. "Self-righteous Lily Evans, never does anything wrong!"

Gwen and Remus simultaneously dropped their faces into their hands, and Remus mumbled, "Here we go again…"

"Yep…" Gwen replied tiredly.

Annmarie, however, was ignoring the fighting pair and was looking carefully at Sirius, who seemed to have noticed her attention and he turned to look at her, grinning slightly.

"Are you still completely asleep, or are you gazing my way on purpose?" he asked playfully.

Annmarie, however, ignored his mood and said seriously, "Are you feeling allright?"

Sirius looked at her, slightly taken aback and said, "Yeah, of course. Why?"

She peered at him closely and said, "I dunno… you're a bit pale, and you seem a bit off…"

Sirius' face was now completely impassive as he said nonchalantly, "I'm fine, really, it's just early, ya no?"

Remus had picked up on what was happening and he spoke loudly so he could be heard over James and Lily's bickering. "Don't worry about it, Annmarie, we were all up late last night planning."

There was a slight silence in which James and Lily shut up and everyone turned to stare at him, and Remus held his breath, hoping that the girls wouldn't pick up on what he was doing.

The pause ended when Gwen said suspiciously, "Planning? Planning what?"

Sirius grinned easily and said, "That's for us Marauders to know, and for you to find out, ladies."

Remus silently let out the breath he had been holding, grateful that the subject had been changed away from Sirius' health.

Lily, still fuming over James' arrogant behavior, looked at her watch and said suddenly, "It's time for us to go." She then stood abruptly and stalked out of the Great Hall, followed by Gwen and Annmarie, who sent sympathetic glances at James as they left.

All four boys watched them go in silence, slightly stunned by the eventful breakfast they had just had. As soon as the girls were out of sight, Sirius immediately turned to Remus and said, "Moony…what would I do without you?"

Remus chuckled and said, "I think you'd manage, Padfoot."

Sirius shook his head and said, "I wouldn't." He paused then before saying seriously, "Thank you."

Remus smiled at him and said, "Don't mention it, Sirius. Any time." He then stood and grabbed his book bag. "Well, are we going?" he asked.

"Yeah." Peter replied. He stood as well and followed Remus as they started walking out of the Great Hall.

Sirius stood and waited for James, who was still sitting down before he slowly stood and gathered his things, before looking at Sirius and giving him a puzzled look.

"What was the all about?" He asked as they entered the hallways and started making their way down to the dungeons.

"What?" Sirius asked confusedly.

"That thing with Remmie. What did he do?" James asked.

"Oh…er…" Sirius stuttered awkwardly. "Annmarie noticed that I looked…pale, I guess, and started asking me if I felt allright. Remus must have noticed that I was uncomfortable, and he changed the subject for me."

James had stopped walking and was staring at the ground. Sirius, noticing the lack of his best friend by his side, stopped and turned around. "Prongs?" he asked. "…Why are you standing in the middle of the hallway?"

James looked up at him guiltily. "I didn't notice."

"…If you didn't notice that you had stopped moving and are standing planted to one spot, I think we might need--" Sirius began.

James shook his head and said in an exasperated voice, "No, Sirius! That's not what I meant! I didn't notice that Annmarie was…interrogating you!"

"She wasn't interrogating me, James, she was just…talking! There was nothing to notice!" Sirius said firmly, trying to sooth James who looked like he was getting more and more upset by the second.

"But, Sirius! That's not the point- oh, fine! Maybe I shouldn't have noticed that she was 'talking' to you, but I definitely should have noticed that you were uncomfortable!" James cried, now looking thoroughly distressed.

Sirius' brow furrowed and he walked up to James and placed his hands on his shoulders. "Woah, mate," he said softly. "It really wasn't something to get this upset over." He paused before continuing. "What is this really about?" he asked quietly, giving James' shoulders a small squeeze.

James looked away from Sirius, glaring fiercely at the wall before ripping off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose, his eyes shut tight and his shoulders slumped.

"It's just…" he started in a choked voice. "It's just…last night, you told me I couldn't help you." He paused here, his eyes still scrunched closed. "And I want to, Sirius. I need to. You're my best friend, my brother, and…" Here he paused again, but opened his eyes and looked directly into Sirius' deep blue ones, which were reflecting the pain that James knew was in his own. "How am I supposed to help you at home…when I can't even help you here?"

Sirius looked at him and felt his heart break and then swell in gratitude, and he opened his mouth to reply, only to find that he couldn't speak. He snapped his mouth shut and realized that he was once again blinking back tears, except this time James was fighting them as well. Instead of speaking, Sirius merely stepped forward and wrapped his arms tightly around his friend, and he felt James' arms secure themselves carefully around his shoulders. And they stayed that way, simply clinging to each other with all preconceptions of manliness gone from their minds, and together they fought back their tears that were threatening to sneak out.

"James…" Sirius whispered hoarsely, still holding him tightly. "You do help me. You do protect me."

He felt James shake his head as he replied brokenly, "I don't, Sirius, I don't…I can't…but I wish—I wish that I could-- "

Sirius pulled back but placed his hands on James' shoulders again. "James, look at me" he said. When James looked up at him, Sirius said quietly but fiercely, "You do protect me, James." He paused slightly before saying, "You protect me from myself."

James' eyes widened slightly, but Sirius continued before he could interrupt. "When I'm at home… " Sirius paused here, and James stayed perfectly still, knowing that Sirius was finally, after all these years, about to open up to him about his home life, and he feared that moving even the slightest inch would scare Sirius away. So James waited, not even daring to breathe, as Sirius inhaled deeply and then continued.

"When I'm at home, and… and my parents have just insulted me… and beaten me, and… have ripped apart my stupid, stupid dreams of … of having a family that loves me for me… the only thing that keeps me going, James…is you. You and Remus and Pete…you're my…my reason for living. You're the reason I keep fighting them. Without you…I… I would have given up a long time ago. You're my reason for living. You're the reason why I'm still alive today." He paused and searched James' eyes desperately.

"Don't you see, James?" he asked, giving him a little shake. "Don't you see how much you've helped me? You saved my life, James." And Sirius let out a small sob as he said, "More times than you can imagine."

And this time it was James who pulled Sirius into a fierce hug, both of them with tears running down their faces.