When Sirius woke the next morning, he was greeted with deep, heavy soreness. He groaned and pulled back the curtains around his bed. To his surprise, the dormitory windows were showing only the faintest hint of dawn on the horizon. He felt pretty well rested all things considered, so he carefully got up and gathered his belongings for a shower.

He took care of business and noted that there was still blood in his urine, then climbed into the shower stall. Sirius often did his best thinking while showering. And he needed to think.

Yesterday had been such a stroke of bad luck. Ha. No pun intended, Sirius thought. They hadn't foreseen that Honkelbopper would react to the prank so strongly. Remus, always the brains of the operation, had reckoned that the worst that might happen was being sent to see the Headmaster. James and Sirius had both agreed. Dumbledore had a rather notorious sense of humor about the Marauders' pranks, so long as no one was injured. "We can always say that we were just trying to give Peter a laugh, since he's got dragon pox," James had said.

But instead, they'd been caned, which preyed on some of Sirius' worst memories. And then, to add insult to injury, he'd told the lads that he'd had worse. Out loud, and completely unintentionally. It didn't surprise Sirius that they wanted answers. If one of them had said that, he would have demanded to know what they were talking about much more strongly than they had. He'd been surprised that they'd allowed him to close the bed curtains and go to sleep.

So the question was, what was he going to do now? Part of him wanted to just avoid them, but it would be nearly impossible since every trick and hiding spot that he knew, they knew as well. Plus, if he avoided them, they would know that he was hiding something.

He could deny everything, he mused, say it was bravado. They might buy that. But then again, they'd all gone through it together. Would that mean that he was calling them soft? Maybe calling himself soft.

Or, he could misdirect. Tell them a story, and make it a big one. There were plenty to choose from. Just make it out to be a one-time kind of thing, though, rather than a depressingly often occurrence. That might be the way to go.

He let the water run over his face, eyes closed. He'd rather not admit anything. But he didn't have access to a Time-Turner, and so he would just have to grit his teeth and bear it. Hopefully, he'd be lucky, and they would forget all about what he'd said.

But in case he wasn't, he'd have to think of a story that was sufficiently bad, but not bad enough to make them worried.

He couldn't seem to settle on a story though, because his brain was running like a hippogryff chasing a weasel, twisting and turning and never really settling in one place. Finally, he just sighed and turned off the water.

He was a Marauder. He could wing it with the best of them.

James woke to a hand on his shoulder. "Get up," Remus said.

He tried to roll over, but pain stopped him before he made it to his back. Ouch. Oh yeah. They'd been caned. And that reminded him...

"Sirius awake?" he mumbled.

"He's long gone, mate. Not that I'm surprised; you saw how shifty he was acting last night."

James very carefully slid out of bed. His hindquarters were an all-over mass of pain and he grimaced.

"Yeah. Mine too," Remus said, noticing his expression. "I'm starving, but I don't know that I can take sitting in the Great Hall this morning."

"The house-elves won't let us starve though. D'you want to stop by the kitchens?"

"Yeah. That'd be a good idea. Maybe we can stop at old Sluggy's office before class and see if he has any essence of Murtlap he'd be willing to part with," Remus suggested.

"Think I've got some candied pineapple that Mum sent in her last care package," James said. He stooped over his trunk like an old man and dug for it. "Yes! Here it is, and unopened!"

"He'll trade that for some Murtlap in a heartbeat," Remus said. "Mentioned it's a favorite of his last week after Reynolds asked about bringing up her grade, remember?"

James tossed it down onto his bed and pulled out a clean uniform and robe. He started unbuttoning his pajama top. "Well, let's get a move on, then. We need to corner Sirius some time before class starts too. It'll probably go better if we can offer him some pain relief." His stomach growled loudly. "But first, breakfast."

Sirius leaned against one of the kitchen's low counters. Everything was properly sized for a house-elf, which meant that he was bent nearly double over the large, steaming bowl of porridge one of the creatures had prepared for him. It was sweetened with honey and splashed with milk, just as Sirius would have prepared it for himself, and there was toasted bread spread thickly with marmalade, fresh strawberries, and a carafe of milk too. He absolutely loved the Hogwarts house elves.

"Young sir Black should not have been so naughty," Knobbles, the Head house elf scolded lightly. Other elves in the Hogwarts tea towels flew back and forth across the kitchen floor, carrying stacks of gleaming bowls and heaping platters of toast, but Knobbles was intent on talking to Sirius, as she always did when he ate in the kitchens. "If young sir hadn't been so naughty, young sir could be eating with his friends in the Great Hall this morning! But no, young sir is always causing troubles for the professors. If young sir was Knobbles elfling, Knobbles would have ironed his ears!" Knobbles patted him absently on the back of his calf. "She would have, yes she would have indeed."

"You don't mean that, Knobbles," Sirius said around a mouthful of bread. He knew she didn't. Oh, she talked a good game, but he knew that the elf looked at him fondly, like she might have were she his personal elf. "My ears are too small to iron. And anyway, what would you do if you didn't have me to look after? You'd be bored to tears!" He loved to tease her, because Knobbles had been around the kitchens for many years and gave as good as she got.

"Oh, no, young sir. You is wrong. All the things Knobbles could be doing if young sir didn't always make so much trouble." But she had a smile on her face that spoke of her affection for the rapscallion in front of her. "Eat more. You is too skinny, young sir Black."

Sirius happily slathered more of the tasty orange spread on a thick slice of bread. "I eat and eat. I'm just a growing lad. You know that—" Sirius cut himself off as two familiar faces limped into the kitchen.

James and Remus looked rather surprised to see him. "Sirius!" James said.

"Uh, morning," he managed, suddenly becoming very busy stuffing his face. He should have thought of this! If he wasn't in any shape to sit in the Great Hall, why would they be? Stupid, stupid, stupid, he berated himself mentally. So much for avoiding them all day and hoping they'd forget.

"We were looking for you mate!" Remus said. He looked exhausted, as he often did when it neared the full moon, but he seemed to be in good spirits. "James and I thought we might ask Slughorn for some essence of Murtlap, if he had any to spare. We have candied pineapple to trade."

Sirius stared at them for a second, then broke into a grin. They might not be thinking about the stupid things he'd said last night after all. "That's brilliant," he said. "But first, to eat. Knobbles made first-rate porridge this morning, and there's plenty to spare."

"Easy for young sir to say," Knobbles grumbled, but a big smile across her face put lie to her words. "Well, sit, sit. Knobbles will get young sirs something to eat."

"Er," James said, definite hesitance in his tone.

"We'd rather stand," Remus said politely.

"Like naughty elflings, yous young sirs are! Fine, stand then. Is no skin off Knobbles ears," she said, floating two gigantic bowls of porridge across the kitchen. "Eat now. Yous young sirs is all so skinny, it makes Knobbles ears twist to look at you." Two more large glasses of milk and plates of toasted bread thumped down onto the countertop next to Sirius' own breakfast. "I is worried that yous will disappear before Knobbles can feed yous properly, yes."

Sirius thumped his friends' shoulders as they passed. He probably looked a bit manic, he was aware, but he was so grateful that his friends didn't seem to remember how stupid he'd been last night that he couldn't hold back his grin.

"No worries there, Knobbles," James said, digging into his bowl with gusto. "We are always up for food!"

"Is still too skinny, young sirs. Is not natural, how young sirs and misses is all arms and legs and so little ears. No, is not." She dashed back across the stone tiles with another carafe of milk. "Now be eating. Yous can go pester the professor Sluggy sir after yous have filled your bellies."

Sirius grinned at the familiar interplay between the Head House Elf and the Gryffindors. "Knobbles, were you ever a Gryffindor house house elf?" he asked.

Knobbles snorted. "I is a Hogwarts house elf, young sir Black. I is taking care of all the young sirs and misses."

"But you seem to really like us Gryffindors," he pointed out. "I've never known a house elf who was so good at her job."

Knobbles blushed a charming shade of green. "Young sir flatters Knobbles. But Knobbles knows the real reason she takes such good care of Gryffindors, yes she does."

"Why's that?" Remus asked around a mouthful of porridge.

"Is simple, young sir Lupin. Gryffindors is getting into so many more troubles than other houses, so we sees them eating breakfasts and lunches and suppers in the kitchens a lots. Yous is familiar, yes, as though you were my own young masters." And she gave them a smug look of satisfaction. "If yous were not so naughty, wes would not be knowing yous so well, and we would not be feeding yous standing over the counters so many times, yes?"

Sirius chuckled. The elf had a good point.

Remus kept one ear on the conversation, but he was busily studying his good friend. When they'd first stumbled upon Sirius eating his breakfast, the look on his face was mostly that of a deer in the headlights. It had swiftly changed to the happy-go-lucky boy with whom Remus had spend his school years. But it wasn't genuine. Remus could read it in his friend's eyes. He could smell it on his skin. Sirius was nervous.

It had to be about what he'd said last night. Sirius' eyes had flashed pure panic when they had questioned him about what he'd said, that he'd had worse. Much worse, Remus remembered. The only thing that Remus had ever experienced that hurt worse than that caning yesterday was his monthly transformation...and Sirius wasn't a werewolf.

If his dad was hitting him like James thought...but even a good punch or two didn't hurt like that caning had. His father would have to be beating him. Remus felt his stomach twist, and suddenly the bowl of hot porridge he was eating didn't seem so appetizing.

Of course, James could be wrong. It could have just been a throwaway comment.

But Remus didn't really believe that. The scent of Sirius' anxiety was bold in his nostrils. He pushed away the bowl in front of him, no longer able to stomach his meal.

They had to get to the bottom of this, and sooner rather than later.

Slughorn had been happy to trade them a fair sized bottle of essence of Murtlap in exchange for the candied pineapple that James' mum had sent. "It does best if you soak in it, lads," Slughorn said. "You can dilute it a fair bit and it will still work. Perhaps the prefect's bath?"

All three of them had turned beet red, but James managed to thank the professor for his advice before they bolted from his office.

"Well, seems as though the story has made the rounds of the professors, at least," Remus muttered.

"Grand," Sirius replied. "I'm sure Honkelbopper spread it himself."

"Yeah, I reckon Kettleburn got a good laugh out of it too. He's had it in for us since that incident with the Nifflers last year." James sighed. "Still, it was a good prank, wasn't it? Watching Filch try to brush the glitter off of himself for twenty minutes as the Nifflers tried to eat his shoes?"

"That one was. This one, eh, wasn't quite worth it." Remus took out his wand and tapped the statue guarding the boys prefect bath. "Halitosis imperfectus!"

The boys entered. "What's with the password?" Sirius said.

"Marsha Morningham's father is a dentist...she said it would remind us to brush our teeth," Remus replied.

"What's a dentist?" Sirius asked James in an aside. James shrugged. Sirius decided it must be some kind of muggle thing.

Remus turned on a few different taps, then emptied the bottle of Murtlap into one of the flows of water. The boys stripped cautiously, mindful of their sore backsides. The prefect's bath was the size of a large swimming pool, but the water rose fast, and was already up to their waists by the time the boys slipped in.

The relief was nearly instantaneous. Sirius almost moaned; it felt so good not to be in pain again. He hadn't realized how badly it hurt until the pain stopped. The unbelievable, aching burn was only a ghost of what it had been. Even the wheal stretched across his kidney receded into nothingness. "Bliss," he murmured.

Next to him, James sighed with a nod. "Definitely worth the loss of the pineapple," he said.

Remus nodded in agreement and sank down to his shoulders in the bubbles.

The water had filled nearly to the brim of the tub before anyone spoke again. Unsurprisingly, it was Remus.

"So...when you said you'd had worse..." He trailed off, but his gold eyes held Sirius in a steady gaze.

Sirius felt himself freeze. He stared at his friends, without a single thought in his mind besides bloody buggering hell. Then James blinked, and it broke the unwilling tableau he'd been drawn into.

"Uh, yeah," Sirius said. "I wasn't really serious about that." He glanced away from his friends. "You know, just trying to put a brave face on it and all that."

He glanced up to see what his friends thought of that, and caught the tail end of an unbelieving glance between them. Surprisingly, it was Remus who called him out on it.

"That's bullshit," Remus said, and his voice held unusual heat. "I can smell it on you right now. You're lying."

Double bloody buggering hell. Of course Moony could smell it on him. How could he forget? The moon was only a couple of days away. His mind scrabbled in panic. What was he going to tell them? He couldn't even look at his friends, and he felt his face flush with shame. He wished he would have solidified exactly what story he was going to tell them during his shower earlier, because right now he couldn't think of a damn word he could say.

"It's just, you said you'd had worse. And, uh, I've only seen one thing that even kind of made sense to me Padfoot. I'm gonna ask you something, and you're probably going to be angry, but uh, I'm going to ask anyway." James swallowed, and Sirius eyed him warily. "I just...uh, last spring, when your dad picked you up from the express...I saw..."

Sirius felt all the blood drain from his face. This was a train wreck! He hadn't thought any of the Marauders had seen the way his father had hit him when he was in queue to leave Platform 9 ¾ last spring, and he'd been grateful. To know that James had seen it was humiliating, and it also left him almost no space for denial.

"What I mean to ask is, does your dad..." James looked like he had swallowed something disgusting.

"Don't ask that," Sirius said, and he barely recognized his own voice. It sounded dull, flat, and small.

"Does he hit you like that, uh, a lot?" It was Remus who managed to finish the question.

The silence in the room seemed to echo off the walls and get caught in the bubbles on the surface of the tub. Sirius just stared at them. Had they really just asked that? Why, why did they have to ask that?

Their eyes were still on him though, and damn it all, they knew. No matter what he said now, they knew, because Moony could smell it and Prongs wasn't an idiot either; they'd been friends for long enough to know each others' tells. There was horror on both boys' faces as they digested what he hadn't needed to say. Sirius sighed and gave a little half-shrug of confirmation anyway. "You know I hate my parents," he said, and he was proud that he managed to keep his voice as even as if he was only confirming the weather.

The silence was big between them though, heavy and dark like thunderclouds. He looked away from his friends, feeling beyond ashamed.

"Merlin's balls, mate. That's not on." James' voice was angry.

"Not much I can do about it," Sirius replied, still not looking at his friends. "They're my parents. Haven't much of a choice, seeing as I live with them and all. Students can't stay here over the summer. I know; I've asked."

"But if they beat you—" Remus protested.

"My parents are purebloods, Moony. Who is going to try to stop them? That's just what purebloods do." He stared at his hands, which were beginning to turn pruny in the water.

"No," James said. "No, it's not. My parents have never beaten me. Never even hit me once. They didn't even believe in smacking when I was little. So it's not 'just what purebloods do' because my folks are as pureblooded as they come." There was a pause, and then James said, "You'll just have to move in with us, then."

Sirius popped his head up. "What?" That had not been what he'd expected Prongs to say.

"Your parents are hurting you. My parents, as you well know, wouldn't hurt a fly. So you can come live with us next summer. You already spend holidays there during the school year." James seemed to think it was settled.

"Your mum might like me, Prongs, but I don't think she's going to let me move in," Sirius said.

"She will. I know my folks. If she knew what your dad was doing—"

"NO!" Sirius' shout echoed off the walls, stunning James into silence. "You can't tell her. If my parents found out, they'd murder me!" There was no love lost between the Blacks and their black sheep son, and he knew it well. Losing status in the eyes of another Pure and Ancient House, even one as despised as the Potters, might well push them that last inch towards insanity that would allow them to murder their firstborn son.

"Okay, okay," James said, his hands held out in surrender. "Not a word. But...uh...I could tell them that they refuse to let a Gryffindor live under their roof anymore. Yeah. Or...or something. We'll think of something. They're not going to let you go homeless, mate. And I'm not gonna let you go back there when your parents are that evil. You deserve better than that."

Sirius couldn't look at James. His eyes were feeling a bit prickly. His friends were the best.

Since he didn't have words, he transformed into Padfoot and launched himself at his friend, licking a long stripe up the side of his face.

"Yuck!" James yelped, splashing backwards frantically. "Really, Padfoot?"

Padfoot barked excitedly, tail sending bubbles flying in every direction. A moment later, his antlered friend was tossing his head, sending water crashing over the sides of the bath.

"Whoa, whoa, guys, I don't want to get caught in the middle of this!" Remus hollered, jumping out of the tub and grabbing a towel. He wrapped it around his waist in a hurry. "Merlin knows the kind of damage you could do to my bits with one of those antlers!"

Prongs turned back into his usual self in time to catch an armful of dog. He dropped his friend into the water and swam for the edge. "Don't want Moony to have to worry about his bits, after all," he said, grabbing a towel of his own.

Sirius pulled himself out of the pool and shook himself thoroughly, then transformed back into his human shape. He was mostly dry, but he patted himself down with a towel and began dressing in his school clothes. "Yeah, that would be a fun thing to have to explain to Madam Pomfrey, wouldn't it?" he said.

All three boys winced at the thought.

They finished getting dressed and gathered up their school supplies. "Tempus," Remus said. "Blast. We missed half of Divination."

"Well, Professor Alexander should have seen that coming," James cracked. And all three of the boys broke up with laughter.

Fifteen year old boys aren't particularly good at navigating the minefield that is feelings. Sirius was also never one to be a great talker, not about anything that mattered. Even later, there was never really a good time to bring it up so Sirius never told Remus that he was grateful he'd asked the hard questions. He never told James that his offer of a place to stay had been a lifeline to a drowning man. But the Marauders had been the best of mates since they were eleven...and so they knew these things, none the less.