Many thanks to Alyce, my wonderful beta, and to dolphinology for pointing out the Dursley thing ;).

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Part One: The Centre Cannot Hold

Chapter 1: Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre

It was the rain beating against the window that woke Harry up. For a moment he wasn't sure where he was, staring up in surprise at the grey squares of light on the ceiling, and then he realised: he had just lain down for a moment, the bed had seemed so inviting, and he had still had half an hour before Defence Against the Dark Arts began... Shaking his head in an attempt to clear some of the sleepy fog from it, he sat up sharply, glancing at his watch, and then swallowed hard. He had been asleep for hours; the Defence class was long over. In fact, he had missed Transfiguration as well, and was currently missing Potions, the last class of the day. How did I manage to sleep so long? Harry wondered in some surprise. And why didn't Ron and Hermione come and find me?

He considered running down to the Potions classroom, but decided against that pretty quickly, after imagining Snape's face. He remembered last week's lesson and shuddered: they had been making Draughts of the Living Death, a surprisingly complex piece of magic, and Snape had watched him like a hawk for the whole class. He had found himself getting nervous, and tiredness had clouded his thoughts, so that, careful though he thought he was being, he had somehow added aconite instead of asphodel, and his potion had started to smell like the inside of one of Uncle Vernon's old socks. Snape had been on him in seconds, gloating triumphantly. "Well, I wouldn't take it too hard, Potter," he had said with a kind of twisted glee. "You look like you've had too much of this one already." Ron's eyes had narrowed, and Hermione had gripped his arm as if to restrain him, but all Harry had felt was a deadening sense of inevitability that was only heightened by the sound of Malfoy snickering in the front row and repeating Snape's witticism loudly to anyone who would listen for the next few days. No, he wasn't very keen on turning up to Potions.

Anyway, by the time he got there, the lesson would be almost over. He could hear Hermione's voice in his head now: A great start to your NEWT courses, Harry. Honestly, if you can't even manage to turn up now, I don't know how you're going to manage by the time we get to seventh year. But no, no she probably wouldn't say that, Harry thought with a mixture of weariness and nostalgia. She'd probably look anxious and pale, and bite her lip, and ask him if anything was wrong. She'd been doing a lot of that in the few days since they got back. And of course something was wrong, lots of things were wrong, but they weren't the sort of things that Hermione could solve with a well-placed charm, or even Ron with a chocolate frog; they weren't the sort of things he could talk about, either.

He heaved a sigh and slipped off the bed, all his limbs feeling heavy with sleep. Of course he had been longing to come back to Hogwarts this year, just as he always did; the Dursleys had been less unbearable than usual after the Order leant on them at the beginning of the summer, and he had been in contact with the Wizarding World every few days, but still, this was his home, this was where he was happy. Except, of course, that he wasn't, not any more. And coming back just seemed to make the ache in his chest worse, because all these people laughing and talking and studying knew, they knew that Voldemort was back, that the Death Eaters had all escaped from Azkaban over the summer, and yet they still continued to concentrate on the trivia of their lives as if any of it mattered any more. A wave of anger swelled in his stomach every time he saw a group of giggling girls in the Entrance Hall, or people discussing the latest Quidditch scores, or even Hermione with her head bent over a book. And deep inside him, a little voice said: You're not angry with them because they're ignoring Voldemort's return. You're angry with them because they're ignoring Sirius' death.

He reached the common room and stopped in front of the fire, wondering where to go next. Wandering the corridors when he was supposed to be in class was not a particularly good idea, he knew, and although he found himself hard-pressed to care about school matters, he didn't much like the idea of detention either. He would probably get it from Snape for missing Potions anyway, and maybe from the new Defence teacher, Professor Ivanov, a tall and slightly arrogant-looking man with deep-set eyes who spoke with a thick accent. He didn't seem like the kind of man who would tolerate feeble excuses about falling asleep. Well, at any rate, there was no sense fishing for more detentions, but he didn't feel like staying here in the empty common room. After a brief moment of consideration, he went back up to the dormitory to fetch his invisibility cloak.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A few minutes later, Harry was creeping his way along an long, empty corridor on the fourth floor. He had never been this way before, or at least he didn't remember it if he had; there were no doors on either side, and the smoky light of the irregularly-spaced torches threw dancing shadows at the corners of his vision. He paused by the only object to break the monotony of the corridor's bare stone walls: a grimy portrait of an old witch in old-fashioned robes, seated at a round table and reading a book. He was used to sneaking around under the invisibility cloak, of course, he'd been doing it ever since his first year at Hogwarts, but this was the first time that he found that the rush of adrenaline was lacking. It was dangerous still, of course – if Filch or one of the other teachers caught him when he was supposed to be in class, he would certainly be punished – but it seemed so... pointless now, to be thrilled by breaking some petty little school rule. It was the sort of thing that Sirius would have done.

He realised suddenly that he had been standing stock-still and staring at nothing for some time, and he raised his hand to rub his scar, which was prickling as it had been almost constantly for a long time now, a perpetual reminder of everything he was up against. He sighed angrily, and the witch in the portrait looked up and snapped, "Who's there?" in a querulous voice. But Harry ignored her, for he had heard a sound that did bring a rush of adrenaline to his stomach: footsteps coming from somewhere behind him, and turning into the corridor. He turned sharply, seeing a figure approach through the shadows, and began casting about for a place to hide, to let whoever it was go past in safety. He was debating the merits of flattening himself against the wall – but the corridor was narrow and there was nothing to hide behind – and making tracks to the other end – but it was some distance away and his footsteps on the bare flagstone floor would surely give him away – when the figure stepped into a pool of torchlight and his face was illuminated. Before he could stop himself, Harry had let out a gasp of surprise, and the figure stopped short, staring at the air a few inches to the right of Harry's head. For a moment, the two stood, frozen in shock. Then a slow smile spread across the newcomer's face.

"Hello, Harry," said Remus Lupin.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"So, would you mind telling me what you were doing creeping around the corridors?" Lupin asked, leaning back in his overstuffed armchair with a mug of steaming tea. They were in the Gryffindor common room again, the rain drumming ceaselessly against the warped old window glass. It was still half an hour until the end of lessons, a fact which Harry was sure Lupin knew, but he felt somewhat aggrieved nonetheless.

"Why shouldn't I walk around the corridors?" he asked. "It's my school, I'm supposed to be here." He knew he was being irrational, but he didn't feel like explaining himself.

Lupin didn't seem particularly offended, though. "In that case, why were you wearing an Invisibility Cloak?"

Harry didn't have an answer to that one. He stared into the fire, its heat pressing against his eyes. Patterns formed and twisted in the flames: a lion became a snake, a smile became a grimace, a dog... He turned his head away, not wanting to see what the dog became.

After a moment's silence, Lupin sighed, and Harry looked up to find that he, too, was gazing at the fire, his face sad and tired. "The waiting's the hardest part," he said, almost to himself.

Harry straightened, watching him. It seemed to him that Lupin's face was more lined than it had been the last time they had spoken face-to-face, that the grey in his hair had become more pronounced. "What do you mean?"

Lupin looked at him, and Harry had the sudden odd feeling that he could read his thoughts. "I know how hard it must be for you, Harry," he said quietly. "To have to deal with this every day, and not even be able to do anything. It's difficult enough for those of us who feel useful. I wake up every morning thinking 'will it be today?', nervous to go downstairs in case someone hasn't come back from the night shift, trying not to remember that each parting might be the last..." His eyes were still on Harry, but they saw nothing now, his face closed, looking inwards. "Why hasn't he struck yet? What is he waiting for?" he murmured, and it seemed as if he really had forgotten that Harry was in the room at all. But a moment later he blinked and seemed to come back to reality. He smiled sadly, and sipped his tea. "We must continue to live, Harry. We can't let him take that from us, even though he may take everything else."

Harry dropped his eyes. Everything else... "Is this your way of telling me to work hard and be a good boy?" he asked, his voice sullen.

Lupin didn't answer immediately. When Harry looked up to see why not, he found the older man's eyes on him once more, and looked away quickly. "I know you think no-one understands what you're feeling," Lupin said, "and in some ways, you're right. But if you ever need to talk about... about Sirius, you can always come to me."

Harry didn't look up; he didn't want to see that face full of understanding and pity. He'd seen enough of both already this term to last a lifetime. He stared at the floor in silence, and didn't react when Lupin rose to go. He had thought he would just leave, but he was surprised to feel a hand grip his shoulder; he looked up to find Lupin watching him with an odd look on his face.

"Be careful, Harry," he said, with such quiet intensity that Harry felt suddenly embarrassed, and dropped his eyes again.

Lupin made to leave, and Harry had a sudden urge to call him back, to make him stay even if they didn't speak at all; but in the end he did nothing, and a moment later he heard the portrait slide smoothly shut. Lessons would be over now. In a few moments' time Ron and Hermione would be coming to look for him. Rubbing his eyes, he took a deep breath past the burning lump that was filling his throat, and realised suddenly that he had never asked Lupin what he was doing at Hogwarts.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"It was nothing special, really," Ron said around a mouthful of baked potato. "Just more resisting Unforgivable Curses and stuff. Nothing we didn't already do last year in the DA. The new guy didn't even seem to notice you weren't there." He paused, a thoughtful look on his face. "I wonder what's wrong with him?"

Hermione frowned. "What makes you think there's something wrong with him?"

Well, he's a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, isn't he?" Ron said cheerfully. "There's bound to be something wrong with him." He waved his fork around enthusiastically, bits of potato flying off it into Hermione's hair. She brushed them out with a disgusted look, and then turned to face Harry, looking concerned, as he'd known she would.

"Where were you anyway?"

"I fell asleep," said Harry dully, moving his food around his plate.

Hermione shot Ron an angry glance. "You said you couldn't find him!"

Ron swallowed. "Yeah, well. I thought he could do with the rest. You've been looking knackered lately, mate," he said to Harry.

"Oh honestly Ron!" Hermione cried in exasperation. "I know you don't think that lessons are important, but Harry can't just go around missing classes! How's he going to get enough NEWTs to be an Auror?"

Ron looked injured. "I do think lessons are important!" he said, unconvincingly. "I want to be an Auror too! But NEWTs are two years away yet, and how's Harry going to learn anything if he's dead on his feet?" He stopped suddenly, a horrified look on his face. Harry had the sudden urge to laugh; Ron and Hermione seemed to think that saying anything at all that might remind him of Sirius' death was a heinous crime. As if he needed reminding.

Hermione shook her head, flashing a quick glance at Harry. "It's never too early to start thinking about your future," she said, somewhat sanctimoniously. Ron opened his mouth to argue, but was interrupted by a loud scrape as Harry pushed back his chair. He looked up in surprise, but Harry didn't meet his eyes.

"I'm going to bed," he mumbled, and set off towards the door without waiting for an answer. He heard Hermione hiss something reproving at Ron behind him, and Ron answer defensively, but he didn't turn to look. Reaching the great oak door, he put a hand on it and heard a burst of laughter from the Slytherin table. At this he did turn, suddenly furious, sure that Malfoy would be watching him and smirking. But Malfoy wasn't there.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The next morning Harry lay in bed, pretending to be asleep as the others got up and went down to breakfast. Ron stood by his bed for a long time, but eventually he clearly decided that sleep was more important to Harry than food, and followed the others down the spiral stairs. Only then did Harry open his eyes, staring up at the canopy of his bed. He hadn't slept well; he was used to that, though, he could no longer remember his last good night's sleep. When he did sleep, he had dreams that made him sit up in the middle of the night biting back screams. They weren't clear, linear dreams like the ones he had had the year before, and for that he was grateful: if Voldemort was still trying to control his mind, he had clearly found a new way of going about it. The dreams he had now were jumbles of images that didn't make sense, and when snatches of them came back to him throughout the day he could find nothing in them that would classify them as nightmares; yet still he would awake, stomach twisting, drenched in cold sweat, and with the feeling of a shadowy menace hanging over him, just waiting for the right moment to stretch out its hand and take everything that Harry held dear. Not that that's very much anymore, Harry thought mulishly.

He didn't go down to breakfast, and headed straight off at break-time, muttering something about going to the library. He could feel the anxious gazes of his two friends burning into his back, but he couldn't be bothered to worry about their feelings. He went out into the fine drizzle and walked around the lake, eyeing the black surface, dimpled with thousands of tiny raindrops. The rain insinuated itself under his coat and down his neck until he was soaked through, and he knew that sitting through the next class would be hard and uncomfortable, but couldn't bring himself to care. He kicked a rock moodily into the lake, and watched as it disappeared from sight into the unguessed-at depths. He realised he couldn't remember a single word of the lessons he'd just had, and was even having trouble remembering what subjects they had been; but a moment later he realised he didn't care. He didn't care if he failed all his NEWTs, he didn't care if he never became an Auror. he probably wouldn't get to take the final exams, anyway, the world would probably have ended by then, or he would be dead at the very least. Damn Sybill Trelawney! Why did she have to go opening her fat mouth? He kicked a tree, causing slimy wet leaves to flutter down onto his head, and stubbing his toe in the process. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he looked up and realised it was the beech tree from Snape's memory, the one under which Sirius and his father had sat and acted like they were kings of the world. And he had a sudden urge to scream, to bellow at the tree and everything it represented, at the father and godfather who had left him with nothing but an unpleasant memory of their schooldays. But he didn't scream. He didn't do anything, and a few minutes later he heard the bell ring in the distance, and turned to return to the castle.

He managed a repeat performance at lunch-time, grabbing some food off the table and beating a hasty retreat, sitting morosely on his cloak under the beech tree, hidden from the view of the castle windows, and so it wasn't until the final bell had rung that he finally heard the rumours that had been flying round school all morning. He arrived in the Great Hall, dispirited and still damp from his lunchtime excursion, to find the air buzzing with interest. Crossing to the Gryffindor table, he was about to sit down when Ron put out a hand to stop him.

"Hey, watch it!" he cried, and Harry stared at him in surprise as he snatched something small from the chair that Harry had been about to sit in. Looking up and spotting Harry's expression, Ron grinned and held out his hand. A small Sneakoscope lay on his palm, gleaming softly in the candlelight. "Fred and George sent it me," he said. "They thought it might come in handy, what with everything that's going on."

Harry wondered what had happened to his own Sneakoscope, and then wondered if Ron had noticed that he hadn't used it for years. Well, considering that pretty much everyone around me seems to be plotting my death half the time, there doesn't seem much point, he thought angrily, sitting down now that the way was clear.

"So, what do you think?" asked Ron, still grinning. He raised his eyebrows and jerked his head towards the Slytherin table.

Harry glanced at Hermione, but she was watching him too, albeit with a more worried expression. "What do I think about what?" he asked finally, when it was clear that neither of them was planning on filling him in.

"About Malfoy of course," said Ron, looking somewhat surprised. "I thought you'd be over the moon, but you look like a wet weekend in Bognor Regis."

Harry looked from one face to the other again, beginning to feel annoyed. He wished Ron would be a bit less cryptic. "What about Malfoy?" he asked, and his tone was sharper than he'd intended.

Ron looked slightly hurt, but Hermione leaned forward. "You haven't heard, have you?" she said in an undertone. Harry shook his head slowly, wondering what on earth Malfoy had managed to cook up this time. Hermione glanced around, then leaned in closer. "He's gone."

Ron had no such qualms. "Oh come on, Hermione," he said loudly, "it's not as if it's a big secret. He wasn't in Potions yesterday," he continued, turning to Harry with a barely disguised look of glee on his face. "I thought it was a bit odd, but to be honest I was just generally chuffed that Snape couldn't give him any points for arse-kissing. But apparently he hasn't been seen since yesterday morning, and everyone's saying he's run off to join the Barmy Army."

"What, you mean he just disappeared?" Harry asked, interested in spite of himself. "Didn't he tell anyone where he was going?"

Hermione rolled her eyes at Ron. "We don't know he's run away," she said. "He might have been kidnapped."

Ron jerked a thumb over to the Slytherin table. No-one seemed to be looking too upset. Even Crabbe and Goyle were chatting away to each other, seemingly unaware of the Malfoy-shaped space between them. "Well, they're not exactly mourning the loss of their Great Leader, are they?" he said. "He probably told them he was going. Wish they'd all follow his example."

"Yeah," Harry added, "and how would you kidnap someone from Hogwarts anyway? You'd have to know the password, since we all know you can't Apparate in the grounds." Hermione stared at him, astonished to find that he finally seemed to have retained that particular bit of knowledge, and he found himself grinning at her despite himself. The expression felt strange on his face.

"Well," Hermione said, "I didn't say that he had been kidnapped. I just don't think we should assume anything."

"Oh come off it," said Ron happily. "It's obvious he's gone to join the Death Eaters and his bloody father," the last word was said in a poor imitation of Malfoy's arrogant drawl. "Good riddance, that's what I say."

But at these words, Harry felt a lurch in his stomach, and he fell silent, suddenly feeling the smile drop off his face. Hermione was looking at him, wearing her concerned face again. "Are you OK?" she asked, solicitously.

Harry looked at her, and at Ron, who was looking at him now in some confusion. "You know what this means, don't you?" he said, lowering his voice so that it didn't reach the ears of the nearby Gryffindors.

Ron raised his eyebrows. "No more of Malfoy's scintillating wit?" he hazarded, but fell silent at Harry's expression.

"No," Harry said, feeling the shadow reach out towards him again. "It means it's begun."