This story is a companion-piece to a much longer multi-part story called Mood Music, a.k.a. Sound is a Horse.
Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us.
All right, I panicked and I'll admit it - if only to myself. I lost my head under pressure and that's dangerous. I should have been able to set my personal feelings aside and hear what Black and Lupin had to say. But their damnable map with its damnable, spiteful insults - mocking me for the face I was born with, as if I wouldn't change it if I could - had brought back everything I felt at the time, till I was choking with it. And there was the boy, ignoring the rules, as his father had done; thinking himself above the constraints of normal mortals, as his father had done - blundering stupidly into mortal danger for the sake of a dare, as I had done. Letting Messrs. Moony & Co. lead him to the hunter for the sake of a sick laugh, the way they did me.
Then when the map showed me Lupin running to join Black there, down the tunnel under the tree, and meddling bloody Potter and his lieutenants missing from the school when we all knew that Black was hunting him, it seemed as if history was repeating itself. I more than half expected to find the children torn to bloody rags, as Black had intended me to be found, all those years ago - and much as I dislike Potter, I never wanted him dead. I saw them dead in my mind and I panicked and ran, and went to the fatal tree alone. Again.
The Whomping Willow. Such an amusing name. In the past they were places of execution: a means of beating prisoners to death. That may be why Black chose it as the venue for my own - execution. When I found Potter's cloak discarded by the tree and the ground torn by struggle, I was sure of my fears.
And now there they both were. There was the werewolf, the so-called prefect, the fence-sitter - Lupin, whose responsibility it was to keep order. Lupin, who had just enough conscience to know that what he and his friends were doing to me was wrong, but not enough to prevent it. Lupin, who didn't like to dirty his hands or his wand by actually hurting me physically, but who stood with the rest and baited me for the face and the nose I was born with - as if he didn't grow fur and a muzzle every full moon.
Lupin who witnessed my abject humiliation, time after time, and sat safely behind his little disapproving frown and did nothing to help me - so eager for acceptance, for companionship, that he would go along with any cruelty his friends wished to commit, just to make them like him. So eager for acceptance that he would still trail after the handsome bully who had tried to make a murderer of him, for his own entertainment. And yes, I know how that one feels, intimately - but I had the sense to see what I was becoming and break free of Lucius, while I could still call at least one corner of my soul my own.
Even so, Lupin was the least worst of the four. Now that I know he had not been in on Black's little joke, it makes me uncomfortable to remember how I bared his own secret - his own private humiliation - by making sure the Defence class would know a werewolf when they saw one. At the time, I was disturbed to feel how much I enjoyed betraying him; but Black had broken into the school with a knife the very night after I had seen Lupin with Potter, and I feared a sacrifice was being set up. In any case, knowing how dangerous Lupin himself could be, and how my supposed colleagues among the Death Eaters had been cultivating the werewolf vote, I could hardly leave the children without a warning. Even though he had elected to do so. Even though it made a betrayer of me.
When I knew that he had indeed run mad in the grounds in his were shape, I had no choice but to tell his secret openly. When I knew that I might turn a corner and see - That, and nothing ever again.
And I still see him in my dreams - twisting, howling, changing, reaching for me. If I met a Boggart it would wear his face. I would rather die than tell him so, of course. He wouldn't even have the grace to gloat so I could hate him for it: he would be mortified, and embarrass both of us.
[I suppose it would be cruel to goad him about it. I might do so anyway, and eat my vengeance cold.]
Even now, the flashbacks still catch me at odd moments and leave me sweating, seeing that twisting, twisted shape. All the time that he was in the castle, flashbacks and dreams - waking up to find myself sweating and retching in a twist of sheets.
And there was Black. The murderer. Not quite the mass murderer the Ministry thought he was, perhaps - but a killer even so, sitting there with the child whose leg he had just snapped, jeering at me and boasting that I had deserved to die. Sneering at me for having tried to get them all expelled, at a time when that had been my only hope of escape.
Sirius Black, the smiling torturer, who held out false hope like a poisoned chalice and told me that the Marauders would let me join them, be one of them, be safe from them, if I only took his dare - to walk into the tunnel under the tree and be bloody rags.
And I still see that tree which so nearly became the whole world for me, standing like branching veins against the skin of the sky ((with dragons at the roots, and a goat to eat it; although what knowledge could be got there, even if I were to hang there nine days and nights, God only knows)). Or perhaps after all it was the green and burning tree, the gateway to Otherworld. The door into death. But the Norn did not cut me, yet: she is saving me up for later.
It was so easy to hate him: the torturer who betrayed his enemy; the traitor who betrayed his friend. The man who sent Lily and James Potter to their deaths - who turned my great crisis of conscience into a howling bloody mockery and made a murderer of me.
And I had thought that I was being so brave, so bloody fine, running to Dumbledore to tell him what I had done. When I realized that the prophecy I had carried to the Dark Lord might be the death of Lily and of Potter I couldn't live with that. She was my light even if she no longer shone on me, and how could I cause the death of the man who had saved me from Black (however shallow and self-interested his motives)? I thought if he died, that would show I had secretly wanted it - that in my heart of hearts I had known it would be him, and I had betrayed him willingly, because I hated him.
And I had thought that it would be so fine of me - so cleansing - to go to Dumbledore and tell him what I had done: to save them and lose myself in one heroic gesture. But then Black betrayed them to the Dark Lord anyway, and made a murderer of me, as he had tried to do with Lupin. And Dumbledore saved me from the Dementors, and made a paid betrayer of me.
I am ashamed now that I tormented Black with the threat of the Dementors: although Lupin has told me that Potter had already said much the same to him in private. [Bizarrely, I could quite like Lupin now, if only I didn't still sweat every time I see him. I think now that Black tried to make him my killer out of spite, to punish him for having held back from tormenting me.] But to taunt someone with a return to those, knowing what that feels like - that was too cruel even for me. Even for him. But I thought that he had made a murderer of me, and I wanted him dead. Oh, I wanted it..
Only it wasn't Black.
And I had been so pleased, so - preening myself, like that fool bird Fawkes - to think of it, that after all their sneering at me, even after they had isolated me so completely that they drove me into the arms of the Death Eaters, I was the one who became Dumbledore's Chosen Man: and it was one of them, one of the sainted sinners, who really became the Dark Lord's creature.
And I was right, of course. One of the four did turn on his fellows and betray Lily and Potter to their deaths. The Bold Marauder did lead the child to the hunter, as I was led: he showed him the blood on the stone, he showed him the altar, and he cut him and he bled him, and that blood was the pulse of Darkness manifest. The Marauder rent his own flesh, limb from limb as he would have done to me, and his own hand became the Hand of Glory and with it he showed the way back through the tunnel. The Marauder opened the way for the Dark Lord, so that he could return and lead his followers out to dip their tongues in slaughter. Our tongues. Oh God.
Only it was neither the Marauder nor the hunter I had expected. Not even the death I had expected. It was Pettigrew, the weakest, the most spiteful, who was serving a new master now... [What does it show about James bloody Potter, that he could attract or want such a parasite?] And it was poor Diggory who died: a quiet, hard-working boy who offended nobody.
And because of me - because of the secret that I betrayed all those years ago, not knowing whom I betrayed - an innocent man went into the hands of the Dementors for twelve years. For a given value of "innocent". If he had known that that was partly my doing - if he had known that their deaths were partly my doing - I might almost excuse his hatred that night: but so far as I know, he did not. He hated me because he had always hated me. Hated me because he didn't like the self he showed to himself when he hounded me. Hated me because I had so nearly made a murderer of him, when I took his dare.
Lupin claims that he saw Pettigrew on the map, but if that is true he had passed beyond the edge of it before I saw it. I wonder that I saw anything on it, with the writing being so tiny, for my sight has never been good: as a child I wrote with my nose almost on the page. [Glasses, I fear, would only make me look more like a moulting eagle than I do already.] But I saw the racing dot that was Lupin and was certain whom he was running to, saw that Potter was nowhere on the map, and I felt disaster coming. I imagined Black and Lupin and Potter in the same place - in that place - with Lupin perhaps already in were form, and I simply ran. And it would have been so - pleasingly symmetrical, if I had repaid my blood-debt to James Potter by saving his son from the exact same danger, in the exact same place. But I was only chasing the phantasms of my own memory down a nightmare of a rabbit-hole.
I should have considered what they had to say. Irrational of me, to reject potentially useful data: and I am ashamed of the loss of control which made me blind. But the more scared, the more vicious, always. Fear in me would always manifest as violence, and I have seldom been so afraid as I was that night: meeting my two killers together again, there in the place of my own planned execution, with three children in their hands. [On a night of full-moon, and seeing the potion undrunk: knowing that Lupin might at any moment become my nightmare made flesh.] I thought I was going to faint from fear.
As for the younger Potter himself, I can hardly complain that he knocked me down for it, since I was wrong about Black (this time); but I know that it will never occur to him to thank me for charging in like a lunatic to save him from what I believed to be a situation of extreme danger, to himself and to me. It has never occurred to him to thank me for saving him from dangers which were real: so why should he thank me in respect of one which I only imagined?
And now Black is dead. My enemy, my almost-killer is dead, and I wonder if I could or should have done anything more to save him: but I refuse to say mea culpa and wear the hair-shirt for provoking him to recklessness, since he was every bit as vindictive and childish towards me as I was to him. Ought I to be concerned? We are all playing with deadly fire, we of the Order: and whether we shall rise again from our own ashes, God alone knows.
In my mind it is still standing there, the green and burning tree - always burning and always reborn, the phoenix that beckons me down the passage that leads to a red death. And no doubt we shall all be led to the gallows-tree, in time.
In the scene on the bare hillside where Snape defects, Dumbledore accuses him of only caring about Lily, not about Harry and James, but we don't actually know that this is so. There was no likely reason Snape could have given to Voldemort for sparing his enemy and the child who was prophesied to be Voldemort's downfall: Lily was the only one he reasonably could ask Voldemort for. Obviously he didn't care as much about an enemy and a stranger as about his childhood sweetheart, but that doesn't mean he didn't care about them at all - Dumbledore assumed he didn't, but Dumbledore didn't allow him any time to speak. Later on, Dumbledore would tell Harry that Snape felt himself under a moral obligation to James for saving him, and although this is a blind to distract Harry from the real truth about Snape's attachment to Lily, we've no reason to think that it was a total invention. It certainly shows that Dumbledore has changed his opinion vis-à-vis Snape's sense of responsibility towards James, and he knows him a lot better by then than he did on the hillside.
Richard Farina's The Bold Marauder is one of my all-time favourite sinister songs, and has been used to very good effect as a backdrop to part of Verity Brown's excellent Occlumency novel A Merciless Affection, q.v.. In my opinion the creepiest lines in an already overwhelmingly creepy song are "For I will take you out by the hand, and lead you to the hunter" and "And we shall dress in helmet and steel, and dip our tongues in slaughter." The reference to blood on the stone and the sacrificial altar is also from this song: the thought here is metaphorical rather than strictly literal, although it seems quite likely that some of Harry's blood splashed onto the tombstone when Peter cut him.
A Chosen Man traditionally was a soldier elevated from the ranks and given extra responsibility, in recognition of extra skill.
Yggdrasil, with dragons gnawing the roots and a goat to eat it, is of course the World-Tree of Norse mythology, on which Odin hung for nine days and nights in order to obtain the secret of literacy. The three Norns or Fates live under it, weaving the world, and decide when to snip the life-thread of those who are about to die. In Celtic mythology the green and burning tree, with one side growing and the other side in flames, marks the entrance to the Other World, or to Fairyland, or to the country of the dead - depending on how you want to interpret it.
Oh and it's even worse than that, of course, because Snape doesn't know - and probably will never know - that when he was knocked out in the Shrieking Shack, and bashed his head against the wall, nobody even bothered to check his pulse to see if he was OK - and Sirius took the opportunity to knock an injured and unconscious man around some more and nobody bothered to stop him, even though Snape was severely concussed and could easily have died or been permanently brain-damaged as a result of Sirius's little game.
Since it was originally uploaded in 2005, this story has been adjusted slightly to increase the importance of Lily in Snape's thoughts, and to take account of the fact that his classroom hints about werewolves in PoA followed immediately on Sirius Black's breaking into the school with a knife, which followed immediately on Snape seeing Lupin talking to Harry in private. Obviously Snape would think Lupin was setting Harry up.