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Shedding Our Skins by Slytherin Project
Format: Short story collection
Chapter 1: The Crossroads (Post-Hogwarts / Next-Gen)
Chapter Title: The Crossroads
Characters: Matthew Sawyer / Oscar Symons (both OC)]
Era: Post-Hogwarts / Next-Gen (set in 2002)
Warnings: Mild Language, Mild Violence, Spoilers (!)
It was almost noiseless in the first-year boys’ dormitory as Matthew Sawyer’s eyes followed the emerald green hands around a lonely clock face. The only sounds to break the quiet were the occasional rustlings of parchment from behind a drawn pair of thick green drapes at the far end of the room, whilst the sunlight that lit the low room, reflected and filtered in the shoreline of the Black Lake, grew paler as the clock’s hands caught one another on their route towards eight o’clock.
“Aren’t you even a little bit bothered he hasn’t come back?” The eleven-year-old could stand the silence no longer, and blurted out a question to which he feared he already knew the answer.
“I told you, no!” A voice snapped back from the other end of the dormitory. “Why should I care? It’s none of my business.”
Matthew let his head and body slump backwards, collapsing onto the untidy green duvet on his own bunk as a volley of swear words ran through his mind. His neck sunk to one side, letting his eyes slide across the dormitory as the room’s black marble floor began to shimmer, the sun’s low rays catching and scattering on the breaking waves at the lakeside. The sealed-off bunk at the far end of the room belonged to Kevin Brand, a boy with whom Matthew had barely managed a single sentence of civil conversation in the two days since their Sorting, whilst in between Kevin and Matthew there stood a third, abandoned, bed.
Matthew’s attention was drawn to the thick volume of an open book, left between the duvet cover and the crumpled pillow case of the middle bed. He slid off his own bunk, feeling the chill of the floor tiles spread across his bare feet as he made the short journey across the room. “The House of Serpents,” he read the page heading to himself, before his eyes jumped across the book, noticing a series of scribbles, underlines and jottings in the handwriting of the boy who ought to have occupied the bed. “Salazar Slytherin,” he read, “founded the House of Slytherin with the aim of preserving the purity of wizarding blood…” Matthew glanced down the page to the next set of notes. “The House Ghost, the Bloody Baron, takes his name from the blood of Helena Ravenclaw, whom he murdered before taking his own life…” The boy shivered, as he read on. “Tom Marvolo Riddle, known to history as Lord Voldemort, and almost all of his loyal followers, or Death Eaters, came from Slytherin House…”
Matthew let the book drop back onto the vacant bed, leaving it to fall shut as it bounced against the sprung mattress. “Fine,” he broadcast his voice needlessly loudly, shaking his head and flicking the end of his brown fringe so that it held behind his left ear. “So what if you don’t care? I’m going to go and find him.” He waited a brief moment for a response that never came, before pushing himself to his feet, slipping into a pair of well-worn trainers and making his way past the solitary clock face to the dormitory door.
“Enjoy your detention when you get caught!” Kevin’s voice echoed behind Matthew as he left the room, but the brown-haired boy gritted his teeth, setting his sights on the gilded staircase that led up from the Slytherin dormitories towards the rest of the castle, and forced himself to ignore the other boy’s taunt.
Matthew took a last glance around his House’s near-empty common room as he let himself back into the low corridor outside the dungeon, shivering involuntarily as he stepped outside into the passageway. The eleven-year-old paused for a moment, wondering whether he ought to head back and collect a jumper, before shaking his head as he reasoned with himself. “Oscar hasn’t got a jumper, either,” he muttered. “Now where would he be?”
Matthew made his way through the lantern light of the Slytherin corridor, passing a brace of older boys who blanked him as they headed in the other direction, before emerging into the foyer outside the Great Hall. Looking left and right, he scampered across the cold stone flooring, casting an eye through the open gates and clocking the setting sun as he passed. “Oscar?” Matthew called, knowing as he spoke that he was only talking to himself. The boy kicked out against the defenceless bench in front of him as another swear word crossed his lips.
Neither of the first-year Slytherins had really talked to Matthew since the Sorting Hat had directed them into the dungeon 48 hours earlier. Whilst Kevin had been openly hostile to the boy’s company, Oscar Symons had been different: quieter, withdrawn, more nervous. Now that Matthew thought about it, as he edged along a ground-floor corridor, he wasn’t sure he’d heard the blond boy speak to anyone.
“Hey,” an older voice echoed out as Matthew passed a doorway, and the first-year stopped, glancing back over his shoulder to look for the speaker. “What are you looking at?”
“I’m not…” Matthew stammered, as the older boy reached for his wand. “I’m just looking for… for…”
“Some mudbloods to curse, I bet? Little Death Eater spawn, right?” The boy’s voice grew angrier. “He killed my Dad, you know that?”
Matthew edged backwards. “I don’t know what you mean…”
“Yes you do, liar!” He flashed his wand, and Matthew’s instincts screamed at him to run as a bolt of red light flashed across the corridor, catching on the brickwork opposite and shattering a stone gargoyle on the arch of a doorway.
Another stream of expletives ran through the eleven-year-old’s mind as a further battery of curses followed him down the corridor. Matthew skidded around a corner, dropping gratefully into the shadow of an alcove and gathering the hurried breath that forced his heart to thump against his ribcage. “Bloody hell,” he mumbled. “I hope he’s alright. I hope no one went after him like that.”
Matthew got to his feet once more, inhaling a deep breath and bracing himself for what the next corner might hold, before realising with great relief that the next doorway only led out onto the school’s grounds. “I wonder,” he mused, gazing out of the archway, as his eyes fell on the point of an obelisk. “Maybe he went back?”
The obelisk stood in the castle’s grounds, far enough away not to dominate the view from the building, but close enough such that it was impossible to look out towards the Forbidden Forest without noticing its peak. The monument was the centrepoint of a memorial garden, constructed four years ago following the Battle of Hogwarts and the death of Lord Voldemort. It had been the site, too, for the first-years’ History of Magic lesson that afternoon, when the muggle-born children in the group, Oscar and Matthew amongst their number, had discovered the story of the horrors that lay behind the memorial for the first time.
A box hedge concealed much of the garden from Matthew’s view as he hurried down the gravelled track that led across the grounds towards the memorial, skirting the herbology greenhouses that sheltered the boy’s route from the chill of the evening breeze that had risen as the sun fell. The path tailed off as it approached the tightly-packed bushes, and Matthew glanced around uncertainly, looking for a gap in the greenery to allow him into the garden. He shut his eyes, struggling to recall the afternoon’s lesson, before realising what he would need to do to gain entrance. “We will never forget,” he breathed, watching with rapt fascination as the branches of the conifers wound around themselves, weaving together as they drew back into an archway and allowed the eleven-year-old into the garden.
Matthew took a solemn step forward, staring upwards at the black marble of the pillar that rose ahead of him, before crunching slowly across the pebble-covered floor to gaze at the names inscribed on its sides. “Myrtle Henderson,” he read, “1929-1943.” The boy shivered, his eyes sliding down the list and taking in the names and the dates that followed. “Tom Riddle snr, 1905-1943. Thomas Riddle, 1880-1943. Mary Riddle, 1883-1943.” He shook his head, forcing himself to remember the reason he had left his dormitory, “Oscar?” He called. “Oscar?” Matthew sighed, turning to head away from the monument, past a row of wooden crosses and down onto the stone slabs of a staircase.
“Oscar!” Matthew repeated his shout as he noticed the back of a another child’s head, slumped forwards on a long iron bench at the base of the stairwell.
The other boy, blond-haired and a fraction shorter than his housemate, snapped around to stare back over his shoulder, his mouth dropping open in frightened surprise. “L… L… Leave me alone…” He stammered. “I didn’t do it; I didn’t know…”
Matthew swallowed. “Didn’t do what?” He edged forward, sliding onto the end of the bench. “Are you alright? What happened?”
Oscar blinked, staring across at the newcomer. “You mean…” The boy struggled. “You don’t want to… to…” He looked away, rather than finishing his sentence, leaving his housemate guessing about what it was that he feared.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Matthew admitted, forlornly.
The blond boy took a deep, fractured breath. “You don’t?” He queried. “I’m a Slytherin,” he emphasised the House’s name.
“So am I,” Matthew replied, stridently.
Oscar turned again, looking the other boy up and down. “You’re in my dorm…”
Matthew nodded. “You never came back.”
“You came to look for me?” Oscar gasped. “Even though… even though…”
“Even though what?” The brown-haired boy pushed his fringe away from his eyes. “What is it?”
“Didn’t you see the way that the others looked at… looked at us?” Oscar shivered. “When they talked about the memorial, you must have seen it. It’s the memorial to all the people that he killed. He was in Slytherin, and so were all his followers.”
A slow look of realisation began to draw across Matthew’s eyes. “Someone tried to curse me,” he whispered. “When I was looking for you.”
Oscar winced. “Because you’re a Slytherin,” he explained, matter-of-factly, before letting his head drop into his hands. “Why didn’t anyone tell me this?” The eleven-year-old exclaimed. “Why couldn’t anyone have said so, before that stupid Hat put me here for ever?”
Matthew shook his head. “I didn’t know, either,” he mumbled. “I didn’t know anything about magic till I got my letter.”
“Me neither,” Oscar confessed. “Me neither.” He lifted his head up, planting his chin into his palms and staring across the courtyard. In front of the boys, a granite plinth stood in the middle of a circular pool, holding an ornate statue that lifted a fountain of water into the autumn dusk. “Look at it,” he exclaimed, “look at the statue.”
Matthew adjusted his gaze. “What is it?”
“It’s meant to show the four Houses,” the other boy explained. “The lion for Gryffindor, the eagle for Ravenclaw, the badger for Hufflepuff, and the snake for Slytherin… all working together… Like that’ll ever happen…” His eyes started to water.
“Oscar…” Matthew offered, tamely, but the blond boy shook his head. “Oscar,” Matthew’s voice grew stronger. “We have to go back,” he insisted. “before it gets dark.”
Oscar nodded limply, slowly edging to his feet and barely lifting his gaze above his own ankles.
“Come on,” Matthew persevered.
“Ptolemy,” Matthew held the tip of his wand against the marble wall in the dead-end corridor that the two boys knew led to the Slytherin dungeons. “No-one’s in.” The eleven-year-old blinked as his eyes adjusted to the low candlelight that shone from the alcoves in the common room wall, illuminating the tones of emerald green and jet black that decorated the room’s walls, embellished by gold trim that lined the light fittings and split the walls and ceiling. “Do you want to go down to the dormitory, or stay here?”
Oscar shrugged, sitting slowly down onto a low stool.
“Fine,” the brown-haired boy acknowledged. “We’ll stay here. Keeps us away from that jerk Kevin this way, too.”
Oscar managed a thin smile. “I suppose,” he murmured, before drawing a deep breath. “Matthew…” he ventured, “why did you come after me?”
The other eleven-year-old collapsed down one of the black, leather-bound sofas that populated the common room. “Well…” He played for time, before answering his housemate’s question with one of his own. “I guess… I guess, no one else was going to, were they?”
“No,” Oscar replied, simply, turning away as his eyes reddened again. He swore, before hurriedly apologising as his cheeks turned an even deeper scarlet.
“It’s okay,” Matthew assured him, “I don’t mind.”
“Thank you,” Oscar sniffed.
Matthew nodded, before changing the subject awkwardly. “I guess you don’t know anyone else here, then?”
Oscar shook his head. “How could I?” He mumbled, barely lifting his gaze above his ankles. “No one will talk to me because I’m a Slytherin!”
“You could have talked to me,” Matthew offered, his voice hollow.
The blond boy looked up. “I didn’t know,” he answered, simply.
“You do now,” Matthew managed a tentative smile, and his housemate’s nervous face reflected it back. “Friends, right?” He held out a hand.
“Friends,” Oscar echoed, taking it without hesitation.
Matthew grinned again. “Cool,” he shook his fringe, casually. “There was a book open on your bed earlier,” he ventured. “You had it open on a page about Slytherin,” the boy took a deep breath. “Why?”
“You remember the lesson?” Oscar asked in response. “This afternoon, in History of Magic, when the seventh-year boy talked about the Houses?”
“Kind of,” Matthew admitted. “About the Battle of Hogwarts?”
“Yeah,” the blond boy’s voice grew more confident. “You know what happened there – when all the Slytherins ran away rather than fight to defend the castle. I was trying to find out whether that was it, whether Slytherin was all bad, or if there was anything else they had done, and… and…” He tailed off.
“Have they?” Matthew swallowed, fearing that he already knew what the other boy’s answer would be.
Oscar shook his head, sadly. “Not really,” he grimaced. “There have been a few good Slytherins, like the last Headmaster. He was a Slytherin, and a double agent too… but there haven’t been many others. I can tell why the others all hate them… hate us…”
Matthew nodded, unsure what else he could say that would help the other boy’s feelings.
“What did the Hat say to you?” Oscar changed the subject. “When you sorted?”
“Something weird,” Matthew ducked the question. “I wasn’t really listening carefully, I don’t think… I was too busy looking round the Hall, looking at the ceiling…” He grimaced, realising Oscar was staring intently back at him, waiting for a fuller answer. “It said something about Slytherin being at a crossroads.”
“Did it say anything about you?” Oscar pressed.
Matthew sighed. “I don’t remember properly,” he protested. “Really… but it said something like, “Slytherin needs new direction,” and that it could sense I was single-minded enough to get what I wanted, and that Slytherin had always valued that kind of determination.”
“It asked me how important I thought it was to get my own way,” Oscar recalled. “What I’d do to get someone agreeing with me. I remember thinking that you had to get them to think like they were getting their way after all… and then the hat said I was thinking like a Slytherin, so I had better sort there.” He took a deep breath. “Now I know why it said that… I feel sick; I wonder how I’m going to turn out… I feel like I don’t know what I should be doing any more…” Oscar shook his head, staring back down at his feet.
“Excuse me,” a new voice interrupted the boys’ conversation and the two eleven-year-olds looked around, sharply, in shock. “If I may…?”
Matthew’s eyes darted across the common room. “Who… who are you? Where are you?”
“Above the fireplace,” the voice echoed again. “The painting of Severus Snape,” it answered, before pre-empting the boys’ next question. “Yes,” he drawled. “Magical paintings can talk. Now,” he continued, “I could not help but overhear your conversation.”
“He didn't do anything wrong,” Matthew immediately, and unthinkingly, defended the other boy.
“Jumping to conclusions, Mr Sawyer?” The portrait raised a dark eyebrow. “Nobody has accused anybody of any misconduct.”
“How do you know my name?” The boy squeaked, before instantly clearing his throat
Snape sneered. “I would imagine there are a great many things which I know, but of which you are ignorant. Particularly as your combined experience of the magical world stretches to four days.”
Matthew gritted his teeth. “So…?”
The portrait rolled its eyes. “Must every new first-year intake be even more bone-headed than the last?”
“Are you just going to sit there and be rude to us?” Matthew snapped, before Oscar quietly spoke over his friend.
“What did you want to say, sir?”
Snape glowered at Matthew for a final time before switching the attention of his sallow face towards the blond first-year. “How do you want things to turn out, Mr Symons?”
Oscar held the painting’s gaze for a moment before he answered. “I want to walk round the school without being attacked…” He shivered. “I want people to see me, not Voldemort. I didn't even know who Voldemort was two days ago!”
The painting’s expression didn't alter. “Well,” Snape drew out the long syllable. “What are you intending to do about it?”
“Me?” Oscar blinked.
“A snake sheds its own skin,” Snape observed. “Nobody else is going to help you.”
“I will,” Matthew interjected, instantly.
“Then I shall take it that I am not needed,” Snape lifted the collar of his robe, turning away from the two boys and disappearing into the folds of his cloak.
Matthew let his eyes drift away from the fireplace and back towards his friend. “What the hell did any of that mean?”
Oscar bit his bottom lip. “I guess… I guess he meant that it’s down to us to get on with it, to change anything,” he paused, “to do what he said, to shed our skins… and start again.”
A/N The story of Matthew and Oscar’s fourth year is told in my completed fiction, “Lion, Eagle, Badger, Snake”, If you’d like to follow the fate of Slytherin House in this universe, I’d love it if you popped over for a read and review.
Thanks for reading!