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From Portrait to Portrait
Harry turned his head in time to see Phineas marching out of his portrait and knew that he had gone to visit his other painting in Grimmauld Place. He would walk, perhaps, from portrait to portrait, calling for Sirius through the house...
Ch. 37 - The Lost Prophecy, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
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The realisation, when it came, was swift and silent. It was not accompanied by howls of anguish, nor by wails of fury. It was sudden. It was cold. And it hurt. "I don't believe it," he had said. He hadn't been lying. But now the truth pierced through him, and he finally parted with the comforting illusions he had painted for himself. Now he believed.
He had made the journey thousands of times before. Never had he been as disoriented as he was now, never had he felt as confused by the alien feelings which were rising up in him. Looking around the room he was now a part of, he remembered the teenager who had once lived here for a brief few weeks. Such a Gryffindor - so determined to be noble and play the martyr, without even examining the necessity of such an act. His lips curled up in derision. Teenagers - they really were all the same.
Moving on to the frame in the next room, he continued his inward rant about teenagers in general. All so full of their own self-importance, all thinking that they had to be the centre of attention. How no one would understand them. He had never cared for them.
He was suddenly struck by the distinct lack of noise. Normally there'd be the constant pacing about by - moving on to the next portrait - to say nothing of the muttering of that disgusting house elf. And occasionally there would be the inhuman screeching of that woman, who he felt had an uncanny resemblance to a banshee. If not visually, then certainly vocally. But now the house was silent.
Flitting into the next portrait, his previous thoughts continued. During the brief period he had acted as headmaster, he had never tried to resolve the problems of those self-pitying teenagers. If they thought that they were such tragic figures that nobody could truly comprehend their complicated emotions, then let them solve their own petty squabbles. He had been labelled as cold and uncaring, and quite possibly the worst ever headmaster of Hogwarts. That suited him perfectly. He had no desire to be remembered as a compassionate and understanding figure.
The merest tints of doubt were beginning to take shape in his mind. As a Slytherin, he had never allowed himself to be tricked into anything. He went through life determined to think the worst of everyone until they had earned his trust. And there were precious few people who had that honour. Dumbledore had been one of them. And Dumbledore was the one who had, with such gentleness and firmness, confirmed the death of - moving on -
There had been many portraits in the house. Despite the deliberations of - the last remaining descendent of the family - to destroy them, many still remained. Derelict and blackened as they were, he had no trouble transporting himself through each of them. He had already travelled through the whole of that floor, and had failed to find any sign of life. Well, no worries. There was plenty of the house left, after all.
As he continued, he allowed his thoughts to drift once more. Where was he before? Ah yes, the many follies of teenagers. But try as he might, he could no longer concentrate on what was one of his favourite subjects. The thought of teenagers led invariably to one particular teenager - one who he still remembered, no longer a teenager of course - one who was the very reason for his current presence at this place...
He could not be dead. And yet, even as he repeated this one fact to himself, another part of his mind questioned. Maybe he's not, and maybe he is. Either way, why do you even care? The follies of teenagers and of most so-called adults, remember? He thought back to before, when a black-haired teenager had slept in the very room his portrait hung in. He reflected idly that there seemed to be a certain attraction for black-haired teenagers to his room - they always seemed to end up in there. And they really were all the same. How many times had he been forced to listen as some random person ranted on and on about the unfairness of the world? He had always sighed, weary of the apparent melodrama in their lives. Yet it was always with a certain sadistic satisfaction that he retreated back into his portrait, with the knowledge that, once again, he was proven right in his theories about the philosophy of teenagers.
This particular person had been different though. Oh, he had started out the same as the others. The constant fighting with his brothers and parents, and the habitual sulking in his room afterwards. But it was after he returned that there was a change. And for one of the only times in his life, he had felt some emotion other than scorn for another human. He had told himself that he cared now because the whole event concerned the last of the Blacks. Slytherins are always concerned with names and heritage, he thought cynically, and you are most definitely a Slytherin.
But that did not quite cut it. Faced with the prospect of analysing his own thoughts, however, he shuddered. He hated examining his emotions and feelings. He associated that with teenagers, and with the wallowing in self-pity. It was what he had always tried to avoid (and succeeded in, most of the time), and what he found most annoying in everybody else. The problem with a cynical outlook on life, though, is that you always find that you act exactly the same as everybody else, however much you scorn and look down on their behaviour.
Refusing to dwell on these thoughts any longer, he continued his search. He did encounter Kreacher eventually - the house elf merely muttered when he saw him moving through the various portraits. But he still managed to catch the undertone of glee in the mutterings, and he shuddered again, this time for quite a different reason.
It was after he had gone through the whole house that he finally allowed himself to think and to doubt. Dumbledore - well, he still did not agree with all of his methods. Far too indulgent with the pupils. But - and he chuckled when he thought of it - you couldn't deny that Dumbledore had style. And you also couldn't deny that Dumbledore did not lie. He could twist the truth. He could suppress the facts. But he did not lie. And as much as he tried, he could not see how Dumbledore could possibly not be lying, and at the same time for that person to be alive. But he still refused to accept it.
More slowly, as if delaying the final moment of conclusion, he moved through the portraits for a second time, each time checking his surroundings thoroughly from every possible angle. He had thus far refrained from calling out - after all, there was no need to make a fuss. He would confirm what he believed to be the truth, and then silently slide away, without alerting anybody to his presence in the house. Now, however, he let go of such restraint. Feebly at first, but gradually getting louder, he called out the name which he had not even allowed himself to think.
But there was no answer. Even the old hag had not woken up - a true miracle for her. He had unwillingly caught the phrase 'department of mysteries' from Kreacher, and had begun despairing even more, remembering Dumbledore's mention of it also. And throughout his search, he had constantly argued with himself over the true reason of why he cared so much. Finally unable to take it any longer, and now fairly jumping through each portrait despite the deliberate slowness of before, he had stopped and shouted "All right, all right! I admit it! I do care about you, and more than just as the last Black, and that's why I'm out of my mind with worry now! Just come out, dammit!"
But there was still no answer.
Faced with the finality of the truth, he still did not give up. Full of determined resolve, he travelled through the entire house yet again. The house elf seemed to rejoice in his growing despair, and insisted on following him about, muttering his dark words. "Persisting in looking for the murderer, with all the shame he brought on the house, and what he did to my poor mistress..." Kreacher was ignored. He had far more important things to do, after all. But after traversing the house a third time, and then a fourth, he was eventually forced to give up.
He returned to his portrait at Hogwarts. Dumbledore said nothing when he saw his reappearance, but merely raised his eyebrows and continued with what he was doing. The occupant of the portrait also did not say anything, but merely resumed his usual expression of disdain for everything and everyone around him. And as time went on, to all appearances Phineas Nigellus was still the cynical, sharp tongued portrait he had always been. But occasionally, very occasionally, a student sent up to Dumbledore's office for rule-breaking would notice that the portrait of the clever-looking wizard with the pointed beard seemed to be just a little too enthusiastic with his sarcastic remarks, and that his sniffs, although often dismissed as implying haughty disdain, could also quite possibly be one of those which were often accompanied by a swift dab of the eyes.
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