Paint it Black: the Portraits of Phineas Nigellus


(there are many stories between the lines)

Caption on the family tree of the Noble and Most Ancient House of BLACK


The portraits on the walls were smirking. He did not give them the satisfaction of a look, but Phineas was aware of his predecessors' malicious amusement all the same. It was how he would have felt, were he in their place.

At this moment in time, it was an effort to be thankful that he was not. The girl quietly sobbing into her handkerchief and the boy who kept clearing his throat nervously were enough to make a paragon of virtue lose his temper, and he was no such paragon. He was Phineas Nigellus Black, first sorted into Slytherin, then Head of Slytherin House, and now Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

As much as he enjoyed the power and standing of his position, Phineas loathed dealing with adolescents. Their hormone-induced dramas grated on his nerves.

This sort was the worst. A trifling incident of Slytherin bullying, a Ravenclaw sent to his office for nicking a book out of the Restricted Section, or a Gryffindor caught pulling a prank were easily dealt with by comparison. Although Wizarding society was not as oppressive as that of Muggles and their Queen Victoria, unmarried women were expected to stay chaste until marriage.

Parents tended to blame the Headmaster if he expelled their daughters for being otherwise.

He made a steeple of his fingers and leaned back in his chair, addressing the Head of Hufflepuff pacing across the Turkish carpet. "What exactly do you mean by compromising position, Professor Abbot? In flagrante delicto?"

The tall, thin, man wrung his hands. "No! When the Fat Friar discovered my students, he informed me immediately, so they were not entirely unclothed when I broke the ward and opened the door."

How interestingly worded that was. Phineas raised a brow at the boy who now appeared to have trouble swallowing. "What were you wearing?"

"My tie."

Phineas smoothed his moustache to conceal a reluctant smile that vanished when the hapless girl began to wail.

"Please don't expel us!" she cried. "We have NEWTS in two weeks!" Her face crumpled. "I couldn't help it! I love him!"

"Of course you do." Phineas curled his lip. "Isn't that your House motto? I did it for love?"

In the back of the circular office, Abbot said, "There is no official motto, but unofficially, the students have chosen love is all you need."

Instead of love, they should have had an Apparition Aversion Charm and a better ward on the door, Phineas thought snidely. He pinned the seventh-years with a steely look. "If there are any complications, you will conceal them until you leave school. Another such an incident, however, and I will inform your parents and expel you both. Professor Abbot will arrange separate detentions, for as long as he sees fit." The glance he shot his colleague said it had better be until the end of term.

The girl sniffed. "Com—complications?"

Phineas was not about to answer that question. "Take her to the Hospital Wing, Professor Abbot, and have Madam Quirke perform a quick exam...and an extensive talk." He exhaled heavily, wearied by the idiocy of those around him. "You are dismissed."

Alone at last, he pushed to his feet and strolled to the drinks cabinet hidden in a bookshelf. He poured a tumbler of Firewhisky and took a fortifying drink before raising his glass toward the watchers on the wall. "One word from you," he said, "and I will have Bosky make curtains to draw over your portraits."

"That seems rather harsh," said a laughing, feminine voice. "I haven't even painted your portrait yet."

Phineas set his drink down behind a vase. "I have commissioned no portrait."

"The Ministry has. It's tradition."

He faced the interloper and felt an odd sensation, as though his world had tilted. Concerned that he might have developed an ear infection, he walked carefully forward. The room did not shift. Relieved that his equilibrium was steady once more, his gaze travelled over the woman's short, curvy frame and narrowed on her face. "You seem familiar. What is your name?"

"Felicity Argo." Her smile widened. "Do you remember me? You claimed that I was the worst Divination student you ever had."

Phineas remembered. He had an eidetic memory, much to students' dismay. The phrase brought an image to mind. "That was ten years ago, before I became Headmaster." He grimaced. "However futile, I try to forget that I ever taught Divination—ever taught, for that matter." He flicked his fingers at her hair. "You didn't resemble a walking Dandelion puff then."

She put a hand up to short, flyaway strands. "No, but it is apt, you saying that, since I was a 'Puff'."

Total recall was a curse more than a blessing. He snapped his fingers before pointing accusingly. "You were the bumblebee!"

"Bumblebee?" Hazel eyes widened.

"Bzz, bzz, bzz, always stinging me with questions. Salazar Slytherin, you were annoying. Have you changed in more than appearance?"

"Am I continually pestering you with questions?"

"Hmmm—we shall see."

His former student seemed to find his expression less than daunting. "Yes, we shall." She pulled out a quill and a small book out of a pocket. "To start," she said briskly, "Where would you like to have your portrait painted?"

Thin, black eyebrows drew together. "I beg your pardon?"

"The background of your painting. Would you like it to be outdoors, at sunrise or sunset, here in your office, or in your private quarters?"

"My quarters," he said. "There are green draperies."

"So you like green. Will you be wearing green robes?"

"I suppose."

She tilted her head. "You used to be clean-shaven. Is the moustache and beard temporary, or shall I include them in the painting?"

He fingered the narrow, close-cropped facial hair. "I used to be married, too. Paint them."

The woman's voice was soft with sympathy. "I read about your wife's...accident...last year. I'm sorry."

He inclined his head. Accidental poisoning was the official cause of death. Phineas had construed from the open text on her worktable that his long-estranged wife had seduced her latest lover into trying one of her "eternal love" potions. His lips tilted at the corners. In a way, the deadly brew had been a success. Ursula and her swain would spend eternity together.

"Are the children living with you here at school?"

Phineas blanched. Those terrors, live with him? Perish the thought. "They abide at home, with nannies and tutors and such."

"But I read that your youngest was only a few weeks old. Surely an infant needed a father more than a nanny!"

Was the baby even his child at all? The only one he knew for sure was his progeny was the eldest boy, named after his brother Sirius.

Phineas' arranged marriage to Ursula Flint had never been satisfying, but although he had willingly lived separate lives, he did not appreciate having family skeletons dug up. It put him in a snit. "Actually, she needed a wet nurse, but that is none of your concern." His gaze fell to her chest. "Although you would have been more than qualified for the position."

The area in question appeared to swell with indignation. "Size is not a factor in such matters!"

"It should be," he said without thinking.

Her face turned pink, highlighting all the freckles caused by unladylike exposure to the sun. Unnerved by the desire to know if she had freckles on other parts of her body, Phineas turned on his heel and stalked back to his desk. He waved a hand at the calendar. "I do not have a set time available, so I will notify you each day of the exact hour I will be able to fit you into my schedule."

Although outwardly his smile was bland, inwardly he grinned like a schoolboy. His arrogance would ensure that she marched out of his office to demand the Ministry find another artist. He gaped in disbelief when she nodded.

"All right." She consulted her book. "What do you consider your best feature?"

"My beard."

She smiled at his sarcasm. "It matches your wit—very pointed."

One of the portraits sniggered.

Phineas sat in his chair and made a show of examining a piece of correspondence. "You are dismissed." He pretended to be absorbed by a request to donate funds to yet another charitable organisation for children—as though Hogwarts students did not already strain his charity to the breaking point. His nerves tightened when the silence lengthened. Was she studying him, examining his face for professional reasons, or was there some personal interest involved?

He had heard that female artists were loose women, and if he remembered correctly—as he always did—the girl had once exhibited signs of a tendre for him. Her blushing admiration had been only slightly less irritating than her endless questions. Surprisingly, the thought of her awe was welcome now that they were both adults. After all, as a widower, he was free to pursue feminine company without censure from the Ministry.

Prepared to converse with civility, it was an unpleasant jolt to look up and find that he was alone.

Later that evening, following a dinner rendered unpalatable by the sight of the artist conversing merrily with the Transfiguration and Charms professors, he sent called for his house-elf Bosky to deliver a note.

The next morning at five o'clock, Phineas repressed yawns while the woman hummed beneath her breath in a way he did not find felicitous.

"You keep shifting in that chair. Would you like me to perform a Comfort Charm?"

He shot her a withering look. "I am not uncomfortable. I'm bored."

Her pencil seemed to fly across paper. "You may walk around if you wish. The sketches are only to help me to become familiar with your gestures and expressions. It isn't a formal sitting."

He stood. "Why didn't you tell me before?" Phineas strolled over to look at the drawings. When he observed that his proximity made her nervous, he took a step closer to peer over her shoulder. "Erase that one immediately," he said, reaching down to tap the offending drawing with a fingertip.

"No," she said, continuing to sketch.

He snatched the pencil out of her hand.

She hopped off the stool on which she had perched. Turning to face him, she reached into a pocket and withdrew another drawing pencil.

Phineas scowled. "I do not smile."

She lifted the pad. "This is the way you would have looked if you had smiled with more than your eyes yesterday."

He prowled toward her. "I insist you erase the drawing. You made me look mischievous when I was feeling decidedly wicked."

She clutched the pad to her chest. "Wicked?"

His gaze fell to a parted, feminine mouth. "Decidedly."

The tip of her tongue came out to lick pink lips, as if they were dry. Phineas' own mouth felt parched at the thought of running his tongue along the fullness of her bottom lip. When he saw a blush wash over softly rounded cheeks, he smiled.

She fumbled the drawing pad, righted it, and muttered a spell to erase the sketch she had made. "You were correct. I did not capture your true expression." The curve of her mouth was impish as she began to draw. "But I will."

Phineas imagined capturing her in his embrace. "What if my expression changes?"

She avoided meeting his gaze, but the roses in her complexion were every bit as revealing. "You'll have to hold that thought, then."

He chuckled. "My pleasure."

Two weeks later, on the Wednesday of examination week, student and staff tempers were flaring due to stress. Phineas' disposition remained on an even keel. He told himself that his composure was due to inner fortitude, not the daily companionship of Miss Felicity Argo.

Lounging in his favourite chair for a mid-morning sitting, he unconsciously fell into the pattern they had developed. He sat, she painted, and after he got bored, Phineas started a conversation. "Your hair," he said, "is short as a boy's."

"If you're asking why I cut it, I got tired of putting it up, and the length suits me."

He made a non-committal sound. "It's an odd colour, neither blonde nor brown."

"Dirty-blonde is what my mother called it," she said with a tiny smile. "Father was more romantic. He used to say it was like summer sand."

Phineas pictured her lying on a beach, her daring bathing dress revealing shapely arms and calves. He decided her hair was rather sandy in colour. In order to avoid admitting such a 'romantic' notion, he said, "Used to. Is your father...?"

"I'm all that remains of the Argo family. He and my mother were both elderly when they had me." She smiled a little. "I was their only child, a happy surprise."

"I'm sure." Children in his family tended to be carefully planned and looked upon as duties, not bundles of happiness. He himself was a less-than-doting father, although he provided well for the children, and would certainly never hex them or apply a birch rod to their hands or posteriors.

Memories of his late parents led to another, more tantalising thought. Miss Felicity Argo was without family. There was no one to object if she took a lover, no irate father that would try to force a wedding at wand-point should she become his mistress. His lips curved.

"Sickle for your thoughts."

He was thinking how much he looked forward to hearing her gasp his name, and the pleasure he would take in addressing her as Felicity in return. Phineas looked at her skin and stroked his beard. "Mine are worth a vault of Galleons."

She did not press for details. The look in fine eyes told him that she had a good idea, and found the thought enticing.

He continued the veiled seduction during each sitting. His aim was to compel her to declare her feelings, or at least invite him to take liberties with her person. She responded with smiles, blushes, and amusing, increasingly candid conversation, but he never gained his objective. By the time his portrait was completed, Phineas was so vexed; he gave detention to any student who had the effrontery to make eye contact.

"I think it's the best portrait I've ever done," she said after the final unveiling.

He shrugged. "It looks like me." Handsome, distinguished, and clever—she had captured him flawlessly. He gave her a sidelong glance. "How many portraits have you painted?"

Her eyes twinkled. "You are number thirteen."

He could not prevent his lips from curving. "Your unlucky number."

"On the contrary, I feel very fortunate to have met you. I will miss our...talks..."

Emboldened by her unspoken yet obvious sentiment, he said, "Stay, then, and paint another portrait, a private commission, for my home."

"I wish I could, but I have a client waiting. I'm doing a portrait of Mrs. Parkinson."

Phineas sneered. "If you paint her holding one of the family pugs, you'll notice a marked resemblance between the two."

She hid a smile behind her hand. "Believe me. I'd rather paint another portrait of you."

He thought quickly. "How long will it take to complete the painting?"

"I should be done by the end of June."

Phineas took a breath and a chance. "Come to my home. Spend the summer at Grimmauld Place."

Her eyes were huge. "Painting your portrait?"

He reached out and took her fingers in his. "Yes, as well as becoming more intimately acquainted." There was no stress on 'intimately.' None was required. She knew what he implied.

Slowly, she nodded.

Phineas smiled as he brought each of her hands to his lips.



A/N: Phineas' role in OotP and the caption on the Black Family Tapestry inspired this story, along with the Greek myth of Phineas—given the gift of Sight by Apollo, (Divination) angering the gods, blinded, confined to an island, and tormented by harpies until rescued by Jason and the Argonauts.