Obligatory Disclaimer: Mostly not mine.
Author's Notes: The 5000th review of Chasing the Sun was caught by Explopyro. He asked for fun with portraits, so that's what he's getting – this is technically set in the future of the Post Tenebras Lux universe, but with more of a Chasing the Sun feel to it. You don't need to have read either story to follow this, though, it's pretty self-explanatory. Enjoy.
Warnings: None, unusually for me.
"Pictures must not be too picturesque."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Being appointed Deputy Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was supposed to be an honour. Certainly Jeremiah Townsend, current incumbent of the position, had thought so at the time, and he had genuinely enjoyed the past few years. After spending the previous term and a half learning just how much work he would be taking on when his Headmistress died, though, he was feeling rather less enamoured of the job. He had never fully realised how complicated the role was that he would eventually be called upon to take up, and he was still waiting to discover why traditionally it was a job few people ever seemed to want. And some of the things he was learning about the castle he'd lived in for so many years were frankly downright disturbing.
He had long since passed the point of having any realistic expectations of what he'd be told about next, so when he ascended the spiralling staircase to his employer's office one Saturday afternoon it was with a completely open mind. After so many years in Hogwarts he wasn't sure much could surprise him any more.
"Good morning, Headmistress. What delights do you have for me today?"
The elderly witch smiled at him. "Today I wish to introduce you to some of the portraits of previous Headmasters and Headmistresses. Most of them keep to themselves unless needed, but some of the stronger characters take a... more active role. I warn you, they will become the banes of your existence once you take this job."
A soft deep laugh came from one of the frames on the wall, one that was rather oddly shaped. The source of the laugh was a slender wizard with shoulder-length silvery dark grey hair, a hooked nose and keen dark eyes, dressed in black robes; the Headmistress indicated his portrait with a sour expression.
"And that is the main culprit. I know you are familiar with history; this is the notorious Severus Snape."
"He was Headmaster during the end of the second War of the Phoenix, wasn't he? The Death Eater spy?"
"Yes. Nobody realised at the time but he never technically left the job, so when he died, his portrait appeared here with the others. He has been plaguing his successors ever since."
He studied the portrait, trying to ignore the painting's vaguely unsettling smirk. The canvas was unusually wide, and another painted figure was seated at the far end of the picture, a woman with long curly white hair streaked with faint traces of brown; she was apparently reading and seemed to be ignoring the conversation as most of the other portraits were. Medals hung from either side of the frame, one of silver-white metal on a green ribbon and one of gold on a red ribbon; he recognised the Phoenix medals from his History of Magic lessons many years ago.
"Why are there two portraits in one frame?" he asked in an undertone.
His employer smiled wryly. "As Snape had left the school, Minerva McGonagall was appointed after him, although he was still alive," she explained, nodding towards a painting on the opposite wall of a tall stern-looking witch with her grey hair bound in a tight bun and another red and gold Phoenix medal pinned to her frame, who appeared to be asleep, "and Hermione Granger succeeded her, as I'm sure you know. When she died, her portrait appeared in Snape's frame; it turned out that they had been in a relationship for many years – I understand she only outlived him by two or three years, although the exact dates escape me and he was a couple of decades older than she was. It is the only instance where two Heads have been a couple, since obviously usually one Head dies before another is appointed and it appears that no Head and Deputy have been in a relationship, at least not a lasting one."
He nodded slowly, regarding the two pictures; the witch had looked up now, revealing smiling brown eyes, and both she and Snape were apparently following the conversation with some interest.
The Headmistress continued, "I advise you to make an ally of Granger's portrait if you can. She's the only one who can control Snape, and only if you can persuade her that she should. I dread to think what the pair must have been like when they were alive."
"Thank you," Snape replied in a deep, quiet voice, sounding amused; his black eyes gleamed with dark humour, showing rather more expression than paint should be capable of. Jeremiah had never quite understood how the paintings in the magical world really worked.
"Is it really that bad? I mean, aren't the portraits under your control?" he asked tentatively.
"Oh, yes, in theory," she replied. "If you directly order one of them to stay out of sight or to be silent, they have to obey. I don't recommend it, though. They'll find ways to make you pay for it. Snape's the worst, but Granger and their allies aren't much better."
"Portraits can hold grudges?"
"Apparently so; some of them, at least. I've never been sure just how sentient the paintings within Hogwarts are or how much of the personalities of their subjects they retain, but there are some very forceful characters and strong personalities within this office and you would be astounded at how difficult a painting can make your life if they try. You could technically order the whole group of them to stay mute permanently, but much as it pains me to admit it, most of their advice is good and they're adept at ferreting out useful information the Head would otherwise be unaware of."
"So how many am I supposed to be wary of?" he asked; it was easy to dismiss all this as a joke or an exaggeration, but he really didn't like the way Snape was smirking, and Granger looked a little too innocent for a witch who seemed to have been over a hundred when her portrait was done and who had apparently led a very interesting life, from what he remembered of his History of Magic lessons. He also didn't think most of the slumbering portraits were actually asleep – did paintings even need to sleep?
"Those two are the ringleaders. McGonagall is almost as bad, although she's as likely to bicker with Snape as she is to side with him – I try to insist their debates take place elsewhere; it gets quite heated sometimes. Their allies are a pair of much older portraits that you may not be familiar with, from a century or more prior to the Wars of the Phoenix – Phineas Black and Dilys Derwent."
She pointed out each portrait and he studied them curiously. Black was a sly-looking wizard dressed in Slytherin colours, with a pointed beard and a disdainful expression; Derwent was a stout witch with close-cropped grey curls and a cheerfully mischievous grin. His employer continued, "The age of their portraits means they're not quite as bad as the others, but don't underestimate them either; they seem to have been interfering on Snape's behalf since his student days and show no signs of abandoning the habit just because he's long dead."
"Five of them, then?"
"Yes. Most of the other portraits seem less aware, or choose to appear less aware, and aren't likely to participate in your daily life unless you want them to. Those five are the most forceful personalities, as you'll discover very soon after you take office."
"And three are from the Wars of the Phoenix..." he mused. "What about Albus Dumbledore? He always seemed to have a reputation as a strong character, and he's talked of a lot in the book Snape and Granger wrote."
"Yes," Granger's portrait agreed in a soft voice that did nothing to disguise the dry bite of sarcasm; Snape wasn't smiling any more, sinisterly or otherwise.
His employer cleared her throat. "Yes, well. You're not likely to see much of Dumbledore. He can be talkative enough on his own, but... Well, they still debate the ethics of some of his decisions during the wars in History of Magic for a reason. I've been told that one of Snape's portrait's first actions was to suppress Dumbledore's portrait very thoroughly. That's his frame over there behind the desk, the only other one with a Phoenix medal on the corner, but you won't see him very often. He isn't very popular in here and spends most of his time in his other portrait at the Ministry..."
"Where he's still allowed to meddle and interfere and can't do any damage," Black's portrait observed haughtily, before sniffing and turning to walk out of his frame.
"The portraits are rather biased – there's a lot of personal history from when Dumbledore was alive. He's not so bad, mostly, although he tries to be patronising a lot of the time and makes himself scarce quickly enough once one of the others tells him to. I really don't know how the paintings interact but those five control the others very strongly, including my predecessors who succeeded Granger."
"Is that a cat behind Snape?" he asked incredulously; there was a painting of someone's wolfhound in one of the corridors, and old Sir Cadogan and his pony was one of the better-known portraits, but there were no animals in any other painting that he could recall, and Snape didn't look the type to have a pet.
"Yes... Nobody's been able to explain that. He showed up in the background of Snape's portrait as soon as it appeared. Apparently he was Granger's familiar when she was younger, but he died long before Snape did, let alone her."
"Cats are contrary animals," Granger observed as the cat – a large ginger tom with a flat nose – sauntered over to her end of the shared painting.
"That's not an explanation," he objected.
"It's all the explanation we have," his employer told him. "If you come into the office at night, his eyes somehow reflect light like a live cat; it nearly scared me half to death the first time. Otherwise you can ignore him; you'll see him all over the castle in whatever painting happens to overlook something he seems to find interesting. It's his master and mistress you need to pay attention to."
"Is it really so bad?"
"Not if you're good at your job," Derwent told him cheerfully from her painting. "Severus is perfectly tolerant when he doesn't object to what you're doing."
"Irritatingly, she's right," the current Headmistress conceded with a sigh. "Do you recall Rawlins, the Headmaster before me? He resigned the year before you joined us."
He nodded. "He'd only been in office three years, hadn't he? The Prophet were speculating about what made him leave, but nobody seemed to know."
"Yes. Well, you have these five portraits to thank for that. It only took them that long because he forbade any of them to be in the same room as him within the first term."
"He was an idiot," Snape remarked; the wizard was now leaning against the edge of his frame with his arms folded across his chest, his dark eyes seeming to gleam in a way that mere paint should not be capable of.
"So you told him, frequently," Granger observed with a trace of laughter in her voice, before looking down at the two standing in the centre of the office. "Rawlins had no concept of politics and managed to alienate the entire board of governors in six weeks; he was a dreadful chauvinist and did his best to ignore every female member of staff, and he insisted on involving himself in every minor disciplinary issue that should have been left to the Heads of House, handling each in such a way that by the end of his first year half the students were at one another's throats. He liked the power of his position and did his best to make sure nobody could even sneeze without his permission. I'm not entirely sure how he got the job in the first place."
He blinked up at her portrait. "So how did five paintings make him resign?" he asked warily. She smiled, her brown eyes dancing, and exchanged a glance with Snape, who smirked back at her; neither of them replied.
"I don't know the details," his employer told him. "I do know the other paintings in the castle, and the ghosts, all tend to listen when Snape makes requests of them – something to do with his term as Headmaster during the War of the Phoenix, I believe – and I'm sure that helped, but he wasn't a Slytherin for nothing. I was the Charms teacher at the time, and I certainly never saw him interfering, or Granger; it was mostly McGonagall's portrait that talked to the other staff members about things. They managed to undermine Rawlins' authority as much as possible and I'm sure they found ways to harass him endlessly until he couldn't stand it any more; I suspect they encouraged the students to unite against him, too. This is why I'm telling you not to make enemies of them if you can help it. Apart from anything else, someday your portrait's going to join them, and you don't want to end up like Dumbledore. I think he spends most of his time hiding in some of the portraits near the Hufflepuff common room these days, when he's in the school at all."
"So what can I expect, assuming they don't decide I'm an idiot who needs to be driven out?" he asked, glancing up at the shared portrait; Granger didn't seem to be listening any more, but Snape gave him a sarcastic smile that was more than half sneer and returned to lounging against the edge of his frame.
"Once they're convinced you know what you're doing, they're actually very helpful, a lot of the time," the Headmistress conceded wryly. "They're often aware of problems a student might be having before any of the teachers pick up on it, and usually manage to sniff out trouble before it starts. I've never been able to prove it but I strongly suspect they sort out a lot of minor disputes among the students without any of the staff knowing it's happened," she added, and both Snape's and Granger's portraits became blank-faced as Derwent sidled nonchalantly out of her frame. McGonagall still appeared to be asleep and Black hadn't returned.
His employer continued, "Sometimes one of them has some good advice to offer if you run into trouble with the board of governors or with the Ministry, but they all seem too impatient for politics and 'tact' is definitely a foreign concept for Snape and the older pair, although McGonagall and Granger are marginally more diplomatic."
Several of the other portraits snorted or laughed softly at that.
"It's not a foreign concept at all," Granger replied serenely without looking up. "Severus knows perfectly well what tact is. He just doesn't see the point in using it."
"Don't be a hypocrite, Hermione," her fellow portrait responded in a drawling voice, looking amused once more. "I think before I speak far more often than you do."
"Not that it makes any difference to what you end up saying," she retorted idly.
"Are they always like this?" Jeremiah asked his employer.
"Yes," half the paintings in the office chorused instantly, and the Headmistress chuckled as both portraits tried unsuccessfully to look offended.
"You get used to them. It stops you getting bored, if nothing else."
"I didn't think I was ever going to be at risk of that," he commented, drawing laughter from most of his audience.
Given the morning's discussion, Jeremiah wasn't all that surprised when he entered his office after lunch to find Snape's portrait lounging in the frame on one wall, watching the door with an almost complete lack of expression.
"Where is Madam Wenlock?" he asked, referring to the original occupant of the frame, a noted Arithmancer from the thirteenth century who spent most of her time knitting or sleeping and never spoke to him.
"Sulking somewhere near the library," Snape replied indifferently. "Miserable old bat."
"She's always seemed all right to me."
"You haven't spent years listening to her waffling about how marvellous the number seven is."
Deciding not to pursue this any further, Jeremiah shrugged and settled down at his desk with his paperwork, carefully shifting as nonchalantly as possible to try and make sure his unwelcome visitor couldn't really see much. He'd never been particularly bothered by the moving talking paintings before, but until now the paintings had generally left him alone and had always just been part of the scenery. He'd never really realised how uncannily human some of them still were.
Half a dozen forms, one minor incident report and two essays later, he cracked. Looking up to find the damned painting still watching him, he asked as casually as he could, "Did you want something?"
"Then what are you doing here?"
"I would have thought that was obvious. I'm watching you."
I suppose I walked into that one. "I noticed. Why are you watching me?"
"To find out more about you."
"You could just ask," he said exasperatedly.
Snape shrugged. "Why bother? Watching lets me find out more about people than they would ever tell me. That was true when I was alive and it's still true now. How entertaining do you think it is, being a painting, Mr Townsend? We have very little to do with our time except lapse into near-comas as most of the older portraits do, or watch people. In a place the size of this school there's always someone doing something worth observing, even if only to see what's about to go horribly wrong."
"You watch all the students, then?" he asked.
"Yes, as much as possible. Quite a few Heads of House have been grateful for the information provided by a painting who was in the right spot at the right time over the years."
"How do you keep track of them all?"
Snape gave him a blank look. "Simple observation."
"I don't believe you. Portraits can't retain memories to that degree."
The wizard's portrait cocked his head and regarded him with a rather distant expression. "Jeremiah Christophe Townsend," he said slowly and deliberately. "Hufflepuff half-blood. Prefect, and Quidditch reserve although you never made the main team."
"Anyone could have told you that," he protested.
"You picked your nose more or less constantly until your third year and didn't manage to completely break the habit until well into your fourth year." The portrait gave him a rather nasty smile. "Do your job well, and the current students need never learn that."
To his mild horror, Jeremiah felt himself blushing. "The board of governors can force the Headmistress to destroy you, you know. Or I can do it when I take office." I'm threatening a painting. What the hell is going on?
"Yes." Snape shrugged. "A threat only works if it is threatening. This painting is merely an imprint of the man I used to be; my soul is... somewhere else. Destroying the portrait isn't going to harm the part of me that is, or was, truly me. Why should I care what happens to it?"
"Somewhere else? Where?" he asked, mostly out of curiosity but also because he very much wanted to change the subject away from his embarrassing childhood habits.
"Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you. The afterlife is no concern of the living."
"I have a feeling we're not going to get along very well, are we?"
The portrait shrugged again. "Probably not, but I do not really get along well with anyone. I never did."
"Not even Hermione?" Jeremiah asked, hoping to be able to score a point or two to even the so far dreadfully unequal contest, and the painting chuckled softly.
"Not even her. You should ask her sometime."
"Are all the things they say about you true?" he asked curiously, and Snape looked amused.
"Anything written in The Wars of the Phoenix is true, although we certainly didn't write down everything. As for the rest of it... some is, most is decidedly not."
"Well, that's... somewhat reassuring. They say some really scary things about you, you know."
"As well they should," another voice chimed in, and Hermione Granger's portrait joined Snape in the frame once more. "He always was a rather scary man."
"Thank you," Snape said dryly, and she grinned at him.
"And proud of it, too. Leave the poor man alone, Severus. You can pick on him when he actually takes the job."
Rolling his eyes, the painting stalked out of sight without further comment, and Jeremiah eyed the witch's portrait. "They say some quite scary things about you, too."
"Probably," she agreed cheerfully. "There were all sorts of absurd stories. I wouldn't pay too much attention to most of them. Besides, you should be focusing on the living, not on us."
"I got the impression I might not be able to avoid you."
Granger laughed softly. "Think of it as an initiation rite. We each spent lifetimes investing everything we had into this school; can you blame us for wanting to make sure it's in safe hands? You'll be the same someday, when you're one of us. Every previous Head since my day has had to run the gauntlet, ask any of the newer portraits. Don't worry. Severus was telling the truth, we've been watching you for a while now. You'll be fine."
"That's not very reassuring."
"It wasn't meant to be," she told him airily.
"You sound very like him sometimes," he muttered, trying not to contemplate years spent with both of them following him around and criticising. Now I understand why not many people want this job any more. No wonder the board of governors had seemed so shifty when he'd met with them upon being made Deputy Headmaster.
"That's hardly a bad thing, young man. You might want to re-read your old History of Magic textbooks fairly soon."
I'd planned on it. Not that he expected it to help. "Can you please ask him not to watch me quite so obviously?" he asked, without much hope, and she smiled.
"Even if I thought he'd listen... where's the fun in that?"
I'm sorry it's taken so long. Things have been a little crazy here with the house move. I'm also not completely happy with this, I had several other ideas for it that just didn't fit right so this is shorter than I'd wanted, but I didn't want to keep people waiting any longer. One more one-shot to go, and I'm working on the next long fic.
In the meantime, want to read about Severus telling Lupin off? Yes, I thought you might. I recommend this one-shot: fanfiction dot net /s/8813988/1/Child-Endangerment