"You can't be serious," Phineas said.
The sincere-looking young man in the at the base of the stairs smiled sheepishly. "Well, you have been writing for several years now that you consider Hogwarts to be... what was your phrase? 'Abysmally mismanaged.'"
"Ah, yes, Mr. Potter. And your solution to this is to offer the vacant headmaster's office to a man who has not set foot in a classroom for fifteen years, has no administrative experience, and rather despises children. A singularly clever plan to alter my perceptions." He turned and headed up the stairs. His niece, Vega--his charge since his younger brother's untimely death in the Orient, who would be attending the wretched place in September--was sitting on the top step, watching the procedings with amusement. Her hair was a shameful mess, as usual, spilling every whichway out of the tight bun he'd instructed her house elf, Lady Lo-Lo, to put it in. He shook his head at her. "You will excuse me, Vega."
"Oh, come now, Uncle Phineas," she chided. "You could show them all how it's meant to be done."
He looked over his shoulder. "She put you up to this, didn't she, Potter? You listen too much to the child."
"I haven't talked to Vega since Malaysia, sir."
"She writes to you."
"Yes, sir, she does, but quite honestly, even if she had suggested such a thing, I'm only in my second year out of school, and even if I listened to every word she said and acted on it, I wouldn't have anything like the influence to name a headmaster. I'm just a message clerk here. This was proposed by the Minister of Magic and approved by the Wizengamot. I believe your cousin Talitha Black is Head Witch, and signed the letter herself."
"Which only proves every assertion I've ever made about the idiocy of our government. I wish you good day, sir."
"Couldn't Jack stay?" Vega asked. "Lady Lo-Lo will have a lovely tea out soon. You could talk about it more."
"There is nothing further to discuss, and I am quite certain Mr. Potter has plans which do not include you."
Vega looked down at Jack Potter, her eyes wounded. "Do you?"
"I'm afraid I do, Vega. I've an appointment for tea."
Vega fell into an especially unlovely pout, and had to be prodded to wish Potter good day when he finally left. "Will you have tea with me, Uncle?" she asked.
"I have an article to write about this latest nonsense," he said.
She nodded and trudged down the hall to the parlor, looking theatrically dejected. A moment later, he heard her strike up a conversation with a portrait (mad Grandfather Castor, if he wasn't mistaken) while Lady Lo-Lo set out her tea. The child would converse with anyone or anything. She'd had to be kept inside the house for the first several months of her return to England, for fear that she would simply start chattering to the first Muggle she met on the street. Whatever her parents had been doing there in the jungle--and it was a mystery to Phineas, no matter what the Ministry thought--it had not included teaching their daughter that children were meant to be seen, not heard.
He settled into his study, which was installed in one of the many empty bedrooms, Summoned a quill and parchment, and considered a title for his article. It would, of course, be published under the name "Nigellus," as all of his papers were--using a Latinate derivation for some reason helped avoid connections with such shining examples of the bloodline as Grandfather Castor, not to mention Vega's father, Phineas's own brother, whose reputation was as shady as the circumstances of his death. You know the Blacks, it was whispered. Mad as hatters, and heaven knows how their minds work. Why using the Latin seemed to deflect this was incomprehensible to Phineas, but it had worked. "Phineas Nigellus" had a reputation as an eccentric and a misanthrope, but no one assumed he was a Dark Wizard or a madman... not that he saw any particular delineation between the two. His cousin Talitha had managed to claw her way into the Wizengamot despite the reputation (and was an extraordinarily young Chief Witch at only twenty-seven; he had no idea what she must have done to secure that post), but any time someone disagreed with her, the family's soiled laundry was put on display.
The Ministry of Magic, in one of its more outlandish attempts at appeasing the discontent felt by thousands...
"..and will you come to the parlor, my good man?"
Phineas rubbed his eyes and went to the door.
Vega was making her way up and down the corridor, inviting all of the portraits to join her in the parlor for tea. "Vega," he said, "there are only four frames there. They will be quite crowded if you invite every portrait in the house."
"But only a few have come. And Great Aunt Denebola--the one who was painted in the kitchen--has put out a spread. There's enough real tea for you, if you change your mind."
"And you are planning to continue harrassing me until I do so?"
"Only if you force me to." She grinned.
"Oh, very well. But I can't be dragged from my work every single time you feel a need to have a tea party."
Vega clapped, then grabbed his hand and led him down to the parlor, which she'd covered with every horrid lace patch she'd been able to scrounge from the dressers. She'd set out Grandmother Meissa's good tea service, and eagerly poured their cups.
"So are you going to become headmaster, Uncle?"
"Don't be absurd. Why would I even wish to do such a thing?" He sipped his tea, decided it was too cold, and heated it with a quick charm. The sugar bowl was still busy adding lumps to Vega's cup, so he waited before asking it to sweeten his as well.
"It would be fun. You're always saying how you would do things if you were there, and now you could be. And I wouldn't be alone there."
"You won't be alone there in any case, Vega. School, by its nature, presumes that there will be other people there."
"You could see pretty Professor Prewett more often." She grinned.
Phineas straightened his back. "My dear child, the Prewetts are in trade."
"My mother's grandmother was a Prewett."
"Which explains any number of things about you."
She stuck out her tongue. Phineas waved a butter knife at it and she withdrew it unrepentently. "Well, there's Professor Nott," she said. "She's perfectly properly stuffy."
"She is also twenty years my junior."
"What about Miss Prince, who took me to buy my clothes? She lives in Hogsmeade."
"Also in trade."
"Our cousin Talitha? She's quite pretty."
"I have reached the age of forty-two without seeking out a woman or causing any more children to enter the world. I'm not going to change my practices now."
"But someday, I'll grow up and marry, and you'll be lonely."
"I wasn't lonely before you came. I see no reason why I should be so after you leave. And none of this is remotely related to taking a position at that school."
"I just think you should go out of the house sometimes, Uncle. It's not good to be cooped up. I read the witches' journals. They all say so."
"Do they. And what else have you learned from the scions of scholarship?"
"That it's very unhealthy for a girl not to have a mother as she begins to grow up, and you should acquire one for me."
"I'll hire a governess for you."
"Oh, that would be lovely! The governess always marries the master of the house in the stories."
"Not in the story of the House of Black, and you will cease this behavior immediately."
Vega sipped her tea in blessed silence for nearly a minute. "If you don't go, who do you suppose will be headmaster?"
"I imagine they will appoint someone from within their circle. More of the same."
"But you don't like the way it is."
"And that, my girl, is why I left the school in the first place. One can only absorb so many meaningless platitudes about 'the good of the children' before one goes utterly mad."
"But if you were in charge, they'd be your meaningless platitudes. What is a platitude, anyway?"
"I should have hired you a tutor."
"Perhaps they should teach words at the school."
"There is quite enough useless, non-magical education going on there as it is. I would have parents see to it that their children are more appropriately prepared. We've enough trouble trying to get the Mudbloods caught up without having to re-teach basics to the wizard-born."
"I read your article about that. Didn't a witch in Kent write to the paper and say that if you thought it was so easy, you ought to do it?"
"That is precisely the problem with young people today. They always think someone else should do it."
"Like you think someone else should be headmaster?"
Phineas did not dignify this bit of impertinence with an answer.
A day did not go by over the next two weeks that either Vega or some other intrusive soul didn't mention the appointment. Jack Potter returned again with messages from the Minister of Magic, then the Minister himself came by. Moira Prewett, who taught Ancient Runes, came by for a late tea during which she prattled on about the place, and two days later, Helen Nott (Potions mistress) repeated the performance. Griselda Marchbanks (Charms) rounded out the haunting by the school's resident Fates, going on about how she planned to implement some of his suggestions regardless of whether or not he came. By then, Phineas had worn out any inclination he had to be hospitable, and he told her to by all means try what she would on her own, but to for heaven's sake leave him alone about it.
Twice, young Potter arranged for time before the Wizengamot for Phineas to be interviewed, and twice, Phineas ignored the summons. A letter after the second missed appointment suggested that he might reconsider his actions, as it seemed--only to an outsider, of course--that he wasn't truly interested in the prestigious post. The letter he sent back, he rather regretted not making a copy of, as he felt he'd employed his wit to excellent effect.
Unfortunately, the sarcasm was apparently lost on the recipient, as a third date was scheduled in mid-August.
The owl was waiting when he and Vega returned from a trip to Diagon Alley to outfit her with the outlandish list of expected supplies (she had cajoled him into buying her a kneazle as well). It had taken longer than it should have because every shopkeeper, with the pretended omniscience of all tradesmen, insisted on discussing the subject with him. The last thing he wanted was more discussion.
Vega caught the owl and petted it as she worked the message free, and got it something to eat while Phineas read it.
My dear cousin, it opened, which was never a good sign. You have twice been instructed to appear before the Wizengamot to discuss the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While it is well known that you have mixed feelings about the post, the show of disrespect will not be tolerated. I am personally inclined to remove you from consideration--I was never enthusiastic about the suggestion, to be honest--but my colleagues insist on offering you one further opportunity. You will, I assume, ignore this one as well, at which point I will have to summon you before the body to answer for the impertinence, but in the end, that will probably be better. I have read your opinions on education, and find them lacking in any case.
"Lacking!" Phineas repeated aloud. Vega looked at him, and turned away, smiling. He went back to the letter.
In furtherance of my policy of honesty within the family, I must say that if it weren't for your notoriety and position, you would not have been considered at all. If you are quite determined to stop people from having you, I recommend attending the examination and stating your views. I have no doubt that the Wizengamot will see the wisdom of looking elsewhere once they've heard your notions, particularly those regarding required knowledge for entrance into Hogwarts, which are--again, in the interest of honesty--quite absurd.
Phineas ground his teeth.
I'm sure that my position will come as something of a relief to you, as my name on the initial letter of recommendation must have been a shock, given our differing views on the subject at hand. I assure you, it was merely a necessity of my own post, signing a document voted on and approved by the body over which I preside. I did not, personally, endorse the choice, and believe it would be a foolish one. As you've been rather blatant in your dislike of the idea, I must assume you agree with me.
Do appear for the next session, August the fifteenth, two days from now, at two o'clock. I would prefer to have you turned down for the position, rather than having you brought before us for a hearing on insubordination. Either way, you can prevent yourself from any necessity of taking the post.
Two days later, Phineas appeared in the finest clothes he owned, Vega (for once) a docile and quiet child beside him. She slipped away from him when he took his seat at the center of the hearing room, and sat in a shadowy corner. He caught a flicker of her fingers, waving to someone, and followed the direction of her gaze to the dais at the center of the room, where Talitha was sitting with an excrutiatingly bored expression on her face... except, of course, for the fact that he saw her wink back in Vega's direction before turning on him.
He sighed and sat down before the committee. "Very well," he said to no one in particular. "Get on with it, then."