Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related trademarks © J.K. Rowling, Warner Brothers, Scholastic, and others. I own nothing and am making no money off of this unauthorized work of fan fiction.
It was an unusually sunny day, even for late May, and the windows ringing Albus Dumbledore's circular office were thrown open to the elements. Golden light warmed the cool stones of the walls and ceiling and glinted off everything it could; the many silver instruments scattered atop several tables reflected the light particularly well, creating Galleon-sized patches of rainbow on the portraits interspersed with the windows. Most of the canvases were empty, and the few former headmasters not seeing acquaintances on other floors were either sleeping or pretending to do so particularly well. Even Fawkes's perch was unoccupied.
Dumbledore signed and stamped a piece of parchment, then added it to one of the monstrous stacks covering his claw-footed desk. Though he was a tall man, particularly for his age, the paperwork surrounding him reached shoulder-height in places. It did not seem to bother him, however, and he began reading another roll of parchment bearing the letterhead of the Ministry of Magic, pausing occasionally to muse over its contents.
The knock came midway through the fifth paragraph. Dippet and Fortescue jolted from their false slumber and looked to the door; whoever was on the other side had chosen not to use the brass griffin knocker, instead rapping on the polished wood with his or her knuckles. The sound came again, and Dumbledore flicked his wand, unlocking the door; as soon as he did, the two portraits rested their heads against their frames, feigning sleep once more. Fortescue kept one eye conspicuously half-open.
"Come in, come in," said Dumbledore, rising as the door eased open. Another wand-flick sent the stacks of parchment flurrying into drawers like a flock of startled birds; within seconds, the desk was cleared of everything but an inkwell and some knickknacks. "I'm terribly sorry, Igor - my paperwork seems to have procreated while my attentions were elsewhere. It does get the better of me sometimes. Do come in and have a seat."
The man now standing just inside the office hesitated a moment before stepping forward and letting the door close magically behind him. He too was tall, but also much younger than Dumbledore, despite the silver of the short, sleek hair which matched the furs wrapped around his thin body. These, coupled with his pale complexion and ice-blue eyes, gave him something of the look of an arctic fox; the illusion was spoiled only by his curled goatee, though it was as white as his hair.
Igor Karkaroff took in the office at a glance, his gaze briefly lingering on the numerous silver instruments quietly whirring and clicking.
"What is this about, Dumbledore?" His voice was unctuous, but smoldered with poorly disguised hostility. "I am somewhat busy; I understood that you wanted to see me about something important."
"Certainly." Dumbledore gestured to the chair in front of his desk. "I do not hope to take too much of your time, Igor. I know only too well how little a headmaster sometimes has."
"Then what is this about?" Karkaroff's voice remained oily, but his blue eyes were cold and hard, and the resentment in his tone did not lessen. "I would rather not stay and chat, Dumbledore, after...recent events."
"That is part of what I wanted to discuss." Again Dumbledore indicated the empty chair, implying that he did not want the two of them to hold an entire conversation while on opposite sides of the room. Karkaroff stood his ground for a moment, but eventually surrendered and crossed the office, his boots thudding only dully against the well-worn stone.
Satisfied, Dumbledore sat. Karkaroff, however, remained standing behind the empty chair, gripping the back of it and looking down at Dumbledore. The latter smiled slightly.
"I have not cursed that seat, Igor. Despite student rumors to the contrary, I assure you it is safe for popular use."
Karkaroff set his jaw as though to contain outrage at a vulgar insult. His fingers clutched the back of the chair more firmly.
"I do not appreciate jests, Dumbledore. Nor do I have any desire to exchange more words with you than are entirely necessary. Say what you have to say and be done with it." His tightened expression implied that whatever was said needed to be well worth having to be inside this room.
"Very well." Dumbledore gave a small nod of consent. "I wanted to inform you that the Ministry of Magic has been alerted as to last night's events, and is currently investigating the whereabouts of Bartemius Crouch. Professor Moody and I were unable to locate him in the Forbidden Forest last night, but I have no doubt that he was indeed present. Where he went - and where he is now - is the current mystery." After a pause, he added, "Madame Maxime has already been informed."
"I should certainly think the Ministry would want to investigate the disappearance of one of its officials," was the snide reply. "Particularly when that official attempts to remove one of the contenders from the tournament he is supposed to be judging. Do not think this treachery will go unreported, Dumbledore - I intend to owl the International Confederation of Wizards."
"An understandable measure. I assure you we will give the matter our utmost attention."
There was still no change in Dumbledore's tone, but Karkaroff grit his yellow teeth as he realized the emptiness of his threat. Dumbledore was Supreme Mugwump of the Confederation.
"How trite." His expression was extremely ugly now. "If that is all you have to say, Dumbledore, I will be going. I have business to attend to."
He turned, silver furs rustling, but had only taken a few strides before Dumbledore spoke.
"I'm afraid you cannot leave just yet, Igor. I absolutely insist that I first be allowed to apologize."
Karkaroff whirled back so abruptly that his cloak brushed the edge of one of the tables laden with instruments.
"Apologize! Ha! I've had quite enough of your lies, Dumbledore - do not try to detain me so I can hear more of them."
Dumbledore said nothing, but remained seated, watching Karkaroff storm past the tables of instruments, past the portrait canvases, through the great columns of sunlight streaming from the open windows. Reaching the door, he spat a goodbye and wrenched at the brass knob that lead to the revolving staircase. The door would have flown open in a spectacular display of righteous indignation had it been unlocked.
Karkaroff nearly unbalanced himself with the force of his unsuccessful attempt at a dramatic exit, but kept his grip on the knob. When another twist failed to free him, he stiffened visibly, then turned around once more.
"Let me out, Dumbledore."
Nothing capped the anger in his voice now; it frothed over, spilling into his livid countenance and clenched fists. The furs around his neck were mussed, like the raised hackles of a cornered animal.
Dumbledore steepled his fingers.
"I will, Igor, I promise you that. I simply wanted to apologize first, and you are not giving me the chance to do so."
"Give you a chance, Dumbledore? Give you a chance?" Karkaroff was so vehement that Armando Dippet jolted in his frame. "What do you think I have been doing for the past five months? I have given you your chance with the Triwizard Tournament, and look what I have gotten in return! Deceit, corruption, bias, lies–"
"–I will not tolerate it! Were it not for the magical contract binding Viktor to the tournament, Durmstrang would have left this school the moment Potter's name came out of the Goblet of Fire! Now my student has been physically assaulted by a judge, a member of your Ministry, in a clear attempt to remove him from the competition–"
"–which is an unnecessarily low maneuver, considering that Hogwarts already has two champions to its name!"
There was relative silence. Only the idle clicking and puffing of the strange silver instruments filled the warm air seeping through the windows. Karkaroff was breathing heavily, glaring at Dumbledore, hands balled into fists at his sides. He glanced at the doorknob, but it remained locked.
"I see your feelings have not changed since yesterday evening," Dumbledore noted.
"I see no reason why they should have."
Dumbledore said nothing, simply watching the other headmaster grit his teeth. Then he let his steepled fingers drop onto the desk.
"Igor, I am sorry."
"For what, Dumbledore?" Karkaroff was practically sneering. "Dare I even ask?"
Dumbledore seemed to be considering something. The sunlight winked off of his half-moon spectacles, imitating the natural glint of his deep blue eyes.
"I am sorry about what happened last night," he said finally. "It worries and disturbs me as much as it does you. Bartemius Crouch's disappearance is the latest in a series of events that I believe can bode nothing but ill for all of us. Although I understand that the Stunning Spell that hit Mr. Krum was weak, and did no real damage–" (Karkaroff looked keen to interrupt, but Dumbledore kept going,) "–there is no excuse for the behavior of my Care of Magical Creatures teacher, who saw fit to use violence against you for expressing your honest opinion of me. I have already spoken with him about it, and he assures me that however low I sink in your eyes, he will refrain from pinning you bodily to nearby trees."
Something flashed through the anger in Karkaroff's face, almost unreadable - it could have been surprise. Dumbledore apparently understood it, because he appended, "Possibly you do not remember all of that. You seemed a bit concussed; Hagrid does not know his own strength at times."
"I beg to differ," Karkaroff spat, ice-blue eyes now blazing. "I think he was fully aware of his strength."
"Then it is fortunate you came to no harm, and that it will not happen again."
Karkaroff made as if to speak, then withdrew, fists clenching until his knuckles were bloodless.
"If that is all you have to say, Dumbledore..."
Dumbledore sighed heavily.
"That is not everything I have to say, no. I had hoped to speak with you about weightier matters as well. But, if that is all you can deign to discuss..."
The door unlocked with a metallic snick. Karkaroff threw it open, revealing the perpetually rotating wooden staircase just outside.
"Good day, Dumbledore," he said tensely, over his shoulder. "Do not summon me again unless it is urgent."
"As you wish, Igor. And a good day to you, as well," Dumbledore returned, still polite. "Keen to leave though you are, I'm afraid I must interject one final note. You see, my Potions master has expressed some complaints—"
"I don't want to hear it, Dumbledore!"
"—about occasional disruptions of his lessons," Dumbledore continued, unfazed. "He finds them ill conducive to the teaching process. I must request on his behalf that you speak with him during his free time."
Karkaroff did not round on Dumbledore, but his voice betrayed his livid countenance, and his grip on the doorframe tightened.
"Private matters between myself and Severus are of no concern to you, Dumbledore! I strongly suggest that you do not meddle in them any further!"
"Lord Voldemort does not qualify as a private matter, Igor."
Karkaroff had been about to step down onto the revolving staircase, but physically reacted so strongly to the words Lord Voldemort that he had to catch himself on the doorframe to keep from falling forward onto the stairs. He did not exit; instead, he paused, suspended in the doorframe, then turned and looked up at Dumbledore with an entirely new expression. Rage and color alike had completely drained from his features, leaving him chalk-white; his colorless face bore a horrified, disbelieving look not unlike that of someone who has received a severe injury.
"You may go, Igor," Dumbledore said quietly. "But if you ever tire of worrying alone, you will find me more receptive than Severus."
For a moment, all was still, save for the ubiquitous instruments continuing their unhurried clicking. Then Karkaroff glanced out onto the stairwell (as if expecting to see an eavesdropper) before pushing the door almost fully closed, fingers lingering on the knob.
"You don't understand, Dumbledore." He sounded afraid, now - angry, yes, but urgent and afraid. "Don't pretend that you do. You can't - you can't possibly understand."
"Understand what, Igor?" Dumbledore's voice grew firmer. "That the Dark Mark on your arm has been growing clearer than ever before since last summer? That someone cast that Mark into the sky at the Quidditch World Cup? That two Ministry employees have gone missing in the last ten months - one of them just yesterday evening, on the grounds of this school? That the year all these things begin to happen, the name Harry Potter rises inexplicably from the Goblet of Fire, an object designed to select only three contenders for a dangerous tournament?"
Karkaroff instinctively clutched at his left forearm as Dumbledore spoke; he soon noticed what he was doing and let go, but the spare hand flew to his goatee and began winding a finger through it, tugging at the curled hairs.
"How...How do you..." It dawned, and he finished bitterly, "But of course. Severus would have told you."
"About the Mark, yes. We could not tell the Ministry of it, of course; it would have compromised Severus's position." Dumbledore's gaze briefly rested on the brand hidden beneath Karkaroff's sleeve. "An unusually cruel way to distinguish one's followers, but clearly an effective one. How strong is it now?"
Karkaroff flinched and glanced at his robed forearm, extracting his right hand from his goatee - but he did not draw up his sleeve.
"I...don't want to look."
"Perfectly understandable," Dumbledore admitted. "It was an idle question in any case."
"Well, I request that you ask no such idle questions in the future," Karkaroff snapped, on his guard again. "I don't want to discuss this with you, Dumbledore."
Dumbledore obviously had been expecting this, because he did not give Karkaroff time to head for the door again.
"Igor, I understand your wariness of me, and of discussing the matter of Voldemort, but the strengthening sign on your arm is extremely important. I daresay it is the most important thing happening this year - more so than the tournament, for all its pomp and circumstance. My fear is that the tournament and Lord Voldemort have become connected in ways I cannot see; if so, it would not be the first time Voldemort has breached the defenses of this school. Indeed, he was here only three years ago, inhabiting the body of my Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher."
Neither of them remarked on the irony of this. Karkaroff was still deathly pale, and now looked as though someone had hit him with a Jelly-Legs Jinx as well.
"The...The Dark Lord was here? At Hogwarts?"
"Yes." Dumbledore added, as an afterthought, "I advise you to sit down."
This time, Karkaroff obeyed, though every step of his journey across the office looked like its own separate, agonizing decision. The mention of Voldemort seemed to have ripped a hole in him, creating a gaping void of fear so wide it left no room for the rage that had twisted his face only minutes ago. When he lowered himself into the chair across from Dumbledore, it was with such care that one might have thought the seat cushion contained broken glass.
Dumbledore inclined his head slightly. "Thank you for consenting to listen, Igor. I realize it is not easy for you."
"What is there to say?" A little color had returned to Karkaroff's cheeks, but his voice still held unease. "I don't trust you, Dumbledore."
"A fact you have made clear ever since I first wrote you concerning the tournament. I'm sure you remember the volume of correspondence it took to coax you here in the first place." Dumbledore seemed almost ready to smile, but didn't, and when he spoke again his tone was serious. "However, if you and I are reading the signs correctly, there may come a time when we cannot afford to insulate ourselves from one another. I do not need to remind you of Lord Voldemort's talent for conquering by division."
Karkaroff's hand had gone to his forearm again; he clenched it slightly as he spoke, as though it pained him.
"Dumbledore..." He managed a strained sort of smile. "You realize this is all very...That is, I cannot simply take your word at face value."
"You believe I would lie to you about something so grave, Igor?"
"Yes, Dumbledore, I do." A flicker of the previous anger sparked. "As you have lied to me about other things this year."
Karkaroff stiffened and let go of his forearm as Dumbledore leaned against the high back of his chair. The older headmaster seemed to be gathering his thoughts.
"Igor," Dumbledore began, in a tone that signified he had much to say, "I realize that this year - this tournament - has been incredibly vexing for you. We all resent our mistakes, and fear the hurts we have suffered in the past; in returning to this country, you were forced to face both. I am somewhat infamous for my willingness to forgive, but I am fully aware that others are not always as ready to rebuild out of the ashes, and we both know there are those who will forever scorn you for the choices you once made - not only to enter Lord Voldemort's service in the first place, but also to leave it the way you did. I, however, am not among those people."
Karkaroff tensed again, his thin body rigid beneath the enshrouding furs.
"You do not believe me, of course," Dumbledore acknowledged. "You have been on the defensive from the moment you set foot on these grounds. You had no wish to ever return to Britain after what you suffered in Azkaban, nor to work with Bartemius Crouch, the man who ordered you to be sent there - and released you again at a price few would dare pay. Additionally, I gave you no forewarning that Professor Moody would be on staff this year, which was a mistake, given Alastor's unfortunate habit of reopening old wounds. I apologize."
"'Unfortunate habit'?" Karkaroff snorted; it sounded a little more undignified than he probably intended. "If that is how you want to phrase it, Dumbledore..."
"I was not implying that Alastor's distaste of you is purely professional. You are quite right in thinking he hates you on a personal level, too."
Karkaroff looked surprised at this admission.
"I have found," Dumbledore said, "that much to my dismay, I have no control over what other people think and feel. Alastor has my absolute confidence, but that does not mean I have the power to do anything about his attitude; as much as I would like for the two of you to reconcile your mutual history, he is as vehemently opposed to the idea as you are, and I do not foresee it happening. It is disappointing, but we must all move on."
"Don't talk as though that is your only offense, Dumbledore." Karkaroff drew himself up and squared his shoulders a little, as though by matching the other headmaster in posture he could also meet him in strength of presence. "Even if members of your staff were not in the habit of harassing and assaulting me...There is no excuse for Potter's participation in the Triwizard Tournament alongside your other champion."
Again Karkaroff looked surprised.
"While I wish Harry the best of luck with the tournament, I am not happy that he is competing - particularly in light of everything that has happened since the Quidditch World Cup." If Dumbledore were lying, he was very good at hiding it. "I assure you, Igor, that neither I nor any of my staff are in any way responsible for Harry's selection, and that I would never have wished participation upon any of my younger students, particularly Harry. I do not know how it happened, I do not know why it happened, but I do know that I did not orchestrate it. It was not an attempt to be unfair, to give Hogwarts a better chance at winning the Tournament, or - despite whatever appearances to the contrary - to insult you personally by bringing up the past."
"Then you dare to suggest it was an accident?"
"Hardly. As I said, I do not believe many of the unusual events of the past year are accidents - or even coincidences. They have been orchestrated. By whom I cannot say. But it seems obvious to me," and here he nodded to Karkaroff's forearm again, "that in some way, shape, or form, Lord Voldemort is connected with the disappearances and oddities that have been occurring for a year. You often emphasize our differences, Igor, and they certainly exist - but you will find, I think, that we share more concerns than you realize. The Dark Mark is one."
Karkaroff remained rigid for a few seconds, then exhaled. It wasn't a sigh, exactly; it had too much tension in it for that. But it sounded similar.
"Why should you care, Dumbledore?" he asked, still a little sharp at the edges. "What do you have to lose, if - if the Dark Lord returns?"
"What do I have to lose?" Dumbledore raised his eyebrows now. "Only as much as anyone else does, Igor. I cannot think of a single person who would benefit from Voldemort's return - not even his loyal followers in Azkaban, who do not understand that they are expendable slaves."
"He wouldn't come after you, Dumbledore," Karkaroff said accusingly. "They said He feared you - He, who feared no one..."
"He could not have feared me and no one at the same time," Dumbledore pointed out, "unless, of course, I am no one, which is the opinion of a surprising number of people. However, I understand your point. You are referring, by implication of my supposed immunity, to your own position, which you perceive to be far more precarious."
"Perceive?" Karkaroff echoed, his voice strained. "Dumbledore, I perceive nothing! Your talk of mutual concerns is empty - what concerns of mine could you possibly share?"
"Many, Igor. If Voldemort were to return, two of his priorities would most certainly be to ensure that you and I both died excruciating deaths." Despite the subject matter, he was contemplative - almost toneless. "Actually, Voldemort would probably enjoy seeing me suffer before death, perhaps for a very long time; therefore, you are more likely to die first. I imagine that he would send others to kill you for him, and that it would thus be brutal but relatively swift."
The detachment with which he said this visibly terrified Karkaroff, whose pale blue eyes no longer had the hard, cold glint of ice. There was emotion in them now: he was very scared, and even looked a bit ill.
"Dumbledore..." he managed.
"I agree, they are most unpleasant thoughts - and I assure you, I am most certainly not out of Voldemort's reach. His fear of me is peripheral at best; he would never dare attack me directly, but there are many more subtle ways of disposing of a man besides bursting into his home in the dead of night, armed with a wand and a mask."
"But you are protected, Dumbledore." Karkaroff indicated the whole of the school with a slight gesture, stirring a cloud of dust motes dancing in the streaming sunlight. "You have Hogwarts."
"And you have Durmstrang, do you not?"
Dumbledore's forehead creased very slightly, as though he had not expected this answer. Karkaroff drew a tense breath.
"No, Dumbledore. If the Dark Lord were to...truly were to return, I could not remain at Durmstrang."
"Could not, Igor, or would not?"
He paused. "Would not."
"Dare I ask why? Or is it one of the multitudinous school secrets you are determined to protect?"
"Because I could not lead Him there, Dumbledore, that is why!" Karkaroff's voice rose in both volume and pitch. "If He returns...They will come for me. I could never absolve myself to Him."
"And, wisely, you would not try. I realize this." Dumbledore inclined his head slightly, causing the sunlight to flash off his spectacles. "There are dissenting opinions, of course. Alastor, for one, has expressed concern that were Voldemort to return, you would attempt to gain his favor by providing information about my doings this year."
Karkaroff laughed at this. It was a short, sharp, unpleasant sound, utterly without mirth.
"Oh, does Alastor think that?" He seemed sarcastically amused at using the man's first name. "How surprising, given his high opinion of me! What else does Alastor think that I would offer the Dark Lord to pay for my betrayal? The keys to Durmstrang, perhaps, and all its old magic and Dark secrets? The services of my staff, with all their knowledge and skill? Or–" Karkaroff's voice rose again, tightening like a steel cable under strain. "Does Alastor Moody think that I would surrender to the Dark Lord my own students, and smile gratefully when they take His mark? Does he think that I could nonchalantly watch them be coerced into the mistakes I once made of my own volition? Does he think that I could watch them scream and bleed and die, as so many of us did, with no thought but relief that I was again in the Dark Lord's favor?"
He was quivering now, and clenched his fists again as he forced himself to stabilize his voice.
"Tell me, Dumbledore: does Alastor Moody think that I would sacrifice my home to the Dark Lord, in exchange for sparing my life?"
Once more there was a sort of silence, the real thing made impossible by Dumbledore's collection of instruments. Karkaroff was still shaking a little, but seemed to have said what he needed to say, and compulsively rubbed his forearm again. When Dumbledore's reply came, it was quiet.
"Knowing Alastor as I do, Igor, I daresay your assumptions are near the mark. I am glad to see that he is so sorely mistaken."
"He is damnably mistaken." Karkaroff spat the epithet. "If the Dark Lord returns, He will seek me, and I...I will flee. But He will not follow where my trail does not lead, and I will make sure it does not lead anywhere near Durmstrang."
He shuddered a little and fell silent. Dumbledore stirred more airborne dust motes as he rested his hands on the desk.
"You realize, Igor, that we deal still in hypotheticals?" he asked gently. "Voldemort has not yet returned. Perhaps he never will."
"Don't play the fool, Dumbledore." Karkaroff sounded bitter, and scared. "The Mark cannot lie. It is only a matter of time."
"That is most likely," Dumbledore admitted. "I have never thought that Voldemort was dead, insofar as he is probably incapable of normal human death after all he has done to himself. However, I also think that your options in the face of his return are more numerous than you make them out to be."
"I assure you, Dumbledore, they are not," Karkaroff said swiftly, almost angry again. "The Dark Lord has ways of finding His enemies."
"And as his greatest enemy, I will attest to the validity of that statement." Dumbledore smiled slightly when Karkaroff looked surprised for a third time. "However, if the two of us are correct in our ominous predictions, and Lord Voldemort does indeed return to power, you will hardly be the only former Death Eater with whom he is displeased."
"The others will go back." Karkaroff drew his furs around him a little tighter, almost protectively. "Those at the World Cup. They will have no choice. I, on the other hand..."
"...have neither the ability nor the desire to reenter his service," Dumbledore finished. "As you said. But that does not mean you must flee if he returns. I am sure Severus has already told you that he will remain here at Hogwarts, even if Lord Voldemort does make himself known once more."
"Severus has your protection," Karkaroff pointed out, still bitter. "A luxury which I lack."
"Only because you have never asked for it, Igor."
It took a moment for Dumbledore's meaning to sink in. When it did, Karkaroff started and met the other headmaster's gaze, making no effort to conceal the incredulity on his face. Two pairs of blue eyes regarded each other with differing emotions.
"Wouldn't I?" Dumbledore asked lightly. "I do not fault you for abandoning Voldemort's cause, Igor; indeed, I wish such things would happen more often."
"But you would not - I named all my names thirteen years ago, Dumbledore; I have nothing more to offer."
"And why must your health and safety have a price?" Dumbledore asked. "Granted, you could perhaps tell me some things that Severus never could - but unlike Voldemort, I do not believe in sending a man to his death simply because he is of no particular use to me."
Karkaroff's features tightened warily. Again he seemed to resemble a fox, anxiously crouching in the shadow of a looming predator.
"Igor, I realize that you still distrust me," Dumbledore said. "You have had to confront the ghosts of the past at every turn this year, and to allay your worries and suspicions, I have said a great deal and done precious little. It may to be too late to rectify that. But regardless of what you ultimately believe, know that I invited you to the Triwizard Tournament not as an enemy or an inferior, but as my honored guest."
Dumbledore paused. Karkaroff shifted again, disbelief still etched into his features, but he said nothing.
"Of course, all of this is merely erring on the side of caution. We have no way of knowing for certain what is happening, or indeed what will happen. Perhaps Voldemort will be frustrated in his efforts to return, as he was three years ago; perhaps we have somehow been misreading the signs all along."
"But what are you saying, Dumbledore?" Karkaroff demanded. "If...if He is truly rising again...You would not honestly offer me sanctuary, would you? Not without something in return."
A slight breeze filtered through the open windows, charmed though they were to resist the inevitable drafts that occurred seven stories off of the ground. It rustled a phoenix feather quill resting inside the silver inkwell at Dumbledore's elbow, and the few present portraits stirred.
"I confess, Igor, that I would indeed ask something of you," Dumbledore said at last.
Karkaroff smiled with bitter triumph, the yellow of his teeth even more apparent than usual in the light. "Just as I thought. I tell you again, Dumbledore - there is nothing left for your Ministry to wring out of me."
"I was not referring to the Ministry, Igor. I was referring to myself."
"I fail to see how that is any better."
"It isn't," Dumbledore said. "At least, not if I understand your definition of 'better.' But it does simplify things somewhat."
"And what would you have me do, Dumbledore? Assuming that...the worst happens."
Dumbledore paused, then inhaled deeply through his long, crooked nose.
"If Lord Voldemort returns, Igor, I will mount covert resistance against him, as I did when he first rose to power. And I would ask you to join me in doing so."
Karkaroff went slightly slack-jawed.
"I see the concept does not strike you as feasible," Dumbledore observed. "However, it can be done. You say you would flee Durmstrang if Voldemort returns? Where, then, would you go?"
"Anywhere, Dumbledore, anywhere but my school and…here. Where He is."
"Here would be the safest place to be. You said as much yourself."
"Safe for you, Dumbledore! You, the Dark Lord's only equal!" Karkaroff's voice became strained once more. "You don't understand, Dumbledore! You have never been—never watched when—when someone failed Him. You cannot understand what He is like."
"I have known Lord Voldemort since he was eleven years old," Dumbledore said quietly. "When he first sat in the chair you currently occupy, his feet could not touch the floor."
'Surprise' was no longer the correct word for Karkaroff's reaction. It looked more as though he had been hit in the head.
"I know more about Voldemort than even his most loyal followers could ever hope to," Dumbledore continued. "Some of their parents attended school with him, but I daresay they only passed on their devotion to Lord Voldemort, and not their childhood memories of Tom Marvolo Riddle, complaining about the batty old Transfiguration teacher who never quite fell for his carefully cultivated charisma."
He smiled softly, watching Karkaroff invent several new shades of blanched.
"No, Igor, I do not know what it is like to be a Death Eater. But that does not mean I know nothing. If - or, as it seems, when - Voldemort returns, you would be a valuable ally: the skills you possess, the people you know, the position you hold, and the experiences you have had could all be put to excellent use against him here, without endangering Durmstrang. I am neither demanding nor begging that you make such a commitment, and we cannot know exactly when Voldemort will show himself again – but know that if you were to join me, I would protect you to the fullest of my considerable ability."
This seemed to be far too much information to handle at once. Karkaroff sat stunned for several long seconds before his mind began sifting through Dumbledore's words.
"And you...This resistance of yours would...trust me?" he finally managed.
"Alastor would not," said Dumbledore. "My other allies would not. I daresay even Severus would not. I would."
Dumbledore folded his hands and dispassionately watched a bewildered Igor Karkaroff slump slightly in his seat. One of the instruments on a nearby table gave a hiccough-like sound and emitted a puff of purple smoke.
"You hardly have to answer now, Igor," he said. "I daresay this will take some thought."
"More than some, Dumbledore." Karkaroff grimaced, a hundred fears and doubts flickering through his features. "A great deal more than some."
"But you are considering it, at least." Dumbledore's soft smile strengthened at one corner. "That is extremely encouraging."
Karkaroff did not reply. His right hand was worrying at his left forearm again, rubbing it gently like an old wound; he seemed to be staring not at the surface of Dumbledore's desk, but at some distant point in time - past or future, it was impossible to say. Dumbledore waited.
At last, Karkaroff brought himself around. A cloud had passed over the sun, taking the glint out of Dumbledore's spectacles and the violently white sheen off of Karkaroff's luxurious silver furs. The latter straightened, then glanced over his shoulder before opening his mouth to speak – but never did. A new voice cut in first.
"Well, well! Who is this, Dumbledore?"
Dumbledore turned a curious eye to one of the previously empty canvases; Karkaroff, for his part, jolted in his chair.
"Hello, Phineas." Dumbledore acknowledged a portrait of a sour-looking aristocratic wizard with a nod. "Not to offend, but you have inadvertently interrupted something."
"Oh, Merlin forbid." The portrait sounded a far cry from remorseful. "Shall I come back later, when you're done chatting?"
"I would be most grateful," said Dumbledore. "Professor Karkaroff and I are discussing matters of some importance."
The portrait raised his eyebrows at this.
"Karkaroff? So you'd be the headmaster of Durmstrang, then?"
"Ah...yes," said Karkaroff, visibly unsure of how to address the portrait. Phineas gave a snide sort of sniff.
"Here for the tournament, are you? It's about time; we haven't had one in over a century. What's been keeping you?"
"Phineas, I would greatly appreciate it if you did not antagonize my guest," Dumbledore said coolly.
"I'm not antagonizing him, Dumbledore, I'm asking the man some questions." To Karkaroff, he added, "Durmstrang was a good school in my day. Didn't admit the kind of riffraff this one does." He indicated Dumbledore. "Haven't changed the rules since my time, have you?"
"No," Karkaroff said, then expounded, "There has been some pressure from the school board, but for purely financial reasons."
"And you haven't given in?"
"Glad to hear it. Still teaching the Dark Arts, too?"
"Yes. That was my post, in fact, before I became headmaster."
"Well, then!" the portrait said, with the genuine surprise of one who was not easy to impress. "Pay attention, Dumbledore; you could learn a thing or two about how to run a school from this man."
"I am certain that I could, Phineas." Dumbledore sounded amused. "As a matter of fact, Professor Karkaroff has already given me several firm tellings-to. Not about school policy, admittedly, but it's a start."
"Good man!" Phineas told Karkaroff. "I've tried, myself, but the conniving old curmudgeon won't listen to a word I say. Keep it up - between the two of us, we might yet make him see sense."
"That's quite enough, Phineas!" said one of the other portraits - Armando Dippet, who went so far as to poke his head into Phineas's frame. "Professor Dumbledore was in the middle of a serious conversation–"
"There is no need to be defensive, Armando," Dumbledore said. "I daresay I have taken enough of Professor Karkaroff's valuable time today."
Karkaroff looked startled at this, then reached into his robes and procured a pocketwatch. The reading surprised him.
"This has taken longer than I realized," he admitted. "I have owls to answer back at the ship..."
"Then by all means, go answer them. The mess piles up if you do not." Dumbledore indicated his desk drawers stuffed with parchments. "I trust, however, that you will consider what we have discussed?"
Karkaroff said nothing, blue eyes flickering, but eventually gave a nod of consent. As if on cue, they both stood, and Karkaroff stopped himself just short of rubbing his forearm again.
"Thank you for taking time to listen to me, Igor," Dumbledore said. "I daresay I have an unfortunate habit of lecturing. It comes of being a teacher for over a century."
"It's...all right, Dumbledore."
"Is it really, Igor?" Dumbledore smiled. "That is most heartening."
And then he did something very strange. Dumbledore reached a hand across the polished wooden desk and held it there, poised in midair, waiting.
Karkaroff hesitated. Then, with an expression so conflicted it was impossible to tell what emotions were involved, he carefully extended his own hand and shook Dumbledore's. It wasn't the firm, comfortable handshake of allies or friends - but nor was it the superficial squeeze of embittered enemies.
"I suppose this changes things?" Karkaroff asked, somewhat sardonically.
"Only if you want it to, Igor."
"Well, don't assume it will." He let go of Dumbledore's hand. "You realize I will have to think everything over."
"And you will...let me know, Dumbledore, if anything new surfaces regarding...?"
"Certainly. I could give you the details of what I currently suspect, if you like."
Karkaroff hesitated. "Perhaps...later, Dumbledore. I really must be going now."
"Then I bid you good day, Igor. Pass my well-wishes for the tournament on to Mr. Krum."
"I..." He faltered. "I…shall, Dumbledore."
Without further comment, Karkaroff crossed the circular room once more, passing the long tables of silver instruments and the sunlight again blazing unimpeded through the large windows. His steps were slower this time, though, and when he reached the door he turned back with one hand on the knob.
"Good day, Dumbledore."
Before Dumbledore could say anything, he was gone, silver furs disappearing into the torchlit gloom of the revolving stairway, the door once more swinging shut by magic. Dumbledore and the few other Hogwarts headmasters present watched the polished oak clunk heavily into place.
"What was that about?" Phineas asked at last, looking down at Dumbledore from his frame alongside the desk. "Having a meeting about the tournament?"
"Never you mind, Phineas." Dumbledore withdrew his wand and tapped the surface of his desk; the mess of paperwork that he'd stowed away came flying out of the desk drawers, rearranging itself, and soon the desk looked exactly as it had earlier. The flurry of parchments sent the illuminated dust motes swirling madly.
"Never I mind? Bah." The portrait hmphed indignantly. "You really ought to look into some of Durmstrang's principles, Dumbledore. I won't say they're better than Hogwarts, but they've got the right idea about a lot of things."
"If you say so, Phineas," Dumbledore said dismissively. He located the Ministry memo he had been reading earlier and began skimming through paragraph five.
Phineas frowned. "I take it, then, that Professor Karkaroff wasn't able to bring you over to his school of thought?"
Dumbledore smiled, then adjusted his half-moon spectacles and held the Ministry letter up to the sunlight.
"However, I may have swayed him closer to mine."