Disclaimer and Author's Note: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. No undue claim nor any material profit is expected or intended. Written for the Genficathon -- Grey Mist's challenge: Dumbledore confronting a Boggart, prior to the time the books take place.
The door flew open with a sound like a thunderclap, though the Great Hall's ceiling showed a clear sky. Albus Dumbledore, conquering hero, gathered himself to stride into Hogwarts with a steady gait that belied the real reason for his dramatic entrance: he'd stumbled and half fallen as he'd reached for the doorknob.
Word spread quickly. Poppy Pomfrey arrived before fifteen minutes had passed, but she had to forge her path to reach him through a dumbfounded crowd. Students had abandoned their classrooms; professors, instead of restraining this truancy, joined it. Albus was hardly known as a model of decorum, nor yet a stickler for rules, and nor for that matter a killjoy, but after about two minutes of awed jostling on top of the aches Grindelwald had bequeathed him, he felt that he would have to come down firmly in favor of strict attendance policies. He was deeply grateful when Poppy whisked him away (to the sound of ragged cheering as several different sections noticed the departure of their focal point) before anyone had quite decided between proclaiming him the greatest wizard in the world, of all time, beyond all doubt, and marveling that he was still alive.
The door to the hospital wing flew open with alacrity as Poppy approached it at an irritated bustle. If she'd cast a spell, Albus had missed it; more likely that part of the castle simply knew her, liked her, and responded accordingly.
He did so obediently, shutting his eyes and not quite drifting into a nap as she examined him, tsking and casting spells at intervals. He had to sit up again and wake himself up properly before long so she could dose him with an array of potions, mostly sour and several slimy. She saved the tiniest dose until last, a violently bitter one, and with a mischievous smile upended the phial onto a large sugar cube just for him. When she popped it into his mouth, he remembered how to laugh for the first time since Grindelwald had raised his wand on a Swiss mountain.
And then she turned serious again and asked the question she almost always avoided. "What happened?"
"We fought. I won." Albus raised his eyes from staring at his hands -- he could almost watch the curse melt out of his bones -- and found her scowling. "I began by giving him arguments, not curses. I tried to make him see reason. He told me what he meant to do to Hogwarts." He offered a tight, fierce smile, but he could feel the haunting that glinted from behind his eyes. "I found 'arguments' that persuaded him otherwise."
Poppy let out a long sigh. "You're getting too old for this," she told him, plucking at his hair and holding a long lock before his eyes. It was gray. All gray, but for one strand. Two years ago there had been only enough silver to glitter in the sunlight. She let it fall. "Someone else could have gone."
"Could they?" Of course, they could.
"Others did before you. Or are you going to tell me no one else could have beaten him?"
"No one should have had to, but someone did. And I have already watched enough children go to die to last me a lifetime."
"Haven't we all?"
"We'll see more." He lay down again, closing his eyes. "Likely as not the next dark lord will be a child to us."
Poppy clucked at him. "You should rest." She started to leave him, then turned back. "Nice earmuffs. Very fluffy."
Albus felt his cheeks warm as she pulled them off his head. He'd forgotten them, after the battle. It was a good thing he didn't stand too much on his dignity.
He was in enough need of rest that he charmed his bedroom door against anyone else finding it for a week, but after that he was glad enough of the chance to take over his teaching duties again from the young substitute. His students demanded stories instead of Transfiguration, and he obliged them -- very briefly, leaving much out -- with a gentle smile and less pride than any House or year seemed to expect.
Then he tested them, to see if they could change items they weren't expecting into equally unlikely ones, so long as the category of transfiguration was one they'd studied before. Snail shells proved unusually useful; halfway through the fourth-year Slytherins' period (an unusually well-behaved lot), he concluded that he needed more of them and excused himself to fetch them from the nearest supply cupboard, where he'd grabbed a handful of them that morning along with a dozen other things.
The door flew open as he stretched out his hand toward it, and Albus froze at the sight of Grindelwald, dark lord, scourge of Europe, in Hogwarts. In his school. With his students scant steps down the corridor.
Grindelwald smiled and began to recite, in the same quiet, conversational tone he'd used before, the same litany of destruction he intended to visit on Hogwarts.
"Riddikulus," Albus said in a strangled tone. Thunder cracked, and Grindelwald lifted his wand; Albus then remembered to draw his own and repeated the spell. "Riddikulus!"
There was a sharp crack again, but Grindelwald only blinked and flickered before moving on in good order to the next item as Albus tried to fight down growing horror and think of something funny.
It didn't matter that he knew very well a Boggart must have moved in since he'd last opened the cupboard, or else had been there before but lain in some more innocuous form. Even Boggarts had to sleep. It didn't matter that he knew very well that he had defeated Grindelwald, that he wouldn't be alive and have the man's face and form in his mind for the Boggart to emulate if he hadn't. No one looked on Grindelwald and lived, it was said. Albus's first thought upon laying eyes on him had been that it might have been more accurate to say that no one looked on Grindelwald, and knew it, and lived. The Scourge of Europe, as it happened, had been an exceptionally ordinary-looking individual, with an average build, an unremarkable face, and a deceptive air of perpetual preoccupation, perhaps with thinking of a new cosmetic charm to make himself more interesting.
Even that thought gave Albus no help. For then Grindelwald had begun speaking, as the Boggart now did in his voice, and there was nothing funny about the sight and sound of him at Hogwarts, nothing funny about the visions his words unreeled. Albus found it didn't help to know that the panorama of desolation was only in his mind's eye, was a fantasy beyond any Boggart's ability. No saving whimsy came to mind, and he stood with the spell frozen yet on his tongue.
His usual Boggart wasn't this bad. In the months before he'd left, it had generally been the image of someone offering him a handful of some pernicious "sweet" recently invented by a precocious eight-year-old who had evidently combined a seven-course banquet with enormous quantities of sugar and gum and a laundry basket full of dirty socks.... Albus had never yet had one that didn't taste foul. But at least with that sort of Boggart, it was easy at least to laugh at himself. This version didn't even permit that in any obvious way.
As his thoughts drifted, though, this Boggart tried to incorporate them. Grindelwald paused in his list and held out his hand, offering pleasantly, "Every-Flavor Bean, Albus?"
Out of sheer surprise at the absurdity, Albus let out a guffaw of laughter that shattered the Boggart where it stood.
He stared at the closet, unseeing, as the tension and dread began to drain back out of him.
Then he gathered up his snail shells and went back to work.