The sun should not be shining so brightly or the birds singing or the breeze wafting in the scent of lavender, rosemary and sweet williams. Great God, how could the world stand to exist after this morning? Albus didn't want to exist; his head wanted to dribble out his ears, his stomach threatened to twist into a knot and his heart was in a million pieces all over the breadth of Britain.
"Good morning!" A woman's strident, common tones jarred Albus out of his misery and fresh into a new one as his blanket was unceremoniously stripped off. He shivered, covering his eyes against that damned cheery sunlight. "Wake up, young man, or you'll be very sorry."
"Why?" he demanded.
"Well, if my Nathaniel judged correctly-- and he usually does-- you've consumed enough firewhisky to float a Kievan Ironbelly in the creek out back. It'll all be coming up any minute now."
Albus glared at her through the blanket. Ineffective but satisfying. "Listen, you stupid woman. I didn't ask you or your damned Nicholas to wake me up out of-- where the hell am I?"
"Ireland, my dear."
He sat up quickly, surprised. "Ireland? What am I doing in Ireland?"
"How should I know? I certainly didn't ask you to apparate onto my kitchen garden. Really, you young ones with apparition obsession. When I was a lass, we relied on a good broomstick or a simple Autocelero." The woman sighed. "I haven't heard that particular spell in ages."
His hostess had the comfortable plumpness of the middle class, her status reflected by the furnishings which were at least a generation old but well cared for. The house itself smelled old though the ceiling beams gleamed and the pock-marked floors shone with cleanliness. Cleanliness that he was about to mar with the contents of his stomach.
"Please--" he managed to get out before everything inside him wrenched. A deep metal basin flew under his chin just in time to catch what felt like a gallon of vomit. Firewhisky went up with thrice the pain of it going down. Albus fancied he threw up last month's stew and a portion of his spleen, so violent were his gastric upheavals. All the while, his hostess rubbed his back and cooed things that no eighteen-year-old should have to endure, especially not one who'd been through his type of month.
He didn't hear the door open but a man's quiet voice said, "Ah, so he's awake." He had an accent that Albus couldn't place.
"That he is, dear, and somewhat sicker than you predicted."
"No one can drink like we did in our day," the man said. Albus managed to raise his head between retches. The man-- presumably the woman's husband-- was very tall and gangly with white hair and a neatly trimmed beard. They were quite the quintessential centennial couple.
"When you're finished hurling, I have something for you to drink," said the woman. "No, don't shake your head; you must eat and this potion will keep things down."
"I'm going to die," Albus morosely hugged his basin. It now had nearly two gallons of vomit.
Softly, more to himself, he added, "I want to die."
"That would an awful shame," said the man, his host. "You've barely lived."
He wanted to explain, needed to confess to someone before he put himself out of his misery but his hostess bustled in front of him and plugged his arm with a needle affixed to a tube.
"That'll help some," she said, withdrawing the object. A bead of blood welled from the small wound. Albus watched it, blinking drowsily. His blood bobbled then split into three spinning parts. How very strange. He was asleep again before he could account for it.
The damned scent of rosemary still hung in the air when Albus woke up again. This time, it mingled with the more familiar mix of dried rose petals and fried onions as well as the faint traces of tobacco. He'd been turned on his stomach while he slept, no doubt to keep from choking on his own vomit. He shifted to his back, a passive swat at Fate.
His host, Nathaniel was it?, knocked at the door jamb; his room didn't appear to actually have a door. "You're awake, young man. Good. We have dinner ready."
"I'm not hungry." Just then his stomach rumbled, making his host laugh.
"Indulge us. We don't get many visitors here, no family about you see, and it would make Polly ever so pleased to hear another's opinion on her cooking. I assure her at least twice daily that it's beyond compare but she thinks I'm biased. Which I really may be but that doesn't mean I'm wrong."
By sheer force of his personality, Nathaniel led him to the dining table. A steaming vat of stew bubbled in the fireplace. Polly peered into the oven over the fire, presumably testing the doneness of her bread. With a satisfied click of her tongue, she levitated the loaves out. One landed on each place setting, crusty and smelling of spices.
"I got this recipe from Spain," she said. "It's slightly heavier than what you maybe used to but I assure you it will taste wonderful with our stew."
"Thank you," said Albus. Now that his head was more-or-less intact, his manners returned. He still didn't feel like eating but she'd gone through all this trouble. And they were quite a nice old couple anyway, the type of people he'd always imagined as perfect parents.
His stomach twisted again, not with the effects of firewhisky but of the things that he'd sought to drown with firewhisky.
"We haven't been properly introduced," said Nathaniel, taking a seat as soon as Polly had done so. "I am Nathaniel Prentice and this is my wife, Polly. We're the herbalists here."
"Very pleased to meet you both. I'm Albus Dumbledore. I... I'm not doing much really." He poked at his bread.
Polly ladled out the stew. "Dumbledore, Dumbledore, Dumbledore... is your family from Moray?"
"I thought I heard a Scots lilt in you. Don't blush, boy, Gaelic is a fine language. Ravenclaw-- Rowena Ravenclaw, that is-- had a fine library of Pictish incantations. Lost to time now, I'm afraid. Such is the price of 'progress'."
Despite himself, Albus wanted to contribute to the conversation. Rarely did anyone know about such topics and now that-- well, now he had no one to talk to about it. "I've heard of Rowena's Ogham folios, sir. Doesn't the ministry have two of them for safe-keeping?"
Nathaniel beamed at his wife. "Did I not tell you that he was a good lad, my love? I knew it, I knew it as soon as he turned him over. Never doubt a man who has the good taste to swoon into the rosemary bush, I always say."
"You used to say it was the saffron patch," said Polly.
"Well, they don't grow saffron in Britain, do they, my love? Rosemary comes as a close second. The ministry does indeed have two of Ravenclaw's Ogham folios but, more accurately, they have the pieces of two folios." Nathaniel shook his head sadly. "Even modern magic and technology cannot undo the effects of time and the British damp on poorly-wrapped parchment."
"Technology, sir?" asked Albus around a mouthful of stew. The bread really was delicious, hardly needed butter. Dark and dense, it seemed to have touches of orange rind and cardamom."
"Technology are muggle innovations," Nathaniel said. "Quite clever, really. There are little glass jars called light globes that contain fire in wires. You attach them to an electric source--"
"A what source, sir?"
"An electric source. It's... it's a tool that can create small lightning bolts as far as I can tell."
"Capture lightning? But... but they're just muggles. Even Gell--" And Albus fell silent, his stomach threatening to tighten once more. He couldn't stand it if he was sick in front of his hosts again and after such a good meal.
"Let the boy eat, Nathaniel," Polly chided gently. "Can't you see he's weary? There's more where that came from, lad, just eat up. Don't mind my husband; he tends to get rather excited when there's another around who can talk history with him. Myself, I tend towards potions and arithmancy."
"Which is why you're a wonderful cook." Nathaniel reached out to hold his wife's hand. They gazed at each other and words seemed to be exchanged without either one actually making a sound. It was distinctly uncomfortable so Albus hid his expression by tucking into his stew.
He actually woke up the next morning in time for breakfast although Nathaniel had long finished and was working in the herbal according to Polly. "You've a steady hand and I think a sharp eye. You can help me in my shop."
Her shop was a one-room structure in the middle of a fallow field. Inside was like nothing Albus had ever seen. Nearly one wall was made of glass and part of the roof as well. Clear vase-like containers hung from tongs or wire brackets. Polly lit two small fires under two of the vases, one of which had a clear solution. On another table were row upon row of palm-sized plates. Mould thrived on the contents. He wrinkled his nose.
"What is all of this?"
"This is part of the muggle technology my husband spoke of. I think you'll like it. Look here." She uncovered a strange tool that looked like a spyglass mounted on a stand with a platform affixed under it and a mirror affixed under that. She then opened a flat box filled with rectangles of glass. Each one had spots or smudges on them. Taking one, careful to touch only the edges, she clamped it onto the platform and peered into the eyepiece. Albus leaned in, curiosity piqued. She was fiddling with the mirror, trying to catch the light, he realized. Not a difficult task in the summer.
At least, all seemed to be in place. Polly stepped aside and pulled him in her place. "Close one eye and look through there. Tell me what you see."
Albus did what he was told. The tiny spyglass reveal hexagonal chambers most of them with dark little dots. He twisted one of the knobs that Polly had; as he guessed, it was the focus. "What am I looking at?"
"An onion skin," said Polly. She laughed at his wide eyes. "Try this one." She handed him a piece of glass with a large red smudge.
The muggle spyglass showed him hundreds of dark pink circles.
"Blood? Really?" He looked again. "How fascinating."
"Isn't it? Here's something you'll really like. Let me adjust the microscope for you."
Microscope. Albus tasted the word. Micro, small. Scope, to look at. A tool for looking at small things. It performed the opposite function as a spyglass. And Muggles made this contraption?
While he mused, Polly went to box with one glass side, filled with water, fish and seaweed. The water was rather rank, actually, like pond water. Using a thin glass pipe, she pulled water from the box and put it on one of the tiny glass plates. She put the whole lot under the microscope.
"You want me to look at pond scum?" Albus was bewildered.
"Yes. Just look already. And feel free to move the Petri dish around if you don't see anything interesting. But I assure you, you will. We have a lively pond."
He expected to find little circles like those in the smudge of blood perhaps light blue to green ones. Instead, he only saw speckles of dirt. Albus refocused the spyglass- the microscope, he corrected himself. Still just speckles.
"Move it around," he heard Polly say.
Carefully, so as not to spill, he shifted the dish to the left and stared at the speckled nothingness. "What am I looking fo--" He stopped, pursing his lips.
"I thought I saw something move but it must have been waves stirring dirt around."
"Are you sure? Wait for the water to stop and look carefully."
Silence reigned in the workshop for a few seconds.
"I think... I think my dirt has legs," said Albus. "It's swimming away from the light. It looks like a flea."
"It's probably a water flea."
"There's another! It looks like a worm."
"It probably is."
"But it's so... Polly there are more water fleas! But this is wonderful! What a wonderful device. Are there small animals in all things? Have you tried looking at dirt? Or what about the table? What of the circles when I looked at that bit of blood? Are those animals as well?"
She laughed but he knew it wasn't malicious. She was simply giddy with knowledge and the sharing of knowledge. He knew the emotion quite well. It was one of the traits that attracted him to Gellert.
And just like that, Albus' mood dropped.
"Let me tell you about my moulds," said Polly in a blatant attempt to distract him. She read people well; it was a fine skill. "You've heard of snegrochta."
"Of course!" One of the deadliest illness maladies in the wizarding world, snegrochta epidemics usually struck in the winter time. Its deadliness came from the fact that in its starting stages, it could be mistaken for any disease but all patients suffered the same symptoms: headaches, coughing and wheezing with lots of bright purple phlegm, and vise-like pains in their backs and legs as their muscles and bones apparently liquefied. However, before all a patient's muscles melted away, the liquid moved to their lungs. The patient usually drowned in their own fluids.
"Muggles have a similar disease which they call influenza," said Polly. "Vicious bouts of it have been raging throughout the world, killing thousands of people in a matter of weeks. A few muggle scholars think that those little creatures you saw in the microscope are responsible."
"That's ridiculous," Albus said. "Animals can't cast curses especially ones so little. They don't have enough energy."
"I don't think they cast spells. Muggles think they might be poisonous or parasitic like leeches and that's what makes them sick. Some of their healers found that sometimes if they put bread mould on a putrid wound, the fever lowered."
"Those moulds." Albus pointed at the rows of dishes with their fuzzy growths.
"I don't know." She sighed. "No one knows. Sometimes the bread mould works, most of the time it doesn't. I've taken a bit from a melon mould that seemed to work on a little girl in town and divided it into portions. Once those grew, I divided it into even more portions. My hope is that one of these has the aspect that may heal influenza."
"But why bother? It's just a muggle disease."
Polly stared at him. Sadness and another emotion lurked in her expression. Was it disappointment? "What happens when you eat three or more belladonna berries straight off the bush?"
"You die, of course. Painfully."
"And if I stab a knife into your hand?"
"I bleed and probably blast you to the other side of the Channel. So would muggles, I understand; bleeding not the blasting."
"So they're not so different from us," Polly said. "It makes sense that particularly dangerous muggle maladies can transmute into wizarding ones. Recall your history and the Great Plague of the fourteenth century."
"You mean the one that happened right after the Red-Robed Massacre?"
"That very one. They were afraid of the Great Plague, Albus, and relations between muggles and wizards were such that we made an easy target. I dare say we would have done the same were the positions reversed."
Albus started to argue then remembered his Ultimate Solution for muggles which, he had to admit, he'd created partially in reparation for the muggles who injured his sister thus beginning the downfall of his family. "You really think bread mould will cure snegrochta?"
"I hope," Polly said. "I mix magic with science and hope. It's all you can do really to--"
The door slammed open and in strode Nathaniel. "My love! Recall the bit of mould poultice you applied on the horse's leg? It's utterly free of infection and almost good as new."
Polly brightened, clapping her hands like a little girl. "Which batch--"
"7-F with the halo around--"
"-- with the rye bread--"
"-- and a blue-ish tinge, oh, darling, a breakthrough!" They embraced, giddy with triumph, laughing and jumping such that Albus couldn't help but smile as well even though he was but an observer to their joy. This was love, he realised. This soft, warm glow enveloping him through his hosts, like a cup of wassail on a bitterly cold winter night was love like he'd never experienced before. Without knowing why, he burst into tears.
Three was one of the most magical numbers and thus Albus reckoned he had to completely humiliate himself one more time before he left the Prentices'. Polly had gathered him in his blubbering state, accioing several blankets to wrap around him. Forcibly, she sat him on a plush chair in front of the fire. Nathaniel placed a tray with tea on the table to his left.
"I'm sorry," Albus said, hiccupping. "I'm terribly sorry you have to see me like this. I'm not usually... I never drink in excess and I never cry, not in ages but I can't seem to... and everything's bollixed up. I bollixed up except it's ever so much worse than bollixing up and they'll never forgive me. I'll never forgive me because she's dead! She's dead and I killed her and... and...."
And he couldn't continue because the twisting in his stomach met up with the weight on his chest, making it hard to breathe.
"There, there, lad." Polly patted his back. "Let it come, let it go. A-times a good cry is good for your soul."
"I'm a horrible person!" Albus said. "It's a mistake, I fell in the rosemary bush but I was drunk so I'm really not a good person. The rosemary was a mistake. I should have fallen into nettles. Nettles for cruelty because that's what I am, you see. Cruel and selfish and perverse."
Polly placed a cup in his hands, holding his fingers against it when he wouldn't move. "But nettles are good omens as well. The first brew of nettle tea is the base for many fortificants. Nettles in a sachet with rock salt and yarrow root are powerful protective charms for the home."
"Then it should have kept me out." Albus drank the tea out of habit, not because he really wanted it. He didn't even bother incanting a spell to check for poison.
Nathaniel had drawn up a backless stool on to the left and had lit up a pipe. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, as though he were interested in Albus' blubbering. As though he cared. "The fact that you think you're evil contradicts the idea what you really are."
Albus shook his head violently. He had to make them understand the depths to which he had descended. Maybe then they would do the proper thing, the thing that he himself was too cowardly to do. "I ignored my family because I thought my intelligence made me superior. I hated them because caring for them meant I couldn't pursue my studies. I... I fell in love with a man and cared for him more than my own kin and when we fought, I... My sister. My sister is simple, you see, and we had to-- the muggles hurt her and I hated them and Gellert hated them too so I thought we were meant to be but he was twisting--- no, I am twisted. I'm the one who created the Ultimate Solution and we fought; he, my brother and I, and Ariana died. She was simple and sweet and she died because of me, because of the evil inside me. So you see, nettles, sweet williams or rosemary, it doesn't matter. You should have left me in the yard to die of the cold."
He hadn't quite meant to confess all of that. An Unforgivable was surely on its way or at the very least, looks of horror and disgust. What he didn't expect was Polly's snort or Nathaniel's curt "Poppycock." He had to look up to ascertain what he'd heard.
Not a twitch of disgust from either one.
"How old are you, Albus?" asked Nathaniel.
"Eight-eighteen, sir, just this past May."
The older man matched his wife's snort. "You're barely a man. Yes, I know you're legally an adult and all that rot. Had we lived a hundred years ago, you would have most certainly been an adult and I'd be giving you a proper talking to if not a march to the nearest Auror headquarters but people are younger for longer these days."
"But... I killed my sister."
"You pointed the wand at her?"
Albus was silent for a while. "Well... no but---"
"You looked her in the eye and performed an Unforgivable?"
"It was rather an uproar but--"
"Have you ever wished her dead?"
"No!" He was amazed at his own vehemence. Calmer, he added, "Never."
"Then you are not evil."
"Misguided, foolish and yes, perhaps selfish as you claim, but you're not evil," added Polly. "True evil is never as contrite as you're being right now, lad."
He wanted to believe them. Theirs were the first kind words he'd heard from anybody in so long. But there was one undeniable proof of his darkness. "What about the fact that I'm a... a sodomite? I always have been. I can't stop. I try but Gellert was... he was so smart and handsome and... I was so tired of denying myself everything."
Surely Nathaniel had to react to this abhorrence but the older man simply patted his knee. "Ah, that comes and goes with fashion. Did you know in the sixteenth century, men regularly had affairs with other men and no one thought anything of t? A number of texts I've read indicate that this was true for the ancient Greeks as well, what with their obviously idolatry of the male form. At this very moment, historians are unearthing charmed figurines in the shape of-- Well, that's another story," Nathaniel stopped himself at Polly's warning look. "Did you love this Gellert?"
"I thought I did," Albus whispered. "But I can't trust myself any more. My heart says one thing, my mind another, and neither agree with anyone else."
He felt them exchange a look. "It's rare indeed when you heart and your mind agree," said Polly. "Why I still struggle at times, old as I am."
"You're not old," said Albus, a reflexive politeness.
"You're a dear lad but I'm older than I look." She topped off his tea. "Drink up, love, and bide with us until both heart and mind heal. You're a smart one; you can help me with my moulds. Nathaniel will certainly appreciate conversing with someone who actually likes history."
"Of course you can," Nathaniel said. "Write to your family. Tell them you are reevaluating your life in light of past events."
A piece of parchment and a quill danced to the side table. "Aberforth is the only brother I have and he'd probably set fire to my letters sooner than read them."
"Write it anyway for your own sake. Purge yourself of your sorrow and perhaps begin to mend bridges with your brother."
"Speak, plainly, darling. He means that with this letter, you may start to mend the bond between yourself and your brother," Polly clarified.
Albus decided to tell her that he and Aberforth hadn't had a bond since their father was thrown into Azkaban. It wouldn't work. He couldn't even begin to make reparations by writing a stupid letter but his hosts insisted. It was the least he could do.
Ninety-two years later...
Albus lifted the simple brass knocker, smiling wistfully at the flower baskets hanging from the windows. The door opened silently; Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel had not needed to speak spells five hundred years.
"Albus! Welcome, lad!" Perenelle was as lovely as ever, wreathed in smiles the way she'd been when they first met. "Nicholas is in his herbal but, of course, you must have tea first."
"Of course." He took the liberty of setting up the service as she washed her hands free of residues. Muggle chemistry had grown to the point where the experiments Perenelle wanted to performed were either too costly, too difficult for a single person or too dangerous outside a specialized facility. But she still maintained specimens in her workshop, puttering in that patient, hopeful way of hers.
Nicholas bounded in as she and Albus were on their second cup of tea. "You haven't visited in ages, scamp."
"You've been in Bolivia," Albus pointed out.
"True, true. Amazing plants they've got there, simply astounding. Mark my words, half the world's ills will be cured if they play their cards right in those rainforests. But you haven't come to listen to an old man's blather. What's on your mind?"
Albus told them of Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, and of his fears about the Philosopher's Stone bringing Voldemort's return. "Even with all my efforts, I fear it is not safe in the castle."
Perenelle nodded as did Nicholas but the latter had a thoughtful squint. "Do you fear its safety from Voldemort or yourself?"
"Voldemort surely," he replied quickly. "Eternal life is not one of my wishes."
There was silence. They sipped their tea.
"If worse comes to worse, I suppose we could simply destroy it," said Perenelle. Albus started but she patted his knee as though he was still that bare-faced lad of eighteen nearly a hundred years ago. To her, he probably always would be. "We've lived a good long life, my dear. This is hardly the first time we've talked about destroying the stone but it never felt quite right."
Nicholas concurred. "We've done all we can, for this world. And we have made your acquaintance which, I dare say, is one of the highlights of our life."
Albus found that he could still blush. "The honour is mine. Had it not been for your intervention, I would be dead or worse; I could have been Voldemort."
"Never. You don't have it in you, lad."
"You are kind to say so."
They finished their tea then Perenelle brought out scones and they had to finish those as well with a fresh pot. Conversation turned from the Stone to Nicholas' new breed of roses to Perenelle's job in the researching something called stem cells.
"I will miss this when you are gone," said Albus as he prepared to leave.
Nicholas smiled at him. "Plant rosemary for remembrance."
The next spring, he did.