Harry Potter and the Forests of Valbonë
Chapter Forty Nine

Silence hung between them for a long time.

"Yours?" asked Harry, sounding astounded.

"Voldemort is not the first wizard to conceive of splitting his soul," said the hat, his tone grim.

"I don't understand."

"Yes you do. If I've learned anything in the last month, Harry, it's that you're far from stupid."

"You're a—"

Harry couldn't bring himself to finish the statement.

"Of course I am," replied the hat. "I am Godric Gryffindor's only horcrux."

"But—" began Harry, but the gears in his brain were already grinding to a complete stop. "But wouldn't that mean—?"

"That Godric is still alive?" asked Sternley. "In some ways, perhaps. But most of him, the human part of him has moved on."

"But you're still—?"

"Yes. See, that's the thing about horcruxes. Or fracturing your soul at all, really. Regret is the thing that fixes you, the thing that fills in the cracks and, whatever else Godric was, he wasn't a stone cold killer. So as he regretted, the wound in his soul healed, but traces of the fragment remained in me. Just enough to keep me going."

Sternley took in Harry's stupefied expression.

"Perhaps I should tell the whole story?"

"Perhaps you should," said Dumbledore.

Sternley sighed.

"So then, let me tell you what Godric Gryffindor did, in his ignorance, in his stupidity and in his desperation.

"As you know, back when Hogwarts first started Slytherin argued with the other founders concerning the tutelage of muggle-borns. He created the Chamber of Secrets beneath the school, placed inside it the basilisk, and left, never to return.

"Or so the stories say. The part they forget to mention, or perhaps didn't know at all, was that Godric learned of his plan and captured him before he managed to depart.

"Unable to discover the location of Slytherin's chamber, or coerce the information from him, Godric fell back on his last resort. In his desperation, his foolishness, his anger, he murdered his rival and used the act to create me."

Harry's world was crashing down around him. Godric Gryffindor a murderer? Sternley a product of horrendous dark magic? It all seemed absurd.

"Why?" asked Harry, his voice weak.

Sternley looked surprised.

"I thought that was obvious," he replied. "Slytherin left his chamber and Gryffindor left me, to guard against his treachery. It was no coincidence that it was me that Fawkes brought to your defence beneath the school. That was, aside from my role as Sorting Hat, my sole duty in Hogwarts."

"But I thought you said that the soul fragment was gone."

The hat snorted.

"Have I wasted my time teaching you? What does magic always leave?"

"Traces," whispered Harry.

"Indeed," said Dumbledore, his eyes kind and sympathetic as they scrutinised Harry.

"And the voice that I've been hearing?"

"That's not my area of expertise," said the hat. "But I can probably make a guess."

"Godric's, I presume," said Dumbledore. "I believe that the exposure of your damaged soul to the remnants of his soul fragment has led one to bleed into the other."

Harry shuddered. How many pieces of other people's souls were running around in his head now? But wait—

"I wore Sternley the first day I was in Hogwarts and again earlier this year, why didn't it happen then?"

Dumbledore offered him a sympathetic, sad smile.

"You nearly died," he said. "That sort of experience— It has its own impact on the soul."

Harry stared at his hand; he didn't know how to respond to any of these revelations.

"Similarly," continued Dumbledore, steepling his fingers. "I do not think it was a coincidence that night you left in the company of Godric's hat and sword, or Arthur Weasley's car. Each of you were drawn to the others."

"All the broken things," snapped Harry, his voice hard and bitter.

They fell silent at that, Sternley and Dumbledore watching Harry as he brushed tears of hot anger from his eyes.

"Harry," said Sternley. "I'm sor—"

"No, you're not," said Harry, shaking his head. "You should have told me."

Sternley looked as though he was going to retort, but then his peak sagged ever and instead he merely sighed.

"You're right, of course," he said, somewhere between a croak and a whisper. "I should have told you, but I couldn't bear admitting what I was. Or what I'd done to you. I'm sorry Harry, I knew you'd look at me and I couldn't bear facing that."

Harry lifted his hand and wiped the tears from his face, not sure when they'd started falling. He glanced around, looking everywhere but Sternley and the Headmaster and remembered the last time he'd been in this office, crying.

His eyes fell on the clock and he realised, with an abrupt lurch in his stomach, that he would be thirteen at the stroke of midnight. What a way to spend the last day of his twelfth year.

"I trusted you," he whispered, his eyes finding Sternley.

"I know," said the hat, sounding as mournful as Harry. "And that's why I didn't tell you. You're the only friend I've ever had."

Harry gave a little laugh that sounded more like a strangled sob. He was still angry and frustrated with the hat, but he knew he had a point. In all of the time he'd spent with Sternley in the forest, not once had the hat mentioned any other person with fondness. Not Gryffindor, not any of the headmasters, not any of the students.

He glanced at Dumbledore and saw, to his surprise, that the Headmaster had a slight tinge of shame to his expression.

And perhaps he should. All the time Dumbledore had been headmaster, Sternley was there. Harry wondered how many conversations they'd ever had before Harry's disappearance. From the look on Dumbledore's face, it was none. So the Headmaster, like all those before him, only ever used Sternley like a tool. Instead of interacting with him as a sentient being.

In eight hundred years Harry was the only one to make an attempt to befriend Sternley. And, if Harry learned about anything from the Dursleys, it was loneliness.

"You've seen inside my head," he said. "You know I can't blame you for that."

"I'm sorry, Harry," said Sternley again.

Harry didn't reply; he wasn't quite ready to forgive the Sorting Hat yet.

"Is there any way we can fix it?" he asked, looking to Dumbledore. "My soul, I mean."

"I have many ideas, each more unlikely and dangerous than the last. But I suspect the real question is; do you want to fix it?"

Harry looked at him, agog.

"Why would I not want to fix a gaping hole in my soul?"

"Because, and I am only assuming now, that more than Godric's voice is seeping through," said Dumbledore. "For instance, over the last week you have demonstrated an incredible ability to communicate in Albanian, German and Gobbledegook. I hope you will forgive me for saying so, but I do not believe you possessed any aptitude for these talents before you left."

Harry frowned. He hadn't been aware of speaking any other languages, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. He'd spoken to magical creatures, Albanian aurors, mercenaries from three continents and an entire room full of wizards from a hundred different countries.

"Oh," he said.

"'Oh' indeed," replied Dumbledore, his eyes gleaming. "Have you noticed any other unusual abilities."

"Yes," said Harry, furrowing his brow. "I thought it had only happened the once, but in hindsight, it was a few times. After the fight with the oiks and in the forest with the goblins and in the fight with Malfoy and just now when we arrived—"

He looked up and caught Dumbledore's patient smile, the Headmaster seemed both curious and confused.

"It was like," began Harry, trying to think of how to explain it. "Like the entire world had been shoved into my head all in one go. All the sounds and sights and smells and tastes and the magic. All of it buzzing around my head."

"Ah," said Dumbledore, looking rather surprised. "That is both unexpected and interesting."

"So you've heard of it before?" asked Harry, feeling relieved. "Has it happened to you, in the past?"

"It is called Ambediance," replied Dumbledore, examining him with a serious expression. "And yes, I've experienced it before."

The headmaster's eyes were narrowed now, as though Harry were a puzzle he wanted to work out.

"It's an unusual phenomenon," he said, then caught the look of worry on Harry's face. "But there is no immediate need for concern. You are merely comprehending the magic around you on a conscious level. Have you noticed any odd effects with your spell casting?"

"Yes," replied Harry and, at once, it was like all of the words were tumbling out of his mouth. "I've been able to combine them; I mean, use aspects of two or more at once. They don't always work and sometimes it's a bit unpredictable. And once I felt as though I'd broken some gate inside me and it all came streaming out."

Dumbledore's interest appeared to have been piqued again.

"Very interesting. There is no cause for concern, this is something that many wizards develop when deprived access to proper education," he said. He was about to move on when he caught the scandalized expression on Harry's face. "Forgive me, that was not an insult. In the distant past, wizards performed all magic as you described; with experimentation rather than lore. It shows a strong magical talent that you were able to progress in such a manner."

Harry's face flushed under such praise.

"But you should be aware that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this. There is a reason we provide formal education to young wizards and witches." Dumbledore gave him a reassuring smile. "Again, this is a talent that I have experience with, but you are in no immediate danger. I can teach you to master it, when you are ready.

"Now, is there anything else that you've yet to mention, Harry?"

"Not that I can think of, but so much has happened."

"Completely understandable, you are welcome to owl me any further questions you might remember. Now, I will only ask for a few moments more of your time before I take you on to the Burrow. As I'm quite certain Molly is already planning to lambaste me for keeping you quite so long, it won't matter if we take a few moments more tonight."

"Does that mean I'm not going back to Privet Drive?" Harry blurted out, unable to stop himself.

"Not immediately," replied Dumbledore. "But for the next few days, I thought you might prefer to be around friends."

Harry couldn't articulate quite how grateful he was to the Headmaster in that moment. Dumbledore conveniently, and kindly, failed to notice the tears that Harry wiped from his eyes.

"From what I understand," continued the Headmaster, once Harry had pulled himself together. "You and Sternley have made a great deal of progress with your illicit extracurricular studies."

Harry flushed, realising that all the way through his time in Valbonë he'd been breaking the school rules against underage wizardry into a thousand pieces. But he could tell from the gleam in Dumbledore's eye that the Headmaster found it amusing.

"I therefore suspect that you may be a little ahead of your peers in some regards. If, next year, this is the case and you find you have the time to do so, I would like to offer you some private tuition, alongside the extra lessons you will be receiving from Professor Lupin."

This caught Harry's attention and he nodded with enthusiasm. Perhaps in his first two years at Hogwarts, he might have shied away from the offer. Maybe fearing that he was too stupid or that the lessons would be boring, or that he'd rather be doing something else.

But he was not that person any more. Valbonë had changed him; made him eager to learn, desperate to understand every inch of every branch of magic.

"That'd be amazing," he said.

Dumbledore beamed.

"Excellent. In that case, I shall not detain you any further. It is time you are reunited with your friends. And, if you will pardon my deplorable manners, you rather look as though you might benefit from some of Molly's marvellous cooking."

Harry looked at Sternley, the hat had been silent for a long time. He still wasn't ready to forgive him, but after a month together, lost in the woods, it felt weird to be leaving him behind.

"Goodbye, Sternley," he said, his voice quiet. "I guess I'll see you at the start of term."

"Goodbye, Harry," replied the hat, sounding very remorseful.

Harry turned away, a dozen uncomfortable feelings fluttering around in his stomach. He felt sad to be leaving Sternley, glad to have turned his back to Albania and he couldn't help but feel nervous at the idea of returning to the Burrow. Nevertheless, he followed the Headmaster to the fireplace.

It was with unbelievable tension that Harry reached into the small pot that Dumbledore offered him. He took a hold of a handful of green powder, stepped up to the flickering flames and tossed it in.

For an instant a wild compulsion to jump into the fire and shout any random address overwhelmed him. But he knew he couldn't run away again, however tempting it seemed.

He watched the green flames and steeled himself. Then he stepped forward.

"The Burrow," he said, trying to articulate himself with as much clarity as possible.

The ride was easier this time than ever before; Harry wondered if floo travel was perhaps something you became more practised with. A moment later he stepped out into the familiar surroundings of the Burrow.

It appeared that his arrival had been expected. Ron, Ginny, the Twins, Molly, Arthur and, to Harry's surprise, Hermione, sat dotted around the room. They all turned to the fireplace as he emerged and there was a few seconds when everybody was silent, staring at him.

Harry's stomach lurched; were his worst fears true?

Then he was struck by a wild haired, squealing cannonball, which wrapped its arms around him and held him tight.

"Harry!" gasped Hermione in his ear, sounding both very upset and overjoyed. "You're back."

A moment later Ron seized both of them in his long grasp and then the rest of the Weasleys joined in. All of them huddling together in front of the fireplace, nobody speaking.

Harry stood in the midst of the hug for a long time, feeling warm, very happy and much loved.

He was home.

A/N - So, that's the end, or at least the end of Harry's story. Like I said, there's still one more chapter to come, hopefully in the first week of August, which will hopefully fill in a couple of gaps that are missing. I've already started work on a sequel, which I hope will be ready to start getting posted about then. Thanks to all of you who have left reviews, I've read every single one you guys have leftand though I can't say I've responded to each one, I do take them all on board.

All the best,