After the picnic, the last tattered threads of summer began to unravel.
Teddy unpacked and cleaned his trunk before getting it in order for the year, with his new school books on top and the larger robes Granny had bought for later in the year on the bottom. (He'd got this idea from Victoire, though he didn't care to share that information with her.) Slughorn came for one last brewing lesson, and Professor Longbottom came along to discuss cultivation of the needed plants. He was recently back from his honeymoon, and looked happier than Teddy had ever seen him.
There was a letter from Père Alderman, congratulating Teddy on mastering Wolfsbane Potion and saying that he hadn't really thought Teddy would be stuck with the responsibility on his own quite so quickly. It's more a baptism by fire than penance at this point, and I feel guilty suggesting it to you, he wrote, but hopefully, you won't be alone for long, and if I could absolve you after a few months of it, I would. As I can't, I hope you'll find absolution on your own and in your own way. After that, he went on to give Teddy gossip of parts of the pack he hadn't seen--Coral, who'd finally got a Healer's apprenticeship; Martin Hamilton, who was writing a new book that had nothing to do with werewolves; and of course, Vivian Waters, who he claimed was so determinedly cheerful about Professor Longbottom's marriage that her friends were considering putting her into therapy. She and her foster daughter, Celia--a girl Greyback had forced her to infect--were getting along well, and had been joining Père Alderman on so many missions that werewolves around the world assumed she was nun, much to her chagrin, as she was no more Catholic than Teddy was.
Four days before the Hogwarts Express was due to leave, Teddy had all of his friends except Ruthless over to plan her party on board the train. So far, she suspected nothing, largely because, in the frenzy of leaving in each of the last three years, no one had bothered with her birthday before. They met in the basement, which had somehow become Teddy's domain within the house. Frankie Apcarne and Zach Templeton, who were of age now, were putting magical wrappings on everyone's presents and shrinking them into an old valise. Tinny Gudgeon was double-checking the work and making sure everyone's names were attached. Roger Young and Corky Atkinson--who'd taken an early Portkey just to help--were working on games playable on the train. Victoire insisted on taking charge of decorations.
"As long as nothing explodes," Teddy said, unable to decide if this was Victoire Weasley, Brigadier General of the ongoing Hogwarts Prank War, or Victoire Weasley who had always tried, in her admittedly awkward way, to be Ruthless's friend.
"What about fireworks?" Victoire asked. "Uncle George has some new mini-fireworks. They explode, but I think Ruth would like them. What do you think, Donzo?"
Donzo McCormack, who was sitting on a battered old desk picking at his guitar, didn't look up. "As long as they don't explode in her face, I think she'd like it." He played a few bars of a song he'd been writing (he claimed there were no lyrics yet, though he'd been trying to work in rain and fog), then said, "Do you think she'd like me to play?"
"We can't afford you," Maurice Burke said, appearing from upstairs with a plate of sandwiches. "You have to stop the free concerts. You'll go broke. You should be in charge of food, and I'll buy some music to play. Maybe I'll buy that old song you did before school. 'Hopping About,' wasn't it?"
Donzo turned his nose up. "I have no idea what you mean. I'm a serious artist. Just ask the Daily Prophet. They loved the last one." He poked his cheek out with his tongue.
There was a general snicker, as there had been since Donzo had first released "Into the Gray," a song that had originated during one of Frankie's endless games, when the lot of them had got lost on a foggy moor and had to deal with a serial killer who was hunting there. The Prophet had gone into rhapsodies about Donzo's maturation as an artist, tackling "the existential danger of losing oneself in a world where the markers have disappeared." At first, Donzo had tried to explain the song's genesis, but the reviewer had written it off as "McCormack's trademark self-deprecation."
"So," Teddy said, "against all logic, Donzo is providing food and Maurice is providing music. What am I doing?"
"You have to distract Ruthless," Frankie said.
"Seeing as you're the only one who's ever been able to," Tinny added.
"It's a tough break," Corky said. "You might have to snog her again."
"I suppose I could bear it, if necessary," Teddy said.
Maurice shook his head. "Oh, for God's sake, don't start snogging her. The pair of you will miss the train entirely."
"I'm sure Teddy can think of something else," Victoire said. "They're broken up, after all."
Something not entirely unpleasant turned over in Teddy's stomach. He supposed the thought of snogging Ruthless again was attractive. Perhaps they could get back together. There were not, as far as he knew, any Ruthless Rules that would prohibit it. "I could give her a birthday present," he suggested. "Out on the platform, since of course no one else on board would be getting a present."
"Now, you think of it?" Zach said. "Did we shrink it already?"
"Er... no. I haven't got it yet."
Tinny widened her eyes. "I'd hurry, if I were you, or you can forget snogging of any sort." She gave Frankie a significant look.
Frankie held up his hands in surrender. "I'll get your birthday present before school starts. Really."
Victoire reached into her handbag and tossed an Exploding Earworm at him. "Honestly, Frankie, her birthday's in February." The Earworm exploded and started to play a particularly annoying Weasleys' jingle.
They got the details worked out, and Donzo managed to override Maurice's rule about free concerts ("If I can't play when I feel like it, what's the point?"), as long as they all agreed to keep the door shut so that the whole train wasn't getting free entertainment. Victoire was the last to leave, and she helped Teddy clean up bottles and plates.
"Do you still mean to give Ruth..." She gestured toward the Muggle-room and Mum's wardrobes.
"I still haven't found anything," he said. "But I was just going to get her something normal for her birthday. That was something else."
"What should I get her? I've given her Quidditch things a lot, and her birthday's always right after a trip to Flourish and Blott's, so she has any books she wants. Jewelry's out, and Granny says that clothes are too personal. What did you get?"
"I got her some things to pull short hair back. Mum reckons I was being a bit of a pest, and that Ruth is pretty in her way, and I oughtn't try to make her pretty in anyone else's."
"I wouldn't use that word," Teddy said. "She really doesn't like it."
"Pretty. She nearly hexed Uncle Harry for it once."
"She doesn't want to be told she's pretty?"
"You know other girls do, don't you?"
Teddy shrugged. "I judge it on a girl by girl basis." He folded up the table where they'd originally stored the presents. "Here, give me a hand."
Victoire took the other end of the table, and they maneuvered it into the corner, where it lived among the cobwebs. Teddy turned and found himself only inches from Victoire, and she was still very pretty. And still very thirteen, and still very much part of his family. Odd thoughts about her hair and her china blue eyes would only lead to trouble, not to mention very uncomfortable Christmases. He drew away and said, "Well, thanks for helping out. I know you and Ruthless don't get along all that well, so I appreciate it."
"I don't get along with her, but I like her perfectly well."
Teddy didn't even try to make sense of that.
The next day, he Flooed into London and spent several desperate hours in Diagon Alley, looking for a decent birthday present. He considered a cat--Ruthless had no pet of her own and doted on Checkmate--but getting a pet for someone who wasn't expecting one was always a stupid idea, even though he knew she would love a particularly rambunctious ginger tom that he saw at the Magical Menagerie. He decided to just owl her and tell her about him, and let her decide for herself. Which still left him without a present for her. She was just too self-sufficient to make present buying easy. She always seemed to have everything she needed.
In desperation, he finally went to Weasleys', where George steered him to a whole new line of portable daydreams, these action-based and exciting. Teddy bought three of them. He got a discount for first helping George stock standard Muggles and Minions equipment, then develop new lines of toys based on it. He also got a small percent of the money George made on the latter, which was deposited into a vault Granny had got for him at Gringotts. She wouldn't give him the key until he came of age, though.
Now all that was left was the other present, the one that didn't really belong at a party. He got home in the late afternoon and went back to the basement, where he started going through the other six wardrobes, looking for something, anything, that would look like a good gift from an experienced Auror to someone just starting on the path.
The shadows were getting quite long when he heard a rap on the edge of the door. Granny was standing there, a quizzical look on her face. "What are looking for, Teddy?"
Teddy sighed and closed the door of the third wardrobe. "I don't even know," he said, and told her what he'd meant to do. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's all Mum's stuff, anyway, and I shouldn't--"
But Granny was smiling. She held up her hand. "Wait here," she said.