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Chapter 13

Brand Loyalty


“Brand loyalty!” shouted George Weasley as he paced back and forth atop the counter that ran the length of one side of the Hogsmeade branch of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. “This morning we have the opportunity to earn the first galleons that this crop of third years has ever spent in Hogsmeade.” As he moved from one end of the counter to the other and back, George had to hop over glass jars filled with an assortment of brightly colored candies, two gleaming old-fashioned brass tills and pile after pile of the drabbest brown paper bags and wrapping paper – the only items in the entire shop not designed to draw attention. In addition to making him look like a slightly manic participant in a game of hopscotch, the little jumps served to punctuate and emphasize the speech he was currently giving to a nervous bunch of employees spread out haphazardly in front of the counter.

 “But we have to earn those galleons!” Hop. “Every sickle.” Hop. “Every knut.” Hop. “Believe in the product, sure, but that's just half of it.” George added a bit of a flourish to his next jump, narrowly avoiding knocking over a small pyramid of canned laughter as he whirled to face his employees. He bent forward at the waist and brought his left hand up alongside his face allowing him to whisper conspiratorially: “Hell, even that doddering old fool Zonko has some top shelf product.”

Here, George reached a hand into one of the many pockets of his canary yellow and lime green pinstriped robes and made a show of rummaging about for something. What he withdrew resembled nothing so much as a clear glass egg within which swirled a shockingly red gas. Ron, who had been standing just inside the front door to the shop after arriving just as George commenced his pep talk, was reminded very much of Neville's old Remembrall.

“The Secret Keeper,” pronounced George, tossing it back and forth between his hands. “ I really wish that I'd come up with this one. Just speak your secret into the egg and seal it up.” He mimed the process as he described it, giving the top and bottom of the egg an exaggerated twist. “And then my secret is safe. I won't be able to tell it to anyone else unless I give someone the Secret Keeper.” George grinned impishly as he contemplated the egg. “I wonder if it could be used to overcome Veritaserum,” he mused.

“You're getting sidetracked, Weasley,” said Angelina Johnson. Ron knew that George had asked her to help out on this, the busiest of all days for Weasley's Wizard Wheezes is Hogsmeade. Ron also spotted Lee Jordan and Dennis Creevey among those he knew to be temporary help. George hadn't seemed to hear Angelina, and now his grin was starting to fade.

 “What would happen if I lost it?” he asked quietly, seemingly to the room at large. “Would I be doomed to take the secret to the grave?” George shuddered a bit, then scanned the room. His eyes came to rest upon Trixie, who, Ron had noted, was paying very little mind to George's antics up on the counter. She was sorting boxes of Skiving Snackboxes by hand as she pulled them out of large storage crates. “Trixie!” George shouted, sounding relieved to find her there.

The plump blonde woman looked up from her work with a smile, though to Ron's eyes it was not the room-lightening smile that had made her such a welcome addition to George's life. This smile seemed to wane out of existence somewhere in the vicinity of her cheeks and never reached her eyes. So unusual was this, that Ron immediately appraised her appearance using his auror's intuition. Nothing appeared outwardly wrong, though her eyes were wearing the dark circles of a long sleepless night, and, though he couldn't be sure, she looked to have the slightest green tinge. Not the garish and obvious hue of Dragon Pox, but the approximate color of Hermione's face after being forced to travel by broomstick for more than five minutes.

 “George!” she shouted back, imitating his slightly manic tone. George looked one last time at the Secret Keeper in his hand, then tossed it underhanded to Trixie, who plucked it out of the air.

“Please open that Trix,” he said in a small voice. “It's not really a secret, and I – I certainly don't want to lose the ability to say -” George looked like he was searching for the right words, but he raised his arms exasperatedly when they didn't appear to come.

Trixie gave a coy smile as she lifted the egg up to eye level, then gave it a bit of a shake, watching as the gas held within it began to swirl faster. “So you can't open it up yourself?” she asked. “Seems like a bit of an oversight.”

“Indeed,” agreed George, “First generation product. Always some kinks to work out in those. “You remember four years ago when you had just -”

“Oh! The New-U Shampoo. That was a rather fun disaster.” Trixie gazed off into the middle distance apparently reminiscing. “All of those howlers. I'd just found out about all of this, and I think I'd convinced myself that all witches were really angry all the time.”

“Yes, well, with a bit of re-branding, Where's-My-Hair Instant Depilatory is our best selling Wonder Witch product. Are you going to open that? Please?” Relenting at last, Trixie unscrewed the Secret Keeper and everyone in the shop was treated to George's voice bellowing “I love you Trixie!” as the gas dispelled.

“Aww, Ditto,” Trixie replied, smiling once again. Ron was happy to see that this one did in fact reach her eyes. The effect on George was immediate. He let out a quick sigh of relief, though Ron wasn't sure if it was because he had regained the ability to tell Trixie how he felt or because of the seeming improvement in her mood.

“Right then, where was I?” George popped a finger in the to cut short an employee's response. “Rhetorical question, sorry.” He resumed his travels along the top of the counter, hopping this way and that. “So yes, sell the product, but much more importantly sell the experience. We want every trip to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes to be an event! We provide, free of charge, to every boy, girl, or otherwise that passes through that door,” George twirled to face the entrance and pointed at the plate glass door next to which Ron was standing. “Except for that ugly git there. He has to pay extra, “ he added with a grin. All of George's employees turned to look at who George had meant, and were treated to Ron's rather rude non-verbal response to his brother's ribbing.

Angelina and Lee called out more civilized greetings to Ron, which he returned in kind. He slowly started to wend his way to the counter as George resumed his speech.

“As I was trying to say, before I was so rudely interrupted - “ Ron blew a raspberry against the back of his hand that was welcomed by a stifled titter from the gathered employees. George ignored this. “This place needs to be alive with excitement and chaos. Encourage students to touch, try, fling, dodge, et cetera et cetera.. I want everyone to leave with a smile on their lips and a laugh in their heart – no purchase necessary.” Ron glanced at Trixie as George finished his monologue, and he was surprised to find that she had a worried look on her face as she continued to gaze up at where George had started giving individual employees their marching orders.

Deciding that George would be busy for a few more moments, Ron changed directions. “Good morning Trixie,” he greeted her a moment later after crossing the space between them. She gave a violent start and her left hand flew up to her chest. Ron saw a glint of light flash off the simple gold wedding band she wore there.

“Goodness Ron, you gave me quite a start!” She rose up on tiptoe and reached both her arms high around Ron's neck in a friendly hug. “I never heard you coming!”

“Sorry, it must have been my auror training,” Ron returned the hug weakly as he mentally kicked himself for both frightening Trixie and then casually bragging about it.

“Perhaps it was, at that,” Trixie said, warmly, as she broke the embrace and lowered herself down to a normal standing position. “I'm sure it'll come in handy in a few minutes anyway.”

“Sorry?” Ron was sure his confusion was plainly evident on his face. “I'm not sh-”

“Your stealthiness, silly! Up at Hogwarts!” Trixie chuckled as Ron felt his face flush.

“Well clearly I'm not here for my deductive reasoning.”

“That's all right, we all have our blind spots.”

“It's too early in the morning for a-”

“It's nearly ten o'clock!” protested Trixie with feigned indignation.

“Like I said, it's too early.” Ron rubbed his temples. That morning had been great, what with Rose's first magic and the shower, but it would have been great to get an extra twenty minutes sleep too.

“I suppose you're also -” Trixie raised her hands and punctuated her next sentence with air quotes - “too old for this shit.”

“I – what?” Ron was certain that he was having the piss taken out of him, but he decided it was worth it given how brightly Trixie's face was shining.

“Oh that's right. Sorry. I forget all the time that we have different pop culture backgrounds. It's a quote made by a policeman in muggle movie I'm quite fond of.”

“Muggle movies, eh?” Hermione's been trying to get me to watch one of her old childhood favorites.” Ron fumbled around the back of his mind to come up with the title. She'd been talking about it just the other day. “The Princess Bride I think it's called. Something overly girly, anyway.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked her. She's got excellent taste, that wife of yours.” Ron opened his mouth to agree with Trixie's assessment, but quickly closed it again as she added: “despite her marrying you of course.”

“As you said, we all have our blind spots,” Ron said with a grin. “Hey,” he added, just remembering why he'd come over in the first place, “is everything all right? If you'll forgive my saying so, you don't look too good.. And I saw the way you were looking at George just now.”

“I don't look too good? It's no wonder it took you seven years to win over Hermione.” Trixie's statement was still lighthearted, but Ron could sense that he'd touched upon some nerve or another as her smile was rapidly fading.

“Honestly, looking back on it, it was more a question of winning myself over, but don't deflect the question.” A taut moment of silence stretched out between them as Ron watched Trixie glance over at George who had gotten down off of the counter and was huddled with Dennis Creevey next to the fake wand display. As Ron watched, George looked up at Trixie, caught her eye, and grinned broadly before returning to his instructions for Dennis. Trixie sighed deeply and turned back to face Ron.

“I appreciate your concern – No, I do!” she hastily added to cut Ron off. “And it's – not – misplaced.”

“So there is something wrong then?” Ron asked hurriedly in a hushed voice. “How can I help? Please let me help!” Trixie appeared to think for a moment, then pulled the Secret Keeper from a pocket and looked at it. Without George's secret occupying it, it was completely clear. She twisted the two halves apart.

“Cover your ears and hum a tune,” she said softly.

“But -”

“You wanted to help.” Rather curious, Ron shrugged and did as he was asked. He placed his fingers in his ears and began to hum the Chudley Cannons fight song. As he watched, Trixie put the egg up to her mouth, which she covered so that Ron was not able to make out the words she was saying by reading her lips. In just a moment, she was twisting the egg shut, locking in a freshly swirling bright red secret.

“What did you do that for?” asked Ron as he removed his fingers from his ears. Trixie fiddled absently with the object in her hand, then placed it back into her robes.

“Because I really want to tell you what's going on, but I can't. That removes the temptation.” Ron stared into her bright, and, he realized, slightly damp eyes.

“You're all right? Nothing to worry about?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” agreed Trixie, adding a pronoun that wasn't lost on Ron.

“If you need my help, please ask. Even if it's only for George's sake. You've been such a great influence on him. And I'd hate to see something happen to cause him to fall back into that downward spiral he was in. Talk to him.”

“I will. Eventually. It's just – complicated. That's all.”

“All right. You know him best at this point. I'll trust you.”

“Thank you, Ron.”

“And what do we have here?” This time it was Ron's turn to be startled as George had approached the two of them during the last of their conversation. George held out his hand to Ron, and Ron shook it firmly before pulling George into a one-armed hug. “I sense a plot. You two were thick as thieves just then.”

“Just making some movie recommendations, Dear,” said Trixie as she gave Ron a conspicuous wink.

“Muggle movies? I rather like that one where the kid winds up stuck as an adult. Seems relatable, somehow.” George smirked as Trixie nodded her agreement and a look of understanding spread across her face. Ron just looked on in confusion.

“Don't all kids wind up stuck as adults eventually?” he asked.

“Well sure, but not everyone grows up,” said Trixie. She once again got up on her tiptoes and she gave George a quick kiss. “Don't the two of you have somewhere to be right about now?”

“Yes!” cried George, slapping his forehead theatrically. He turned to Ron. “All set to get going?” Ron removed his wand from inside of his robes and waggled it in front of George. “Excellent!”

“What do you reckon?” asked Ron. “Honeydukes or the Shrieking Shack?” He had accompanied George on these expeditions several times in the past, but had never been able to figure out his older brother's reasoning for choosing one point of departure over the other. George glanced down at his watch, then out the front windows of the shop to where the still empty streets of Hogsmeade were waiting for the inevitable flood of Hogwarts students.

“Honeydukes this time, I think. We're a bit behind schedule already. Probably best to get directly into the castle.” He tucked the map into his own robes, then hurried to the front doors. He picked up a large burlap sack that was sitting on the floor next to the exit, then turned to face his shop. “I'm off, everyone. I'll be back in a bit. Trixie is in charge until I get back.”

“Have fun storming the castle!” his wife shouted after him, as he and Ron exited the shop and made their way out into the brisk autumn morning.

As they made their way down the Hogsmeade High Street towards Honeydukes, George exchanged cheerful greetings with several fellow shopkeepers as they made their final preparations for the upcoming surge in business. Outside Dervish and Banges, a spritely witch waved as she hung a poster advertising a sale on orreries. At Gladrags, a tall thin wizard with a length of measuring tape draped over his shoulders nodded to them as he adjusted the petticoat underneath a set of olive green dress robes on display in his shop's window. But Scrivenshaft, dressed, as ever, in ostentatious black robes, turned up his nose at them as they passed.

“What's his problem?” asked Ron, once they had walked far enough past the quill shop so as to be out of earshot.

“He's harbouring a bit of a grudge against me,” answered George. He chuckled slightly and shook his head. “Probably even has reason to. A few years back, before we opened the Hogsmeade branch, he contacted me about stocking our line of joke quills. I think he was ready to try and compete with Honeydukes and Zonko's.”

“Well, you have to admit that his shop was always a bit dull. I don't think I ever saw anyone go in there except Hermione, and maybe a few Ravenclaws.” Ron tried to remember ever entering the quill shop himself, but the longer he thought about it, the more he realized that he had just spent six years borrowing ink from Hermione. He made a mental note to pop into Scrivenshaft's after he and George had finished up at Hogwarts.

“I couldn't agree more. And I told him that I thought associating our products with his stodgy old image wasn't how I wanted to increase out presence in Hogsmeade.”

“And he took offense?”

“I may have used a word other than stodgy, if I'm being completely honest,” admitted George. They were very nearly to Honeydukes now. Ron ducked as an owl took off from one of the many perches located outside the owl post office located directly across the street from it.

“Bloody bird nearly decapitated me,” he grumbled, as George opened the door of Honeydukes and ushered Ron inside.

Despite everything that had changed in the fifteen years since Ron had first set foot inside Hogsmeade's most famous confectionery, the explosion of colour that assaulted his eyes upon entry remained every bit as impressive as it had been all those years ago. Ron let out a low whistle and looked appreciatively at the stack of chocolate frogs on a stand off to his right. It was nearly as tall as he was. “What do you reckon are the chances I'd get a Ptolemy?” he asked George, taking a step toward the towering display.

“I'm starting to remember why I usually opt for the Shrieking Shack with you,” groaned George. “Come on, we need to split up. You go that way. I'll go this way. Meet in the cellar. If either of us isn't there in two minutes, create a diversion.” George abruptly turned left a few steps into the store, leaving Ron standing in front of the chocolate frogs. He watched as George's lurid robes dissolved into the kaleidoscopic heart of Honeydukes.

“Sure George. Whatever you say George,” Ron muttered under his breath. He had hoped - vainly, he now realized - that becoming an auror would have given him a bit of authority in his dealings with those who had long controlled him. But, he supposed, family was family. At least Hermione had finally realized that bossily making demands would only lead to bickering.

Ron sighed and pushed forward into the store. Turning right where George had turned left, he skirted the outer edge of the establishment, trying to walk with a purpose so as to not look suspicious. Past the Drooble's Best Blowing Gum, Dragon's Breath Red Hots, and licorice wands he strode, drawing ever nearer to the door at the back of the shop that he knew held the stairs down to the basement where the secret passageway to Hogwarts lay.

“Ron? Ron Weasley?” Shit. Ron turned left immediately and pretended that he hadn't heard the voice calling after him. All the same, he knew that he couldn't continue to the door right now with someone watching him. He'd have to wait for George's diversion in a minute or two.

Without paying attention, he stopped in front of a display and picked up a package. “Ron! I knew it was you!” Ron turned around and found himself face to face with a devastatingly gorgeous witch wearing sleek silver robes. Ron found that, against his will, his chest was tightening and his breathing was getting shallower.

“Do I – Have we -” he stammered. The witch's mouth parted in a dazzling smile and Ron couldn't help but stare at those perfect teeth.

“Eloise Midgen! We went to Hogwarts together, silly!” She reached up an immaculately manicured hand and laid it on the side of his cheek. Ron could feel every heartbeat as his blood scorched through his veins underneath her touch. “Oh my goodness, you're so hot!” cooed Eloise. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I – I'm, Ron Weasley,” sputtered Ron, stupidly. He was having an incredibly difficult time parsing the situation. The Eloise Midgen he remembered looked absolutely nothing like this – this goddess.

“Of course you are,” giggled Eloise. “Like I could forget you; I had such a huge crush on you.” As she spoke, she drew in closer to Ron, so close that they were nearly touching. “So what brings you into the shop today, Ron?” Ron could feel her hot breath on his face, smell her glossy auburn hair. “Craving something sweet? Maybe a little something the wife doesn't let you have?” Impossibly, Eloise was now even closer, though Ron couldn't have told anyone when or how it had happened.

“W-wife,” he stammered. He staggered backward a step, his brain screaming at him to get away before he did something that he might later regret, but Eloise reached out and grabbed his arm to pull him back towards her.

“Oh don't you worry about her.” Eloise's voice was low and dangerous – intoxicating. “She's not here now. It's just you. And me. And your -” she slid her hand teasingly down Ron's arm and plucked from his hand the box of candy he'd picked up, “Cock – Cockroach Clusters?” As Eloise's voice raised in surprise at Ron's choice of candy, the thrall she'd had him under lifted.

“Lots of protein,” murmured Ron, backing away now. There was a crash and a shout from the front of the shop where a big barrel of Fizzing Whizbees had been knocked over. Eloise swore, pulled out her wand, and turned toward the commotion.

“Don't you go anywhere Ron Weasley,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away. “I haven't quite finished with you yet.” Ron watched her leave, admiring the swish with which she walked, then realized that this must have been the distraction. He bent his head low – lower than the tops of the surrounding shelves - and made a break for the basement door. It was open a crack, and he squeezed through and closed it behind him. George stood there grinning at him.

“I see you met Eloise,” he managed to get out before dissolving into great fits of laughter.

“You great prat! You did that on purpose, didn't you?” Ron demanded. “And there's no way that was Eloise Midgen! Her nose was dead center of her face!”

“As Trixie would say, 'milk did that body good.'” George snorted. “But no. I didn't do that on purpose, though I may have let it go on a bit longer than was strictly necessary.” Ron punched George rather hard on the shoulder. “I may have deserved that,” George admitted, rubbing the spot.

“What was she playing at, anyway?” asked Ron, of no one in particular. His breathing was starting to slow down, and he could no longer hear his heart beating in his ears.

“Don't get too worked up about it,” advised George. “She does it to all of her old schoolmates when she sees them for the first time. I think she's trying to make them regret picking on her when she was the ugly duckling.”

“Everyone? She did it to you?”

“She did,” allowed George.

“And how did that go?” demanded Ron.

“I respectfully told her that I had eyes only for Trixie, and that - “

“Bollocks!”

“I did. And then I sat her down and we had tea and discussed her life choices.”

“Complete and utter tosh,” insisted Ron. As they argued, they descended the steps into the dimly lit basement, and soon they found themselves standing in front of the imperceptibly hidden panel in the floor, below which was the tunnel. “Wingardium Leviosa.” With a simple swish and flick, Ron levitated the panel up and off the trap door, and they both climbed down onto the stairway below. Gingerly, Ron let the panel fall back into place, leaving them in total darkness.

“Lumos.” George lit his wand tip, and Ron followed suit as they descended the more than 200 steps into the tunnel proper. Their argument petered out and they traveled in silence for a while, using the bulk of their concentration to avoid low spots on the ceiling or crumbling steps. After they reached the bottom of the staircase they were forced onto their hands and knees to continue through the earthen tunnel. They took turns dragging the burlap sack behind them, switching whenever the tunnel widened out enough to allow them to reposition it.

“Is she all right?” asked George following what seemed to have been at least twenty minutes of near silence.

“Who? Rose? She's fine, the - “

“No, not Rose.” Up ahead of him, Ron could see George's shoulders slump in the wandlight. “Trixie. I just – you two were talking, and I'd hoped - “ his voice trailed off, losing itself in the blackness of the tunnel up ahead. Ron waited for a while before responding. He'd told Trixie that he'd trust her to talk to George when she was ready, but his brother clearly needed some reassuring in the here and now.

“I asked her what was wrong,” Ron admitted finally. George grunted up ahead, but said nothing. “She wouldn't tell me of course.”

“Of course.”

“But she did seem – sincere - when she told me that I needn't worry. I also made her promise to talk to you.”

“Thanks,” muttered George.

At last they came to the small stone slide that led up into Hogwarts. They both stood up and removed the dirt from their robes with a scouring spell, then George removed the Marauders' Map from within his robes. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.” The map's detailed layout of Hogwarts blossomed outward from the center of the parchment, and George studied it for a moment before passing it to Ron.

“Looks like the coast is clear,” said Ron a moment later. There was no one in the corridor on the other side of the one-eyed witch statue that guarded this end of the tunnel.

“Yes,” agreed George, “and Peeves is waiting for us right where he should be. Might be everything goes smoothly this time.”

 

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Author's Notes:  Well.  I'm sorry.  I let you down.  I let myself down.  Now let's get on with it.  I've got a story to tell for the first time in 9 years.  So let's get it told.
 

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