Looking up from the plush Paddington Bear that lay on her worktable, the old woman leaned back in her chair with a deep sigh and removed her glasses to rub her eyes. She had always loved her work, composing little ditties as charms for gifts that ranged from baby rattles to girls' diaries to jewellery boxes. But, just lately, she had grown weary of the monotony of the requests - "something sweet," "something, I dunno, pretty" - and wondered, not for the first time, if the time hadn't come to close up shop for good.
As she cast her eyes about her small business, taking mental inventory of what she would have to sell should she decide to move on, she noticed a young man - not much more than a boy - pacing nervously outside her window. All dark, windblown hair and pinked cheeks, he had an air of familiarity...but the older she got, the more everyone looked like someone she knew.
Seemingly lost in thought, he looked up and through the window, inadvertently meeting the woman's gaze. He seemed to reach some decision in that moment, nodding to himself as he drew a deep breath and pushed open the door to enter.
The old woman chuckled to herself as she watched him take one halting step after another until he stood before her, hands shoved deep in his cloak pockets.
The pink of his cheeks had spread over his face and down his neck, but he looked at her with bespectacled eyes that burned in determination.
"How may I help you, lad?" she asked, hoping, as she always did, that this might be the commission she'd been waiting for all these months.
The young man tried to speak, but his words came out as a hoarse croak, and he blushed - if it was possible - an even deeper red than before. "I..." he began, clearing his throat. "I'd like you to compose something for," he closed his eyes and took a deep breath as if steeling himself, then said on the exhale, "a courtship contract."
The woman gave an inward sigh. She could hear it now - "something pretty - y'know, nice."
But, business was business.
"Certainly. Do you have the gift prepared?" she asked, and he handed her a small, smooth box of inlaid wood. In the background stood Hogwarts castle in all its splendour; in the foreground was a lone figure shrouded in black, and her heart gave a little skip as she sensed the possibility of a true challenge in this token, the likes of which she had never seen before. She turned it over in her hands for a moment, admiring the craftsmanship that had gone into its creation, then looked up to find the young man gazing at the box as if it were the most precious thing in the world.
"What sort of melody did you have in mind?" she asked, more intrigued than she could say.
The young man turned his face to gaze out the window, replying softly, "Something..." and here he paused, frowned, then finished, "serious."
"Serious," she repeated, and he nodded.
"Yes. Something deep - something strong."
It was almost too good to be true, but she had to be sure.
"I would be happy to do this, but don't you think your young lady might prefer something a bit lighter? Something sweet?"
The boy whipped his head back around to look at her, eyes wide, and just when she thought he might bolt from the shop altogether, he burst into a laughter so infectious she found herself smothering a sympathetic smile of her own.
When he had calmed a bit - wiped his eyes with a hand that he then brought to his chest - he sputtered, "Absolutely not. It would almost be worth it for the look on his face, but no."
After a moment in which amusement mellowed to a soft smile, he explained, "For him, it should be a little dark - but not too much - and, what's the word? Rich. Complex."
The old woman nodded, giving in a bit to her naturally nosy nature as she asked, "If I may - it will help the work, you understand - what is it that you see in your young man? What is he to you?"
The boy cast shy eyes to the floor. "He - he's not exactly young, mind you, but he's not old, either. And we hated each other, for years. But even when he hated me, he looked after me. He kept me safe." At the woman's startled glance, he flushed anew, hastening to add, "No! Not like - he's not like a parent or anything. He's just...oh, bugger all."
The old woman reached across the table to pat the boy's arm with a wrinkled hand.
"Never mind," she said gently. "Just tell me why you want to offer him the contract."
The boy looked her in the eye and gave a frank shrug. "I love him. One day I hated him, and the next - it was like I saw him, really saw him, for who he is, and suddenly I couldn't not love him anymore." His eyes took on a faraway look as he continued softly, "I didn't even understand it at first. I knew I'd come to respect him, but this was different. I wanted to be with him, every day, all the time. And I could tell that he'd started to see me, too - the real me, not the one - " and here he swallowed back his words, imbuing the next with unapologetic passion. "He's never lied to me, never kept anything important from me...and that's saying something. He lets me see things about himself that he never shows anyone, and it makes me feel...special. Like I've been given something rare."
The woman nodded, an idea taking shape in her mind.
"And what does he look like, this man of yours?"
The young man smiled ruefully and dragged a hand through his unruly hair. "I used to call him ugly, and greasy, when he wasn't around - and it's not a lie, not exactly. But...his eyes are like midnight. They're dark and intelligent, and one look from him...” He gave the woman a wry grin and made a strange, strangled sound that reminded her of carnal pleasures long since past.
“And his hands,” the boy continued, looking down at his own blunt fingers. “They're long and...sure. They move like they always know what they're doing, like they're an extension of his mind.”
"And he's tall," the boy added after a moment. "Taller than me - and thin. Skinny as a rail, actually - he doesn't eat nearly enough."
Watching the slender youth who stood before her describing this dark enigma, a slight frown punctuating his pleasing features, the old woman thought the same might be said of him.
When he grew silent, she nodded, businesslike, and said, "Right, then. I think I have the information I need. One last question - there are several types of charms to choose from, some more expensive than the others. The least expensive - "
The boy interrupted her with a brisk shake of his head. "No - money's not a problem. I just want it to be...perfect."
She nodded again, slower this time. "I understand. Three weeks from today, then. Payment upon delivery."
The boy asked hesitantly, "Don't you need my name? Or something?" He looked for all the world as if he did not wish to give it, and the old woman shook her head, taking pity on this private, passionate boy. "Not at all. You, I'll remember."
The boy nodded and awkwardly held out a lightly trembling hand. The woman took it in her own, clasping her other hand over the boy's and giving it a firm squeeze.
"It'll be fine, laddie. You'll see."
It might have been the light, but she thought she saw the green of the young man's eyes melt a bit behind inconvenient tears as he took his leave.
Returned to her everyday quiet, she picked up the box and gazed at it for a long moment. She had a plan. It wasn't what the boy had asked for, but she knew that if the man did not love him, it wouldn't be because of her melody; and if he did, as her witchly instinct suggested might be the case, then it would be the music he should hear.
She would give this man the boy's love, his for the taking.