The moment she feels herself drop is terrifying. All it takes is one little mis-step for her heart to hit the acid of her stomach. Or maybe her stomach flew into her throat? She can’t really figure out the difference as her robes seem to wrap around her ankles and her body lurches forward. Her grip on her books loosens and everything goes flying as she realizes she has very little time to catch herself.
But the world stops tilting sideways and her heart finds its way back to its proper place in her chest, though, when she feels the tight grip of a hand on her elbow. The crash of her books is silent, too, as she regains her footing just enough to look around and find one Gryffindor Mark Lee, just a step below her, wand outstretched and holding her books afloat. His grip on her elbow stays firm as she regains her composure.
“Woah, Whitney, are you okay?” He asks, surprise written all over his face and not a little hysteria in his tone. “The stairs here seem to, like, just kinda disappear, remember?” He nods his head and the step she had just tried to take reappears, shifting itself back into place. It feels just a little like it’s taunting her.
“Oh, right, sorry… I was just a little nervous about this class, I think.” She says, cheeks turning a light pink as she realizes Mark is still holding her elbow. He immediately let go, giggling in that hiccuping way of his and redirecting her copy of Omens, Oracles & the Goat by Bathilda Bagshot back into her arms.
“You? Nervous already? It’s just the first day of the new school year.. There’s nothing to worry about. Unless... am I already that behind? Wait! Professor Heechul didn’t assign us summer homework did he? Oh man… well I think...” Mark’s fear is simultaneously cute and laughable, enough to nearly distract her, but something in his speech does catch Whtiney’s attention.
“Oh! You have Divinations for the 3rd hour too?”
Mark stops suddenly in his nervous tirade, turning a deep shade of red - made even more prominent across his high cheekbones. “Ah, yeah, I thought I might take an O.W.L. in it. I had a lot of fun in class with you last year.” He scratches the back of his head with a smile, embarrassment at his admission quickly catching up with his endless need for honesty.
“Oh. Oh, well then…”
“Ayo! Markley!” And Whitney can feel her shoulders drop in relief from the conversation she’s just been spared from as none other than Slytherin’s Darling Price and Divination’s Hero, Zhong Chenle, sprints up the stairs toward them. “Mark! Man! Didn’t expect to see you in this part of the castle. Didn’t Prof. almost kick you out last year, you were so bad?”
Something about the shit-eating grin on Chenle’s face must register with Mark, as he turns an even deeper shade of red. “Well then, come on dude, and you, Miss. Hung,” Chenle says, sparing Mark too from answering and nodding to Whitney with a glint in his eye, “let’s get to class -- were nearly late - and watch the step just there, it likes to disappear on you!” He laughs and continues his way past them, skipping up the stairs and into the Northern Tower.
Divinations, truth be told, is also not Whitney’s strong suit. She’d signed up for the class hoping that Mark would as well after they’d been assigned as partners last year and found themselves struggling spectacularly together to get their crystal balls to show them anything but their own goofy faces in it’s reflection for weeks on end.
The memory of it had been so warm, so fond, that Whitney considered that maybe she and Mark had finally surpassed their extremely awkward phase of knowing-each-other-through-other-people and into something closer to a friendship as the year went on.
That’s why when it came time to decide just how she’d be spending her 5th year at Hogwarts, she had selected Divination’s class in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, Mark would do the same. So many folks drop out after they finish their regular requirements that it would practically guarantee her a slot, after all. No skill required. And, besides, there were parts of Divination that were fun to explore -- Katy and Renee had both expressed to her that opening herself up a bit more to the world of the unknown would do wonders for her self confidence, and they had so far been right (curse them).
All to say that upon the trio’s arrival into the Divination’s classroom, with it’s plush, red and purple covered velvet robes and gaudy gold-flecked tea cosies and endless amounts of salt rocks and gems strun about, Whitney was disappointed to learn that she and Mark would not be spending the year bonding over tea leaves. Instead, she had been assigned to work with none other than Chenle himself.
At least it would guarantee her an A.
“Oh, don’t look so down,” Chenle admonished as he sat down on his pillow across from Whitney. “He’s as disappointed as you are, and I refuse to spend the year watching you two make sad puppy dog faces at each other from across the room. If you want to see him so bad, go ask him to hang out.” Chenle said, not even bothering to look up from his book, all too knowing for his own good.
“Could you at least try and keep it down like, a little tiny bit, please?” Whitney sighed, rolling her eyes as she tore her gaze back to Chenle.
“Listen, you need to focus this year. You’ve got to take your O.W.L.’s and if you want to work at Gringotts, you’re going to need at least an Exceeds Expectations. It’s not like a bunch of magical financiers are going to see Divination as a particularly relevant course subject, so the least it can do is help your GPA,” he admonished. “Now, let’s see what these leaves say about your future, shall we?”
After procuring the teacup and straining the leaves just as instructed, Whitney and Chenle set about sipping tea and reading their notes -- Tessomancy, was, after all, was more about diving a general sense of the future and required a slow process. Just as the hour was nearly ending, Chenle glanced between his notes and Whitney’s leaves, eyes wide and jaw slack as he checked and then checked again.
“You’re not going to like this.” Whitney glanced up from where she was reading Chenle’s leaves with little luck.
“Why? Am I going to die a painful death? Get terminally ill? Embarrass myself in front of Mark?”
“Well, you see here?” Chenle said, pointing the bottom of the tiny blue mug, “ The skull and the eagle? Those mean ‘danger in your path’ and ‘suffer an attack’. I don’t know what it means but it sounds to me like you’re in serious danger.” Chenle said, looking for the first time that day like any of this actually mattered.
“I’m going to get hurt?” Whitney said, fear making itself known in her voice immediately.
“You’ll be alright, I think.”
Whitney and Chenle looked up from their table to see Mark standing up suddenly from his own pillow. “I’ll protect her. Nothing can attack her if she’s not alone… right?” Mark said, turning sheepish as the rest of the class turned to look at his sudden outburst.
“Right! That’s a perfect idea, Mark. I’m glad you were listening so well to our private conversation. You’re just exactly what Whitney needs until we know what this means! You should accompany her to Hogsmeade this weekend. She could use a brave Gryffindor like yourself on her way.” He said, a thousand watt smile turning up as he went on, eyebrows raised at Mark knowingly.
Mark glanced at Whitney who'd once again turned bright red, head bowed down.
“I’d be more than happy to accompany you, Whitney, if you’d like.”
“FUCK YES. My girl got herself a DATE.” Katy whopped, jumping onto her seat at the Hufflepuff table in the Great Hall.
“Get down from there, before you hurt yourself.” Renee laughed, turning her attention back to Whitney, “So, he really asked you out on a date? To Hogsmeade?”
“No - guys, no. Please, not so loud. Did you hear the part about ‘serious attack’ and ‘danger’ at all?” Whitney asked sinking lower in her seat with every second.
“Oh, Chenle is probably all wrong about that -- hell, given what a nightmare that kid is, he may have just set the whole thing up to get you to focus on class for once.” Katy laughed, sitting herself back down at the table and wiggling her eyebrows conspiratorially.
“I really don’t think he did that, Professor Heechul even looked surprised when he saw my tea leaves. Usually he doesn’t even bother to look at our results.” Whitney sighed, fear worrying it’s way into her chest again. “Mark just offered to watch out for me during the class trip this weekend, that’s all.”
“Sounds to me like our little hero-boy has a crush on you.” Katy said, still clearly amused.
“It’ll be nice, I think, to have someone looking out for you if you really are in danger. If there’s anything we can agree on about the Gryffindors, it’s that they’d stand right in front of an unforgivable curse without a second thought. I’d rather him than you.” Renee said, frowning down at her food.
“Oh, Jung not call you after the Yule Ball? I can set a box of cornish pixies in his room tonight.”
As the conversation trailed off, Whitney sighed, at least she would be getting to spend some time with Mark before she was maimed or seriously injured.
Things were going terribly wrong.
First, as soon as they arrived at Hogsmeade, Whitney was nearly hit by a quaffle as children on broomsticks whizzed by her on brand new Firebolts straight out of Quality Quidditch Supplies. It would have been game over then and there if Mark hadn’t yelled duck and pulled her to the ground.
Then, she could feel the universe working to ruin her life because just as she was standing back up some Karen-of-a-witch ran by her, stepping on her robes and tearing the seam right across the bottom in an ugly, jagged pattern. This caused her to tumble once again straight into Mark, who caught her once more, but not before bumping into a pile of boxes stacked outside of Dogweed and Death, sending several flesh-eating plants onto the stoop.
She was able to pull herself and Mark up just as one took a snap at them, but still.
Now, the worst of the worst has happened because in an attempt to flee the scene of the crime, she and Mark had stumbled into the closest shop, which could only be described as Hell On Earth. The sheer overwhelming scent of florals and dizzying array of pink and white lace was enough to make anyone think they’d dropped straight into a nightmare. Tacky bows and frills adorned the walls and ceiling, while couples sat kissing over tea and coffee. A bell chimed an awful love-sick tune as they entered.
Before she’d even had time to realize where they were, the pair had been whisked away to a booth in the back of the shop, a garishly dressed witch sidling up to their table. One look at either of them and she’d scoffed. “Definitely not tea, then.” A boba and a clean iced americano appeared before them and then she vanished as quickly as she’d appeared.
“Oh,” was all Mark could say as he looked around, bewilderment clear across his face. “We -- uh, haha, Whitney, I’m sorry I think we ran into --”
“Madame Puddifoot’s Tea Shop.” Whitney finished, glancing around. Her eyes landed on a couple cozied up in front of a steamed-up window, lips locked and tea long forgotten on their table. She quickly averted her eyes only to find Mark looking at her instead.
“I’m sorry.” He said, sincerity written on his features. “We can leave right now if you’re uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to bring us in here and I would never be this forward about asking you on a date. I wanted to do that at Hogwarts, in the castle, after class, maybe. We could have looked at the stars from the Astronomy tower or studied together in the library.” Mark seemed to realize what he was saying just in time to finish his sentence. He snapped his mouth shut and looked down, “I mean, you know, before you had a death omen or whatever following you around. If you wanted to. Maybe.”
“Uh, yeah, uh, that - that would have been nice. This is fine too for now, I think. We’re not in any danger here except maybe from a sugar overdose. This is perfect to protect me from my death omen or whatever. Thank you.” Whitney said, not sure at all what to do with this new information, and frozen in her attempt to process what Mark had actually, finally, just said to her.
She grabbed her boba and took a sip, also avoiding Mark’s eyes as she attempted to get control of her damn heart, where it once again found itself lodged in her throat. This was kind of it, though, wasn’t it? Mark had worked up the courage in that brave, stupidly forward heart of his and confessed that, at least before all of this, he’d felt what she had been feeling, too. That was worth acknowledging.
She looked back up to see his face had fallen a bit, the confidence he’d just held having subsided into something smaller as he sipped on his Americano and attempted to count the number of cats embroidered into their table covering. “Actually, Mark, that would still be really nice. I think. I want to, if you want to, if I survive this thing, I mean.”
Mark paused in his counting to look back up at her. His big, round eyes regaining their shine and his small, crooked smile making its way back to his face.“ It really was a nice face. “Oh. Yeah. Yes. Yes we should do that. I’d really like to take you on a date, Whitney. Have wanted to since second year, actually.” Mark laughed again, the warmth returning to his voice as his eyes turned to half moons. “I’d really hoped after you gave me those cookies last year that it meant something more, but you were so quiet afterward I just wasn’t sure.”
Whitney laughed, a real, full laugh, her heart firmly back in the right part of her chest, if beating a little harder.
“I thought you’d liked me after we spent 2 full weeks making faces in Professor Heechul's fancy glass ball last year but you always ran out of class so quickly. When you didn’t ask me to the Yule Ball I just thought I should give up before I got ahead of myself.” Whitney shared, not hiding the disappointment she’d felt back then.
“I wanted to ask you to the ball so badly, Whitney. I want you to know that -- but those friends of yours are scary and they seem to hate Gryffindors. I didn’t want to risk their warth if I was wrong. I should have anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Understanding dawned on her. “Oh my gosh. Oh man. No, yeah, they’re kind of overprotective but they mean well. They’re like my pseudo-parents here. But they don’t have any say in who I like, and they would never, ever stop me from what makes me happy.” Whitney laughed, overwhelmed and excited at the thought that Mark had wanted to take her, then, too.
“Well, well, well, look who the pixies dragged in.” The loud, jarring laughed caused both Whitney and Mark to jump out of their seats, sending their respective drinks flying. One wave of his wand and the stains vanished, as Chenle continued to laugh from his spot in front of their booth. “Never would have guessed saving a life meant hiding out in the world of love birds.”
“Lele, be nice, it was probably a big shock to them to figure out you’d lied. They were so startled by your arrival,” the soft, lilting voice of Jisung -- the Hufflepuff Whitney had had the pleasure of meeting at the sorting ceremony 3 years ago saddled up to Chenle, wrapping his arm around his shoulder.
“Sung, I’m almost certain they hadn’t.” Chenle laughed and waved as he and Jisung moved to find their own booth in the tiny little shop.
Mark and Whitney sat in stunned silence momentarily before looking at each other, both absolutely beet red.
“So… all of that…” Whitney said, gesturing vaguely toward the shop's front door.
“Was us, yeah.” Mark laughed with a huff.
“And I’m not going to get seriously hurt by the will of the gods or writing in the stars?”
“Not as far as we know.”
“Ah. Got it.”
They stared at each other for a minute, trying to gauge just exactly how they felt before both of them burst into a fit of giggles. Somewhere in the shop they heard Chenle’s voice saying, “Goodness, so loud, some couples just don’t know how to behave in public.”
Biting their tongues and doing their best to hold themselves together, they left a couple galleons on their table and made their way back to Hogsmeade. The pair both released a sigh as the door swung closed behind them, back to breathing fresh air and staring at the shiny, black cobblestone of the familiar road.
“I’ll still protect you, you know. From anything. No bad fortune required.” Mark said, turning to Whitney and smiling.
“I’d like that.” She said, reaching for his hand. “Lord knows we’re in for it when Renee and Katy hear about this.”