The letter is a surprise.
Karolina is eleven, and she’s going to be starting middle school in September.
But in July, all her plans are thrown out the window when a woman calling herself Carol Danvers shows up at her house. She claims to be a witch - the head of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in fact - and tells her family that Karolina needs to attend because she, too, is a witch, and has to learn to control her magic.
Her parents are disbelieving, at first. They’re fairly well-known actors, and having a magical daughter wasn’t part of their career plan.
But Karolina glows, sometimes, nebulas of dancing lights trapped under her skin. In some of her baby photos, even - secret ones, kept out of the albums they show the grandparents and hidden in a shoebox in the back of the closet - her skin shimmers purple. And once when she was eight, she fell out of a tree and just sort of floated to the ground, landing without a scratch.
(She did it twice more, just to see if she could, before her mom caught her and made her promise to never do it again.)
So all in all, Professor Danvers’ whole Karolina-Is-A-Witch explanation makes quite a lot of sense, and it doesn’t take much convincing for her parents to come around.
The next month is a whirlwind. A different woman, Professor Bowen, comes to get Karolina her school supplies. They take the train into the center of London, to a shabby pub that no one else on the street seems to be able to see, and in the brick wall in the alley out back there’s a door to another world.
Diagon Alley is a long cobblestoned street lined with shops selling wares out of Karolina’s wildest dreams. Karolina gets long black robes and potion ingredients and a cauldron to brew them in and books full of magic and a barn owl to carry her mail.
And best of all, in a gleaming storefront labeled Minoru’s and filled floor-to-ceiling with long, thin boxes, a magic wand chooses her. She feels a sudden warmth in her fingertips and a surge of power through her body when she picks it up, and it shoots a rainbow of sparks into the air. The shopkeeper, a man with a kind face and round glasses, wraps it up for her with a smile and tells her to enjoy Hogwarts.
Back home, Professor Bowen helps her carry all her new things inside, tells her she’ll see her at Hogwarts, and disappears with a loud crack!
The second she’s gone, Karolina eagerly pulls out her new wand (willow and phoenix feather, twelve inches) out of its box. She cracks open one of her new spellbooks, rolls up her sleeves, and starts trying to levitate a spoon.
It works on the sixth try. She’s so excited she immediately loses concentration, and it falls onto the countertop with a clatter.
For the rest of the month, she reads late into the night, learning all about the new world she’s about to be a part of.
She can’t wait. This is gonna be way better than middle school.
On September first, Karolina's parents’ driver pulls up to King’s Cross station.
Her mom isn’t with them, in the middle of shooting a new movie, but her dad is there. He loads her trunk onto a trolley, her new owl Rufus balanced securely on top in his cage, and helps her push it up to the wall between platforms 9 and 10.
Professor Bowen had explained how to get onto Platform 9 ¾, but Karolina is skeptical; the barrier looks very solid. After everything she’s seen so far, though, a secret platform inside the wall of a train station doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and so she takes her dad's hand and pushes her trolley forward.
It's heavy, and gathers momentum quickly. By the time she's about to hit the barrier, she couldn't stop if she tried - and then she's through, and they’re on a crowded platform with a scarlet steam engine idling on the track. The air is loud, owls hooting over the chattering of students.
Her dad has to get to the movie set as well, so he gives her a hug and is off, and Karolina drags her trunk along the platform, looking for a compartment not already full of students.
Halfway along the train, she finds one. At first glance it appears empty, but then she sees a small, black-haired girl that looks to be her own age, sitting with her head against the window.
“Hi,” Karolina says. “Is it okay if I sit here?”
The girl nods, and Karolina heaves her trunk onto the luggage rack and sits down across from her.
“Hey, I'm Karolina,” she says, and the girl turns away from the window to look at her.
“Is this your first year, too?”
“Cool,” Karolina grins.
She's about to ask Nico if she knew about magic before, but at that moment the compartment door opens.
A boy their age enters, closely followed by a girl with glasses.
“Hi,” the boy says. “Are these seats taken?”
“Nope, go ahead,” Karolina says, before realizing she should probably have checked with Nico first.
Nico doesn't seem too bothered by their new companions, though, watching their exchange with keen interest.
“My name’s Chase,” the boy says, plopping down in the seat next to Karolina, “and this is Gert.”
Gert waves from her spot next to Nico.
Karolina starts to introduce herself, but is drowned out by a loud whistle, and their seats vibrate under them as the train starts to move.
“Sorry,” Chase says, “didn’t catch that.”
“I’m Karolina,” Karolina says again.
Chase looks questioningly at Nico, but before she can say anything the door slides open again, and another boy enters.
“Hey, I’m Alex,” he says, taking one of the remaining empty seats, and then they have to start introductions all over again.
“Are you all first years?” Alex asks. They all nod, and he grins. “Great, me too.”
“What house do you think you’ll be in?” Chase asks eagerly, and Alex shrugs.
“I dunno. My mom was in Slytherin, so maybe there.”
“What about your dad?”
“He’s a muggle, so. Just have the one to go off of.”
“Oh,” Chase says. “My parents were both in Ravenclaw, but I don’t know if I’m smart enough for that.”
“Wait, what are we talking about?” Karolina asks, and they all turn to look at her.
“Sorry,” she says quickly. “No one in my family is magic at all— I just found out that all of this existed, like, a month ago.”
“Hey, no worries,” Nico says. It’s the most Karolina has heard her say since she entered the compartment. “My dad is muggle-born, too. It doesn’t make any difference.”
Karolina smiles gratefully at her.
“To answer your question,” Gert says. “Everyone at Hogwarts is in one of four houses— Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. They’re supposed to all have different qualities, so on the first day you get sorted into whichever one you most closely align with.”
“Wait!” Chase says, eyes wide. “If you didn’t even know about magic, does that mean you don’t know what Quidditch is?”
“Nope,” Karolina says.
“Aw, man,” Chase grins. “It’s the best sport ever.”
He starts to explain the rules, but Karolina only learns about the broomsticks and the four balls before Gert cuts him off.
“Anyway,” she says. “Where’s everyone from?”
Over the next several hours, Karolina learns about her new classmates. They’re all from wizarding families - Alex is the only other one with any muggle parents.
Gert’s parents do something complicated-sounding that involves mixing magic with regular - or, as she calls it, “muggle” - science. As a result, instead of bringing an owl to school, Gert has a giant lizard named Old Lace. An hour in, she lifts it out of its cage and it sits curled around her shoulders for the rest of the journey.
Chase is outraged about the rule that first years can’t be on their house Quidditch teams. He’s already talking about what position he’s going to try out for next year.
They speculate more about houses, too. Chase gives her the condensed summary - Gryffindors are brave, Ravenclaws are smart, Hufflepuffs are hard-working, and Slytherins are ambitious.
(“But,” Gert is quick to chime in, “obviously there’s more to it than that. Not everyone in a house matches its description.”)
Karolina likes all of them but she finds Nico fascinating, quiet as she is. Chase is doing most of the talking, but Karolina, Alex, and Gert are all definitely part of the conversation; Nico seems content to just watch.
After a while, a woman comes by pushing a trolley full of snacks. It’s all new to Karolina, and she has leftover wizard money from Diagon Alley, so she gets some of everything.
“Wanna share?” she asks Nico, who hadn’t gotten anything.
“Okay,” Nico says.
As the two of them eat their way through Karolina’s pastries and candy, Karolina draws Nico more into the conversation. She learns that Nico has an older sister, a third year in Ravenclaw (“the smart house,” according to Nico) and that her parents are wandmakers.
“Wait,” Karolina says excitedly, “is that their store in Diagon Alley?”
“Yep, that’s the one. My last name is Minoru.”
“That’s awesome. Very nice to meet you, Nico Minoru.”
Nico grins. “Nice to meet you too, Karolina Dean.”
Nico also explains Chocolate Frog cards and gives Karolina the ones she gets - Morgana, Cassandra, and Kingsley Shacklebolt.
(She also gets Ginny Weasley, but Chase convinces her to give him that one - “Ginny Weasley is, like, the best Quidditch player ever, I’ve been trying to get that card for years.”)
By the time it starts to get dark and they’re changing into their long black Hogwarts robes for the first time, Nico is talking and laughing with the rest of them.
When they disembark onto the platform, there’s a call for “First years! First years this way!” and the five of them get swept up in a crowd of other eleven-year-olds following a tall, thin man. As he leads them up along a rocky path, he introduces himself as Professor Parker, the Care of Magical Creatures teacher.
Around a corner, they get their first sight of Hogwarts castle across a great black lake. It’s breathtaking, a dark silhouette of turrets and towers against the night sky with windows lit up here and there. Eventually they come to the shore of the lake, where a number of small rowboats await them.
“No more than four per boat, please,” Professor Parker calls as the five of them try to cram into one.
“Okay, come on,” Nico says, grabbing Karolina’s hand and pulling her into the next boat over. They settle comfortably in, and as one the fleet of boats takes off smoothly across the lake.
The castle looms higher and higher above them until they sail through a curtain of ivy below it, disembarking in a hidden cove. Professor Parker takes them through a door, up a flight of steps, and into an immense entrance hall. There, they’re handed off to a Professor Walters, who leads them through a set of double doors into an even bigger hall where the rest of the school is already gathered around four long tables.
They line up between the two center tables, facing a very old, patched, and faded pointed hat on a stool.
A rip near the brim opens up like a mouth and the hat sings a song, giving a rundown more thorough than Chase’s of the traits corresponding to each house. When it’s finished the first years are called up one by one, the hat is placed on their head, and after a moment it shouts out the name of a house.
Of the five in their group, “Dean, Karolina” is first. She walks up to the front of the room on shaking legs and Professor Walters puts the hat on her head. The brim falls over her eyes, shutting out the hundreds of faces looking at her.
“Hmm,” says a small voice in her ear. “Curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge, certainly. But you’ve got loyalty, too, don’t you? Ah yes, loyalty, and quite a healthy amount of open-mindedness. I’ve got it,” (and Karolina can hear it shout the last word to the room at large), “Hufflepuff!”
The hat is pulled off her head and she scrambles off the stool and to the Hufflepuff table amidst a scattering of applause.
Next up is Nico. The hat takes a long time to decide, Nico’s hands white-knuckled as she grips the sides of the stool.
Eventually, it shouts out, “Slytherin!” and Nico pulls it off. Her eyes meet Karolina’s across the room and she gives her a small smile as she makes her way to the Slytherin table.
Chase is then sorted into Gryffindor, and Alex into Ravenclaw.
“Yorkes, Gert” is the last first year to be sorted, and she joins Chase at the Gryffindor table.
A feast follows the sorting, food appearing magically on the gleaming platters in front of them, and Karolina spends the whole meal in awe of her surroundings.
At the end of the evening, Professor Danvers welcomes them all to school and bids them good night, and Karolina and the other new Hufflepuffs follow a prefect out through the Entrance Hall and down a set of stairs to the right.
On the staircase, they mingle with Slytherin first years going in the same direction, and Karolina speeds up to fall into step nexto to Nico.
“Hey,” she says. “This place is amazing.”
Nico grins at her with enthusiasm. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”
“I can’t wait for classes. I hope we have some together!”
“Me too,” Nico says, and before she can say more the Slytherin prefect turns down another staircase and Nico waves goodbye to Karolina.
Karolina follows her own prefect down a wide, well-lit hallway lined with paintings of animals that actually move, one dog bounding after them through several paintings. They gather at the end of the hall around a large portrait of a girl with a golden retriever.
“Password?” the painting says, and Karolina stares.
“Mandrake,” the prefect says, and the portrait swings open like a door. They crowd through into a cozy, well-lit common room with big windows looking out over the darkened grounds. Shelves full of worn paperbacks line the walls, surrounding a room full of overstuffed yellow armchairs. Bowls of fresh fruit sit on tables scattered throughout the room.
Karolina only has a second to take it all in, though, before she’s directed up a spiral staircase with the other Hufflepuff first-year girls. Halfway up they find their dormitory, five four-poster beds hung with ochre curtains, and Karolina climbs into bed and falls asleep instantly.
The next morning Karolina wakes up early and is too excited to go back to sleep. She lies in bed until she starts to hear the rustling of her roommates waking up around her, and then she gets up, dresses, and heads down to breakfast.
She's halfway through her eggs and toast when Chase and Gert sit down across from her.
“Hey,” Chase says brightly.
Karolina has a mouthful of toast and swallows too quickly in her effort to respond, coughing a little as it scrapes unpleasantly down her throat.
A hand rubs soothingly across her back as she gropes for her water, and Nico slides in next to her.
“Hi,” Nico says. “Do you all have your schedules yet?”
Chase and Gert shake their heads, but Karolina got to breakfast early enough that she does. She pulls it out to compare with Nico's; they have Charms and Potions together.
“Cool,” Nico smiles.
By the time Chase and Gert get their schedules, Alex has joined them. Karolina has Herbology with the Gryffindors, and Transfiguration with Alex; Astronomy and History of Magic they all have together.
Karolina's first class is Defense Against the Dark Arts, which is Hufflepuff-only.
“See you at lunch?” Nico asks as she stands to head to class.
Karolina nods happily. “See you then.”
Over the next weeks and months, Karolina settles into life at Hogwarts. She, Nico, Alex, Gert, and Chase form a tight-knit friend group, sitting together at meals and studying as a group and hanging out during breaks.
(It’s a good thing that rules about sitting with your house at mealtimes have been relaxed - Karolina heard that before the war, you pretty much only ate with your house, and none of her new friends are in Hufflepuff with her.)
And it’s great that Nico is in her Potions class. Karolina isn’t bad at Potions, exactly, but for some reason no matter how carefully she follows the instructions in the book it doesn’t seem to ever come out quite right.
Nico, though, is a natural. The two of them partner up on the first day of class and never switch, and - thanks to Nico - they do pretty well overall.
When they’re learning a particularly difficult concept, Nico’s forehead scrunches up in concentration, and sometimes during class Karolina catches herself staring at her instead of paying attention to Professor Walters at the front of the room. It’s not great for her already-mediocre Potions skills, sure, but Nico is always willing to explain the lessons to her later.
Homework is complicated, and unlike anything Karolina has ever done before. The five of them often claim a table in the library, poring over giant textbooks together; they look up the uses of various potion ingredients and the definition of a Switching Spell and write long and confusing essays on whether or not the goblin rebellion in the fifteenth century actually resulted in any sort of meaningful change.
Almost before Karolina knows it, three weeks have passed, and a notice goes up in the common room that flying lessons are starting this week.
Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw are learning together, so on Friday Karolina makes her way down to the grounds with Alex. They meet the flying instructor, Professor Barton, on the Quidditch pitch, where there are two rows of broomsticks lying on the ground.
“I’ve never been good at flying,” Alex murmurs as they each line up beside a broomstick.
“I’ve never tried,” Karolina whispers back, “so you’re guaranteed to be better than me, at least.”
“All right, everyone,” Professor Barton calls out. “Does everyone have a broom? Good. Okay, now stick your dominant hand out over the broom and say ‘Up’!”
He demonstrates on his own, which jumps into his hand, and they all hasten to copy him.
Karolina’s broom flies into her hand immediately. Alex gets his eventually as well, but it seems to rise almost reluctantly.
Professor Barton walks up and down the line, correcting their grips and showing them how to sit astride the broom without sliding off the end. He instructs them to kick off, rise a few feet, and then lean forward slowly to return to the ground.
Karolina’s hands tighten around the handle of her broomstick, suddenly nervous as she prepares to fly for the first time. She’s been looking forward to flying ever since she learned she could, but what if she’s bad at it?
“Hey,” Alex says. “Don’t worry so much, it’s pretty simple.”
He takes off, hovering six or so feet off the ground.
Karolina exhales, forcing herself to relax as she looks up at him, and then pushes off the ground.
She wobbles a bit as she rises slowly, but by the time she reaches Alex’s height she’s holding the broom steady.
“See?” he says. “Not so bad.”
Karolina grins. She leans low over the handle, accelerating past Alex and looping around him before pulling her broom to an abrupt stop over his.
He laughs. “I should have known you’d be good at this.”
“Karolina,” Professor Barton calls. “That’s high enough for now.”
Karolina is buzzing as she returns to the ground with Alex. She loves flying, she decides; maybe Chase is onto something with his Quidditch obsession.
In the last week of October, their Charms teacher, Professor Rogers, announces that they’re ready to start learning how to make objects fly.
Karolina and Nico are already sitting at the same table, but when he tells them to get into pairs Karolina scoots a little closer to Nico just in case anyone else had any ideas.
Karolina is pretty sure she can do the spell, since she managed it once before she even got to Hogwarts, so she lets Nico go first. Nico tries, her face screwed up with determination, but the feather they’re supposed to be levitating just flutters along the table as though caught in a light breeze before stilling again.
Nico sighs, frustrated. “You try.”
Karolina hasn’t attempted this particular spell since the summer, but she concentrates hard - swish and flick, Wingardium Leviosa - and the feather rises off the table, hovering a few feet over their heads.
“Great job, Karolina,” Professor Rogers calls. “Ten points to Hufflepuff!”
Karolina glows with pride. Nico is looking at her in awe, and she feels warm inside in a way she can’t quite explain.
As the year goes on, Karolina gets more and more comfortable with the new world she’s found herself in, no longer staring at every bit of new magic she comes across.
(Except one day just after Christmas, when she’s walking through the grounds with Nico and Alex, they catch sight of an extremely battered, driverless blue car trundling through the Forbidden Forest. She stops at that.
To be fair, so do Nico and Alex.)
And then suddenly it’s June, and she’s almost done with her whole first year, and finals are coming up.
The five of them spend long hours in the library, memorizing the twelve uses of dragon’s blood and the key ingredients in Swelling Solution and practicing wand movements. More than once, they get kicked out for being too noisy and have to retreat to a common room instead. Though they have access to all of them, they generally end up in either Gryffindor’s or Hufflepuff’s - they’re usually louder, so no one minds if they talk, and they’re more likely to find an entire empty table to spread out across.
Karolina likes it best when they study in Gryffindor Tower. Because on these nights, when she, Alex, and Nico leave for their own respective houses at the end of the night, Alex heads in the other direction for Ravenclaw Tower and then it’s just her and Nico.
And Karolina loves all her friends, but Nico is her best friend.
(And she knows that she’s Nico’s, too.)
With finals approaching, and every waking hour devoted to studying, it’s hard to find time for just the two of them. So Karolina cherishes the few minutes they spend between Gryffindor Tower and the junction when they go their separate ways. Sometimes they’ll take a less direct route, or else linger in the hallway where the corridor splits, just to have a little bit longer.
Nico opens up around her in a way that she doesn’t ever quite manage when they’re all hanging out in a group. She tells Karolina, one night when they’re walking back to their dormitories after a long day of studying, about how much pressure her mom is putting on her to perform perfectly. And how it’s even harder because of her genius, overachieving sister who’s already gotten top grades in everything, so it barely even matters if Nico gets succeeds because Amy did it first.
Karolina takes her hand at that and squeezes fiercely. And Nico smiles at her, and bumps her shoulder against Karolina’s.
The exams themselves are easier than Karolina thought they would be. Her Forgetfulness Potion isn’t the bright emerald it’s supposed to be, but it’s at least green instead of purple like the boy working next to her; the teacup she enchants in her Charms final makes its way through several successful cartwheels without falling once; and the mouse she transfigures into a wine glass doesn’t have any whiskers by the time she’s finished.
Then, there’s a week between the end of exams and the beginning of summer break.
Their group spends most of it outside, enjoying the warm sunshine they’d missed out on during the last few weeks that they’d been shut inside studying. They sit under the shade of an enormous beech tree by the lake and talk about their summer plans.
Gert is going to Norway. Her parents just discovered a new kind of fire-breathing lizard to study, so they’re taking the whole family on an extended vacation.
The rest of them are just going home. For once Karolina’s parents aren’t busy shooting a movie over the summer, so she might actually see them.
The journey home is bittersweet. On the one hand, Karolina is glad exams are over, but on the other she loves this world, and they’re not allowed to do magic while they’re at home. And, even more than magic, she loves her new friends, and it’ll be two whole months before she sees any of them again.
“Write to me,” Nico tells her when they’re exchanging their final goodbyes on Platform 9 ¾.
“Of course,” Karolina says. “You too.”
Nico pulls her into a tight hug.
(Karolina has already hugged her, along with the rest of their friends, but she’s not complaining about another one.)
“Have a good summer,” Nico says into her ear.
Karolina squeezes back, almost pulling Nico off her feet. “See you soon.”