Every evening from that day onwards - over tea, at bedtime, whenever Talia and Kestra talked - Talia would always slip in some titbit about Hogwarts.

"I expect you'll be a Ravenclaw, always rushing off to do homework," she said as Kestra gathered up her maths books after dinner.

"You'll love History of Magic; the tutor's a ghost, so he knows what he's talking about," she said after Kestra complained about having to draw silly flags in History class.

"At Hogwarts, the portraits are much more interesting - they always like to chat, and even go visiting each other," she said as she helped Kestra pack for a trip to the National Portrait Gallery.

"Life will be easier when you've learnt to levitate things - not that you're meant to do magic outside of lessons, of course, but no-one takes any notice of that," she said as Kestra dumped a backpack bursting with textbooks on the table.

"Do remember to say hi to the Fat Friar for me. He's such an agreeable ghost. But then, he would be, being a Hufflepuff ghost and all," she said over a plateful of sausages and mash.

"I don't know why you worry so much about these Muggle exams. They won't matter when you get to Hogwarts, you know," she said as Kestra informed her that she would be revising for her SATs in her room.

"Wonderful. I'm sure you'll do just as well in the Hogwarts exams - I had a terrible time of it, up to all hours, trying to focus on Potions at midnight is a dreadful thing, but I'm sure you'll get along just fine," she said as Kestra proudly brought home her SAT results, sixes across the board.

Over the long summer holidays, Kestra tried to keep out of Talia's way as much as possible, reading her Hogwarts books, practising a few simple charms in the privacy of her room. Her tortoiseshell cat, now named Leia, was very fastidious about cleanliness after hunting, and left all mouse remains on the windowsill of Talia's room, where the owls finished them up. There had been some slight trouble with the owners of the apartment building about the cat - the family was under enough suspicion due to the large amount of owl droppings surrounding Talia's window - but Kestra had put on her best sweet-little-girl act and they had finally relented, on the condition that none of the neighbours complained. As the neighbours had put up with the owls for many years, the Levines knew that they were hardly going to make trouble about a small and well-behaved cat.

----

"But mother, the train doesn't leave until eleven," complained Kestra as her mother fussed around attempting to get them out of the house at 9am.

"King's Cross is all the way across London, you know," replied Talia nervously. "Are you sure that's all of your luggage, dear?"

Kestra had two rather large cases full of everything Talia thought she ought to take. Along with the items purchased in Diagon Alley, there was several too many changes of Muggle clothing to wear under the robes, several sheaves of parchment with about a dozen different colours of ink, no fewer than five quills, and assorted miscellany like a hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, towels, flannels, a comb, all the little essentials of modern life. She thought that this was far too much luggage, but simply nodded assent.

"Let's not hang about, then," said Talia, taking one of the overloaded cases and leading the way to the lift. The tube was, predictably, packed to bursting, and the two large cases they were carrying were not looked on kindly by the crowds of businessmen with slim briefcases trying to share the cramped confines of the tube train. Despite all of this, they made good time to King's Cross, arriving at around 9:30am.

"Mother, we are over an hour early," worried Kestra. "The platform might not even be open yet." The idea of walking into a wall - or a ticket barrier - didn't appeal to Kestra's logical mind at the best of times, and it sounded especially lacking in sense if the wall had a good chance of turning out to be solid after all.

"Don't be silly, the platform is always there, even if there's no trains scheduled," replied Talia. "It'll be good to be there early - you can meet some of the others before you get on the train, maybe find someone to sit with."

Kestra disliked arguments even more than she disliked the idea of having to converse with her soon-to-be classmates under the watchful eye of her mother. At least Talia's current outfit - a smart black skirt, above the knees but by no means a miniskirt, a crisp red suit jacket and a silky but otherwise sensible black blouse, with acceptably black stilettos and a neat, decently straw-coloured straw hat - wasn't overly embarrassing.

Platforms 9 and 10 were still swarming with arriving commuters and departing day-trippers when they arrived. Brightly coloured backpacks, t-shirts and shorts clashed with dour grey and black buisiness suits and smart leather briefcases. Even with their oversized cases, Talia and Kestra looked far more normal than many of the people hoping to catch a few late summer rays in defiance of the obvious grey clouds.

"Don't be shy now - it's just through there," said Talia, stopping by an unremarkable section of ticket barrier. Kestra looked nervously at its apparent solidity. "I'm told it's best to take it at a run if you're nervous," advised Talia. Kestra pointedly ignored her advice and walked cautiously but determinedly forwards, right up to the barrier. Closing her eyes, she swung her case forwards. No crash. She took a few steps forwards, and then another few, and then another couple just to make sure she had cleared the barrier. Feeling Talia's hand on her shoulder, she opened her eyes to find herself on an ancient platform, a wrought-iron signpost declaring it to be '9'. Initially she thought she was alone on the platform, but then she spotted another girl, sitting on her case reading Hogwarts - A History avidly.

Talia seemed torn between staying with her daughter to catch up on the latest news with the other parents and leaving her alone with the other girl to make the situation less awkward. Eventually she gave Kestra a quick peck on the cheek, hugged her, and muttered, "I'd better be off now. Have a wonderful term," before striding quickly back through the barrier. For want of anything else to do, Kestra dragged her cases over beside the other girl.

"Hello," she began. The girl looked up sharply from her reading to see who had interrupted her. "I'm Kestra Levine," continued Kestra nervously.

"Hermione Granger," replied the other girl briskly. She had rather too much hair of a slightly lighter shade than Kestra's, and slightly bluer eyes. "Levine family? I'm surprised you're here early, then - King's Cross is rather a long way from Wales, after all."

"Minor branch," replied Kestra, "my mother and I live just the other side of London. We visit the other Levines on holiday, sometimes." She looked over at the book with undisguised interest. "Is that any good?"

"I thought I had better find out as much as possible about this wonderful institution, after I got the letter. Never been magic in our family before, you see, so I thought I might be at a disadvantage there. I expect your parents have been telling you all about the place themselves," explained Hermione. "There's so much to learn - it must have been wonderful to get a head start, growing up in a wizarding family."

"My mother has been absolutely unbearable ever since we got the letter. It's just us two, you see, and she was absolutely dying for me to get in. I can't think of anything she's said that will be of any real use, though - I love her dearly, but she's such a terrible Hufflepuff, you know?" said Kestra. "I've learnt an awful lot from the books on that list we were given, though. Talia insisted on buying them all new, even though she's got perfectly good copies of some of them, but at least it means the pages aren't going to fall out. I couldn't expect her to get any that weren't on the list, though."

"We had a bursary, for books especially, being a Muggle family and all," replied Hermione. "It says it's quite a long journey, you can borrow my History on the train if you like. I shall probably be practising my spells again."

----

Kestra and Hermione, even after changing into their robes at the end of the platform, were on the train long before the whistle blew. As Kestra paged through Hogwarts - A History, which was every bit as fascinating as she'd expected, she couldn't help but notice that the sparks that Hermione's wand occasionally spat were blue. Blue would be a much more acceptable colour for her wand to favour, thought Kestra jealously. She had never really liked the colour green, and it did look ever so much more unnatural than blue flames. Determined not to dwell on this - after all, her and Hermione would most likely both end up in Ravenclaw, and so she did not want something as petty as the colour of the sparks their wands produced come between them - Kestra let herself become more deeply absorbed in the book.

Talia had been very generous in her parting monetary gift to Kestra, naturally - Kestra had attempted to refuse to take quite so much, but Talia had quite correctly reminded her that she hardly ever had cause to use any of the wizard money anyhow, and Kestra would have much more need of it in an all-magical setting like Hogwarts than Talia would in an apartment in the middle of London, dealing with Muggles and owls and hardly ever seeing another wizard, even. Even so, Kestra was quite modest in what she chose for lunch from the trolley, a nice filling Pumpkin Pasty and a small Cauldron Cake for dessert. Hermione unwrapped some neat ham and lettuce sandwiches, and they ate in companionable silence. Kestra offered Hermione some of the Cauldron Cake, and they were just finishing it up when an untidy-looking boy opened their door.

"I don't suppose you've seen a toad anywhere?" he asked, with a rather pathetic despairing-yet-hopeful tone to his voice.

"No, but I shall certainly help you look for it," replied Hermione briskly. "Kestra, will you take care of my things?"

"Certainly," replied Kestra.

"Good, that's settled then," continued Hermione. "Now, where did you last see it?" she said as she led the tearful boy off, closing the door carefully behind them.

Kestra had a quick look over the rest of Hermione's books, feeling a little guilty for doing so but sure the other girl would understand. Nothing seemed quite as interesting as the rest of Hogwarts - A History, however, so she made sure there was no evidence of her search - no need to attract trouble, after all - and continued to read.

After quite a while, Hermione returned. As there was no mention of the toad Kestra assumed the hunt had not been successful. Just as she bustled in, the driver announced that the train would be arriving at Hogwarts in 5 minutes.

"There's no point going out there yet," announced Hermione, "there's people running all over the place. Best wait until the train starts to slow down, at least."

Kestra handed Hogwarts -A History back to its rightful owner, stood up and ran her fingers through her hair to straighten it out, although it hardly needed it, especially in comparison to Hermione's. She debated offering the other girl her comb, but decided that might be seen as an insult - surely Hermione would have a comb of her own should she want to use one, anyhow. Suddenly wondering how they would tell that the anonymous suitcases she'd brought were hers, she pulled out a black biro and swiftly wrote her name in large but tidy letters on the maroon material. A swift glance confirmed that Hermione's luggage had neat little luggage labels attached bearing her name, so Kestra needn't share her idea.

By this time the train was noticeably slowing, so the two girls cautiously emerged into the corridor, which was almost deserted until they got closer to the doors. A rather loud and uncouth, if warm and friendly, voice was calling for 'Firs' years!', so they joined the tail of the growing line following the bobbing lantern which was moving in the approximate direction of the voice. The path was distastefully narrow and rather worryingly slippery underfoot, but with careful, precise footsteps Kestra managed not to fall too far behind. Eventually they broke out of the dark passage, onto the shore of a large black lake, the water glistening like oil in the lamplight.

In the rush to board the rather inadequate-looking boats - even more worryingly, with no visible means of propulsion in them - Kestra lost Hermione in the darkness, and boarded a boat behind two large, disreputable-looking boys and a confident, much more cultured-looking blonde boy. At another shout from the rough-looking giant who was obviously the source of the voice from earlier, the boats began to glide smoothly forwards. Kestra told herself off for expecting conventional transport when it was obvious magic would be used - although the train had appeared to use technology, and rather outdated technology at that.

The two brutes were appropriately awed with the great castle, but the other boy appeared to be more interested in studying her - or rather, in being calculatedly unimpressed at the sight of the castle. Two could play that game, Kestra decided, so she took out her wand and pretended to be studying it intently, whilst trying to decide what kind of person this rather arrogant boy was. She suspected she could detect a certain amount of cruelty in the appropriately pale eyes. She almost missed the command to keep her head down, and it wasn't until she spotted the curtain of more intense, somehow closer blackness that she took any heed of it.

The complete darkness of the tunnel made it even more difficult to see the other occupants of the boat, or indeed her wand, especially as the latter item was fairly dark itself anyway. Soon the boats glided to a halt in the darkness. Kestra intended to let the others off the boat first, but after the two oafish boys had scrambled off, the blonde boy stood and offered his hand. "Ladies first," he said, in impeccably polite tones. She accepted his offer of some support gracefully, having seen how undignified the exit of the other two occupants had been. Turning to return the courtesy, Kestra found the boy already on the shore.

"Draco Malfoy," he said, by way of introduction, as they followed the giant - whom Kestra had now identified as Hagrid, from her reading - up through a rocky passage into the air. "And you would be?"

"Kestra Levine," replied Kestra, matching his tone. Their attention turned to the door as Hagrid's pounding was acknowledged by a stern figure in emerald green.

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