Interlude: Beauty and Grace

Daphne flexed her fingers again, tapping at her wand. Everything was fine. There was more than enough room for everyone and she was doing excellent with setup, as well as continued management. The schedule wasn't perfect, but the deviations were acceptable and they were still right on time. Just another five minutes. There was nothing to be concerned with. It was perfectly okay.

She could not have asked for a better turnout for the inaugural meeting of the Hogwarts Inter-house Defense Engagement Network — H.I.D.E.N. as Tracey had so helpfully workshopped with her over the past several days. While it certainly wasn't a perfect name — they were still missing a "D" for instance — she was going to take far too much enjoyment comparing HIDEN to SPEW. Amusingly enough, even Draco had shown up, though without his typical flunkies for once. Not that she minded. Having to pay extra attention to her wayward housemate just to ensure he didn't embarrass her was more than enough trouble.

She really couldn't afford to split her attention any further. Especially with Taylor flitting in and out between the rows of sparring students, pushing an arm up here, holding a pillow out there, nudging a leg back here… Taylor couldn't even use magic; how did she have all of those spells' movements memorized?!

Only someone capable of truly astounding feats of —

"Neville, I zought you said you 'ad problems with zis spell? Zat was extremely powerful, you just need to aim better. Most 'ave ze opposite problem. Aiming is easy. I can teach you aiming."

Daphne shook her head, wiping the grin off of her face along with the movement. She glanced over at Fleur, taking note of the tips that the young woman was passing along. Fleur's slender fingers were resting easy on her wand, dancing gracefully through the air as she gently guided Neville through the movements, emphasizing the flick at the end. So controlled, so elegant, so —

Daphne tore her gaze away from the Veela, coming to rest instead upon her well-dressed bodyguard.

"And yet again I am reminded of just why she hangs out with our new professor so often."

"Muttering to yourself now, Daph?" Tracey spoke from right beside her. Daphne managed to swallow her yelp, though she wasn't able to stop the reflexive side-step that left Tracey giggling. "Careful, that's the first sign of madness!"

"You are horrid," Daphne sighed.

"Nah, I'm great. "

Taylor crossed her arms, staring down a seventh year Ravenclaw. Daphne glanced around trying to find what he might have done, but didn't see anything immediately standing out to her.

"So we only got a few minutes until the big fight. Any chance I can convince you to have Taylor throw it?" Tracey asked.

The man stood his ground for nearly a minute, though Taylor was a statue. And before Daphne's widened gaze, he wilted, seeming to mumble something, before walking away, a shiver apparent, even through his robes.

"If you seriously think she would go for that, then you have not been paying attention when you speak with her," Daphne said.

"Eh, a girl can dream." Tracey glanced around the room, licking her lips. "Now if you'll excuse me, it appears we are all moving to the bleachers and I need to claim my seat before Weasley steals it."

Tracey wasn't wrong. Harry had noticed the time before she did and called for the inaugural meeting to wrap up. Not that they had anything formal like that. Not yet at least. She would think of something. Daphne indulged herself for a moment and wondered how many people would be coming back for the second meeting when there wasn't going to be an exhibition match between her bodyguard and the Headmaster?

That hadn't even been decided until five hours ago! How had the word spread so fast? Was it all Tracey's fault? It had to be Tracey's fault. It was always Tracey's fault. Certainly Taylor wouldn't have mentioned it herself. She was always saying how the best defense was attacking from the shadows. Or was it being too scary to attack in the first place? There had been a lot of reputation theory and her suit had been oh so very tight…

"Wow, Daph, you have it bad."

Daphne startled again. This time as she finished hiding evidence of her grin, she replaced it with a scowl as she glared down at her sister. "What do you want, Astoria?"

"I don't know why you're so embarrassed. Whatever. Come on, tall, blonde, and googly eyes. You need to sit so we're not in the middle of the area."

"But, wait! I was supposed to —"

"Hello!" three concordant voices rang out from below her. Daphne blinked, cutting off as she looked down. Taylor's acromantula…adoptees? She still wasn't sure what the appropriate term was. They seemed to prefer being spoken of as her daughters and Taylor hadn't corrected them, but it was still odd to think of a human with what effectively amounted to spider babies as children.

Only Taylor, and probably Hagrid, would consider the trio of younglings 'adorable.' Yet she could not deny that they had a certain indelible charm to them and she'd quickly grown fond of them. It was… still creepy. But it was a creepy that she found amusing now. And wasn't that strange enough. Spiders as large as dessert plates hanging sitting on her shoulders? And she wasn't running screaming? The world had truly gone insane somewhere.

Probably somewhere between those deep green eyes, dark hair, and far too tight suit…

"Mother said to stay with the Daphne!" Lisette trumpeted from Daphne's left shoulder. She looked like an adorable little bandit with the gray stripe running right over her eyes. Though the waving pink pedipalps did rather spoil that mental image.

"Did you let Luna color you again?" Daphne asked, chuckling.

"I am accessorizing the Daphne!"

"Not 'the Daphne', just 'Daphne', Lisette. Mother has already told you this!" Annabeth yelled from her other shoulder. For a little spider, her voice was so filled with eye-rolls that it gave Daphne a flashback of arguing with Astoria. The black stripes down Anna's back were distinctive enough that Daphne had no trouble picking her out.

Racelyn was the only one that waited to be acknowledged, lifting herself up on her back legs and extending herself up towards Daphne. Bending down, she held out a hand to the young one. "Go on, climb up with your sisters."

"Thank you!" Racelyn didn't have as many markings as the other two, but her pitch black coloring still stood out just as well.

The five of them barely managed to find their way to seats before Dumbledore was striding inside the room, his arms spread wide and his eyes twinkling like a madhouse.

"Truly remarkable room, truly remarkable! I had been wondering why Gryffindor would have created his own Chamber of Pots. Apparently there was more to it than I had realized!"

Astoria sighed. "I never can tell whether that man is being serious or joking."

"I'm sure that's intentional," Daphne replied.

Dumbledore came to a stop in front of the large group of students. There had to be nearly a quarter of the school present… This was insane. Truly it wasn't that rare to see their Headmaster fight? He might rarely participate in duels these days, yet certainly it was often enough that this was not a spectacle. Unless it had to do with something else… Had they done such a good job with Taylor's reputation? Was this crowd as much for her Knight as it was for Dumbledore?

"Good evening everyone, good evening!" He smiled and patted the air. "Now I had not originally intended for this night to be a duel of sorts, yet I have been drawn into the action, as the young folks say." He chuckled along with the laughter of the crowd. "Miss Hebert, are you certain you wish for this? I am rather experienced in these matters."

Taylor pulled at her gloves as she stepped up to the edge of the dueling ring, her face entirely stoic.

When did a dueling ring appear? For that matter, when were the bleachers conjured? Where did the training dummies go?

"I wouldn't exactly be able to do my job if I didn't have some experience myself, Headmaster." A soft drone, barely audible, tickled Daphne's ears, and Taylor smiled. "I've been getting a good lay of the land here recently. I'd like to know where I stand against someone with experience and versatility."

Dumbledore's seemingly ever-present smile shifted to one she often saw on her father before his meetings. The Headmaster nodded once to Taylor. "Very well then. Has Professor Delacour informed you of the standard dueling precautions and rules?"

"No death or permanent injuries, safety spells around the edges to protect spectators and immediate retrieval of combatants in the event of danger. Otherwise, no holds are barred. Did I miss anything?"

Dumbledore chuckled. "Always so blunt. No, you did not. As you are effectively the challenger, Miss Hebert, you have the first move."

She kneaded her fingers, stretching her arms out. "You know, I debated about holding back. Trying to fight like a witch. But then, I remembered that you're supposed to be like the Triumvirate here."

"I confess, I don't know what that means Miss Hebert."

"It means that it would be foolish to hold anything back. It means that I want to know where I am in the power scaling. I need to know what areas I'm failing in if I hope to do my job better."

Dumbledore let out a breath that was not quite a sigh. "I have said my piece already, I will not lecture you again, Miss Hebert. Let us begin."

Taylor smirked. "I've already started."

Without warning, the once-quiet drone turned thunderous, drowning out all other sounds as the entire room flooded with insects. Only the fact that the stands were left alone allowed Daphne to see her fellow students screaming and jumping to press themselves against the wall. She couldn't hear anything that they were shouting over the beating of wings and scampering of legs. The only thing she could hear were the muted exclamations of "Mother!" from her passengers, and "Wicked!" from her sister.

Daphne tried to pick out the magical insects, but quickly lost the vampire mosps and doxies amongst the sheer bulk of the swarm. She never would have thought that she could lose track of vampire mosps, but here she was. The red terrors were just a part of the terrifying whole.

That was when Daphne saw it, the swarm wasn't just idle, it was attacking something… What had…

"A shield!" Daphne exclaimed. She leaned forward. Now that she knew what to look for, she saw the insects dive bombing towards a translucent, hardened bubble of air. They didn't die when they touched it, but they weren't able to maintain purchase on it for but a scant moment. It appeared that Taylor had realized the problem, as the swarm stopped actively attacking the barrier and instead spread out to obfuscate as much of the battlefield as it could. As she watched, Taylor charged through the wall of insects, rushing towards the barrier, her body covered entirely in bugs.

In response, a whip, made of flame, trailing licks of flame in its passing, shot through the air towards her. Daphne stopped breathing.

As the flame whip struck Taylor, she just… broke apart?

Daphne sucked in a breath. "Not her, she created a mimicry from insects. That's… wow…"

Three clones rushed the shield bubble this time. The whip cracked again and again the clones dissolved into a large mass of insects that rejoined the swarm. In the next attempt, there were six bodies as part of the surge. Dumbledore was able to take out four of them, but the remaining two reached his shield.

And one passed through.

The crowd gasped. Astoria pointed. Daphne held a hand to her mouth. "How did she get through the enchantment?!"

The swarm's behavior abruptly changed. The instant Taylor slipped through Dumbledore's shield, the insects immediately all dove towards the hardened air. This time they slipped through as well. A cry of pain cut through the beating of wings before Taylor was blasted back, soaring through the air. Part of the swarm changing configuration even as she flew to clump under her, softening her landing.

Taylor fell onto her back, hundreds of insects dying under her, yet it did nothing to interrupt the assault that Dumbledore faced. The main mass had contracted into a tight ball around the Headmaster, the droning louder than ever before. She started to roll to her feet when the entire area was blanketed in a surge of flames.

Daphne gasped, her fingers digging into her knees, abruptly able to hear her classmates again with the sudden lack of buzzing and chirping.

"Wow, I haven't seen a flame burst since Flitwick's championship four years ago!" Daphne didn't recognize the voice, she didn't bother to look at who had spoken. One of the upper year Ravenclaws most likely.

"Is that it? Is it ove-shite! She's getting back up!"

Taylor pushed to her feet, a wall of insects having already risen between her and Dumbledore. She grunted, spitting out a glob of blood and turned to regard the insect wall, shaking her head.

"How can she even see past that? How does she know Dumbledore hasn't moved?"


"That's what you want to know?! I want to know what spell she's using to control all of those bugs!"

Astoria licked her lips, her voice quiet but insistent. "Why isn't Dumbledore attacking?"

"They're sizing each other up," Daphne murmured. "Taylor got a strike when she shouldn't have. He wants to make sure that she doesn't have another trick up her sleeve."

Without warning, a cry sounded from Dumbledore's side of the field. The crowd gasped as Taylor rushed forward again, one hand extended, a baton appearing in the blink of an eye. Taylor moved so fast, if Daphne hadn't known better she would have said it was conjured. The insect wall collapsed around her to form more swarm mimics, cloaking her as she rushed. Through glimpses stolen in the gaps between bugs she saw that Dumbledore had started levitating — upside down.

"Billywigs!" Daphne gasped. "She was asking about billywigs the other day!"

Parts of Dumbledore's body were also covered in silk and Daphne narrowed her eyes as she saw a trio of small spiders rushing about the Headmaster's body, silk nearly flying out of their spinnerets.

"Those aren't… acromantula, are they?" Astoria asked. "That's too fast."

"Cocoon spiders maybe? According to the books they can web up a man in 30 seconds but are otherwise mostly normal."

Taylor and her clones had almost reached the near-fully cocooned Dumbledore when the field around them erupted into rocky spikes, several of the spikes slicing right through the silk around Dumbledore. A murmured spell that Daphne couldn't hear saw the Headmaster back on his feet, his wand weaving through the air even as the insect clones ducked and dipped through the maze of hazards.

The spikes broke off, all of them lurching through the air, flying at individual clones, scattering the bugs upon impact. Taylor was the only one that dodged, ducking under the piece of stone aimed at her and running full tilt at Dumbledore.

Again, Taylor managed to strike him with her baton, though it barely made contact before she was thrown halfway across the field with a stream of water, soaring over the field of rock. Coughing, Taylor immediately lunged back to her feet again, the drone of insects increasing to a fever pitch as more came in from… somewhere.

"How many bugs does she have?" Astoria asked.

"She just doesn't stop," Daphne whispered. "It's beautiful."

Little cackles echoed from her swarm and Daphne gasped as she saw doxies and fairies mixed in, each one clutching some form of weapon in their small hands. Dumbledore apparently saw it as well, for he crouched, spinning once and with a wide flourish, all of the loose stone turned into animals. Lions, wolves, bears, alligators, all of them surged forth, aiming for Taylor.

Taylor scowled, pulled off her torn suit jacket, holding in one hand and rushed forward again. She leaped over a lion, ducked under a jumping wolf, and finally swung herself onto a bear, using the jacket to cover the eyes and pull it sideways, aiming it back towards Dumbledore.

Meanwhile, the Headmaster was busy with his flamewhip again, attempting to thin Taylor's swarm. He had cut a large swath through the surging mass of chitin when Taylor's stolen mount leaped over the closest obstruction. Unfortunately, Dumbledore was ready. He immediately pointed his wand at Taylor, and she lurched off of the bear, flying through the air, and into his extended hand. Her baton came around and her swarm descended, but Dumbledore held his wand to her chest and a chime rang out through the room.

"Match." Fleur shouted. "Ze winner, Dumbledore!"

As the crowd yelled and screamed, Daphne jumped to her feet and ran towards the two. Dumbledore had already set Taylor down, both of them breathing hard as they shook hands.

"That was really helpful," Taylor said. "I'm going to have to work out countermeasures to that conjuration."

"Actually, the animals were transfiguration. The principle is ultimately the same however, so yes, I would recommend strengthening that area of your prowess. Also, your duplication technique is very effective — until someone uses homenum revelio."

Taylor winced. "Yeah. I'm still trying to figure out a way around that."

"It is not a widely known or used spell. Speak with Professor Snape, I believe he had developed a potential counter during his time as a student, though I am uncertain how useful it would be for you in particular."

"Worth a try," she nodded.

"You held back on the doxies."

Taylor shrugged. "It was a training and exhibition match. I needed to know where I stood, and warn people off of coming after my friends. I didn't want to actually hurt you. I don't know how much doxy venom is safe."

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that you were attempting subtlety, Miss Hebert."

"I've done little except confirm the rumors around the castle about what a parahuman can do." She smiled and a shiver ran down Daphne's spine. "All anyone knows for certain is that I can control a room very well with a lack of visible spells."

"Miss Hebert," Dumbledore sighed, "I fear you took the wrong lessons from today."

"I had a few good teachers before you, Headmaster. Sorry about hitting you by the way."

Dumbledore shook his head. "It is nothing that Madame Pomfrey won't be able to fix. I will reimburse your damaged wardrobe. I dare not try to fix such specialized attire as my ears will never hear the end of the resulting tirade from your supplier. Please, send me the invoice."

"Will do."

Taylor finally turned from the Headmaster and met Daphne's gaze. Her daughters were quiet after their initial cheer of congratulations.

"Well I lost, but I have some really good ideas so I'll put forth a better fight next time. I don't plan to lose again." Taylor's gaze dropped. "And I know I've been avoiding you lately. Can we talk this weekend?"

Daphne could only nod, her voice having left her.

Taylor wanted to talk. Taylor, who was so determined. So strong. So humble. She'd struck Dumbledore! Twice! No one had managed that in over a decade.

Daphne found it very hard to swallow past the lump in her throat. She was going to need a strategy for dealing with the political fallout that would come to her family when her… proclivities became known. If it was just witches, that would be one thing. But Taylor was not a witch. She'd be painting a target on her entire family.

Oh her father was not going to be pleased with her. Not at all.

Taylor turned, greeting Astoria. Astoria pointed at her hair and Taylor winced, holding a hand up to the mass of brunette locks that had escaped her ponytail during the fight. Her shirt was ruined too. At least her pants were okay. Her oh so tight pants…

"I am in so much trouble."