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Chapter 31 : The Right Stuff
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"Wotcher, Cass." Nymphadora Tonks punctuated her greeting with the depositing of a large stack of papers on the desk which dominated the cramped so-called 'conference room' that would be the setting for the day's business. Sheets of parchment skidded out of the pile, showing pictures, drawings, scribbles, scrawled forms, and even a couple of maps.
Cassius Vaughn lifted his head to give her a baleful look, then his wand twitched and the papers began to reassemble themselves into something resembling order. "That'd still be Captain to you, Tonks."
"Yes, Cass." Tonks sat herself down in the chair next to him and leaned back, heavy boots resting on the surface of the desk. "So you drew the short straw, too, from admin?"
"I don't work in admin. I work in training," Vaughn bristled, snatching up the first bundle of the stack of papers and going through them. "So your commanders in field work wanted to get you out of their hair for the day and sent you to me?"
"That would be us. Both rejects." Tonks grinned cheerfully, hands coming up behind her head, chair wobbling dangerously as she tilted it back.
"Interviews are important work -"
"And wouldn't you rather be dealing with actual Aurors, rather than the wannabes we're going to have thrown at us?" she pointed out, nudging the pile with her foot. Three stacks slid off, one falling on the floor.
Vaughn stared at her until she picked them back up sheepishly. "It might not all be a loss," he argued, flicking through the papers in his hands. "Only three from Hogwarts - one Head Boy. Then one ML Enforcer, a dark creature hunter's apprentice..."
"...that'll be Duffy, he tried in my year and was told to come back when he had more experience. I think he's been working in Estonia." Tonks' expression flickered, and she ran a hand through her currently bright-pink hair. "Werewolf country."
"Good. We could do with people who have some concept of the real world." Vaughn set the papers down gruffly. "If we're going to get people on the beat right away..."
"...I still don't like that idea..."
"...you don't make policy, Tonks. I don't like that idea, cramming in training sessions between life-or-death situations. Sending them off half-trained. But we just don't have the manpower." Vaughn shrugged darkly.
"We're meant to be elite."
"We are elite. We'll just be elite with kids." Vaughn straightened up, dark eyes flickering about the cramped room, with its cold stone walls and high windows suggesting a prison rather than a bastion of law enforcement. "So we'd better make sure we have the best. Who's first?"
"Alphabetical. So, Cole."
Vaughn's heavy brow furrowed. "Old Daedalus Cole's -"
"Don't do that," Tonks said quickly. "Not the family thing. Not these days. Let's see how good the girl is."
Vaughn snorted, but nodded in acquiescence. "Very lucky, if her take-down of Alfonse Sneddon is anything to judge by."
"I remember an instructor four years ago who told me that being an Auror was one-quarter skill, three-quarters luck," Tonks said with a twinkle in her eye.
Vaughn grunted. "Can't imagine who that wishy-washy sod could have been," he grumbled good-naturedly. "Alright. Send her in."
Tonks, with a little of the characteristic relish she hadn't been showing in the past few months of low spirits, leaned across the desk and hit a button. For a long few seconds nothing happened, the silent room filled only with the sound of their breathing and of Vaughn rifling through the papers in front of him. Then there was a timid knock on the door.
"Bricking herself already," Vaughn muttered, then straightened up. "Come in!"
Tonks flinched instinctively at the barking voice which brought her back to days of early mornings and hard training sessions. "Don't break the girl before we start, Cass," she mumbled as the door swung open slowly, and in stepped Tanith Cole.
There was a confidence to her gait, Tonks couldn't deny that, even if it was hidden behind a bag of nerves. Nerves were fine. Nerves were normal. Nerves meant that she cared. The fact that she approached the desk unhesitatingly and extended a hand towards Vaughn first also suggested she'd done her homework.
"Uh, hello, sir, I'm -"
"I know who you are, Miss Cole. I'm Captain Vaughn; this is Auror Tonks." Vaughn stood to wrap her hand in his own, meaty grip. A flicker of a wince crossed Cole's face, before she retracted her hand and shook Tonks'.
Firm grip. Palms not so sweaty. Still in control. Good.
"Good to meet you." Tonks gave a grin to try to put her more at ease. It would probably be a literal, but unplanned 'good cop, bad cop' routine with Vaughn here. "Have a seat, we don't want to be on our feet all day."
The girl's posture was straight, but not too stiff as they all sat down, and Tonks took another moment to watch her. She was neat, presentable, as would be expected for an interview, but the minimal makeup, the dark hair tied back firmly out of the way suggested a lack of over-indulgence in her personal appearance. That was good; makeup in the morning was the first thing to go after six hours’ sleep between a gruelling routine. Creature comforts went out the window for an Auror.
Then there was her face itself. Sharp, not unpleasing, but more striking than pretty. Tonks noted this more for her own personal interest; it was undeniable that it was a man's world, being an Auror, and the more you could fit in, play by the men's rules, be seen as a man, the easier it was. Being an object of cat-calling and undue attention beyond the norm just made life difficult.
She was also small, but of a build which leant itself to speed, and to have passed the medical tests she had to be at least capable of keeping up with the exertions of the job. All in all, Tonks had to reflect, there were no immediate downsides.
But that was before she'd hardly opened her mouth. And Aurors didn't get to be elite by not being discerning in their recruitment.
"I see you've gone through all of the basic paperwork over the last six months," Vaughn observed, turning pages over. Tonks had only given the reading matter a cursory glance, leaving its evaluation to Vaughn; she would take on the other side of interview skills, of assessing the candidate solely in person rather than in writing.
Well. Except for one file. But not Cole's.
"Basic application requirements, sir." Tonks noted a mild edge in the girl's voice she couldn't quite place.
"Aptitude tests, medical tests..."
"And I've been preparing for the physical assessment next month for the last year," Cole finished, with no discernable pride.
Vaughn looked up. "You'll only be put in for that if you pass today."
It was a trick of a question, but it didn't stop the girl. "Yes, sir. But if I want to pass, it'll be a bit too late, then, won't it?"
Vaughn didn't smile, but there was a glint in his eye that Tonks knew spoke of approval. She sighed, and leaned forwards. "Tell us a bit about yourself, Miss Cole," she said smoothly.
Cole's dark, moderately assessing gaze moved over to her. "What do you want to know?" There was a hint of hesitation, of honest curiosity.
Tonks watched her for half a beat, then gave a small shrug. "Whatever you think is important."
A flicker of her expression showed she knew this to be a test, too. "I'm a seventh-year at Hogwarts, a Slytherin prefect. Herbology's my fifth subject after the required courses." Her gaze flickered to the papers in Vaughn's hands, and there was a little more hesitation. "I like art," she said at last, clearly fishing for something to say which wouldn't have already been documented by the expansive application forms. "Both wizarding and Muggle."
Vaughn raised an eyebrow. "Muggle art?"
A small light went off in Cole's eye, and Tonks noted the enthusiasm with a touch of approval. Nerves hadn't killed off any genuine emotion. "Wizarding art is all moving pictures. Muggle art is static. There's something to be said about capturing a moment, the feeling and importance in that frozen second, rather than trying to most accurately depict something physical."
"Do you think that sort of knowledge is of much use to an Auror?" Vaughn asked, and the girl blinked for a moment in the challenge at the question.
Definitely need to play good cop.
"I don't know," she admitted at first, then stopped, chewing on a lower lip. "I could talk about knowing how to analyse something visual, but that's a bit trite, isn't it? It's... an interest." She paused, finally flagging, and Tonks looked over to Vaughn to try to read his expression. As per usual, it was almost impossible.
Then Cole took a deep breath. "I don't think it's the most useful hobby. But I doubt you want Aurors who are just machines - who are Aurors and nothing else. And I... what I care about in art is the emotion. What's being said. What it means about life. Surely an Auror's got to care about life and what the world means to each of us, or why do we want to keep it safe?"
Vaughn's expression remained absolutely static in the way which meant he was quietly pleased. But even Tonks briefly wondered if her read on him was wrong with her next question. "And what does your father think of your approval of Muggle art?"
"My father?" Cole blinked again. It seemed to be the biggest display she would allow herself to suggest uncertainty. That wasn't necessarily a good thing. It didn't do to seem too in control. That suggested hiding something.
"Daedalus Cole, horse-breeder and philanthropist. And socialite of the pure-blooded circles." There was an intentionally provocative tone in Vaughn's voice.
"I think he'd be unsurprised as he paid for the tutor who taught me about Muggle art," Cole said at last, a bit more levelly. "But if what you're actually asking is about Muggle sympathy in the current political scenery, then I don't particularly care if he'd disapprove. He didn't approve of my application to be an Auror in the first place."
"You're second-guessing my questions?"
Tonks stayed silent. She was confident Vaughn only went hard on candidates he liked, to really test them.
Fairly confident, anyway.
"Am I wrong?" There was just frank curiosity in Cole's voice, but a slight edge suggesting she'd had to bite back on an intentional challenge. Tonks suppressed a smile.
Vaughn didn’t answer that. "And saying you don't care about what the pureblood world would think of your being an Auror and holding Muggle sympathies in the current crisis is a bit stupid, don't you think?"
Tonks dimly tried to remember her own interview, and if Vaughn had liked her enough to call her 'stupid'.
"It would be," Cole agreed. Oddly, the girl seemed more relaxed, if anything else, under Vaughn's onslaught. "At least, it would be if I'd said that. I said I didn't care that my father disapproved. I do care about what the pureblood world thinks, because we have to work for the good of every part of the law-abiding wizarding community, not just minorities."
"Those are pretty words," Vaughn growled. "Where'd you learn flowery bullshit like that?"
"A Splintered World, an article in December 3rd 1980's Daily Prophet, written by C. J. Vaughn."
There was a long silence as Auror and applicant stared at each other across the table, the former challenging, the second mostly calm but with the slightest hint of wariness suggesting she wondered if she'd crossed the line.
Then Tonks leaned forwards and clasped her hands together. "So why did you apply to become an Auror?"
A good question. A safe question.
Cole's gaze snapped back to her with a hint of surprise, and she relaxed a little more upon seeming to realise the testing was over. For now. "I had a rather sheltered life," she admitted a bit sheepishly. "Rich pureblood upbringing. Slytherin House. But at school I had a few of my preconceptions challenged... and decided to broaden my world-view. Did some reading. Saw how war and crime had messed up the lives of my friends - dead parents, arrested parents - even if they hadn't so much touched mine." She gave a small shrug, as if to offset the emotional edge to her words.
"I had a good upbringing, though. Money. Security. A better education than most. My family always taught me I could do anything I wanted. So I realised I wanted to use my advantaged position to... make the world better. For people not quite so lucky as me. Auror struck me as the best way."
Vaughn crossed his arms across his chest. "Why not be a Healer, then?"
Cole met his gaze easily. "I'm better at Defence than Herbology."
"Glory-hound?" It was a light accusation, but another challenge nevertheless.
Cole smiled instead. She seemed to be adapting to the gruff interviewer. "Aurors are the best. I won't deny I want to be the best."
Drive. There it is. That's the stuff. Tonks reached for Vaughn's stack of papers. "Scuttlebutt had it that you took on a Death Eater at Christmas. The MacKenzie incident."
Not the Auror department's finest moment, to be sure. But Cole showed no pride on her face as she nodded, smile disappearing. "I was lucky."
"Alfonse Sneddon was wanted for three counts of confirmed murder, five counts of Muggle baiting, and..."
"...and generally being a tosspot," Tonks interrupted Vaughn smoothly. Then she looked at Cole. "How'd you beat him?"
The girl shifted in her chair. "You read my statement."
It was an evasive answer, and Tonks raised an eyebrow. "No," she said honestly. The rumour-mill had told her all she knew.
Cole stayed silent for a long moment, chewing on her lower lip. "He beat me in spells even when I attacked him and he didn't see me coming. He was faster than me and more powerful than me. So I had to improvise."
Tonks raised an eyebrow, not unencouragingly. "Improvise?"
"I threw a car at him," Cole explained, almost apologetically. "But that was just a distraction. He knocked it away with a spell, but he couldn't do that and defend himself."
A short silence met her words, and the two Aurors exchanged glances. Vaughn, almost imperceptibly, gave a tiny nod, before looking back at Cole. "Some wouldn't call that 'luck'. Where'd you learn to fight like that?"
There was no hesitation. That was what made Tonks suspicious. "Professor Snape's an excellent teacher." She let that one be.
The rest of the interview went smoothly and much more by-the-book; questions about organisational experience were met with a decent prefect record, questions requiring self-assessment were met with a sufficient level of personal insight, and by the time Cole left the room, Vaughn's notebook was full of scribbles.
A short silence filled the cramped conference room, before Tonks looked at her superior. "What do you think?"
"I think she's got a little fight in her, and I think that'll get her in trouble," Vaughn growled, not looking up from his scribbling.
"Get her in trouble in life, or get her in trouble as an Auror?"
Vaughn did look up now, expression dimly amused. "She knows her stuff. She's got a bit of arrogance. That's a good thing." Finally, he gave a small, craggy smile. "And she took on a Death Eater. Slip of a girl like that. With a car. That tickles me."
"She didn't seem too proud of it," Tonks pointed out thoughtfully.
"Good. Strutting's not good."
"You just said-"
"Being good and knowing you're good's one thing. Showing off? That helps nobody." Vaughn shrugged. "I like her. What did you think?"
Tonks' expression held the suggestion of a frown. "Controlled."
"Is that a bad thing?"
"It makes me wonder," Tonks said. "That's all. You don't get wound up that tight without something to hide."
"So long as she doesn't get wound up so tight she explodes, I don't care if she's got secrets," Vaughn said.
"That's what I'm worried about," said Tonks. "But not enough to hold her back. Put her through for the next round."
Vaughn looked over at her with that calm, evaluating gaze she knew could see through reticence at a hundred yards. "Are you sure? The physical's just a formality, especially if this exercise regime of her's to be relieved." He nudged one piece of parchment vaguely. "You look a little bothered."
"I am. But not about her." Tonks sighed, and stood up, hands flat on the desk. "Give me a moment, will you?"
She was out the door before Vaughn could give a response, striding down the corridor quick enough to knock at least one young Auror trainee over. But Auror Tonks tearing down the MLE offices and sending people flying was not an oddity, and nobody looked up as she raised her voice. "Cole!"
Nobody except Cole, of course, who looked around with a bit of a start. "Did I forget something?"
She was less tense now, and Tonks barely needed her training to see the fatigue in her eyes. She stopped before her, and they stepped to one side in the corridor. "Didn't forget anything, no," Tonks said reassuringly. "There was just something I wanted to ask you."
Cole looked briefly suspicious, but squared her shoulders. "Sure."
"You know this other Hogwarts applicant, Tobias Grey? I mean, know him well?"
Again, a slow blink of uncertainty from the girl. "Did you read my records at all?" she asked dubiously. "Co-Slytherin prefect... the MacKenzie incident..."
"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Tonks pushed on obliquely. "And all of a sudden he wants to be an Auror. Why?"
Cole stared at her for a second, then shifted her feet. "Well. He lost his girlfriend, didn't he."
"Wanting to stop the same thing from happening to anyone else is an admirable goal," Tonks said soothingly. "But... in this climate... we can't have our backs being watched by someone who might run off after vengeance." Cole's expression flickered, and despite her sympathy, she pushed on. "So he's your friend. So you care about him. So you know him better than I can know him from a fifteen-minute interview."
"What's your point?" The tension in Cole's voice made it clear she suspected already what the answer was.
"You know him. You know what we want from Aurors. Clearly." Tonks wasn't above a little arm-twisting, the impression that cooperating now would endear her more to the interview team. Even if they had already made their decision. "Do you think he's doing this for the right reasons?"
Cole stopped, her expression flickering. "You mean, is he doing this for vengeance?"
"I think you know what I mean, Miss Cole." Tonks kept her gaze on Cole's dark eyes calm and level. She'd asked the question. No more time for games.
There was a long pause as Cole's expression twisted with the first outright display of emotion yet. That emotion being conflict, moving to guilt, before she finally drew a deep breath and looked up and down the stark corridor with a self-conscious air before she met Tonks' eyes. "No," she said at last, quietly. "I don't think he's doing this for the right reasons."
Tonks let out a deep breath, and gave a small nod. "Thank you," she said quietly. "We'll see how he conducts himself at the interview." The last thing she wanted Cole to think was that her testimony alone would make or break Tobias Grey's bid to be an Auror. She could be wrong, after all. Or he might account for himself well.
With self-awareness, vengeance wasn't so bad a driving urge. Without it... well. The last thing Tonks, an Auror for several years now, wanted was a partner you couldn't trust to have your back. Not if an opportunity for their revenge was dangled, or anything to push their buttons.
Aurors were elite, after all. And very often, the elite had no time for personal feelings.
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