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The Closest Thing We Have To Magic

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The Closest Thing We Have To Magic

Dean Winchester saunters down the cobblestone path, hands tucked in the pockets of his leather jacket. He whistles cheerily, taking a deep breath and inhaling the cool autumn air. Today starts the fall semester of his final year of graduate school, and even though some of his friends are feeling all freakin’ sentimental about their last “first day,” Dean feels almost…chipper. School has never been his forte, so the sooner he can hightail it outta here and back into the real world—where you can’t wave your magic hands around and get whatever the hell you want—the better off he’ll be.

Still, there’s a familiarity to this place, an excitability and sense of adventure. During his walk he admires the green vines growing against the buildings’ brick siding, the overcast day making every weeping willow appear more melancholy than usual. Years ago, when he first arrived at Stanford University’s School of the Occult, the campus seemed plucked straight from some Edgar Allen Poe-induced nightmare. Stepping through the portal from sunny, beachside Silicon Valley to cloudy, gothic hills had been a real…adjustment.

He still has a good stretch of ground to cover when he passes a redhead, her green eyes stunning and flirty and wide, and she tucks a curl behind her ear. She’s leaning against a table in the middle of the quad, nursing a cup of coffee from the Witch’s Brew and looking at a campus map with obvious confusion. Before he passes her, she smiles up at him and says, “You wouldn’t know how to get to Euripides Hall…would you?”

Dean debates his options. He’s already running late to his thesis meeting, but his appointed advisor is a total newbie. Dean hasn’t met him yet, but he’s willing to bet anything that Dr. Novak is a nervous little pushover. First-year adjuncts usually are. Dean isn’t the best student around, but he’s apparently got enough natural talent that most of the professors seem to like him, and he’s willing to bet the new guy will be no different. If anything, he’s sorta…popular on-campus, considering he’s tried his hand at most disciplines and has met a fuckload of people. It’s not the life he would’ve expected for himself—he wasn’t winning any congeniality contests back in Lawrence—but he’s apparently hit his stride here.

“I sure do,” Dean says with a smile, turning on the full-charm for this unsuspecting first year. “And, whaddya know? I was headed that way myself.”

It’s not really the truth, but it’s not technically a lie, ‘cause if he cuts across the south courtyard and takes the basement shortcut in Euripides Hall, he’ll make it to his advisor’s office only…reasonable late. What’s five, ten, fifteen minutes in the grand scheme of things? They begin to walk together, slow to match each other’s pace, and their small talk wanders onto the topic of what there is to do around here.

“Nothing,” Dean snorts, but then pauses thoughtfully, reconsidering his answer. Thanks to his group of friends and the enchanted, refilling whiskey tumblers at Ellen’s bar—not to mention the constant practice and presence of magic—he’s really warmed up to the place. Still, he’s always felt on the outside somehow, like he’s never fully fit in. It’s still weird to him that he’ll graduate a classically trained mage when he’s always had the attitude and mindset of a lay magician—someone home-taught, usually refused entrance into an accredited magic school for some bullshit reason.

He eventually leaves the flirty first-year outside the steps of Euripides Hall, but only after she takes out a pen and writes her number long and slow into his palm. Dean wonders why she didn’t just put her contact info into his phone like a normal person, when he sees she used one of those fancy charmed pens. Her long, swoopy handwriting keeps rewriting itself onto his skin, perpetually on a loop like a gif, and he’ll be forced to wash it off later with spelled, antiseptic soap. Huh. Kinda adorable, kinda excessive. He doubts he’ll text her, but it depends on how bored he gets tonight. The first week of the semester is usually pretty light on homework.

He takes the steps two at a time, hanging left around a gray gargoyle statue where smokers tend to loiter, and throws open the heavy oak entrance door. He spends most active school hours here, in Mechanikos Hall, since his speciality in spell mechanics was declared in the spring of his first year. He doesn’t usually talk about his major ‘cause it’s one of the hardest disciplines to be accepted into, and he’s still trying to figure out how his barely-above-average GPA and lazy-ass spellcasting got him in.

He took a year off between his bachelor’s degree and his master’s, hoping to rejoin the workforce…but thanks to his indecision and lack of clear options, he eventually made his way back to Stanford. He still argues with Sam, his genius little brother who’s also a junior here, about how academia is a totally corrupt system. Like most of society’s issues, though, magic has just made it ten times worse. He’s aware it’s sort of an ironic stance, considering he teaches two sections of freshman Intro to Spellcasting over at Theoris Hall and receives a semi-decent stipend from it…but honestly, being a professor is just a job to him. Dean has never dreamed of becoming Professor Winchester full-time, no matter how reverently the eighteen-year-old students might call his name in class.

He heads straight to the center of the second floor, where most of the professors’ offices are, when he remembers he didn’t check to see what room Dr. Novak is in. Dammit. He’s too new to be listed in the main directory, so Dean meaders back down to the first floor and asks the student worker in the main office. Not only does she know Novak’s office number, but she’s a total knockout brunette, a second-year named Lisa who Dean decides he’ll have to acquaint himself with later. Maybe his last year at school will be the year he finally achieves his goal of dating his way through campus. Hell, after his brief friend-with-benefits situation this summer with Benny, maybe it can be a coed conquest…

He follows Lisa’s instructions down the spiral staircase, back to the hallway filled with faculty offices, and takes a winding route to the very back. Finally, after what feels like such a goddamn maze that he considers casting a direction spell, he spots office number 41 tucked in an alcove on the left. He checks the time on his phone and winces—okay, so, twenty-five minutes late. Even for him, that’s not great. Should he fabricate a false emergency or exaggerate how difficult it was to find the professor’s office? One’s an obvious lie, and the other makes him sound a doofus, so he takes a deep breath and decides on option three.

He’ll just charm the fuck out of this guy.

He knocks softly on the dark mahogany door, cracked and left slightly ajar, and hears an impossibly deep voice say, “Come in.” He swings the door open, and his immediate impression is…well, compared to the offices of his other professors, this one is pretty damn bare. The white walls are left undecorated, there are no curtains or plants or any hints of a personality; in fact, apart a desk with a computer, books, and some odd magical trinkets here and there, Dean would believe this space is still vacant. That’s obviously not true, though, ‘cause sitting in an office chair with a leg crossed across his kneecap, wearing a wrinkled suit jacket, and catching sight of Dean and blatantly glaring, is…

Well. Probably the hottest man Dean has ever seen.

Even under the layers of stuffy clothes—not only is he wearing a baggy, full-on suit, but there’s a freaking trench coat folded over a worn-out leather briefcase—Dean can tell the guy is lean and muscular. His skin seems naturally tan, his chin and cheeks peppered with light and well-suited stubble, and his lips are such a gorgeous shade of pink that Dean has trouble tearing his eyes away. Speaking of eyes…the professor’s are a vibrant, impossible blue, a much brighter shade than the navy tie hanging backwards on his neck. His hair is dark brown and messy, and Dean thinks he can’t be older than mid- to late-twenties, fresh out of grad school…barely older than Dean.

All the random girls he’s met this morning fly immediately out of his brain, ‘cause yeah, there’s a casual greek god on-campus and he happens to be Dean’s new thesis advisor.

Jesus Christ.

“Can I help you?” the professor asks, seeming uninterested in Dean’s answer. Dean just hovers in the doorway, awkwardly unsure if he should sit or stand.

“Yeah, uh…I’m Dean. Dean Winchester.” He reaches his hand forward, expecting a handshake, but Castiel just eyes him with indifference. “We have an appointment?”

“Dean Winchester,” Castiel repeats, and feeling like a total idiot, Dean lowers his hand. He’s never shaken a professor’s hand before…why the hell would he start now? Castiel opens what appears to be an appointment book, the frown he’s wearing apparently a permanent fixture on his face. “I have you down for two o’clock.”

“Yeah, sorry about that…” Without invitation, Dean makes a decision and takes the open seat next to his professor’s desk. “You know how it is, first day back, getting into the swing of things.” He leans his elbow onto the desk and smiles, gleaming and white, and Castiel regards him without blinking. His scowl only increases the wider Dean grins, so he tries to dial back the charm a little and push the focus off of him. “How are things going for you? Teaching anything good this year?”

Castiel closes his planner curtly, leaning back into his chair and speaking with a cool sort of nonchalance. “I’m a first-semester adjunct professor, so naturally, they’ve given me all the most challenging and fascinating upper level classes.”

“Really?” Dean asks, eyebrows raised.

“No, not really.” Castiel’s tone is so deadpan that Dean’s face burns with embarrassment. Hands itching with nerves, he can feel the buzz of several small, ongoing spells reverberating inside the office walls. This is partly why he even has this discipline—he can feel magic in waves, pulsing like the base of a stereo, a physical manifestation that’s supposed to be very rare. There’s one spell in the room that’s nagging at him—a simple rotation charm, but it’s arranged in a pattern he’s never seen—and the radius mechanism is off. The oblong spinning top on Castiel’s desk keeps lagging to the left on every third turn, rather than flowing smoothly. Hands down at his sides and tucked out of view, Dean makes a tender twist of his wrist while the left hand is pinched at forefinger and thumb. He waits a beat, shuffling his fingers just so as he alters the spell, and then…

On the the third spin it glides effortlessly, and he exhales.

It’s fixed.

“All four of my classes this semester have ‘101’ or ‘introduction to’ in the title. The only reason I was given a third-year thesis candidate to advise is because, I’m told, you waited too late to fill out the paperwork with the registrar's office.” Castiel lifts an eyebrow in Dean’s direction, contempt evident on his face. “Is that a habit of yours, Dean? Being late?”

Suddenly the collar of Dean’s flannel is feeling entirely too warm. He’s never really been called out like this before, even his brother uses jokes and jabs to make criticisms a little easier to swallow, and he’s not sure if he respects this guy or wants to punch him.

“It’s not one of my finer qualities,” Dean says, deflecting with humor, and Castiel hums quietly to himself.

“And tell me—” The professor sorts through a stack of papers on his desk, before pulling out a manilla folder and opening it wide. “What are your finer qualities?”

“I, uh…” Dean swallows, scrambling to think of something more impressive than I can drink a fifth of whiskey without getting a hangover the next day.

“It’s not your GPA,” Castiel says flatly, filling the tense silence.

“Hey,” Dean mumbles, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He’s starting to think this guy is seriously an asshole. “I do okay in class.”

“Exactly…‘okay’ is not what I’d expect from someone specializing in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Spell Deconstruction.” Castiel plants both feet back on the floor, leaning closer to Dean. “The mechanics of magic are—methodical. Precise. Infinitely complicated.”

Dean can’t help it…he sighs. He’s heard this same ol’ speech from every one of his upper-level professors, all these academics who seem so intent on making a intuitive concept something that’s intimidating and ugly. His shift in attitude is noticed, though, because Castiel straightens up in his chair, looking amused.

“You disagree?”

“You could say that.” Dean pauses, waiting for Castiel to react, but he’s just gazing at Dean with a sense of smug superiority, like he’s watching a toddler try to solve a Rubik's cube. “All of you—”

Castiel’s eyes narrow. “Who?”

“Everyone. Professors, philosophers, academics.” Dean inhales again and barrels forward. “You’re making something easy into something hard.”

Castiel smiles, though Dean can’t quite decipher the intention behind it. Either the professor thinks Dean just said something profound, or he’s reduced Dean down to another cocky third-year blowing smoke up his own ass. Honestly, Dean’s not sure which one he is at the moment.

“Enlighten me.” Castiel regards him with full interest now. The flirty side of Dean—who’s obviously hot-for-teacher—is thriving under the attention. But the insecure student in him is squirming away, wishing he had kept his dumb mouth shut.

“It’s stupid,” he mutters, looking down at his feet.

“Dean,” Castiel says, voice low and firm, “knowing how you interpret your own discipline is vital for me in deciding if I decide to advise you on your thesis project.”

Dean wrinkles his forehead, his embarrassment momentarily forgotten. “‘Decide to advise’? I thought that was, uh, already a done deal.”

“This is just an introductory meeting to determine if I’m a good fit for you,” Castiel corrects, and his voice is so matter-of-fact that Dean has no clue which way the professor is leaning. “All of the associate professors have a full load of thesis candidates this year. Though in the staff meeting this morning, Doctor Adler said he could make an exception for you—”

“Please, no,” Dean interrupts vehemently, and Castiel can’t seem to hide his surprise.

His eyes are trained on Dean curiously as he says, “All my colleagues spoke quite highly of you, Dean, including Doctor Adler.”

Dean snorts, shaking his head and saying nothing. He’s already on Castiel’s bad side, and there’s no reason to add fuel to the flames by bad-mouthing another teacher…even if the guy is a big bag of dicks.

“I’d rather make things work with you,” Dean says instead, hoping he sounds less like a kiss-up and more like someone who’s trying to avoid a professor he freaking hates. Though, if Castiel likes kiss-ups, Dean can think of a few better ways to approach that option…

“Then please,” Castiel opens his hands wide, face expectant, “tell me why everyone but you is wrong about the mechanics of magic.”

Dean fights back a wince. Fuck, is that really how he worded it?

“Well…” He clears his throat, eyes reaching up to the ceiling, trying to figure out how to get the notion floating around in his head translated into coherent words. “I, uh…I guess to me, magic is like a car, and the mechanics of a spell are like an engine. Identifying what’s wrong with a spell means knowing what a spell feels like when it’s working properly, when it’s firing on all cylinders. You can know everything about it logically, can separate the parts of an engine or the physics of a spell, but at the end of the day, knowing how magic works is different from why magic works. It’s less about science and more about…”

“Magnetism,” Castiel supplies, and Dean nods enthusiastically.

“Exactly. We can hypothesize and philosophize all day long, but the essence of magic can’t be measured. It has to be felt.” Dean twiddles his thumbs, anxiously waiting for Castiel to tell him he’s full of shit. But the professor is leaned towards him with rapt attention, seeming bemused and surprised, maybe even a smidge impressed…though Dean doesn’t wanna get his hopes up just yet. He has a feeling it’s gonna take a lot more than a car metaphor to impress this guy, but part of him hopes he gets the chance to prove himself. They’re staring at each other openly now, intensely, in a stretch of time that feels less professional and more significant…and Dean wants nothing more than to figure this guy out.

Is he just another arrogant, pencil-pushing academic? Or will he be opened-minded enough to see things in a new way?

“Do you teach your freshman students your interpretation of magical theory?” Castiel asks, sounding bemused and curious and a little concerned, but Dean shakes his head.

“Nah. I haven’t actually taught yet, but if my lesson plans are right, we’ll hardly get past simple charms in Intro.”

“Understandably,” Castiel replies, and it sounds almost as if he’s commiserating with him.

“What was your specialization?” Dean asks suddenly, the question practically tripping out of his mouth. “In grad school, I mean.”

His palms are open, flat and exposed, and when he looks up Castiel is staring at the redhead’s phone number written there with interest. Dean blushes and entwines his hands together, fidgeting.

“I studied the Anthropology of Magic at Babbage Magical Academy in Oxford,” Castiel says quietly, the answer turning him somewhat somber. “Particularly, I’m fascinated by the societal divide between classically trained mages and the outcasting of lay magicians.”

“Uh…wow.” Dean’s eyes are wide and he nods, entirely impressed. There are only five magic colleges worldwide, and acceptance rates are incredibly low, so the number of lay magicians living in secret drastically outnumber the mages. Unfortunately in the States, being a lay magician can be indescribably dangerous, since Stanford has a total monopoly on the well of elemental magic. The administration is highly selective about who has access to it, the allotment of magic offered always correlating with your level of higher education. It’s classist bullshit in Dean’s opinion, forcing uneducated lay magicians to use magic that draws from their own energy, making their spells more innovative and imaginative but at a terrible price. Lay magic is not only draining and physically difficult…but life-threatening in large doses. Dr. Novak might be standoffish, but he’s also…what? A justice warrior with a secret heart of gold, who’s really fucking easy on the eyes? “Bet that doesn’t win you any brownie points at the faculty potluck.”

It takes Castiel a moment to realize Dean is joking, but when he does, he breaks into the most sincere chuckle Dean’s ever heard. Jesus, this guy is something else. Hot and cold and something in-between.

“That’s an understatement,” Castiel says, with a hint of uneasiness. “But you can say I do have a…personal interest in the mechanics of spellcasting.” He shrugs, as if it’s nothing worth noting, but Dean knows this subject is considered difficult and dense. What kind of mage explores a secondary subject matter just for…fun? Before he can prod further, though, Castiel is tilting his head and looking questioningly at his watch.

“Unfortunately, I have a meeting and have to run.” He stands up abruptly, reaching for his briefcase, and Dean follows his lead. He’s disappointed by the hasty dismissal, but they could’ve had a full hour to discuss things if he hadn’t been so late. Castiel moves past him and through the doorway, and Dean follows immediately on his heels.

“So, uh…” Dean feels clumsy and uncertain, the opposite of how he was feeling thirty minutes ago, before meeting Dr. Novak. “Think you’ll take me on? As a thesis student or…whatever?”

Castiel closes the door, then hovers over the doorknob, forefinger circling in such a quick motion that Dean nearly misses it. He’s cast a quick locking spell, and Dean blinks at how easy it looks for him, how effortless.

“We’ll see,” Castiel says briskly. “I’ll let you know by the end of the week.” He’s already marching down the hallway in fast, hurried steps before Dean can further plea his case. When the professor rounds the corner, Dean is left gaping and staring down the empty hallway.

Departmental meetings are never fun, but today's—Castiel muses as he watches raindrops run down the windowpane—is an hour and a half of his life he'll never get back. Dr. Adler has been monologuing on the importance of teaching Pythagorean cipher construction to first years for at least fifteen minutes now, even though Castiel is fairly sure everyone in the room agrees with his stance.

He flicks his gaze over to the rest of the classroom where the meeting is being held, accidentally catching Hannah's eye from where she sits. She gives a dramatic eye roll when Zachariah’s back is turned, and Castiel has to turn his snort of laughter into a cough.

So far, most of the staff here at Stanford have been pleasant enough, but Hannah has been the only one to actually ask him how he's doing since he moved here, two weeks ago. He'd been warned, and indeed fully expected to be given the classes and tasks that no one else wanted to do, being the newest professor, and a young one, at that. What he hadn't expected was to be essentially forced to take on the thesis students who were late to register. Despite what he told Dean earlier, he really doesn't have much choice in taking him on for the year.

Dean Winchester—isn't he an enigma wrapped in a bratty grad student wrapped in denim and leather? He’d had someone’s phone number written on his hand—Castiel’s fairly sure Dean’s one of those students who enjoys the weekend life on campus more than learning anything about magic. He has to admit, he isn't sure why Dean is even this far into a master’s, given his grades.

For now, Cas will just have to put up with him. Hopefully his irritating tardiness and insouciance will be made up for by the fact that he's effortlessly easy on the eyes. Tall, slim, sandy hair, a smile that had done strange things to Castiel's insides, and—

“Doctor Novak? Are you with us?”

Castiel blinks and glances back to the front of the room to see Dr. Adler smiling politely, edged with a brittle annoyance.

“Did you have anything to share with us about your first day?” Dr. Adler asks, still smiling.

Castiel gathers his thoughts and manages to get out, “Um, no. It…it went well.” He mentally curses himself for sounding like a distracted freshman. He’s trying to put forward a good impression here.

“Good!” Adler booms, turning back to the rest of the department. “Very well then, that's all for today.” He constructs a small pull spell and shoots it towards a pen on a desk in front of him. The pen stills in its scribbled note-taking, then both pen and notebook fly precisely through the air and into Adler's hand. “Enjoy the rest of your week, people.” As the staff start to stand and shuffle out, he adds, “Don't forget the welcome dinner on Friday night!”

Castiel shuffles out with the others, trying to catch up to Hannah, but he's stopped by a hand on his elbow before he can make his escape.

“Castiel? Might I have a word?” Missouri says, grabbing his elbow and pulling him to the side of the corridor.

He turns to her with a genuine smile, but it drops somewhat as he sees Adler walk up behind her. “Doctor Moseley, how can I help you?”

Missouri smiles at him, her always-calm presence soothing him. He’s only known her a few weeks, but he’s never seen her with anything other than a warm smile. “I just wanted to see how your meeting with Dean went.” She gazes at him with such intent, he has a feeling it won’t matter what he says in reply, she’s reading the real answer right off his soul.

“It, uh, it happened, yes. He was a little late so we didn’t get to talk long.” He glances up at Zachariah to see him peering with a less-friendly, but no less interested, look. He looks back to Missouri, trying to gather his professionalism. “Doctor Moseley—”

“Missouri, please,” she interrupts, with a small smile.

He nods, continuing, “Missouri, Dean doesn’t seem to have submitted a project proposal. He does have some interesting ideas on magical theory, but I…” He trails off. What’s he trying to say here? He hadn’t been expecting to have to take on any thesis students, and after speaking to Dean today, he’s dreading having to coax him through a project. The guy might be distractingly beautiful, but Castiel suspects he’s one of those students who coasts through, barely passing if at all, and going on after college to work in some mediocre magic store. He isn’t sure if he has the patience to go through that with Dean, especially since, after hearing him describe magic as something to be perceived, he's fairly sure that Dean has the potential to become a great mage.

Castiel is startled out of his thoughts by Dr. Adler speaking up. “Honestly, Missouri, I told you Doctor Novak here wouldn’t want him. The boy’s a slacker. Let me take him—I’m happy to take the hard line, get him working harder.”

“No.” Castiel surprises himself by speaking out of turn. He remembers the look of horror in Dean’s eye when he had suggested Dr. Adler earlier. And Castiel doesn’t take well to the term, slacker. “I don’t mind taking him on. I just wanted to confirm with Doctor Moseley that she was sure Dean was keen to take on a project. He's already teaching introductory classes, isn't he?”

Missouri eyes Adler briefly before turning back to Castiel. “Yes, we had a few grad students wanting to join the teaching program this year. Dean hasn’t always quite fit the system here, but trust me—he’s got what it takes. I’m sure you can help him decide on a topic.”

With a sinking feeling, Castiel nods. “Very well. I’ll set a planning session with him for next week. Thanks, Missouri.” He nods again to Dr. Adler before turning away up the corridor.

Up on the second floor near the department offices, the halls are quiet. Castiel paces down the polished hardwood floors, eyeing faded portraits hanging on oak-panelled walls. Dim sunlight filters through the window, dulled by the rainclouds.

The magical part of Stanford is far away from its sunny Californian half—the school, plus its student accommodation and a handful of other buildings, are kept separate from the non-magical world by complex wards and a completely secret location.

Castiel had been surprised by the translocator spells when he'd arrived at Stanford—at Oxford, the School of Physical Magic is right there on Parks Road, plain for all to see. But then again, Oxford is more magical than most places on earth. In any case, the spell had transported him here, wherever “here” is, and as he looks out the next window he passes, the warding is barely visible in the distance above the trees as a shimmering curtain.

Castiel enters his office and has just shut the door behind him when his phone vibrates in his pocket. He fishes it out of his coat, trying to ignore the odd lurch in his stomach when he sees that it’s Meg. Isn't it the middle of the night over there?

“Hello, Meg,” he answers, crossing the small room and sinking into his chair just as she replies.

“Clarence! How’re you doing?” Meg sounds the same as she always does, smiling to cover up the thorny pain beneath. He had told himself he wouldn’t miss her, but he does.

“I’m okay. Just finishing up before I head home. What time is it there? Midnight?” He frowns at his watch, thinking he’ll have to create a spell to make timezone calculations for him.

“One? ’M just on m’way home.”

Castiel narrows his eyes. “Are you drunk?”

“No! Well...just a little.”

Rolling his eyes, Castiel says as gently as he can manage, “Please just get home safely. It’s dangerous out there.”

Meg scoffs. “I ain't afraid of no serial killer.”

Castiel knows that’s probably true—Meg is Oxford's Combat Magic professor, after all—but there have been two murders already, all magical college staff. Yes, security is everywhere around the school this week, but it doesn’t stop him from worrying.

He hears a thump and a click on the other end of the line. “Meg?”

“Jus’ got home. Clarence?”

“Mm?” He opens his laptop and flicks through windows until he finds the lesson plan he'd been working on when Dean arrived earlier.

Meg's voice drops to something quiet and sultry. “Give a girl a hand, here. What're you wearing? Take it off.”

Castiel blinks, then says flatly, “I'm at work.”

“Suuure, but you're in your office, right?”

He hears rustling, and he imagines she might be adjusting her clothing. There's a tightness behind his sternum, but also a traitorous twitch of interest in his trousers.

No. He can't do this.

“Meg, you were the one who said this wouldn't work long-distance, remember?”

“Aw, come on. Just send me that spell that—”

“No,” Castiel interrupts. “I…I can't. I'll speak to you later.”

He hangs up before he can change his mind, then puts his phone down on the desk, willing his heart to slow down. His eyes land on the perpetual motion trinket on his desk, spinning, spinning gently.

He'd been so overjoyed to be awarded this position, and he has Meg to thank for it. She's still the only one in his life who knows the full extent of his magical gifts, although he's fairly sure she might have let it slip to Missouri when Meg was convincing her to take him on.

Universities generally look the other way when it comes to Thaumatechnology, even though the ability to design and build new spells is discouraged in polite magical society. But when one of his spells had gone slightly wrong and got out of control, and someone outside Oxford had taken notice…well, it's the whole reason he's now here, and not still in ol’ Blighty. He lived there for the nine years of his degrees, and he misses it, and Meg, more than he ever did his family’s home in Illinois.

He and Meg had been best friends ever since the first week at Oxford, and it had only turned into something more in the last year or so, but when he’d decided to take the job and move back to the States, she’d elected to stay behind in Oxford. Her life was there, she said. Castiel had tried to pretend it didn’t hurt, he is, still hurting.

As he lets the gentle, smooth spinning of the disk soothe him, his thoughts turn back to the green-eyed terror to be his charge for the year. His Thaumatech skills will come in handy for helping Dean to develop his own mechanical ones, but how is he going to keep his own abilities a secret? Missouri may know, but he can’t let it slip to anyone like Adler.

His eyes narrow as he focuses on the trinket. Has it always spun so smoothly? He remembers being frustrated that the spell was slightly off-kilter when he'd cast it, but hadn't been able to correct it. He supposes it must have settled over time.

Shaking his head, he turns back to the laptop and fires off a meeting request to Dean.

A low mist swirls along the sidewalk, eddies curling away from the demon's boots as he strides along. Noises in an alley make him flinch as he passes the dark opening, but he senses the small energy of a cat behind a dumpster, the signature dampened by the iron.

He approaches the building via the side door covered with invisible sigils—alarms, mostly. Real protective warding is high-cost elemental magic—forbidden for the likes of them. He draws a thread of magic and forms it into the counterspell, flinging it towards the door, holding it tethered to himself until he's inside. The faintly glowing symbols fade back into invisibility as he draws the spell back, panting slightly at the effort.

Inside, the tenement is dark. Deathly quiet. The bottom stair creaks as he places his boot on it, but when nothing stirs he continues, creaking onwards up to the first floor.

A voice sounds from above, “Get up here, you idiot.” His boss sounds more annoyed than usual, so he hurries up another two flights to the apartment at the top.

The boss stands there, leaning against the closed door, a glass of red wine in one hand and the other in his trousers pocket. He looks up at the demon, one brow raised, and says, “Well?”

The demon steels his resolve, wondering if his protective amulet will stand up to an attack after all. “It's a no-go, sir. He never showed up.”

“Damn. Very well. Next time, perhaps.”

A low sound filters through the apartment door—a moaning, a man in pain.

The demon swallows, his eyes flicking to the door. “How's the, uh, interview going?”

One eyebrow raised, the boss stands up from his lean and pauses, hand on the doorknob. “See for yourself,” he says with a cocky half-grin, and opens the door.

Inside, the groaning is louder. An ordinary, though shabby apartment, peeling wallpaper and harsh fluorescent light. A man lies on his back on a dining table, arms and legs tied down with sturdy rope. A selection of sharp implements are arranged on the table beside him, and there is blood…everywhere. On the man, the table, a pool of it on the floor. He looks like a gang has been beating on him, not just one man.

He swallows again, trying to keep his dinner where it belongs. He stays very still as the boss crosses the space, placing his wine glass carefully on the kitchen counter.

“Now, Professor,” the boss says, turning back to the table, earning him a flinch from his captive.

There are deep slices all over the man's arms and legs. There's also a deeper wound somewhere under his shirt, hence all the blood. He breathes in short gasps, looking around the room with panicked eyes.

The boss paces towards the table, as though he's strolling the sidewalk. “Let me ask you again for, oh…perhaps the fiftieth time now—”

He walks into the prone man's line of sight and leans closer, making the professor try to pull away, his left wrist straining against the bonds.

The demon inches back towards the door, not sure if he's allowed to leave.

The boss speaks quietly into the professor's ear, “How is the school warded?” He brings his left hand up to hover over the professor's chest, making him gasp and shake his head.

“No,” he grits out, his voice harsh, raw. He seems to steel himself, sounding firmer as he continues, “No, Crowley. I don't know anything about the wards, and even if I did, I'm sworn to—ahhh!” He throws his head back in a scream as the boss clenches his hand into a fist, a deep scowl on his face. After a few seconds, he releases it, and the professor slumps back down, long, gulping sobs wracking his frame.

“Shame,” the boss says conversationally. “I've heard your young daughter has just started there this year, actually. It would be a pity if something were to happen while she was off-campus…”

“No, no no no, you can't. She's only eighteen!” the professor thrashes frantically.

The boss’ face darkens and the demon nearly jumps out of his skin at the commanding tone. “Then tell me how to get in there!”

“No, please leave her alone. I don't know! I don't—”

The boss clenches his fist again and the professor once again screams, convulsing. As he makes no move to stop, the demon begins to edge towards the door again, but the screams die out to a gurgling cough and the professor slumps to the table, blood trickling out his nose and mouth.

“Oops,” the boss says dispassionately and turns away from the still-twitching corpse, clicking his tongue at the blood now on his hand. He murmurs as he draws up a spell, then the blood on his hand crackles, and falls to the floor in a rain of red dust.

Nodding towards the corpse, he mutters, “Get rid of that, would you, Rosco?” He picks up his glass and drains the last of his wine, dumping the crystal on the counter with a sharp crack. He sweeps out of the room without another word.

The demon turns back to the slumped corpse, wincing as he takes in the drip, drip of blood from the table onto the floor. Sometimes he really hates this job. The sooner they get the info out of one of these mooks, the faster they can get into the real magic, and then the clean up can happen with a snap of his fingers.

He can’t wait.