Dante's office wasn't much.
The university had offered him nicer. As a matter of fact, his officially listed office was on the seventh floor along with the permanent demonology professors. It was as large as the one he had at home and better kept. Dante let them put his name on the door and then asked for the closet-sized space right next to the lecture hall. So he could prepare before class, he told the administration with an apologetic smile. They agreed. And he never set foot in his main office again.
The room he used was a door down from the lecture hall, so close that several students had barged in thinking it was their classroom. It took only a slight, wordless glower to send them scuttling back out again.
So when a blonde young man entered in a rush, at first Dante thought it was another mistake. He frowned up at the doorway. The frown froze when he recognized the face of the student in the front row who stared him down every week.
"I wanted to ask you something else, sir," the young man said seriously.
Dante rubbed his temple against the threat of a headache that had been building up all afternoon. "These aren't my office hours—"
"You don't have office hours." The student pushed his glasses up. "Listed. Sir." Dante furrowed his brow, mentally going over the roster. Max. That was it. Max added reproachfully, "And you weren't in your office."
Dante shook his head, one corner of his mouth twitching almost into a smile. "All right, all right. What's your question?"
He wasn't surprised in the least when Max sat down in the one extra chair, hair flopping with the motion, and began, "It's, uh, actually more like five questions."
If his graphic designs professor was surprised to see Max rush out of the room the minute he was done with his exam, well, Max didn't stick around to see it. He elbowed the classroom door open because he needed both hands to close his laptop. It took three tries to shove the thing into his bag while he half-jogged down the hall.
He had to hurry. Professor Arturo only stayed to do university-related work, and that didn't take him long. Max had to time it just right to catch him in his miniature office, which was why he'd only seen him three times so far this semester. But this time it was really about his grade. His paper had come back with all sorts of things marked wrong that he had specifically asked about. There had to be a TA grading this.
Max sort of knocked on the door and popped the doorknob at the same time. "Uh, Professor—"
"Oh, why do you even have a door!"
Max rocked back on his heels at the unfamiliar voice, blinking. "Uh, I'm..."
A tall woman (was she really that tall or did she just stand that way?) rose to her feet from where she'd been leaning on the professor's desk. Max knew without any clues at all that she wasn't a student. "Never mind," she said in a clipped British accent. She waved her hands to encompass the office as a while. "There's no privacy in this cupboard! I don't see how you stand it, Dante."
Professor Arturo was resting his cheek on his fist. "Thank you," he said dryly.
The woman scoffed. "I'll see you when we can have a single uninterrupted conversation." She strode toward the door.
Max jumped out of the way just in time. "Sorry?" he tried. She held up a hand in acknowledgement as she brushed past him. Max looked wide-eyed to the professor. "Should I leave?"
"No." Then, as if it explained everything, the professor said, "That's just Aralia."
"Professor I was wondering—"
Normally, when someone entered a room, especially a private room set aside for someone else's use, there was a moment of acknowledgement—a pause, a breath at the very least, that would give Dante time to respond or even just look up to show he was listening. But Max's entrance gave him no such opportunity. Every word followed hot on the heels of the one before it—ProfessorIwaswondering.
"—about what you said about why blood works for the sacraments—"
Dante continued typing his email to the administration telling them that, regrettably, he would not be able to make it to the staff Christmas party at the end of the semester, but he sincerely hoped that everyone would have a good time, etc etc. He was getting well versed in these sorts of emails.
"—because I was thinking, theoretically—"
Without looking, Dante pointed to what he'd come to refer to as Max's chair. "Sit down, Max, and give me a minute."
Max sat down with a quiet creak of the chair. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the young man take his hat off, attempt to rake his hair backwards, and put his hat back on with no noticeable improvement.
Dante sent the email with no small amount of grim satisfaction and turned to his student. "Is this about today's lecture or last week's?"
"Both." Max's mouth pulled to one side sheepishly. "Mostly last week's."
"Did you read The Genetic Passcode?"
"Yes, sir." Max dug the dog-eared tome, a relic of the university library, out of his bag and put it on the desk.
Dante's eyebrows rose. "All of it?"
Dante understood that he was going to be late getting home.
Max had an idea.
It wasn't a whole idea yet, but it was taking up a couple files and half a notebook of sketches and outlines. He liked demonology. He was good at it. This could really help other people who didn't have the resources and help he did.
And he needed something to do at the hospital.
It might have been a bad idea—the government wasn't exactly jumping to spread this kind of information to the masses—but Max was going through with it anyway. No need to tell the professor that, though.
He walked into the office and then belatedly knocked on the door. Professor Arturo looked drawn. He was staring at his phone, fingers pressed into the corner of one eye. "Hello, Max," he said.
Max sat down. "Is there a, um, full reference for demonic symbols?"
The professor looked up sharply, giving Max a good view of the shadows under his eyes. "Why?"
So much for being discreet. "I was just wondering."
"You've been asking a lot of pointed questions lately. Especially about banishing." Professor Arturo rubbed his temple. "This isn't academic, is it?"
Max frantically pushed his glasses up. "Yes, it is," he insisted.
"Demonology is a good study," the professor continued as if Max hadn't said anything, "but not a career."
Max reddened. "Well—" He almost pointed out the hypocrisy of that, but didn't. He fiddled with the hem of his coat. "I'm not going to be a demon hunter. I don't—that's not it."
"Then what is it?"
"Nothing dangerous." Mostly. He willed his blush to go away. "I promise."
Professor Arturo sighed, scratching under his jaw. After a few moments, he said slowly, "No, there's no such reference."
"Oh." Max endured a hard stare for a few seconds more before deciding to go. He hefted his book bag with a grimace. "See you next week, Professor."
The day Dante made a lecture without disruptions, he knew something was wrong. Max showed up, but that was all. He hunched over in his seat and typed notes, expression unchanging. Even more alarming was when the only person to walk into Dante's office that afternoon was a lost janitor.
Thursday, he caught Max after class. The young man looked even worse, washed out and unfocused.
"Sorry, Professor," Max muttered, not quite meeting his eye. "It's, um... the funeral was yesterday. I'm just tired. I'm so—I'm really tired."
Dante stood in the empty classroom with his hand resting awkwardly on Max's shoulder. He had no idea whether to give him a consoling squeeze or let the boy go. In the end, he said, "Come with me for a few minutes."
Max's eyes shone, red-rimmed. "Okay."
Max followed Dante into his tiny de facto office. Dante didn't have any real comfort to offer, but he had Kleenexes and could (and did) give him an extension on the final.
What he didn't know was that the part that Max remembered on leaving, and for months afterwards, was the invitation into his office.