Remy walks into the Botany 530 seminar on Poisons in History second semester and finds eighteen frightened undergrads and a very large, very uncontained black snake sitting on the desk. It’s curled in a tight coil at the front of the small classroom, its head and beady little eyes staring at the students.
The group consists of snotty honours students taking special electives combining two areas of study. Unlike Remy, they have never laid eyes on the tremulous, sashaying trainwreck that is her advisor, Crowley, or been exposed to his shenanigans. While the sight of a snake alarms her, she’s pretty sure it’s Crowley-related. It’s not a comfort, per se, but knowledge is half the battle.
Now that she’s in the know, Remy gets to have fun watching a new batch of unsuspecting, yearning children be traumatized. She still has PTSD from last semester’s final in their masters' seminar which involved poisoning Crowley to see who could kill him the fastest. Turns out, the plants were all deception species, harmless but pretending to be their lethal counterparts. The only person who came to that realization was Sadia while Andrew somehow still managed to poison their professor, and Effie burst into tears at the thought of murdering someone and never finished her project. Crowley gave her an A+ for moral compunction.
The undergraduate honours seminar is taught between both Crowley and the affable if bumbling Dr Fell. This would be an utter delight if Remy didn’t also have to TA with Joe Wilson, the cycling menace from the History department with horrid taste in loud coloured helmets and jackets. He too seems unperturbed by the very large snake draped across the desk and takes a seat on the opposite side of the classroom with a pointed look. Things may have thawed between them last semester, but he’s still her mortal enemy.
Just as she sets her notebook down, Dr Fell enters the room. He takes quick tidy steps, the worn leather of his Oxfords sliding across the tile. For being a bit heavyset, he walks light on his feet. “Ah,” he says, startling half the classroom, “Crowley, there you are.”
He’s met with twenty sets of perplexed eyes staring at the snake until a swath of red hair pops out from under the desk. Crowley straightens his sunglasses -- large, garish aviators with reflecting gold lenses -- and hoists up the narrow waist of his skinny jeans as he stands. “The projector unplugged again,” he says and points at the powerstrip. “You’ve got to stop rolling over the cord with the wheelie chair.”
“ I hardly sit in that thing.” Dr Fell ignores Crowley’s scoff. “And who’s this?” He gestures at the snake with an air of vague curiosity. He has an air about him which suggests snakes appear often out of nowhere in his relationship with Crowley.
“A friend. I acquired her from the Biology department.”
Remy knows now that ‘acquired’ in Crowley speak means --
“You thefted a snake? My dear.”
“I’m borrowing her. She needs to stretch her… legs. Er. Shall we get started?”
Joe shoots Remy a look from across the room. Here they go.
Dr Fell at least seems to be less chaotic and more prepared than Crowley at the beginning of semesters. He opens the file folder and passes around copies of the syllabus to the class and then positions himself in front of the desk, standing while leaning with his hands clasped primly in front of him.
Remy is a liar if she says she’s not a little bit excited to be in a seminar with Dr Fell. Even though she’s a TA for the Botany department, she wants to know what he’s like as a professor. In their semester of lunch dates with the history students, she doesn’t think she ever spoke to him once. In fact, he forgot her name on at least… well… every occasion they interacted.
Crowley takes the chair and kicks his legs up on the desk. He drapes the acquired snake around his shoulders and pushes his gold glasses up the bridge of his nose. He gives off the same sort of air as Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar, unhinged, gluttonous, and slovenly with style. “Welcome to Poisons in History. I’m going to teach you about poison!”
“Ah, and I’ll be teaching you about the history bit.”
Remy looks down at the syllabus. It proves to be interesting in an academic way, not Crowley’s usual definition of interesting involving visits to emergency or a broken beaker of acid which ate through his shoe once. He’d smiled and said, “Oops,” before dropping the three other vials in his hands and didn’t even bat an eye when Effie started crying.
“We’ll be covering various points in history where famous people have been poisoned,” Dr Fell says. There’s an unnatural gleam of interest on his face like he might be excited. “We’ll talk through its historical significance and the scientific effects of the various poisonings.”
It should be weird, Remy thinks. Dr Fell has been nothing but a very congenial if an obtuse professor in her limited interactions with him. He doesn’t seem like the type to enjoy poisoning. She tilts her head in consideration. Then again, he did marry Crowley.
A loud crunch can be heard behind him and all eyes turn to look at Crowley, a bright red apple in one hand with a bite taken out of it. He chews with his mouth open. “We’ll also be discussing the logistics of the poisoning, you know, in case you have an ex out there. The Dos and Don’ts, if you will.” He waves his apple with magnanimity.
The undergrads’ eyes go wide and they look at each other. There’s a flutter of laughter. Joe rolls his eyes.
He takes another bite of his apple. Dr Fell’s face shifts into annoyance, pressing his lips into a thin tight line. “Snow White was poisoned by an apple, you know,” he says, keeping his voice casual.
“Snow White got married because of a poison apple, you know,” Crowley says and takes another bite. He waggles his eyebrows.
The students glance around the room at each other, uncertain and a bit nervous. She’s sure they’ve never been taught by a more chaotic pair. She’ll never forget Crowley’s ‘punishments’ from last semester and the shocking and astounding reveal that he’s Dr Fell’s husband. She hasn’t decided yet which is the bigger surprise, that he married Dr Fell or that anyone would want to marry him.
Remy meets eyes with Joe -- her arch-nemesis and mortal-enemy on a bicycle -- across the classroom, and he holds up his notebook.
LIBRARY. 6 PM. WE NEED TO TALK
She squints to read it and mouths ‘What?’ at him. In front of them, Crowley and Dr Fell natter on about Hans Christen Andersen, oblivious. Remy pulls out her own notebook and writes in big block letters: NO
“Anything you want to share with the class?” Crowley asks.
Joe and Remy both flip their notebooks over in a synchronized panic, and Joe makes a face with his lips pursed and nostrils flared. What an idiot.
Crowley smiles, all teeth as he reclines back in his chair. It’s a sturdy seat with a straight back that creaks under his weight. He taps at his impenetrable lenses. Remy rolls her eyes.
There’s no way she’s going to meet Joe outside of class. They haven’t even met yet for their weekly prep meeting for the synthesis class. There’s no reason for them to see each other, and she hates his premature bald spot and big teeth and yellow bicycle helmet. Just. Why?
She shoots him a glare and then returns to studying the syllabus very pointedly. Whatever. Then after a moment, she flips to a new page in her notebook with a furious flutter. Dr Fell drones on about the final and midterm essay, but Crowley has one eyebrow lifted in her direction. She stares at him for a long moment before propping up her notebook in Joe’s direction.
I TOLD YOU I HAVE A BOYFRIEND.
It’s a lie. They both know it. Joe’s eyes narrow. Meanwhile, Crowley lifts both eyebrows, his lips pressed into a tight line as he tries and fails to hide his interest. He looks like the time he drank Andrew’s poison before launching himself at the bin, surprised and delighted.
“We’ll be holding joint office hours Tuesdays from ten to noon, and we expect weekly readings to be completed by each Thursday’s seminar…” Dr Fell hasn’t looked up from the syllabus once.
Remy spent winter break at home in London sat between her flighty mother and terminally boring father and her younger brother whose main diet consisted of mac ‘n’ cheese and chips at age 15. He smelled sour like the school gym locker rooms after final period and possessed the shortest attention span rivalled only by the family golden retriever.
It’s okay. Remy forgives the dog, Stanley. He’s the product of generations of selective breeding. If she could draw a Punnett square of his genes, it’d be a circle. She’s not sure what her brother’s excuse is. He’s the type to drink protein drinks all day ‘to be fit’ without ever lifting a dumbbell, not that Remy is an expert in physical fitness either.
So she’s thrilled to be back on campus in her tiny studio flat with the toilet handle she has to jiggle to stop running and the chipped kitchen floor she stubs her toe on every morning. She’s glad to return to the madness of grad school. And when she first stepped into her flat, the relief she felt surprised her.
She gets the same feeling walking into the grad room. It still smells musty and damp, but it’s a strange kind of comfort knowing Andrew’s body odour somehow managed to linger in their month of absence, as though they’ve staked claim to this tiny windowless space and it’s morphed to fit the shape of them. The sight of Effie’s untameable ponytail fills her with delight.
She taps her shoulder and plops down in the open seat. “Ugh, Joe from History is trying to ask me out again.”
Effie pulls one ear of her headphones out and looks at her from the corner of her eye. “Did he even ask you out before?”
“Yes! He did! And then he called me ugly!”
Nearby, Sadia shovels a forkful of ramen in her mouth. “I don’t get what you see him in, anyway. He’s got a rash on his bald spot, probably from cramming that ridiculous helmet on his enormous head.”
Remy throws her hands up in the air. “I don’t see anything in him. He’s the one who keeps asking me out.”
Just then, Andrew walks into the room. He stops in the entryway and looks at her with his head tilted. He asks, “Did Joe turn you down again?”
Remy glares at her cohort before she bundles all of her belongings in her backpack with a haphazard shove. She sniffs, hugging the bag to her chest. “I am better than this, and I am leaving.”
Sadia waggles her fingers at her without looking up from her reading. “Bye.”
Remy slams the door on her way out of the grad room and stalks over to the faculty offices across the building. She and Crowley need to have words. If she could only get out of TAing this god awful seminar class, she wouldn’t need to see Joe ever again.
And, if she’s being honest, Joe isn’t terrible. He’s blind on a bike, but she appreciates his proactive choice in bright yellow bike helmets and red bicycles. It’s an eyesore, but at least everyone can see him coming. How he manages to hit her every other week continues to baffle her ...And does he really have a rash on his head? She’s never noticed. Why would Sadia notice? Maybe she wants to date him?
Remy pauses mid-way to knocking on Crowley’s door. She hopes Sadia isn’t interested in Joe, not for her own personal reasons, of course. It’s just that Effie and she have noticed Andrew’s sudden increase in deodorant use whenever they’re lab partners in Dr Beattie’s fungal lab. On Wednesdays, Andrew showers and douses himself in Old Spice and even makes an effort to wear shirts without holes or stains on them. Sadia hasn’t noticed yet. Why would she notice Joe’s bald spot? And if she breaks Andrew’s heart, will Wash and Shower Wednesdays come to an end?
Lost in thought, Crowley’s office door swings open. Remy’s fist hangs in the air still, and she startles, dropping the bag in her arms. Her books scatter across the floor.
“What?” he says. “You’ve been standing there for three minutes.”
He looks at her for a long moment, eyebrows furrowed. He’s switched out of his gold aviators and back to his regular black frames. Behind him, Remy catches sight of his borrowed snake draped along the back of his chair. “If this is about Joe, no.”
“No, you can’t get out of TAing the seminar class. If I have to teach it, you have to be my assistant.”
Remy sputters. “Why would this be about Joe? I can’t grade essays. I’m a scientist.”
He raises his eyebrows. “So it’s not about you two passing notes in class while Dr Fell was trying to lecture?” He says ‘Dr. Fell’ as though he hadn’t conveniently omitted the fact that they were married for a whole semester while trying to torture them every week.
“Joe started it. Also, Joe hit me on his bike. Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”
“It sounds like you two have a lot of issues to work through,” Crowley says. “Good thing you have a whole nother semester to sort things out.” He shuts the door.
She looks at the closed door. “I take it back,” she says. “I hate this place. I never wanted to come back.”
From behind the door, Crowley shouts, “Liar!”
The upside to returning to campus is her thesis. It’s also a point of absolute misery and agony, but it’s a torture of her own devising. It’s like how she could never get a pedicure because she hates people touching her feet, but she’s perfectly willing to pluck each of her toe hairs out one-by-one with a tweezer while watching New Girl.
“Did I just say that out loud?” Remy looks up from her microscope and jostles the sample of belladonna on its slide.
She glances at the lab table over from her. A young guy, blond with a luscious full head of hair, sits with his own microscope and several beakers and eyedroppers. Hot. He’s probably studying Biology. Maybe Biochem. “Oh interesting,” he says to himself.
Actually, Remy thinks as she stares at him, he looks a bit like a young Bill Nye sans bowtie. He’s very lanky, long legs stretched out under the tables, dexterous fingers adjusting the focus on his microscope. Very interesting.
“Sorry,” she says, “what’s interesting?”
He looks up and gives her an award-winning smile. She swears he’s backlit and in soft-focus. “Nothing really,” he says, careless and nonchalant. The breeze from the HVAC rustles his hair. “I’m just studying an algae sample.”
Remy purses her lips. It’s an uncontrollable response, like eating a sour Warhead. “Ah, I see,” she says, attempting to back out of the conversation.
“Yeah,” he continues, “I’m in Dr Saxe’s Botany 301 course. It’s so fascinating. Do you know anything about Botany?”
She grimaces. He’s an undergrad. Hot, young Bill Nye is an undergrad with a budding interest in algae. She blinks and looks at him. Okay, so he’s younger than she is. She can work with that. And she knows people who like algae. Her best friend likes algae. And he’s young! It might not be too late for him to change his mind. She can work with this. Yep. “No,” she says. “I’m just, uh, doing some make-up work for my undergraduate Biochem lab. What’s Botany all about?”
“Oh! Well, it’s like the study of plants and stuff.”
Remy cringes. “Cool.”
“Did you know, like, algae produce oxygen and stuff for animals who breathe?”
“I did know that,” she says and nods, pasting on an encouraging smile. “Algae also smells bad and can be toxic to people and dogs. You should study poisons.”
“Isn’t that also toxic?”
Okay, so he got her there. She swivels in her chair and studiously pretends to examine her research notes. “Ha, yep, you’re right. You’re really smart.”
“Thanks,” hot, dumb Bill Nye says. “Do you wanna grab a drink with me? I could teach you more.”
And that’s brazen and kind of smooth, and Remy is used to making terrible romantic decisions. It’s been her MO in her twenty-seven years. This seems on track and familiar.
Remy likens her life to running up a series of bleacher steps to Eye of the Tiger in a grey sweatshirt, headphones in and heart pounding with adrenaline, just to slip on ice on the top step and tumble down. She’s Rocky Balboa if Rocky Balboa decided not to defeat the entirety of Russia and just eat chips on the sofa all day.
And because her life is one catastrophic and preventable event after another, just as she’s about to say yes to hot, dumb Bill Nye, the lab door swings open, and Joe stumbles in.
She groans and sneers at him. “Are you lost?”
Joe looks down at his watch and taps it. “It’s 6:30,” he says, affronted. “You didn’t meet me at the library.”
He’s sweating like he biked over from the library at record speed. His yellow helmet is crammed on his head, and he’s bundled in his winter gear traipsing snow everywhere.
“Uh, this is a decontam lab,” young and dumb says. “You need to follow procedure.”
“I don’t fucking care about procedure,” Joe says, panting. He points at Remy. “We. Need. To. Talk.”
Remy looks at Billy. “Don’t worry. He’s not my boyfriend.”
“Why are you so obsessed with us dating?” Joe asks. He slings his backpack to the ground and unzips the main pocket, rummaging for something. He pulls out a wrinkled picture on copy paper with a triumphant grunt. “I’m not asking you out.”
“Well that’s rude,” she says.
Billy Nye looks between the two of them. “Do you… want… to date him?”
Both Joe and Remy revolt, rearing back in unison as the protest. “Absolutely not!”
“He’s my mortal enemy--”
“We hate each other--”
“--and he’s a history--”
Young and dumb blinks. He looks at her for a long moment. “You’re studying botany?”
Ah, fuck. Remy backpedals. “Uh, no! Nooo… I’m definitely in Biochem.”
“She’s Dr Crowley’s TA,” Joe says with an accusing finger jabbed in her direction.
At the mention of Dr Crowley, Billy’s eyes go wide. He scrambles to pack his belongings. “Yeah, I gotta go. I got this thing--” He gestures at the door. “Uh, it was nice meeting you?”
“Oh, just go,” Remy says, slumping on her lab stool. She glowers as the undergrad leaves and turns on Joe. He’s standing there, one hand on his hip, the other still waving around his printed picture. The corner of the page has gone damp from him gripping it with the ferocity of a small toddler with a stolen prize of candy. “All right. I give up. What is that?”
He huffs and stomps over to the table. She opens her mouth to protest -- he really does need to decontam, and she’ll probably have to throw out her slides -- but changes her mind. He’s here now, and the sooner she can get him to leave the better.
He slaps the paper down. It’s a copy of an old grainy newspaper. It’s a picture of 10-12 young men in uniform. They’re all vaguely generic looking in their fatigues and helmets, arms strapped around each other’s shoulders. They’re grim.
“Okay… What am I looking at?”
Joe points at one of the men in the far back corner. He has a round, cherubic face, a sort of lightness to him compared to the other grimy and exhausted soldiers. “Who does that look like?”
She leans forward and inspects it closer. The quality of the picture is poor and blurry, but she knows that expression. “That looks like… Dr Fell? Is it his grandfather or something?”
Then Joe drags his finger over to the man next to him.
She blinks and studies the sharp cheekbones and thin line of the man’s lips. “Holy fuck. That’s Crowley.” He’s the only one in the picture with his helmet off, his hair grown a bit long on top against regulations. He’s even wearing sunglasses, of all fucking things. He sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the soldiers. “That’s quite the coincidence,” she says.
Joe looks at her for a beat before turning the page over. There’s a caption he reads out loud. “The surviving 29th Division of His Majesty’s British Army, on return from Gallipoli, January 1916. From left to right, back row: Lt Ezra Fell, Private Anthony J Crowley, Private George Hall, Private Edward Suzio… Do I need to go on?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t get it. So they had grandfathers who fought in the war together or something. Genetics runs strong in both their families. I don’t know.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I think that’s really them. Hannah was in London over break working on her thesis. She’s studying da Vinci’s Codex, and there’s a copy at the British Library. She says she found several mentions of an Antonio Crowley.”
“Is Crowley a popular surname? Still a coincidence.”
Joe lets out an exasperated breath and fumbles for his phone. He flips through until he finds his email. “You can’t tell anyone she took these pictures, but…”
He shows her the attachments, several pictures taken in low light, furtive and out of focus. They’re pictures of scribbled text, unreadable on yellowing pages. “It’s in Italian and backwards but it says right there, Antonio Crowley,” Joe says. Then he swipes to the next picture.
Remy gasps. Sure as shit, it’s Crowley, his hair long and pulled back in a half pony-tail wearing the tiniest black frames. He’s in profile looking down at something, but his long Roman nose and serpent’s tattoo are unmistakable in the sketch. “Ho. Ly. Fuck.”
She makes eye contact with Joe, their faces inches apart. They hold each other’s gaze for a long moment before she asks, “What the hell is going on?”
“Call an emergency meeting,” Joe says. “Do it right now.”
Three hours later, they all rendezvous at the Madcap in their back corner booth, a pitcher of lager and several empty cosmos scattered across the table. They’re drunk and loud and panicking.
“We found this two months ago, but we didn’t want to say anything if it was just a coincidence,” Sam says, hiccuping. The history nerds align themselves on one side of the table presenting several photos and prints. He waves a picture in their faces, and Sadia has to grab his wrist to hold him still.
“Is that Crowley in a dress?” she asks, spitting her drink.
Effie tilts her head back to look from under her eyelids. She slides a bit, knocking into Sadia. “He has legs for daaays. I hate it.”
“That’s what you’re focusing on?” Sadia asks, incredulous.
Remy snatches the photo and makes an appraising face. Crowley’s lent up against a bar with a cigarette holder pinched between two fingers, dangling from the wrist. He’s jazzed up in a flapper dress, ankles crossed at the feet giving an air of delicacy. She shudders. He does have legs for days.
Andrew lifts his head from the table. “I’m high right now. This can’t be real. I am completely trashed.”
“Yes,” Sadia says, reaching over to pat his arm. “And also this is real. How? I don’t know.”
“Do you speak Italian?” Hannah asks, voice shrill and escalating. “Because I do. I had to read two whole paragraphs where da Vinci waxed about his nose and lips. I think… I think they fucked .”
“Okay, breathe. Everyone breathe.” Joe slaps his hands down on the table, extending them in every direction. He wobbles as he turns to look at everybody. “There has to be a rational explanation for this. I think they’re clones.”
“You dumb arse, they’re obviously aliens,” Andrew says. He sloshes his drink in Joe’s direction. “Like, Crowley cannot be a human. What’s under those glasses?”
“-- and Dr Fell always gets so excited about food -- ” Sadia says.
“-- like it’s all brand new to him! See! They’re here to observe us. The glasses have X-Ray vision.”
“Nooo, they are clones!” Joe shakes his head, veering towards the table. “Like in Star Wars!”
Hannah groans and puts her head on the table. “For the last time, Star Wars is not real, Joseph.”
Sam grimaces and looks across the table. “Sorry, he gets like this every time he’s drunk. I think there’s only one way to find out the truth.”
The table looks at him -- except for Effie who has fallen asleep -- waiting with wide eyes in anticipation. Sadia gestures at him to go on.
“Someone has to ask them.”
Andrew scoffs. “Oh yeah, like they’re going to just fess up that they’re from Alpha Centauri or some shit.”
Sam rolls his eyes. “Of course not! But if we ask them separately, we might get two different stories. Maybe we can catch them in a lie.”
A chorus of ooohs goes around the table. “But who’s going to ask them?” Remy asks. All eyes turn to look at her, expectant and hungry. She puts up her hands. “Oh no. I can’t do it.”
“Of course you can,” Sadia says. “Crowley’s your advisor. You have a bond with him.”
“First of all, no I don’t, and secondly, gross. There is no bond between us.”
Andrew reaches for her and squeezes her arm. His eyes are watery and bleary, losing the battle against six pints and no water and a week’s diet of sour gummies and milkshakes. “You’re the chosen one,” he says. “You’re the only one of us who can do this.”
The rest of the table nods in agreement with his wise and sage words.
But the thing is: Remy is a boiling tumultuous volcano of anxiety, and Crowley is terrifying and unapproachable and also is still walking around with a stolen snake everywhere he goes. Remy tries and fails to bring it up during their weekly TA prep meetings. Joe spends the time nudging her with his elbow or stepping on her toes but otherwise makes no effort to assist her. If Crowley notices anything, he doesn’t let on.
She mulls it over one Friday afternoon, tucked in the corner of the library. She’s barricaded herself with two overstuffed chairs and a surrounding moat of snack wrappers, her backpack, a stack of research articles, and her laptop. She looks like she’s knee-deep in her thesis.
Instead, she’s turning over the question of Crowley and Dr Fell in her mind. Obviously, they are both strange individuals in perpendicular ways. Crowley is aloof, using his sunglasses as a barricade as much as she uses her headphones to mean DO NOT DISTURB. Underneath his hard exterior, however, she’s caught glimpses of wisdom and a wry sense of humour. Dr Fell, on the other hand, is much more convivial, always beaming and bouncing on his feet, walking around the seminar as he teaches. Last semester, they spent the entire time hardly interacting or talking to each other, but as a team, they complement each other well. It’s surprising.
For all their differences, she supposes they do share one thing, their passion. Though their areas of expertise differ, they share that same energy and affinity for learning. It’s easy to see how they could make a marriage work if their lectures are anything to go by.
Remy jabs the enter key on her laptop. She huffs and readjusts in her seat. She assumes their marriage works. She wouldn’t know on a personal level having never maintained a relationship with success for any length of time greater than two months.
Right, her thesis. She exits out of Facebook and opens Reddit for the third time before exiting that too. She stares at her document, drumming her fingers on the sides of her laptop.
She’s supposed to be writing her methodology. She needs to do a chemical analysis of Atropa belladonna and all of its parts and identify the various alkaloids. She then plans to compare them to historical accounts to see if any of the homoeopathic treatments mentioned could actually be valid. She has all of her secondary sources. Now she just needs primary evidence.
Oh. She looks up from her laptop. That’s it!
They have multiple secondary sources on Crowley and Dr Fell -- historical accounts, photographs, illustrations -- but they don’t have any primary sources. Getting either one of them to outright admit their real identities would be near impossible, but what if they could get them to verify historical accounts unwittingly?
She sends out a mass email to the botany and history grads requesting all of the evidence they found. She has work to do before the next seminar early next week.
Joe accosts her that Monday before seminar, and she reassures him that she has a plan while sidestepping his skidding bike. “Trust me,” she says. “Have I ever given you a reason not to trust me? Besides reporting you to campus security that one time. Oh! And hijacking the tire from your bike.”
“Or being responsible for forcing me to attend weekly luncheons with your weird professor --”
“Who is married to your professor, so shut up!”
“Ugh!” Joe says.
“Ugh!” Remy throws her hands up in the air. “I have a plan. Why can’t you ask Dr Fell the truth, anyway? He’s so… chatty. He’d tell you everything if you just asked the right leading questions.”
He snorts and hops off his bike, walking it alongside her towards the Humanities building. “That’s what you think. Try going to his office hours some time. You ask him a simple question about 1890s literature and suddenly he’s waxing poetic about Oscar Wilde’s profile and his creative genius for twenty minutes without actually… answering… the question.” He comes to a halt. “Holy shit, he knew Oscar Wilde, didn’t he?”
“They probably banged.”
“Nah, really?” Joe turns to look at her, frowning. “Hypothetically speaking, Dr Fell and Crowley have been alive since the beginning of time.”
“And they may be the only two immortal people in history, the only ones who truly understand each other and what that must be like, and you think they’ve just recently hooked up and have spent most of history -- some of it quite recent -- sleeping with other people?”
She makes a noise and waves her hands in the air. “Eh,” she says in a way too similar to Crowley. “If you lived forever, why would you spend that time only committing yourself to one person?”
“With that logic, why would they suddenly decide to get married now? Or why would us mere mortals commit ourselves to a single person when life is so short?”
“Oh god,” Remy says, horror dawning on her face. “You’re a romantic.”
Joe stops pushing his bike and exhales a sharp exasperated breath through his nose. “You don’t find anything appealing about meeting someone who understands you completely? Gets your humour? Sits with you while you’re vomiting after drinking three cosmos?”
“Yeah, it’s called having friends. And I’m a scientist, Joe. I believe in hard facts and evidence. Global warming is real. The verdict is still out on true love.”
“Have you ever been in love?” he asks, his tone a bit sharp and his face pinched.
She rolls her eyes. “No.”
“And your philosophy is that romantic love doesn’t exist until proven otherwise.”
“Hypothesis. It’s my hypothesis.”
“But you won’t open yourself up to it, therefore invalidating your argument. Can’t experience it if you’re not trying, and if you have you try, it must not be real. Is that?”
She scoffs, sputtering, “I open myself up to it. I date. What do you know about it?”
“Fucking isn’t romance, Remy,” he says. He swings his leg over his bike seat and plants his feet on the pedals. “I’ll see you at seminar.”
She watches him go, her arms crossed in front of her chest in a feeble attempt to combat the cold. It’s grey outside, and the Humanities building is another ten-minute walk. “I’m not even fucking!” she shouts, dejected, as he bikes away. She waves off the onlookers and stomps to class.
Remy shuffles into seminar and takes a seat on the opposite side of the room as Joe. Between them sit the eighteen eager honours undergrads who ooze bubbling excitement at being able to learn. It’s unnatural. Juniors and seniors are meant to be asleep at their desk and skipping class to binge-watch Breaking Bad while having moral conniptions about their life choices. Honours students are unnatural.
“Good afternoon, my dears. Welcome to week two of our honours seminar. Please be sure to sign in so our lovely TAs can take attendance.” Dr Fell gestures at her and Joe. They make eye contact with each other and glare.
Behind his husband, Crowley sits in his customary position, feet on the desk while leaning back in a swivel chair. The snake is absent but the gold aviators that eat half of his face are not. It’s hard to discern where he’s looking until he makes a pointed “ahem” in her direction. They both turn and look upfront.
She’s meant to be taking minutes and jotting down any questions the students have so Crowley can address them on their class portal. Instead, she catches herself doodling little pictures of stick figures in bike helmets getting impaled by surprise spiky bike racks.
And Remy is not thinking about Joe’s accusations. She’s twenty-seven. She’s dated plenty and found a lot of bores, a lot of scumbags, and a lot of geeks. There wasn’t a single person worth hanging around for. She hasn’t found quite what she’s looking for, but she knows she’ll recognize it when she sees it.
What she needs is to talk to Effie. Last semester, Effie was on the verge of engagement. She had the perfect boyfriend, dreamy, good looking, tall, with a respectable job… Then boom! One weekend she came back single. If Effie could mistake a failing relationship for love -- perfect, organized, studious Effie -- then maybe Remy’s right. Maybe it just doesn’t exist.
Before she knows it, the students begin to pack up their bags. There’s a shuffle of papers and slamming books. She looks up, startled from her doodles to find Joe standing in front of her seat with his hands holding his backpack straps. “So, how’d your plan work out?” he sneers.
“Oh, fuck off.”
“All right?” Crowley asks the next day.
In addition to their weekly TA meetings, Remy has bi-monthly appointments to discuss her thesis, of which she has accomplished nothing. She slouches in her chair and picks at the edge of Crowley’s pristine desk, empty except for the large Mac monitor. “‘M fine,” she says.
He opens his mouth, pauses, and nods slowly. He looks a bit like a giant tortoise or perhaps a rather energetic sloth. “Kay. Anything else you want to add?”
She looks at him, really studies him with the same sort of intensity he often directs at her. Now would be the perfect time to interrogate him. He looks human enough. Under the rims of his glasses, he has the faintest smattering of freckles. His lips are chapped, secondary to his nervous ticks: the lip-smacking and biting and chewing. The tip of his nose is crooked just a bit. Whatever he is, he looks 100% genuine, no trans-fats or preservatives.
“Why do you wear sunglasses?” she asks.
“Eye disorder. Sensitive to the light,” he says without moving. He says it on automatic without even a breath to think about his answer.
“Why do you wear all black?”
“It’s my aesthetic. Why do you have a penchant for flannel?”
“It’s my aesthetic. Where did you go to school?”
“I did a stint at Oxford and the University of London. I’ve also studied abroad in Italy.”
“The early aughts.”
“Yeah?” She asks, leaning forward. “And what century was that?”
He grins at her. It’s a slow-spreading smile that stretches his lips without curling upwards. He tilts his head. “When are you going to shave your head like you want to?”
She sits back, caught off guard. There’s a beat of silence, two, three. “What?” she asks, swallowing. I don’t want to shave my head.” How could he possibly know that? “Why would you think that?”
His face softens. It’s the slightest tic, the tension in his jaw releasing and the creases of his eyes relaxing. “I used to have long hair past my shoulders and everything. I was gorgeous, mind you, but it was pretty annoying. You do all the things I used to do. I was always batting it out of my face, pulling it up, taking it down cos my head hurt too much, chewing the ends.”
“I don’t chew on my hair.”
He points at her shoulder and pulls a face. “Eh, you have a lot of split ends.”
She slaps a hand over her hair and pulls it behind her head in a swift practised movement. She does hate her hair, just a bit, but her mum’s always loved it.
He pushes his glasses up in a slow and precise movement. It’s languid yet tense. “And how’s the thesis?”
Remy blows out a breath of air. “It sucks. But it’s fine.”
He smiles then, just a slight quirk. “Good, as it should be. See you next week?”
“Yep.” She grabs her things and gets up to go.
Just before she crosses the threshold, Crowley drums on his desk to get her attention. “You should do it, though. You’d look nice.”
She knows he doesn’t mean anything by it, but still. “That’s a weird thing to say to your student, Crowley.”
He folds his hands in front of him on the desk. His smile is beatific. “Well. I am weird.”
Later, when she shakes off her nerves and pours herself a liberal glass of wine, she messages Joe.
go go power ranger
he confirmed italy and having long hair
just like the da vinci sketches
He actually said that?
it was implied
i asked him what century he was in italy
and he changed the subject
Did he say anything else?
patience you must have, young padawan
take time these things must
Remy learns to identify Crowley’s tells. He does this thing with his mouth when she catches him off guard, a smile mixed with a grimace where he bares his teeth. They haven’t gotten any closer to figuring out what they are, per se, but they’ve gathered sufficient evidence to support their immortal theory.
“Dr Crowley,” she asks, shooting her hand up in the air in mimicry of the overeager undergraduates. He’s waxing poetically about the barbarity of Ancient Greek executions, salivating at the mouth. If she could see his eyes, she knows they’d be gleaming. She interrupts him mid-sentence.
“Yes, Remy. What is it?” His tone turns dry and a bit snappish.
“Would you agree that Socrates was the wisest man, as the Oracle of Delphi suggests?”
“I couldn’t say. I’m only recounting his execution by poison.”
“And he was executed because…”
“He annoyed the shit out of everybody. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?”
Joe raises his hand next. “Yes, but do you think his trial was fair and just?”
Dr Fell interjects then. “Well, personally I believe the Oracle of Delphi set Socrates up for failure by decreeing him to be wiser than all other men.” He shoots Crowley a look, a mix of annoyance and haughtiness that holds layers and layers of unsaid words. Onions, they are.
Crowley sputters. “Now hang on, that’s not fair. The Oracle was right.”
“Well yes, but it infuriated the statesmen. It led him to directly challenging authority constantly.”
“He chose to do that.”
“He was tempted to do it.”
Remy raises her hand again. “And, uh, how do you know so much about Socrates’ personally? The text says he was an oral philosopher and didn’t write anything down.”
Crowley clicks his teeth shut, caught out. Remy and Joe share a smirk which he catches. His eyebrows furrow for a moment, strategizing as he looks between the two of them. There’s a pause before he says, “As I was saying… Socrates was executed by ingesting hemlock. The only written account of his execution does not describe the natural progression according to research. Therefore…”
Joe holds up his notebook. It reads REMY: 1 CROWLEY: 0
She gives him a thumbs up.
Crowley has his own means of retaliation. He never acknowledges Remy’s leading questions. Instead, he redirects the conversation back to her thesis which she’s studiously ignored for the last two weeks. He’s good at steering the conversation during their weekly thesis meetings back to Remy’s crippling anxiety and loathing for academia. She can’t help it that she’s weak.
“So, when Augustus was murdered by belladonna, how accurate are the busts depicting him?”
“Is that really relevant to your thesis?”
“I just want a really comprehensive literature review.”
“Meanwhile you’ve written four words in your methodology.”
“Right. I still have seven --”
“-- six --”
“-- six weeks left of the semester.”
He points at the mostly blank document on his monitor and taps his wrist.
The thing is, Crowley doesn’t seem to mind all the speculation and inquiries. He’s practised at deflecting her questions but always does so with a bemused expression on his face. He thinks it’s funny, and that worries her. What sort of strange alien contraption is he going to put her in once she finds out the truth?
She corners Effie in the decontam lab a few days later and espouses her fears about alien abductions. “Anal probing,” she says, emphasizing each syllable.
“Oh my god, he’s not going to ship you off to Mars,” Effie tells her, face planted in her microscope. She has four little Petri dishes set up next to her with varying colours of algae. They all smell horrible.
“But it’s crazy, right?” Remy swaps her slides. “Our professor is immortal!”
“Do you really believe that? It’s absurd. I still think it’s a coincidence. Or a prank! Crowley pranked us the entire semester last year.”
The door to the lab swings open and Remy waits for the interloper to pass them and settle in the back. “I don’t know. Joe and Sam have gathered a lot more evidence from since the beginning of the semester. You watched Sam’s powerpoint, right?”
There’s no response. Remy looks up to find Effie staring behind her, making eyes at the new person in the lab. “Hello?” she says, waving her hand in front of Effie’s face. She turns to investigate the newcomer. Oh God, it’s dumb Bill Nye.
“Do you know him?” Effie asks, glancing back at him.
“We’ve met. Vaguely.”
“He’s in a class I’m TAing for Dr Saxe. Very smart.”
Remy stares at her and cocks her head. “Uhh,” she says, followed by a series of unintelligible noises. “What? Wait, do you like him?”
Effie turns back and gasps. “No! I mean…” She lowers her voice. “He asked me out after lecture last week.”
“Shh!” Effie drags her stool closer so they can whisper. “I told him no, obviously, and that we’d have to wait until the end of the semester when I’m not his teacher any more.”
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Ew. You’re going to go on a date with Bill Nye?”
“What? His name is Mike.”
Remy throws up her hands. “No. No way,” she says. She takes a calming breath and fiddles with her lab notebook before turning back. “I mean… Do you want to date so soon after your ex?”
Effie pauses at that. She tucks her hair behind her ear and fumbles with the focus on the microscope. “I don’t know,” she says after a long moment. “Did I tell you I bumped into him over Christmas? We both out shopping on the West End, and bam! There he was.”
Remy’s only ever seen pictures of The Ex. He was picturesque, perfect, clean and well-groomed. He looked stuffed doll to be put on a shelf. “What happened?”
Effie shrugs. “Nothing. I thought… I thought seeing him again would end in fireworks or him begging me to take him back, but it didn’t. And you know what?” She looks at Remy. Her eyes look red and damp in the corners but she sets her jaw and lifts her head. “I realized I didn’t even miss him. I spent three years with him, and after two months I didn’t care.”
“Why are you sad then?”
“Because I wasted three years.” She looks back at Bill Nye, his head down as he works through his lab book. “Maybe I don’t want to waste more time just… waiting.”
Remy frowns at that. She looks down at her jeans, threadbare in the knees and faded. Is that what she’s been doing? Wasting time? Maybe she’s deficient. She can’t connect with people. Grad school honestly felt like the first time she had a family, a group of friends.
“I look at my parents, and I wouldn’t say they’re living happily ever after,” Effie says. She’s returned to her microscope. “But they’re content, you know? That’s what I want. They travel and they still kiss each other goodbye every morning and joint call me on Snapchat every week. It’s nice.”
Nice. Remy rolls the word around in her brain. She’s never experienced ‘nice’ with her previous partners, just awkward fumbling and stalled conversations.
She thinks about her parents. Her dad is a banker. He gets up every morning and puts on the same suit he’s worn for a decade, the same tie, the same shoes. He leaves at 6:30 on the dot every morning and returns by five expecting dinner. This is their routine. There is no travel or kisses goodbye or joint phone calls. It’s monotonous and boring and honestly frightening.
Her mom is a gardener, a hobbyist and enthusiast. She taught Remy how to love plants as a child, how to read what they need and how to nurture them. She taught her how plants can be thankful in their own way, overproducing in abundance the most beautiful colours of fruits, the brightest flowers, and the lushest leaves. Her mom could have been a botanist. That’s what she wanted as a child. Instead, she became a housewife.
“I think I’m going to shave my head,” Remy says.
Effie looks up, and of all things, she smiles. “Yeah?”
“I’d never be that brave,” she says. “I think you’ll look amazing. Weird, but fantastic.”
“Well,” Remy says. “I am weird.”
That Thursday, it’s wing night at the Madcap and a collective groan echoes around the table as Sam arrives with a stack of papers he slams on the table. “Okay, so,” he says by way of greeting.
Hannah interrupts him with a hand in his face. “Before you continue, if this involves that stack of papers, you’re buying us a round of drinks.”
He pauses, looks down at his papers and around the table, doing the math in his head. He sighs and fishes out his wallet as another groan goes around. “Whatever. Don’t go buying 10-pound drinks, okay?” He throws his card on the table. Then he gestures at the pile in front of him. “My dad is a property tax lawyer.”
“Oh god,” someone says.
“So he has records to public property tax information that goes back to when record-keeping began. You would not believe what I found.”
He starts passing out copies of census information. Some are relatively new from within the last five years. Some are handwritten, faded, in illegible cursive. “This was written in a fountain pen,” Sadia says and passes it over to Andrew so they can share it. “It’s an address for a bookshop. A.Z. Fell & Co.”
Sam points at the specific document, stuttering in excitement. “That bookshop has been owned by the same person since the early 1800s. All the records are intact, taxes filed every year. I looked it up on Google Maps, and it still exists in Soho, but Yelp says it’s been closed for the last ten years. WHICH…” He fumbles through his stack before pulling out another document. “...coincides with the purchase of a property in South Downs owned jointly by one Ezra A.Z. Fell and one Anthony J Crowley.”
Remy, who got there early and is already two cosmos in, says, “Slow down, Raggedy Andy. What does this mean?”
“Well, now we know Dr Fell was in Soho residing since the early 1800s, left ten years ago, and moved to South Downs with Dr Crowley.”
“It’s just Crowley,” the four botany students say in unison.
Sam, ever persistent and overexcited ploughs on. “I also have records of an Anthony J Crowley who bought a residence in Mayfair, London in 1837, one year after the bookshop opened, which he sold ten years ago. Conveniently, his residence is only a fifteen-minute walk through St James Park to the bookshop.” He pauses and baulks at the 7 pairs of staring eyes looking at him. “What? I had time this weekend to do a little research.”
Joe leans over and whispers in Remy’s ear, “He’s obsessed with topography. He ‘travels’ on Google Maps for fun.” She laughs, and he has to scramble to rescue her drink before she knocks it over.
“I think that’s sort of sweet,” Hannah says. “Obviously, Dr Fell set up shop in London, and Dr Crowley moved to be close to him for, like, over a century.”
Effie coos at that. Remy looks at her for a moment and then protests. “But does that mean they weren’t together? Was he just waiting around for a century and a half for Dr Fell to figure his shit out? That’s pathetic if you ask me.”
“No!” Hannah protests. “He moved there to be with his sweetie.”
Effie coos again, and Remy frowns. “Nope, I don’t buy it. We’ve collected evidence suggesting they’ve taken on numerous partners which is more than I want to think about. Exhibit A: da Vinci’s weird obsession with Crowley’s nose and B: Oscar Wilde dedicating a lost book of poetry to Dr Fell. Oh my god.”
To everyone’s surprise, Andrew comes to their professors’ defence. He’s drunk, possibly high, and careening into Sadia. “They’re immortal.”
“Like, maybe time passes differently for them. So them dating over several centuries is like Taylor Swift dating eight guys in ten years. They just needed to work things out.”
Sadia looks at him, eyes wide, and pats his head when he drops down on her shoulder. “That was a surprisingly coherent argument.” She smiles at him, gentle, and wipes the drool off his mouth with a napkin.
Remy makes a face. Okay, then. She looks at Effie as if to say, are you seeing this? But Effie watches the two with a smitten look, her hands clasped together over her heart like a Disney princess.
“Ugh, I need a drink. Excuse me.” Remy squeezes her way out of the booth and takes orders from everyone, snatching Sam’s credit card off the table. Then she stumbles her way up to the bar.
The thing is -- and she has no concrete evidence but she does have a keen eye for observation -- Crowley can be impossible to read, impenetrable even, and Dr Fell can be dim. Extra dim. Goes through life with the lights turned off dim. And while Crowley can snark and argue with the other professors in their department, he absolutely lets his husband walk all over him. He brings him cut flowers and lunch and will usually concede in their little arguments mid-lecture after putting up an obligatory fight. He would do anything for that man. Remy can believe 100% that Crowley waited around for a century and a half for Dr Fell to notice him, and that terrifies her.
“All right? Do you need help with the drinks?”
She turns around with a jolt and stumbles into Joe, bumping into his chest. He’s backlit by the bar, and from this position, she can’t see his budding bald spot, just the defined line of his jaw and the bleary warmth in his smile.
Effie’s right. She’s tired of waiting.
“Do you wanna get out of here?” she asks him.
“And go where?”
“To mine? I have a six-pack of Guinness in my fridge.”
“To do what?”
She stops and looks up at him and then looks down on herself. It happens in an instant. “You know, to… Nevermind. It was a stupid idea.”
“You won’t fall in love with me, will you?” He says it as a joke. His face is a bit wan and tired but still sweet.
“Fucking isn’t romance, Joe,” she tells him.
He shrugs and tips back the rest of his pint. “So long as we’re on the same page then.”
And it should frustrate her -- it does in the back part of her mind that is not chanting sex, sex, sex, sex -- that this is easy with Joe. Joe is her mortal enemy, her arch enemy. He’s the antithesis to everything she thought she should want. But he is easy. He helps himself to her fridge and makes a passing comment on the wide selection of condiments she owns while tossing her a beer. And when they stumble into the bedroom, he laughs when he jams his toe on the open drawer to her dresser before dragging her onto the bed.
He has large hands that are warm to go along with his drunken lackadaisical demeanour, and he takes up the whole of her bed like a starfish, limbs akimbo. His arms sway and flail around, uncoordinated and unsexy and approachable.
He’s funny. And she laughs afterwards, even when he spends fifteen minutes trying to explain why the Star Wars prequels have a more compelling story than the originals while she’s dozing off on her pillow. He’s wrong, by the way, but it’s kind of endearing.
He leaves to go wash up and returns shirtless. He has a bit of belly pudge and a smattering of hair that leads below his boxer line. His shoulders are rounded and hunched.
“So, are we still cool?” he asks.
“Don’t worry,” she mumbles into her pillow, fond, “I still hate you.”
He leaves the next morning without waking her up which is fine. She stretches in her full-size bed, comfortable for one adult but crammed for two, more so when said the second adult is over six feet and a bit like a wacky waving inflatable tube man. She pokes at herself, the jut of her hip bones and the very faint outline of her ribs, and decides it’s normal. She’s normal. It’s just fucking, and there have been no life-altering epiphanies or swells of violins.
They exchange texts exactly once in their group chat, sending an eye roll emoji at the same time in response to Sam’s latest screencast. They are not in love. She doesn’t love him. In fact -- sitting down on her sofa with her laptop open and half of an unfinished Guinness from the night before -- she doesn’t think about him at all.
She shows up the next Monday to her thesis meeting with Crowley with her customary quadruple shot espresso, eyes narrowing at his choice of music blaring at seven in the morning.
“And how was your weekend?” he asks her with a cheerful, patronizing grin.
She ignores Queen’s ‘Bicycle’ blaring over their conversation and smiles back. “It was good. Productive.”
Crowley claps his hands once at that, swinging his feet up on the desk. He’s wearing his customary snakeskin boots with the red stitching.
“Why snakes?” she asks as he pulls up her methodology, nodding at his shoes, his tattoo.
He gives her a half-answer which she supposes is better than a non-answer. “It’s symbolic.”
The tinkling sound of bike bells sounds as the song loops. He has the damn thing on repeat. He lets rests the keyboard in his lap and folds his hands over his stomach, turning to look at her. “It symbolizes my mistakes. The nice thing about snakes, however, is they can shed their skin.”
“A fresh start.”
“Sort of.” He pauses again, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “They still carry the same genes after they shed. They don’t get to be a brand new person. They still have to slug around on their bellies like the rest of us, but they get to shed the old bits for something new. I can’t change who I am completely, but…”
“But you’ve shed a lot of skins.”
He spares her a hint of a smile. “You put in a lot of work this week.”
He gestures at her document. It’s not complete by far, but she’s organized all of her materials and the very basic steps of her methodology and statistics. It needs refinement, but she’s got the foundation of it done, and it’s a relief. She spent Sunday glued to her couch for four hours working it out until her fingers cramped and her eyes hurt from not blinking.
Remy feels a sense of calm wash over her, relief. It’s the eye of the storm, she knows, and she’s only halfway there. She still has to conduct her actual study next semester and present her findings to the board. Still, she’s happy and at ease. This is what brings her joy.
Freddie Mercury follows her around for the rest of the day. She gets a follow-up email from Crowley after their meeting that just says, “This might interest you,” with a link that takes her to Queen screaming about riding bicycles on repeat. It’s like being rick roll’d, but it’s her sex life and her strange and incomprehensible professor. He’s whistling it as she walks in for seminar.
“You told him?” Joe asks, his voice skyrocketing in pitch. After all, there’s only one bicycle Remy could have ridden. By mutual, silent agreement, neither Joe nor Remy mentions their hook up to their cohorts, and if anyone notices the thawing between them, nobody says anything.
“No! Of course not! He has weird psychic powers.”
Joe considers it for a moment, and it seems less weird when he compares that with ‘immortal’ or in his case, ‘clones.’ “I’ll add it to the list. By the way, we’re going to London this weekend if you’re in.”
He looks back at Crowley and Dr Fell who are arguing over the projector again and then lowers his voice. “We’re going to go investigate the bookshop.”
“Oh hell,” Remy says, slapping a hand over her mouth.
From behind them, Crowley looks up and says, “Yes?” which earns him a slap on the back of his head from his husband. Remy and Joe look at each other.
“All right,” she says and extends her arm. They shake hands. “I’m in.”
The next day, Crowley shows up with an actual bike bell he rings whenever Remy walks by his office. “I hate you,” she mutters.
And in between the weird thing with Joe and Crowley’s constant mockery, Remy finds herself up to her nose in essays about the validity of historical accounts of famous poisonings and their fallacies, refining her methodology, and running between Dr Beattie’s fungal lab and her lectures. Every now and again, she takes a phone call from her mother. Spring is coming, and she’s busy setting up her little greenhouse and checking on her tulip bulbs. Her houseplants are getting more natural sunlight due to the lengthening days and are turning out new green shoots, pale and silky to the touch as they unfurl.
“Oh, do you want any cuttings? I can pot a few for you,” her mom says.
For all that Remy is surrounded by plants every single day, whether they are alive or in a microscope or in a textbook, she doesn’t own a single one herself. She considers it for a moment before looking at the pile of essays in front of her. “No, Mom. Thanks. I don’t think I have time.”
Then it’s Friday already and she finds herself sneaking through campus to meet the history nerds in front of the bus stop. They have a ride to the train station, and then it’s an hour and a half ride up north.
“Remy, did you check to make sure Crowley was in his office when we left?” Hannah asks.
“Yep. And you?”
“Yep. Dr Fell was in the middle of a lecture.”
They miraculously have their own compartment on the train ride up. Most travellers are on their way down to South Downs for the weekend to explore the plummeting white cliffs, rolling hills, and national parks. Remy sometimes forgets just how beautiful the whole place is, trapped inside all the time. As she peers out the window, watching the chalky hills fade away, she understands why Crowley and Dr Fell abandoned London for such a place.
Still, she misses London. She’s excited to go back. Joe is the only one who isn’t from London, hailing from Cardiff, but the rest of them have their own favourite haunts they want to see on their adventure. It’s a lot of territory to cover in just a few days.
Once in London proper, they hop a few trains and buses until they land in the heart of Soho, bundled together in their jackets with their shoulders hunched against the rain. Remy squashes herself between Sadia and Effie, trailing behind the boys.
“It used to be the sex district, you know,” Hannah says with relish. “Could you imagine? Dr Fell?”
“Ugh, gross,” Sam says. Then after a beat, he tilts his head and adds, “But imagine this place when he first moved here. Like what made him choose this neighbourhood out of anything?”
Sadia shrugs and bundles her coat closer. “I dunno. What was it like?”
“Poor. The aristocracy fled the neighbourhood, replaced by cholera and disease.”
“Oh, but there were arts too, right?” Effie asks. “Soho is full of theatres.”
“And Fell loves theatre.”
“And dick,” Remy adds. “Soho is gay. Very gay.”
Andrew pipes up, turning around to face the girls as he walks backwards. “I came here with my brother to pride once. I think the parade ended here. Got absolutely smashed.” He waggles his eyebrows. “Can’t remember much of that day, but when in Rome…”
Effie and Remy both turn to look at Sadia who shrugs. “I’m cool with it if he’s cool.”
It’s another block until they stumble upon a large corner shop, the exterior painted in what once must have been a striking plum but has since faded. A.Z. FELL & Co | ANTIQUARIAN AND UNUSUAL BOOKS reads in gold, stamped letters.
Looking from the outside, it’s a massive property. “This must cost a fortune to upkeep,” Joe says.
Sam peers into the windows which are covered with a thick layer of grime. “The thing is, the property taxes for this place is huge, but Dr Fell’s income taxes were hardly anything. There’s no way he could have afforded this place selling books alone.”
“Maybe it was a front. Maybe he worked for the mafia, and they had to make a break for it,” says Andrew. “I mean, Crowley had a flat in Mayfair of all places.” He rubs his thumb and two fingers together, as though thumbing through a large stack of bills. “Doesn’t he just scream mafia to you?”
They all stand there for a moment, processing before they unanimously shrug and nod.
Remy walks around the corner and tries the door, but it’s locked. She reads the impossible hours, muttering to herself, “...I have been known not to open until 1… What sort of hours are these?” The sign itself has been crossed out with the words written CLOSED PERMANENTLY underneath. “Well, that’s definitely Crowley’s handwriting.”
“Move,” Andrew says, nudging her out of the way. “Give me cover.” They all stare at him as he pulls out a set of lockpick keys.
“Are you insane?” Effie asks. “You can’t do that.”
“You don’t want to see the weird things Dr Fell keeps locked away in his shop?”
“If they’re sex things, I’m leaving,” Sam says.
They huddle around Andrew in a poor attempt to act casual, their hands stuffed in their pockets as they look around, paranoid. He mutters to himself while he works, cursing every now and again when they hear a metal snapping sound and the plink of an object hitting the concrete.
“What the fuck?” he says. “This door is impenetrable. I’ve had doors not open before, but I have never had three picks just snap in a row.” He holds up a bump key and two skeleton keys before rummages in his coat for a whole plumber’s lockpick set.
“...And where did you get those?” Remy asks.
Andrew looks up without lifting his head and mutters a series of incoherent syllables. Then he turns around for attempt number four. He jerks back when he hears a loud thump on the other side of the door.
“Shit, what was that?” They all jump and scatter, staring at the door. Hannah darts around the corner in fright. They wait a good minute before Andrew leans back in and knocks tentatively on the door. Why they hadn’t thought to knock at first was… well. They all have very specific areas of educational pursuits. They can’t be expected to think of everything.
Nobody comes to the door. He knocks again and a swift, loud thud returns from the other side of the door. Remy stands on her tiptoes to try and see inside past the filthy windows. It’s dark and closed off. If someone is in there, they don’t want to be seen.
“We should go,” Effie says.
And then Remy sees movement, just a shadow. “Wait! I saw something.”
They huddle around her. Something moves inside, shapeless in the dark. It almost feels like staring at a ghost. Then it presses against the window and stares back, and they all jump.
“Holy fuck. Holy fuck!” Joe says. It’s a yellow eye, slit, luminous and glowing. “It’s a fucking snake!”
Terrified, they all run, scattering like a school of fish on the verge of being eaten by a great white shark.
“Get on the bus!” Sadia yells, dashing for the nearest bus stop. They scramble after her.
And that’s how they end up cashing their train tickets in a day early, petrified and scared to death, on their return journey back to South Downs.
Back on the train, they sit in silence, eyes wide and disbelieving. Andrew keeps wiping his sweaty hands on the legs of his jeans and bemoans his broken lockpicks.
Remy makes her excuses around the halfway point back home and manoeuvres her way through the car to the bathrooms. When she exits the little cubicle, she bumps into Joe. They both titter in nervous laughter, the kind that makes her want to curl up inside and die, and then they try to sidestep each other. It’s an uncoordinated discombobulated dance similar to every rom-com she’s been tortured with.
“Um, hey, can we talk?” Joe asks.
“Oh no. What.”
He jams his hands in his pockets and looks desperate for handlebars or a backpack strap to cling to. “Uh, look. Are we cool? I know we said we’re cool, but I just want to make sure.”
“I said we were cool. Why wouldn’t we be cool?”
“I don’t know. Girls are just like that.”
Remy scoffs and then frowns. She’s not like that; she doesn’t think. Is she like that? She wrinkles her nose and frowns. Then she reflects on the last week, their drunken hook up, their conversations afterwards that were strange only because they were amicable and normal. She expected pining and hand wringing and wanting to vomit. She had not expected this to be so… cool.
“I don’t love you,” she says.
“Okay, great. I don’t love you. I mean --” Oh, here we go , she thinks. “-- I think you’re nice, but don’t you think we’re better off as friends?”
“Oh.” She blinks at him. That was not what she expected. Then she smiles, just the slightest quirk of her mouth upwards. “Yeah,” she says nodding, and then again with more enthusiasm. “Yeah, friends sounds good. Really, really good.”
She looks up at him, and Joe towers over her, backlit by the LED lights in the ceiling, swaying with the motion of the train. If this was a movie, the music would start playing, something upbeat and peppy, and they would maybe kiss and hold hands and walk back to their friends staring into each other’s eyes.
This is not a movie. There is no music. There is no romance. But she’s okay with that, she thinks. She’s never had a hookup end positively. She’s never had an arch-enemy turn into a friend.
She extends her hand and he takes it, shaking it.
By mutual agreement, they do not mention the snake ever again. The group chat goes silent about the truth of Crowley and Dr Fell. Whatever they are, they’re terrifying, and yes Dr Fell spattered mustard today on his sweater and hasn’t noticed yet. It will have disappeared mysteriously within the next hour. Some things will never change.
Crowley, however, does not seem to get the memo. He takes every opportunity during the next week to ask how Remy’s weekend was. For seminar, his mysterious, thefted snake friend reappears and glares at her for the entire 90 minutes. The only thing Dr Fell has to say about it is, “Oh Crowley, really? You need to return him.”
“It’s a her, and I don’t! She just hangs out in her terrarium all day. Let her live!”
Remy remembers what he said about snakes and their shedding skins and smiles at his fondness for her. She’s terrifying, spanning about four feet, her black scales almost reflecting the fluorescent lights. When she twists, curling down Crowley’s arm mid-lecture, Remy can see the red belly, bright and fiery.
Let me live, Remy thinks, staring down the snake, and again after three cosmos at the Madcap while Effie and Joe hold her hair back and wipe off her face, crammed in her little flat’s bathroom. Let me live, she thinks, hammering at her thesis until four in the morning the day before her methodology is due. She crushes her empty can of Red Bull in her hands and bats at the hair hanging in her face. She’s going to cut it. Maybe she will shave her head, just not today.
It feels a little too familiar staggering into Crowley’s office at the end of the semester, all nerves and wailing anxiety. He smiles at her as she sits down, though it’s a bit predatory and discomfiting.
He points at the timestamp of the last edits. “Four AM? Really? What happened to, ‘I have all semester’?”
She slouches in her seat. “It’s terrible, isn’t it.”
“It’ll do,” he says. “For now. I’ve left notes for you, and I want you to draft your research proposal for the university board this summer you can start your study right away next semester. Questions?”
She shakes her head. Then he swivels to look at her, pen dangling between his fingers and eyebrows lifted. “No questions at all? None?”
He’s goading her, tempting her. She has loads of questions, though none of them are relevant to her thesis or her masters. She shakes her head again.
“Go on, Remy. Ask your question. Ask the question you’ve been wanting to ask.” His voice changes, lowers. She feels it vibrate in her chest and ring in her ears.
What are you? How old are you? Why the hell are you here of all places? She doesn’t know what to ask, overwhelmed by the suddenness of opportunity.
Instead, she blurts out, “When did you know you were in love?”
Crowley stills. He works his mouth, a flood of gibberish noises spilling forth, surprised by her question. He scratches his head and then leans back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. There’s a frown on his face, uncomfortable. “I knew the day I met him,” he says after a long pause.
Remy deflates and rolls her eyes. “So it was love at first sight? Happily ever after?”
He lets out a sharp bark of laughter and shakes his head. “Oh, Heavens no. Hell no. I -- uh -- loved him quietly from a distance for a long time.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“Well, yeah.” He shrugs. “But I’ve lived an okay life, I think.”
It wasn’t quite the answer she was hoping for. She sits for a long moment, picking at her nails. Then she asks, “What if he never loved you back. What would you be doing if you weren’t married to him, if things didn’t work out?”
The questions rush out of her, and he makes a complicated face, his forehead creasing. There’s tension in his mouth and he flexes his fingers. Then he relaxes. “I’d be sad, of course, but I’d still be doing the thing I love -- the other thing I love -- being here. Spreading knowledge. And dissent. Teaching others to question authority, to challenge the status quo. If Aziraphale didn’t agree with that, he wouldn’t be the person for me.”
It clicks in her head then. It’s been forever since she ever went to Bible school, but her mom does have an affinity for all gardens. “That’s why you like snakes. The Serpent of Eden was the first one to ask questions. The real OG.”
Crowley laughs. It spills out from him like a surprise, and something strange passes over his face, a frown and a smile twisted and mixed up. “Yeah, something like that.” He wipes a finger under his glasses. “Whatever you’re worried about, stop. You’re not on a timeline.”
“I sort of am. I’m not going to live forever.”
“Nah,” he says. “You humans do extraordinary things in such a short amount of time. It’s inspiring, really.”
She blinks and smiles. She tucks away that phrase -- you humans -- for another day. “Thanks, Crowley,” she says. “Have a good summer.”
Remy stands and slings her backpack over one shoulder and picks up her quadruple shot espresso with her free hand. She needs a nap and then a 48-hour spree in the library studying for exams, but at least this part is done. She is one more step closer to completing her beast of a thesis.
She turns for the door just as her phone beeps. It’s a text from Joe.
go go power ranger
Are you coming to the library to study?
Set your alarm this time.
Andrew and Sadia are already here.
They’re cooing at each other. Make it stop.
oh god omw
you owe me
“And Remy,” Crowley says. She turns around and looks up from her phone. Then he slides down his sunglasses with a long finger, revealing the luminous yellow eyes and their serpent-like slits. “Let’s not commit any breaking and entering this summer, yeah?”
Remy swallows hard and nods, blinking. Her brain stalls to a halt, like a robot with a fried circuit board or a jammed cog in the wheel. It does not compute. She’s losing it. It must be the end of the year nerves and anxiety and drinking three cans of Red Bull in a single sitting.
Holy fuck, she thinks. Instead, she says, “Roger that.”
She bumps into the doorway on her way out and turns back to look at him. He’s returned to his monitor, glasses affixed on his face, as he opens a game of Minesweeper.
Nap. Then coffee. She turns and leaves.