“Parlez-vous français?” Bill asked. He was balancing a book—On War, it proved to be, and no surprises there—with one finger and looking as bored as he ever had.
“You know I do,” said Jim. “Now stop.”
“Stop what, exactly?” said Bill with his devil’s smile perfectly in place. He allowed the book to wobble a little as he leaned across their shared table and passed it once or twice across Jim’s essay. “I am information-gathering. Inoffensively.”
“Debatable,” said Jim, at the same time as another undergraduate two tables over let out a pointed shush. They were in the library at Christ Church. It had nearly emptied of people as the dinner hour approached, but Jim had been eyeing this disapproving fellow in a mustache for the past hour or so and he got the distinct feeling that this was a man who had found a lot to object to. “Come on,” said Jim, closing his books and his notebook and shoving his chair back.
On War clattered to the table and Bill was up in a flash. He made no effort to moderate his tone as they passed their neighbor’s seat. “Where are we going?” he looped his arm through Jim’s.
They went to Jim’s rooms, where Jim attempted to shut the door in Bill’s face and Bill foiled the attempt by heaving his shoulder against the wood with a quickness Jim would never have expected from him. This burst of movement left them both staggering into the room with the force of it. Once balance was regained, Bill rubbed his shoulder and swore lazily and Jim stood in open-mouthed admiration. “You wouldn’t be half bad on the rugby field,” he observed.
Bill smirked and flopped down on Jim’s bed.
“Are we never going to eat?” Jim asked, but he knew it was a useless enquiry. Having expended that much energy, Bill would take forever to get upright.
Bill sighed loudly. “Have you spoken to Fanshaw yet?”
This again. Jim didn’t mind, much, but he had thought it was sorted. “Yes. He said there was a chap coming down from London to speak with me. Didn’t he say?”
Bill shrugged, an impressive horizontal feat. “He may have done. I’ve been balls-deep in Schopenhauer for that blasted tutorial and I hadn’t time to think of anything else until I finished.”
“Not all of us are finished,” said Jim. Bill flung his hand over his face dramatically. “Not all of us can faff about, distracting people who have actually got course work to complete, thank you very much.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and placed his books on the bedside table, which groaned under the weight of all the other work he had been prevented from doing. “I really should throw you out.”
“You should,” said Bill, “but you won’t.”
Jim rolled his eyes and reclined so that his head rested on Bill’s stomach. “You’re awfully sure of yourself,” he said. “How do you know where this is going?”
“I’ve always known where this is going,” said Bill, and Jim could feel the words against the back of his skull, “and so have you.”
“Oh,” said Jim. He had aimed for skeptical and arrived at reverential. (That had been happening far too much for his liking; he would have to do something about it.)
“Vous le savez très bien,” said Bill, his stomach tautly rumbling, his accent middling.
“Et si on se tutoyait?” said Jim. “I think we’ve reached that point, don’t you?”
“I didn’t want to be forward,” said Bill. He rested an arm across Jim’s chest.
“Liar,” said Jim.
They had long been engaged in a perfectly calibrated dance around it. Jim had guessed, almost immediately, that some portion of what Bill wanted from him was to see him naked—it was all there in the soft smirk and the appraising eyes—but he had not been sure until this moment what, exactly, that entailed. There were all sorts at Oxford, and sometimes it seemed as if the ones who wanted you to get your kit off and pose for a nude study outnumbered the ones who were after a more than purely aesthetic thrill. Jim didn’t object either way, but he did like to know what he was getting himself into.
So when Bill asked, “Do you mind?” and snaked his hand lower, Jim huffed out a laugh, “Since when are you so polite?” and twisted away from a momentarily nonplussed Bill only to settle alongside him in a more egalitarian position.
In the end it was, of course, Bill who took the lead, who set the pace and scope of their encounter by sliding his leg between Jim’s and wriggling against him. It lacked some of the elegance Jim had expected of Bill in bed, but he supposed that any time someone new entered the picture there were bound to be trial runs with varying degrees of success. Then he ordered himself to stop thinking. He ordered himself in that stern inside-of-head voice that sounded suspiciously like his father. Go much further, the voice warned him in clipped tones, and you’ll come up against everyone who’s preceded you, and you don’t want that.
Instead of thinking, then, Jim upped the stakes by kissing Bill, messily and half on the mouth. It was a miscalculation—they both pulled back wrinkling their noses in partial, fond disgust—but one which lent itself to successful revision.
At some point Bill surfaced and muttered without meeting Jim’s eyes, “You have done this before, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” said Jim, but then when it became apparent that Bill would require greater assurance, “Define ‘this.’”
“This,” said Bill, and rubbed more insistently against Jim.
“Oh,” said Jim. “Then no.”
Bill looked momentarily taken aback. “But you have… Someone has gotten you off before?”
“Yes,” said Jim, and effectively shut Bill up movement for movement.
“We’ll discuss this later,” was Bill’s last coherent communication.
Jim grinned. “I never thought otherwise.”
During the war, Jim tried not to think too much about Bill. It distracted him, for one thing, and he needed his wits about him. He knew that if he came out the other end in one piece there would be a good placement waiting for him, but wishing for more seemed a waste of time.
They had him intelligence gathering in Francophone Europe, and after V-E Day he was tasked with shuffling through refugees, looking for likely agents. There was a Czech who looked especially promising, and so Jim booked him passage to England. Months passed and work dried up. Jim practiced his new languages with the remaining refugees and bided his time. Eventually, word came from the Circus through his commanding officer, who strode into the room where Jim was billeted one night and said, in a voice dripping with disappointment, “You’re to get ready.”
Jim understood. There were fewer and fewer of them every day, and those who remained were getting sent east in droves. His CO was bound for Vienna in a matter of weeks. “Where to?” he asked. “Vienna? Berlin?”
“Home,” said the CO. “Somebody wants you back home.”
Later, Jim would learn to smile and nod when people asked him whether he had had a good war. He came out of it with his limbs and his faculties and his mind intact. He did not lose anyone particularly close. He dropped no bombs, faced no imprisonment, and liberated no camps. He did shoot people, many people, some of them at very close range. It was the last fact that Bill asked him about first thing upon their reunion. “Shoot anyone?” Bill asked. Jim noticed vaguely that he had a tan. Egypt? He wondered.
Of course, they were in an office at the Circus and Control was there as well and there wasn’t much else Jim could say beyond, “A few.”
“Félicitations,” Bill said, and it was like a jolt to the heart. His accent had improved. That was no good, Jim thought with immediate alarm. Not good at all, to feel so much so fast.
“Yes,” said Control. “Welcome back. Both of you. Jim, the Czech was a masterstroke. Bill, we’ve already spoken. Very well done indeed.” He smiled the smile of a man unaccustomed to smiling. It was endearing, Jim thought.
“We must keep our wits about us,” Control continued. “This is very much a time to study the wind and which way it blows. You’ve each earned a month. Use it, and come back prepared to work very hard.”
In the hall, Bill brushed against Jim’s shoulder and, without quite seeming to, jostled him into the lift. “Was that a promotion?” he asked the panel of buttons. “Only I couldn’t quite tell.”
“We’ll know in a month,” said Jim, and got out on the first floor.
They traded separate pleasantries with the janitor at the door and collected their coats with separate expressions of preoccupation on their faces. They shook hands at the door. Bill walked in one direction, Jim the other.
Within an hour Jim was ringing the bell at the address Bill’s handshake had provided him; ten minutes after that he was being pushed backwards, roughly into bed.
“You’re a dreadful correspondent,” Bill was saying, mouthing parts of Jim that hadn’t been touched in an ungodly long time. “I thought you were dead.”
“You did not,” said Jim, breathless.
“Well, no,” Bill allowed. “But I didn’t know you were alive, did I?”
“I could say,” said Jim, pausing briefly to allow Bill the space to remove his trousers, “the same to you.”
“Whence the tan?” Bill asked.
“Yes,” said Jim, taking hold of Bill and eliminating the need for explanations.
Afterwards, in a tangle of limbs, he tried to explain anyway. “I tried not to think of you.”
“Very gratifying, I’m sure,” Bill said into Jim’s shoulder. “And were you successful?”
“Not very,” Jim admitted, and then wished he hadn’t. Oh well. Onwards and upwards. “I met people that reminded me of you, but they just weren’t good enough.”
“Not everyone has mastered my technique,” Bill proclaimed, giving Jim’s balls an appreciative squeeze.
“No,” said Jim hurriedly, “that’s not what I— I meant to talk to.”
“Of course you did,” said Bill, as if he had never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. “For my part, there was a woman in Cairo who did everything you do and then some.” He paused, and Jim allowed himself to be stung before Bill continued. “She wasn’t you, I’m afraid. None of them were.”
“Well,” said Jim. “Sometimes I’m not sure I’m me.”
“You’re you,” said Bill, pressing himself against Jim, his interest clear. “Thank God for that.”
It was a rare moment of earnestness that Jim would remember often in the coming years. There was the time that Bill turned up at his door at three in the morning smelling of someone else. (Jim let him in, but Bill was forced to content himself with strong coffee and the sofa and in the morning their conversation was forced and brief.) Then there was the time that Bill left him waiting for three hours at a meeting place in the rain because he was too busy with his new pals to call. Jim just kept circling round and hoping for the best, cursing his trained patience to high heaven, getting more and more steamed and wishing he could just chuck the whole thing in for good.
If this were a mission, he would assume it was compromised.
And then there was this: Bill was away the week Control named Jim the new Head of Scalphunters and so it was a couple of his new underlings, nice enough fellows and good for talking rugby, who took him to the pub that Friday night. Afterwards, Jim walked back to his rooms and listened to the city echo around him. He had drunk just enough to wax poetic.
Bill was waiting on his doorstep. He was sitting against the railing smoking fixedly, looking travel-stained with an overnight bag beside him. When he saw Jim coming he grinned and leapt up with a surprising quickness. “I heard when I called in,” he bellowed incautiously down the street. “Congratulations are in order.”
“Yes, well,” said Jim. He joined Bill on the stoop and accepted a handshake for propriety and then began to dig for his keys. “Exiled to Brixton and forced to watch over a stable full of thugs.”
“I can think of no one better,” said Bill, snaking an arm around Jim’s middle before they were even properly in the door.
“Stop,” said Jim. “My neighbors.”
“Bugger the neighbors,” said Bill, but he let go. They walked up the stairs single file and Jim unlocked the door to his flat with minimal difficulty; his new colleagues were hard up after the excesses of the new year, and the drinks in the pub had been decidedly watery.
Inside, Bill dropped his overnight bag by the umbrella stand and toed off his shoes, sliding his stocking feet into Jim’s slippers and leaving Jim to pad around in socks until he could locate his old pair. By then, Bill was already in front of the fireplace, breathing new life into old coals. “Thanks,” said Jim. “Drink?”
“Scotch,” said Bill, still concentrating on the fire. He squatted down to get a better angle. “I didn’t go home. I came straight here. The weather in Bonn was ghastly. I needed to see a friendly face.”
It was a function of their occupation, Jim supposed, that he would never be quite sure whether Bill was talking about the meteorological weather or something else altogether. No matter. “You’ve found one,” said Jim, and he handed Bill his scotch.
“Cheers,” said Bill. “A well-deserved promotion. The world is yours.”
Jim smiled. “Certain portions of it, maybe.”
“The world,” Bill insisted. “You are magnificent, and always have been.”
Jim blushed bright scarlet. A percentage of it was pure fury that his world had so vertiginously tilted onto its undergraduate axis. To cover, he took a large gulp of his own drink, vodka, and tears sprang to his eyes. Bill snorted. Jim chuckled through the tears. They drank again.
When Bill left in the morning, overnight bag once again in hand but looking slightly more rested, Jim stopped him at the door. “Look,” he said. “You’re the wordsmith—”
“I’ll be late,” said Bill, edging out.
“Wait,” said Jim. He took hold of Bill’s lapel.
Bill raised an eyebrow. “Jim. Please. Use your words. Words. Les mots.”
Jim let go. He stood aside and held the door open. It all felt ridiculous and vaguely domestic and he was well versed in neither. Awkward and at a loss, Jim thought of the words his grand mother used to say to his grandfather and then, absurdly, he was saying them aloud. “Qu'est-ce que je ferais sans toi?”
Bill schooled his features, but not quickly enough. There had been something there, Jim was sure. When he spoke, though, his voice was steady, and when he reached out for Jim his touch was firm. “I have no bloody idea,” said Bill as he shook Jim’s hand, “but here’s hoping we never find out.” Then, with a wink, at the top of the stairs, “I knew you spoke French,” and he was gone.
Jim shut the door, and began to prepare for the day.