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One Marvellous Man

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There's snow in Oxford that winter, covering the ground in white for weeks without a day of thaw in between. It makes the light pale, the world silent, and the rooms bloody freezing. The fire in the grate is like a cat's sneeze for all the effect it has, and Jim burrows deeper into the nest of blankets and crumpled sheets with a sigh. Bill has turned his back to read something for art history class and Jim just lies there, looking at the soft lustre of a pale, exposed shoulder in the winter light. It makes him want Bill again, badly, for the second time this morning and the umpteenth time this week.

It didn't surprise him that he fell in love when he came to Oxford, but it did astonish him to find his love returned. He prefers not to analyse. This is the kind of love not to be spoken of, so better not think of it too much, either.

He rubs his unshaven chin hard against the bare shoulder and Bill makes a noise that is half scoff and half laugh behind closed lips. The book falls to the floor.

Jim grins and fits their bodies snugly together, his knees in the angle of Bill's bent legs, his mouth sliding up the back of Bill's neck, his hips rocking slowly against the curve of Bill's arse to erase all doubt about his intentions.

"You brute," Bill mumbles.

Brute or not, there's no question of who is ultimately seducing whom, and this is stated once again as Bill's hips move forward and his cock pushes into the warm circle of Jim's loose fist. The room fills with the sounds of burning wood and heavy breathing.

Outside, the sky is made of steel.

 

* * *

"I wrote to Fanshawe about you," Bill says one soft, blue evening in May.

The light from a dying fire flickers over his face as he sprawls in an armchair with his legs spread wide, the silk dressing-gown open to reveal his long, pale body and sated, half-hard cock. Between the white thighs, Jim sits back on his heels wiping a hand across his mouth.

"I may or may not have waxed lyrical." Bill's semi-sarcastic, self-mocking smile is beautiful, like so many other things about him. The long, sensitive artist's hands. Eyebrows like wings.

Jim is aware of seeing Bill through an idolisation filter, but it never occurred to him that Bill might be looking at him the same way. Lowering his guard is highly unusual for Bill, and Jim often has the cold, empty sensation of not properly reaching him; there's always something in the way. Now, for a moment, the walls are down.

Bill closes his eyes but the smile lingers as he slowly quotes from memory: "He has that heavy quiet that commands. He is my other half. Between us we make one marvellous man. He's virgin, about eight foot tall, and built by the same firm that did Stonehenge."

The last embers die in the grate and silence falls as Jim leans forward to kiss the inside of Bill's wrist.

 

* * *

The Circus swallows them whole. Like in life in general, they're not cut out for the same kind of work. Jim is the fieldman who builds networks from scratch; Bill has the broader perspective and the political brains. Between them they make one marvellous intelligence man.

The iron fist in the iron glove steers everything in the direction of success. Haydon and Prideaux. Rough and brilliant. These are the glorious years.

The first time Jim ever disagrees with Bill is during the uneasy time when Control becomes an eccentric recluse and starts a miniature cold war within the Circus itself. There's a chill running through the corridors along with whispers and rumours. Bill makes supercilious jokes about Control's success rates; Jim can't help thinking Bill has an eye on Control's chair.

Then there's Operation Testify, and everything comes crashing down.

 

* * *

After the gunshots in the Czech woods, Jim doesn't think much about anything except how to stop himself going insane in the first place, and stop himself saying too much in the second. Time ceases to exist. The normal chain of hours and days is replaced by a series of rooms and vehicles – white walls, green walls, harsh lighting, damp concrete, interiors of cars and airplanes. There are hospital beds and morphine at first, then water hoses, electric equipment, never-ending questions and never-extinguished lights.

To Jim's own surprise, he doesn't die.

It's not until he is repatriated that he begins to think. None of his thoughts are brought to conclusion. He fears what he'll find.

He's debriefed, instructed, nagged, threatened, and paid off, all in one go. But Bill is conspicuously absent, and the iron glove is not much use without the iron fist. Just clankingly empty and corroding.

* * *

The chubby boy with glasses is named Bill.

"I've known a lot of Bills," Jim says. "They've all been good 'uns."

His own words make him flinch. He had believed the lies in his life to be purely structural, making that life reasonably liveable, but they seem to have seeped in through the cracks until they're everywhere. You never stop being a spy, he thinks. You just keep wrapping yourself in clichés and lies until reality is blurred and the truth is no longer visible.

* * *

Jim teaches dull boys French and tries to forget, but the badly healed gunshot wounds on his back prevent him. Instead, he barks at the boys, takes long walks and tries not to be paranoid. Morning light over the rolling landscape is soothing and Jim often stands in front of the caravan before anyone else is up, breathing in the fresh-smelling air and watching the school buildings dream silently, half erased by mist.

His life can be summed up in short sentences these days. Boys need to be taught. The body needs excercise. Sharp edges of the mind can be blunted by vodka. Wounds must be cleaned to heal.

There's nothing from Bill. The line is drawn.

And then George Smiley turns up in an ugly car with his deceptive gentleness, his ill-fitting clothes and his eyes that miss nothing, and breaks open all the doors and shutters that Jim tried to lock so thoroughly.

"Papers Lacon borrowed for me," Smiley says. "Bill and you at Oxford," Smiley says. "A letter from Bill to Fanshawe, Circus talent spotter," Smiley says.

Jim looks straight ahead through the windscreen and wonders why Smiley wastes time on torturing him when he's so good at torturing himself.

"He has that heavy quiet that commands… built by the same firm that did Stonehenge."

Bill's words on Smiley's lips open the gates to hell, and for a moment Jim is back at Oxford as an undergraduate, a young idealist in love. He tastes smooth, salty skin on his tongue, feels long, deft fingers tighten around him to bring him to exquisite climax, hears a muted laugh behind closed lips. He hadn't thought there was anything left in him to break, but something breaks now.

"Christ, man," he says softly. "We were children."

Children. But far from innocent.

 

* * *

Although Jim really already knows the truth, he needs the wall for support when Bill is marched out of the house at Camden Lock to the waiting van. His legs shake as he fights a wave of nausea, his fingers claw at damp stone.

The betrayal goes so deep he can't grasp it. He doesn't try. Instead he throws himself on a sagging bed in a dingy hotel room and drinks himself into a stupor.

* * *

It's like being a fieldman again, almost. Bill must have been made a Soviet citizen long ago and will be sent on to Moscow from Sarratt – the Circus will have no further use for him. Jim will.

Security at Sarratt has gone down the drain and making contact is all too easy, needing only the most basic tradecraft. No one's on their guard. No one's even trying.

Bill looks small as he waits on the bench by the cricket-field, smoking like he isn't aware what his hands are doing. Jim watches, immobile, until the surge of emotion passes and he can breathe. The ground cooperates; his steps are silent. No twigs snapping or pebbles rolling. And then, for the first time in years, Bill Haydon is literally within arm's reach.

"Bill." It's barely a whisper as Jim positions himself behind the bench, leaning forward to see the familiar profile lit by the moon.

There's a smile in response, a little sad, perhaps a little ironic. "Jim. You came."

It's the old voice, aloof, infuriating, smooth as a caress. If Jim were to close his eyes now, he could almost pretend they were back in Oxford. God help him, but he grips Bill's shoulders and leans down to press his face to Bill's for a second. I loved you, he thinks. Everything is past tense.

It was here at Sarratt that he learned how to kill quickly and noiselessly with his bare hands.

Afterwards, when he vomits behind a bush a few hundred yards away, all he wants is to scrub himself down with a brush in scalding hot water.

To have it end like this, he thinks numbly.

Nothing can change that now. This is where it ends. This is where everything ends.