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This Lost Lamb

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"We'd make a great love story, don't you think?" Tom asks, quite suddenly.

You blink at him. You hope your smile seems calm enough to mask the sudden leaping of your heart. "Would we?"

Peter's humming the melody of Someone to Watch Over Me, and Tom says he didn't know he liked that sort of music.

"Peter... Have you ever told a lie?" Tom asks one night.

You're both sitting over a record player that has long since gone quiet, and the stars above are blinding. Anyone else would have been kissing him by now, but that's part of the charm of Tom, isn't it?

"It rather comes with the territory."

Tom furrows his brow slightly, and he tilts his head in that naive way of his, with his eyes still twinkling so you can't be sure whether or not he's truly confused.

"A homosexual with money," you supply. "I used to lie all the time. To others, to myself, everyone. I do try to avoid it now, even though it's not always convenient."

Tom laughs a little. "No. No, it probably isn't."

And then he's quiet again, as if he never asked the question in the first place. More bait, and again--always--you take it. "Why do you ask?"

"It's nothing. It's just... You seem so honest. Most people aren't, but it's hard to even imagine you lying, I guess."

"What about you, Tom? Have you ever told a lie?"

"Oh, I've told a doozy or two." He grins boyishly, but there's a desperation behind it. "I don't like doing it. Most of the time. But sometimes I get this rush, and I can't stop myself. I'm really goodat it. What kind of person is good at that?"

Ah, one of those kinds of conversations. You pull your chair closer to his, and he glances at you in this bashful, nervous sort of way, but he doesn't move. "I think that if you're forced by everyone around you to be something other than what you are... Well, I think you either let go of all the people who wouldn't accept the real you, or you start to find joy where you can get it. Even in the lie itself."

Tom presses his lips together for a moment. "Did you ever enjoy it?"

"Now and then. When someone would say something truly despicable--not knowing it applied to me, of course--and then wait for me to agree with them. The treachery of laughing along can be invigorating in a sick way." You laugh ryly at yourself. "I've never admitted that to anyone. You have a way of drawing things out of people, don't you, Tom?"

"To fill the void," Tom says, smiling.

You shake your head. "You're not a void. You're a thousand other things. And I only know one or two of them."

Tom watches you for a long moment, then he looks up at the stars. "You wouldn't want to know them all."

Peter tells Tom that his mother wasn't home one day, and he went into her room after his old nanny had nodded off in the sitting room. He liked to look through her things, he said with a hint of shame.

That day, he was looking in her closet, and he found an ornate box made out of several different kinds of wood. It didn't look like much of anything, but he kept turning it and turning it in his hand until one of the panels slid and clicked into place.

What does that have to do with the song, Tom asks. Peter tells him to be patient.

You soon learn that there are two types of intimacy with Tom. The kind that is both quickly achieved and quickly relinquished and the kind that builds so slowly that you hardly notice it all until, slowly, you begin to lose him again. None of it's quite sexual. He's too skittish for that, like a little stray kitten who wants to be petted, but can't stand to be close.

But sometimes.

The conversation started in two different rooms. Something casual about the weather and mutual accquaintances and wasn't dinner last night good let's go again. At some point, he'd crept into the room with you, and sometime after that he was sitting on the couch with you with his head tucked under your chin so that you could smell his hair and he's talking about Dickie.

You know well enough by now just to listen.

"I've never been friends with someone like that before. Just by being his friend, I was important, you know? But I couldn't bear any argument, any disagreement, no matter how small it was. It could be nothing. It could be that I liked the tortellini and he thought it was bad, and I'd say well, you're right. It was bad, but by then it was too late."

You take a risk and brush your hand over his hair. He accepts the gesture, but he doesn't lean into it like he might have.

"Have you ever been so sure of something... No, so willing to believe something, that as soon as there's any hint it might not be true, you start to panic and find ways to fool yourself again?"

"Sometimes," you say, softly.

"And when you finally do know for sure it wasn't ever true, the panic is just... it's..."

He pulls away from you, sitting up straight again. "I don't know what I'm talking about. I think I had too much wine with lunch." And the moment is over.

Peter tells Tom that he took the puzzle box to his room and hid it under his bed so that he could work at it whenever he was alone--which was fairly often, luckily enough.

It's the only time I ever stole from my mother... from anyone, actually, Peter says, and Tom laughs.

He worked at it for nearly a week until finally, the last panel clicked and the box opened.

Tom is crying.

It's only now that you realize that you've never seen him uncontrolled before. It's only now that you realize that every word, every smile, every question that he asked was precise. So precise that it seemed, at the time, completely natural.

This isn't precise. The scarf around your throat isn't precise. The way he's holding it in place, the way he's pinning you down, the way he's apologizing over and over and over. None of it is precise.

It's now only now that you're sure that he does, in fact, love you.

Inside the puzzle box, Peter tells Tom, was a little silver horse. If you twisted it a few times, it would play the tune of Someone to Watch Over Me, and it would bob up and down as it turned.

Am I a puzzle box to you? Tom asks, the way he always asked questions of Peter: hoping for just the right answer.

No, Peter says. You're the horse inside, if I can just find a way through to you.

Your last thought, your last coherent one, is what Tom had said that made you begin to truly hope.

"We'd make a great love story."

Only, he'd forgot to mention it would be a tragic one.