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Can I Ask...?

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The moment the cracker lands in front of him, Tom mumbles something about the bathroom and flees. He heads outside though, into the December night, rather than to a stall, and tips his head back to peer at the stars.

"Easier from the bench," a man's voice drawls from his left.

He whips round to see a pale blur of a face where the bench must be. The rest of the man is all shadows and darkness and even the face isn't clear of those.

"Hey. Didn't mean to startle you."

Tom makes himself breathe again as he picks his way over cautiously and slides onto the other end of the bench. "Nice clear night." Clear and cold. And more importantly, quiet.

The other man makes a noncommital sound and the pale face tips back, stargazing again. After a long moment and without moving, he asks very casually, "Veteran?"

Tom mutters, "Yeah." He braces himself for the usual onslaught of questions about what and where and when and how long, but they don't come.

The man just says, "Thought so," and lets the matter drop.

After a long moment of his own, Tom ventures, "You?"

"Not as such." A breath, then, "If you meant 'Unpleasantly familiar with gunfire?' though that would be a yes."

Tom suddenly understands the desire to ask what and where and when and how long. He bites the questions back. He would bet anything (and he never bets) that they're both out here to avoid those blasted cracker bangs and if there's another student here who understands - well, he'd like to know them better. He just can't think of a graceful way to start in on that.

The other man comments, "Orion's just coming up over the trees, there, see?" An arm in a dark sleeve lifts, pointing a pale hand, and Tom follows the line back up to the stars.

"Yeah," he says softly. "Yeah, I do see." Then, "Can I ask...?"

"Best not." There's a soft chime and the other man pulls out a phone and glances at it. The pale glow illuminates slender fingers, an almost tender smile, and a dark jacket, before he puts it away again and stands. "Crackers all pulled, apparently. Don't stay out so long you freeze." He pulls the door open just enough to slither through, leaving an impression of tall and thin (and taken, dammit) behind him.

The impact of the words hits Tom hard. They say, "I know why you're out here" and "You're not alone" and "It's safe to go back, if you want to" and "Here's the information you need to make your own decision" and "I trust you to make your own decisions." They rebuild a raft under his feet and give him somewhere to stand.

They say, "You can get through this" and "It's possible to find someone to watch your back and let you know when it's over" and "I can't be that person for you, but they exist" and "Even knowing all that, I care enough to not want you to get hurt." They're a rope thrown from the distant shore that he can use to guide himself towards safety.

They say, "I understand" and "I know" and Tom holds them as the precious things they are. The other man didn't even ask. Much. Which almost certainly means he knows out of his own experience, and he knows the impact the words could have, and he still gave them, like a gift, to a stranger.

By the time Tom gets it together enough to follow him, he's vanished, as if he was some guardian angel instead of a real person.

Inside, everyone's too busy gushing over Dr Fell's husband being revealed as Dr Crowley to have noticed Tom's absence. Tom glances over at the pair, just as Dr Crowley turns in his direction, dark glasses scanning across the room. Their gazes lock for a moment. Then Dr Crowley offers the faintest of smiles and moves on.