The echo of taps squeaking off resounded as he entered the gents. Had he already made Chandler self-conscious by intruding? Kent's every step produced a resounding click across the concrete floor, emphasising his presence.
Chandler was at a sink, scrubbing his hands with a paper towel in the dim afternoon light. His tall form in an immaculately fitted waistcoat with pushed up shirtsleeves was distractingly beautiful. Kent felt a flash of guilt for admiring the man he'd desperately loved for years in a moment of distress.
"I have to do something," Chandler said. He was addressing Kent's reflection through the mirror. Had he taken the pause as judgement?
He hadn't been turned away yet, so Kent stepped forward. "Sir?"
"It's one thing or it's another. If I don't do something, I'm doing nothing and that's..." A drip echoed throughout the room. Chandler tightened the faucet carefully. "That's intolerable."
The past few weeks were trying. It was the first big case since an entire van of suspects went up in flames months ago. People around the station, even people who should've known better, were wary of the curse of DI Chandler and his team. Eyes followed Kent in the halls and mouths hushed as he approached. Mansell struck up conversation with Uniform but it would quickly fizzle out. Even Riley got a tepid reception. A new killer was on the loose in Whitechapel; what started with death would surely end with it and somehow his team were responsible for every last body.
You can't be cursed - you're a shining light, Kent thought. And besides, every one of those monsters deserved it. He stopped himself. With a tinge of fear, he sat with the thought for a moment before letting it go. This darkness and ugliness were unworthy of him. Kent felt incredibly privileged to be trusted with this rare display of vulnerability and he had to prove he deserved it.
"I know it isn't as simple as this," he said carefully, "but you can't make yourself responsible for everything that happens."
Chandler flashed a wry smile as he finally took his watch from the small glass shelf in front of him. Careful fingers fastened to it his wrist with a long-rehearsed action. He double-checked it before turning to face the younger detective.
"I think to myself, 'if I don't do this, something terrible will happen.' It's absolutely laughable - things can hardly get worse, can they? Yet I'm still convinced that if everything is on my desk is in exactly the right place, we'll be able to catch this one without anyone else dying."
They found the third body in the late hours of last night. Another healthy victim whose heart just stopped. The suspicious deaths may have been overlooked if each victim hadn't been found in a locked room with their own fingernail marks in the door. The latest victim's door had a chair propped against the handle to keep him in.
"I know we'll catch him, sir. We're closing in." Kent meant it. He would work as many hours as it took to end the streak of bad luck that haunted his DI's career.
When Chandler's mouth turned up in a small but genuine smile, a giddy tightness gripped Kent's chest. "Well done today. You made a real breakthrough."
"Thank you." His cheeks were hot. Sometimes he thought he could subsist wholly on this feeling.
There were dead potted plants at all the victims' houses; easily missed but a crucial clue once they'd found heavily salinated soil. Kent knew everyone had privately imagined it was a witch's curse because the thought had crossed his own mind for a moment. Now they had evidence that the murder had access to the plants before the day of the crime and the least experienced member of the team was the one who lead them to it. His newfound focus was producing results.
When his own thoughts started to feel too frightening to keep in his head, Kent decided that he could no longer live in the shadow of jealousy and resentment. He sought help - just some coaching to start with. At first, it was unimaginably tough to handle the tendrils of negativity that had embedded themselves in his mundane thoughts. It seemed worth the effort when he could live with himself more easily. When he wasn't weighed down, he felt sharper and more competent. Best of all, as Chandler more frequently broke the tightness of his features to smile in Kent's direction or praised him for a job well done, he knew the opinion most important to him had changed.
The conversation was going well and he may not get another chance. He could only hear the muffled rush of pipes, the rattle of the building's heating and the almost imperceptible tick of Chandler's watch counting the seconds. Still, he instinctively glanced at the door before speaking.
"Actually, I came in here to give you something."
It didn't come out right at all, but he was already stepping closer as he said it.
Chandler already looked worried. "Oh?"
Kent was close enough to smell tiger balm and the faint chemical odour of new clothes. The special sandalwood soap Chandler kept in a box and a subtle hint of high-end cologne. Beneath that, like an intimate secret, the unique scent of a warm human body that soap could never fully scrub away.
"I have something that could help you." Kent could hear the blood rush through his ears. "A bit like the elastic band."
He anticipated the pained twitch in the other man's features, but it was no less confronting - the memory of something brief and special lost passing over him in an instant. Kent normally tried to forget her entirely.
"Please. Trust me, sir." Kent reached into his pocket and brought out something wrapped in a tiny neat piece of tissue paper. "This time, it isn't to hurt you and it isn't to distract you. When you hold it, it'll remind you that you can always examine your thoughts instead."
Chandler hesitantly extended his hand to receive the gift. The first time he'd ever made physical contact with his boss, Kent had been surprised at the strength of his own reaction and with the depth of his need. A pat on the shoulder when he performed well was enough to sustain him but he was always greedily hoping for more. Now, as he placed a beautiful, symmetrical polished black stone into that palm, he willed his hands not to tremble. He even allowed himself the indulgence of making a little more contact and lingering a moment longer than necessary.
"Big ugly feelings can seem like they're warping and twisting you. Forcing you to do things that don't make sense." Kent swallowed, remembering his own hideous reflection and the shadows darkening the corners of his life. "You have to look at those feelings instead of punishing yourself for having them. That's what this is for - a tether to the world so you can let yourself have the thoughts knowing you can pull yourself out at any time."
Kent stopped talking and found all the moisture in his mouth had evaporated. Suddenly, it was a stupid idea and he hadn't explained it properly. He should have rehearsed. He should have thought of something better in the first place. He just wanted to do something and offer something no one else could.
After an unmeasurable moment, Chandler closed his hand around the smooth, cold stone. "I don't know what to say."
Blue eyes flittered. He touched his tie knot before realising the hand was occupied. The man was hard to read, but this wasn't upset or insulted or any of the other terrible possibilities Kent had imagined. And he had imagined them all. His confidence got its second wind.
"You don't have to say anything, sir." At that moment, Kent was extremely relieved that they were both having trouble making eye contact. "I want you to know that you're not alone. You have my time whenever you want it. Because I care about you."
Kent looked down, too afraid to see Chandler's reaction immediately. His polished shoes mirrored their larger counterparts opposite.
"I really-" Chandler began in a quiet and carefully controlled voice. "I appreciate this, thank you. I appreciate that you gave me this." The hand holding the stone closed tighter at his side. Kent felt his heart being squeezed alongside it.
A stab of indecipherable raised voices came from the hall and faded again.
Chandler stiffened and slipped the rock into his trouser pocket. "We should get back to it."
Kent's stomach sank. He snapped his face and body into the professional demeanour Chandler increasingly praised him for. "Sir."
It went well and he should be satisfied but he wanted more. He always wanted more.
As he turned back to the door, Chandler caught his arm. "Sorry, I mean right now. We've been standing in here far too long." Fingers pressed in little harder as if to stop him pulling away. It was unnecessary - as long as that hand held him, Kent was powerless to move. "I would like to see you later. Hopefully somewhere a lot nicer than this."
It didn't seem possible. "In your office?"
Panic registered on Chandler's face as he realised he'd have to be direct. "Outside of work - just us."
Kent smiled as elation rushed through his tense body. "I'll think of somewhere, sir."