Right of Way
Author's Note: Awake is an amazing show with a brilliant concept that has taken me aback. It's standard procedural for the most part, but avoids being too stale. I relish these sorts of shows with all their complicated emotional subtext and issues. That is why I have crafted this story (hastily I am quick to point out) centred around Michael and Rex's relationship. I must stress at present it is INCOMPLETE, but will be finished in the next couple of days.
Please read and review to tell me how I have portrayed the individual characters, their relationships and the overall concept of the show. Hannah will play a larger role as the story develops.
Michael Britten woke up, already familiar with what was to come. Regardless, he checked his wrist to confirm it. Green. He scrolled through the files in his mental database as he sat up, the system he used to keep things straight and separate. The Salami Guy case. He was working the Salami Guy had to smile even though he knew better; if the guy had not died so horribly, the circumstances surrounding his death might have been material for a black comedy. Bird had found it amusing too, but in his own way. He remembered chasing down leads and canvasing the area. They had found no-one and got nowhere. But he was feeling optimistic. It was something Hannah had mentioned last night in bed, something about looking too hard for a realistic solution. He thought he might just have found the answer.
He got up. He showered, dressed and tooled himself up for the day. He studied his reflection in the mirror and was surprised. The haggard, withering expression his face had adopted in recent weeks, proof the toll his dual-life was taking on him, was far less apparent this morning. He rewarded himself with a slight smile to the man on the opposite side of the glass; things were actually getting easier. Hannah had mentioned it to him twice yesterday, about his refreshed look and demeanour. He had been convinced she was just trying to boost his spirits, but he could actually see what she meant now. He went downstairs radiating a vitality that was obvious even to the most comatose of teenage sons.
"Are you on drugs?" Rex asked as his father took his usual seat opposite him. Michael gave him a furrow of his brow before shaking his head.
"Nope. I'm just…" The man paused as he struggled for the right word. His son watched him intently, waiting for a response. After a few brief moments, Michael shrugged his shoulders. "I don't even know. I just feel good today." Rex, having expected something more revealing, copied his father's action and went back to his cereal. Michael reached for the box as the silence returned. "And how about you?" He inquired pouring the cereal into his bowl, "How are you doing today?" The youth shrugged again without looking up.
"Nervous?" Michael did not even have to scan for the information this time; Rex had another final match to contend with. The man had been excited about going to see it for the last fortnight or month, if you included the time he spent with Hannah. Today was the day of the match. Regardless of the case he was working, the man was going to watch his son play. He was damn sure of that. Rex seemed to have shrugging his shoulders down as some kind of tick; he did it yet again for the hat-trick.
"No. Are you still coming?"
"Yeah, of course."
"Because you don't have to if it's too much out of your way…" The teenager seemed to deliberately trail off. That's when Michael saw it. Rex was nervous. He hid it well, but the man could tell he was nervous about this match. If he did not want Michael to come watch, then it was clear he was afraid he might embarrass himself on court. The nonchalant tone he had been dishing it only heightened his father's awareness of his nerves.
"You'll kick his ass." Rex looked properly awake for the first time that day after that bold prediction. Michael nodded as he finished his current mouthful. "You will. Trust me."
"So, what have we got?" Bird asked without looking up from the reports splayed on his desk. Michael smiled to himself and then aptly articulated his thoughts on the subject.
"This isn't homicide." His partner's head did not shoot up dramatically, nor was it ever likely to in future; Bird simply glanced up slowly. He slouched back in his chair, offered Michael a hard stare and then gave a measured rebuttal.
"This more of your 'hunches', Mike? You got another crazy notion that's going to close this case?" Sceptical was too kind a word for Bird's current mood. He was beginning to think his partner was just randomly stringing words together and hoping they made sense rather than attempting to explain himself anymore. Then he saw Michael's smile and knew this was different.
"This is death by misadventure." Michael announced without any kind of fanfare. His tone of voice made it sound like such a conclusion was obvious, if not inevitable. His companion frowned.
"How do you possibly figure that? The guy had three-quarters of salami forcibly rammed down his…" Bird stopped to compose himself; he could not even finish his sentence without the threat of an inappropriate laugh looming over him. He cleared his throat. "Rammed down his throat, Michael. He was pretty much strangled."
"You remember the guy was a competitive eater? He'd won something like eight national competitions and was due to compete in that pork-eating one on Wednesday?" His companion nodded in agreement so far.
"Yeah, sure I do. We interviewed like forty of his so-called 'competitors' on Monday when it happened. The guy had enemies. Anyone of them was weird enough to do something that bizarre to another human being." Michael knew that was true. The victim's fellow enthusiasts were all odd, secluded individuals and might have done such a thing by mistake, but they were not outright killers. Besides which, he had interviewed enough suspects to know that any one of those people would have shown remorse by this stage and confessed. None had. That told Michael something he chose to ignore until that morning.
"Yeah, but we thought the salami was significant, like a message or something, right?" Bird did not like feeling like he was being coached into giving the right answers. He only rolled with it because he was curious where he was being led.
"Yeah. The main challenge for the competition was six-and-a-half pounds of salami in a time-limit."
"What if our guy had been training for it?" Realization crept onto Bird's face. He frowned when what his partner was suggesting flashed through his mind.
"You're saying this idiot killed himself by trying to swallow more than he could handle?" Michael nodded, his smile now cracking into an inappropriate grin.
"It would explain everything, don't you think? The fact the door to his room wasn't forced, the fact the cameras failed to pick up a single witness at that time and the fact that we found no fingerprints besides the victims on any forensic evidence?" Bird wanted to believe it. But he could not. It was just too easy; too clean a solution to such a brain-teaser. His police instincts said no to the idea this was the end of proceedings. Nobody could be that dumb. Nobody. He blew out his cheeks.
"That sounds like a short-cut."
"Or the simplest explanation of why the victim had no defensive wounds and how the salami got so far down his throat." Bird could see his companion was more than happy to run with this theory, because that's all it was, and take it straight to their boss. He tried to caution him.
"Are we really about to go to the captain and tell her our guy choked himself to death on his own salami?" Michael nodded.
"Yep. Come on. Let's close this case."
Captain Harper was on Freeman's side. Like him, she could not bring herself to believe anyone could be so idiotic as to try and shove a pound of salami sausage down their throat and not think it was a bad idea. She was prepared to dismiss it as soon as Michael began to offer his theory…until she heard his accompanying evidence. It was factually accurate to say the least, but was far closer to compelling than anything else. There were no unexplained sources or half-mumbled hunches to be heard coming from the man with whom such vague notions had become synonymous. For the first time since before the accident, Harper saw the smart detective work Michael was once renowned for. She was pleased to see he had not abandoned the practice in favour of pure clairvoyance.
The man had ordered the component parts to make huge salami and then constructed it in his hotel room. It explained how, despite ordering so much meat, no cutlery or crockery had been used. He also explained the state of his hands; they had been covered in meat particles in a pattern consistent with creating some kind of sculpture. It also explained how the room was locked from the inside as the victim would not want to be interrupted. Harper was aware of how ludicrous the whole theory sounded, but the evidence supported Michael's conclusions every step of the way. Eventually, she caved to his constant pressure.
"Fine. Death by misadventure it is. Just hurry up and close this thing before it gets any stranger." Both men nodded in contrasting styles. Michael was empathic while Bird was as reluctant as possible. Harper saw this and smiled at the dichotomy of her veteran team as they left her office; she was lucky to have them.
"And she just took your word for it in this matter, Detective?" Doctor Evans said trying not to sound as amused about the case as he was while they sat together in her office. Michael nodded.
"Yeah. I think she's getting behind me again as a police officer. She seems to think that, I'm capable again. That I'm getting back to where I was."
"And how do you feel about this renewed sense of faith on her part?"
"It feels good. Recently everything has started to feel good."
"You mean here or in your dreams?"
"Both. You know I'm on top of my cases now instead of confusing their details between worlds and things are going great with Hannah and Rex." Michael was not sure when it had happened, but Doctor Evans had stopped making notes on their sessions. She now appeared more than content to merely listen and offer guidance, almost as a friend rather than a psychiatrist. She leaned forward.
"Well, believe it or not, that's actually a sign of positive progress." Michael could not help but scoff.
"What? Everything going perfect for me in each world is progress?" Evans nodded in her usual relaxed way.
"Absolutely. Both worlds and their problems are in balance at the moment. That means you're being presented with a fifty-fifty split in regards to which you prefer. Now, whichever starts becoming harder to maintain is going to shift your focus back to the other. The constant shift of preference will eventually derail your fantasy world as you struggle to juggle them as effectively as you have been doing. You can only wrestle with your subconscious for so long before it decides to quit." Michael was quick to shake his head.
"But that's just it. I think I can maintain the balance between both now indefinitely. I don't have to choose a side." Doctor Evans adopted a sympathetic smile as an immediate response to the idea. She emitted a short sigh before speaking.
"Nobody can do such a thing indefinitely, Detective Britten, even you. But let's change the subject. How's Rex doing?" Michael nodded yet again. He used to do it to assure her that he was in the right frame of mind; now he did it more to assure himself of what he was about to say. Rex was still a sensitive issue for him, despite their mended relationship.
"He's okay. He's got another match today. He's moving forward in his life."
"And do you think he'll do okay in his match?"
"He'll do more than okay, Doctor."
"Yeah. The kid's gonna win. I know he is."
"And is this based just on your knowledge of Rex or have you gleaned something elsewhere that makes you so sure of his chances?"
"Both. Rex is a gifted athlete and I've read a bit about his opponent. The guy's weaknesses are Rex's strengths. He hasn't got Rex's stamina or his reflexes. All he has to do to win is run this guy into the ground. He can do that."
"Well, it's good to see you really getting into the spirit of it as deeply as you are.
Tennis is such a crucial part of his life right now. I'm sure your being there is only going to improve relations between the two of you, particularly if he loses." Michael blinked.
"If your son fails to win, that will bring you closer."
"Why would he not win? I just told you he's better than his opponent hands-down; so why are you saying he's going to lose?"
"I said if he loses, Detective Britten, if he loses. Defeat often teaches us far more than victory and invariably showcases the true mental strength of the person within, their resolve so to speak. I hope he wins, but if he doesn't assure him it is not the end of the world." Michael was suspicious and not afraid of voicing his concerns.
"Do you know something I don't?" He spoke in a grave tone, one that announced his seriousness on the matter. Doctor Evans only smiled genially before glancing down at her watch. After a brief moment, she nodded at what she was seeing and let her gaze return to her patient.
"Time's up, Detective. I'll see you in a couple of days for your next session."
Michael found himself as dumbstruck as both Tara and Emma as they sat there. Rex was on the verge of losing. A string of uncharacteristic errors, a ballooned forehand here and a botched drop shot there, had resulted in the teenager being broken at love by his opponent deep in the deciding set. He looked strangely out of sorts, stiff somehow, as he paraded up and down the baseline, awaiting his opponent's serve on match point. He watched the ball toss and then the resulting one-hundred-and-two mile-an-hour ace flash past him.
"I don't understand…" Tara practically murmured to Michael after that final point, "He should've destroyed that kid. He was so sharp in practice this morning. It makes no sense." Emma too seemed to be in a state of disbelief. Doctor Evan's suggestion flashed across his mind at that very moment. It made him question how involved in Rex's world she truly was. She had not predicted he would lose, but had strongly alluded to that possibility despite Michael's sensible protests. Suddenly he felt like he was out of the loop. He thought things between he and Rex were going well, that everything was okay; this made it seem like he knew nothing at all.
"I really don't know, Mr Britten." Emma said after the trophy presentation had concluded. Michael wondered if he had missed something in recent weeks, something to explain Rex's behaviour on court. But even his girlfriend did not have an answer for it. "He seemed fine this morning. He was a little nervous, but no more than usual. It doesn't make sense." Michael nodded. He remembered what Hannah had told him. She told him not to search for a complex answer; go for the simple solution. He did. Rex had suffered a bad day. That was all. Doctor Evans had just been her enigmatic self today, nothing more. He instantly felt back in control.
Rex hadn't said anything since losing his title match. He had simply gone straight up to his room when they got home and shut his door to the outside world. Michael gave him an hour of what was sure to be adolescent sulking before venturing upstairs. Opening the door found his son hidden from view underneath his bed sheets. The man was more than prepared to deal with him and promptly sat down on the vacant side of the bed. He shook the mound to his right gently.
"Hey, wanna tell me what happened out there?"
"I lost." A muffled reply explained.
"And that's all there is to it?"
"Yes. Can you just leave me alone?" Michael did no such thing. He leaned closer to the area he assumed was the youth's head.
"So why have you been crying if you just lost?"
"I haven't been crying." Rex said rather indignantly.
"Rex, I can hear it in your voice. Come on, tell me what's wrong." There was a silence while the offer was considered. The answer was predictable.
"Fine. I'll just sit here all night then." This threat managed to force Rex to surface. The teenager's head appeared from the corner closest to his father's face and stayed on the mattress. Michael saw the drying streaks on his son's face and knew it had been unusually severe. He made no hesitation in brushing away the lingering tears with his thumb. Rex did nothing to stop him. "What brought this on?" Michael said transferring his hand from the youth's cheek to his hair in one fluid motion. He began stroking Rex's hair as he had done countless times when he was younger. Rex seemed indifferent to it but certainly not resistant.
"You'd think I was pretty dumb." The youth said. Michael's mind flashed back to the Salami Guy case. He smiled at his son.
"Believe me, there are plenty of dumber people out there than you." Both his father's reaction and slightly cryptic statement caught Rex's interest. Like this morning, the teenager could see the man was in a better mood than usual. He frowned.
"Yeah? Like who?" Michael knew he was not strictly allowed to discuss case details outside of the workplace, especially those of a sensitive nature. But his son was miserable about something and the man knew this guy would make him laugh. They shared a similar sense of humour. Hannah had always said as much.
"That's his name?"
"No, that's just what we call him down the precinct. He was the victim in a murder case I've been working for the past couple of days. Guy was found dead in his hotel room, choked to death on a pound of salami sausage." Michael saw Rex immediately stifle a laugh. The man nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I know; that's what I thought the first time I heard it. Wanna know who did it?" The teenager, unable to hold off the urge to smile, could only nod. It was clear he desperately wanted to laugh. Michael shrugged his shoulders. "It turns out he did it to himself." That was it. Rex burst out laughing. It lasted almost five minutes. Eventually, he covered his mouth and shook his head, raising his other hand apologetically.
"I'm so sorry. I mean I know it's a tragedy but…" He sat up and rolled his eyes, "That is the dumbest way to go I have ever heard. I mean…why?"
"Guy was a competitive eater. They're a pretty weird bunch."
"No wonder you've been in a good mood all day." Rex shook his head again, looking at his father in incredulity. "I never thought police work was like that. I thought it was all gruesome murders and suicides and stuff."
"You get your fair share of everything as a cop, especially the stupid ones." Michael took this opportunity to slide himself onto the bed and position himself right beside his son. He made an open gesture with his hands. "So can we talk about what happened earlier?" Rex's smile faded.
"Things just got to me. I just sucked out there today. You know, I played really badly against someone I should've beaten in my sleep. And everyone was watching. Emma saw me lose my temper and so did you. I was humiliated out there. And after I got back from the match, I thought about how things would've been if mom had been there. I thought about how she would've said it wasn't my fault and how I'd just had a bad day and then I just went. It was weird. I thought I was over the crying bit now."
Michael knew his son had just had a moment of weakness. He had been getting better about the whole situation recently. He was smiling and laughing more than he had before. He was spending less time holed up in his room than before. He was hanging out with his friends and Emma more than before. In short, he was getting back to where he had been before the accident. But there were still holes. That was fine. Michael knew people did not mend all their problems instantaneously; it took time. That was why, instead of saying anything or doing anything else, the man merely pulled Rex over to him. "What are you doing?" The teenager said automatically stiffening his body against the action. Michael responded by squeezing his shoulder.
"It's this new thing called being a good dad. Relax; Emma can't see you right now." Rex let his head fall against his father's chest and for his body to soften. He had not been this intimate with the man for almost five years, even during the funeral. Rex had always favoured comfort from his mother to his father, even though they were arguably as good as one another. He supposed she had just seemed kinder and more understanding than his father. He also supposed, as he lounged in the man's arms, that he no longer had a choice in the matter. And that was not necessarily a bad thing.
"How come we're doing this?" Rex asked as Michael ran a hand through his hair.
"You don't like it?"
"I just think I'm too old for this stuff now."
"You're never too old for this kind of stuff, Rex."
And that was that. Both of them just stayed like that in silence for the next twenty minutes.
Michael had decided at the very outset of the day that he simply wanted to enjoy his son's company, no matter the circumstances. He wanted to make sure the teenager felt loved and connected to him in a way that should have been a natural matter of course. Michael was completely aware of the fact Rex knew he loved him and always would. That was not the problem. The problem was in reminding Rex why he loved his father.
Being with Hannah was different; they were both adults with years of experience behind them and an emotional bond that could withstand anything, even a child's death. With Rex he had to try so much harder to keep them together because adolescence made him psychologically fragile in way Michael no longer understood. It created distance between them and often made Michael question how strong their relationship really was. But a moment like this, together and comforting, was all it took to answer that nagging question concisely. It was also comforting that Doctor Evan's 'premonitions' were vague enough that if Michael had missed their appointment, it would have had no bearing on his decisions right now. Michael could smell his son's hair, hear his breathing and feel the rise and fall of the boy's chest beside his own. They were closer than ever. Michael could just tell from the way the youth sighed and shifted his weight into him that Rex understood that too. It was beautiful. Michael believed words would ruin something like this, so the man did not venture to open his mouth. His son felt differently.
"It's like déjà vu." Rex said somewhat absently. Michael frowned.
"What do you mean?"
"The last time we did something like this was exactly like this. It was when I fell out with Cole over something stupid. I must've been like ten or something. Mom was out and you got home early. You remember that?" Michael racked his brains trying to think.
"Was that where you hid under your bed from me when I walked upstairs?" He heard Rex smirk from under his chin.
"That's the one. You managed to talk me out from under the bed, using funny stories about you when you were a kid. Then you sat me on the bed, set me straight and held me just like this. And I don't think I ever thanked you for it. I patched things up with Cole and restored order to my universe because of what you said, but I never thanked you."
"You don't have to thank me for being there for you. I'm your dad; we do that."
"Not everyone's dad does that. And not everyone's dad keeps it to themselves. Because I know you never told anyone, even Mom, how messed up I was over it all. It's like now; I know you won't tell anybody how broken up I am over losing a tennis match. So I want to say thank you. And not just for now; it's a thank you for all the times I never said it before when I should've."
"I never thought you were ungrateful. Some things don't need to be said, but thanks anyway. Maybe we should cut this short before you say anything you regret." Michael said whilst shifting out of his current position. He got off the bed before turning round to face his son. Rex seemed a little shocked by his father's decision and was now propped up on one elbow returning his gaze.
"Dad, I'm not afraid of telling you anything. I'm just afraid you'd be disappointed in me if I did. I've done so many things I'm not proud of."
"Me too. All I'm saying is you don't have to tell me everything. If you feel guilty about our relationship, don't force yourself to tell me things just to ease that feeling. Relationships aren't supposed to work like that." Rex nodded.
"Okay." Michael returned the gesture.
"Okay. You coming down for dinner then?"