"Only the Dead Stay Seventeen Forever"
The room is this: above their heads, a single light dangling from the ceiling, flickering off and on from age. At the far end, a door, black paper pasted over the window for privacy. Abandoned weights take up the floor space, scattered randomly as obstacles and a small radio sits in the corner, a vague and quiet techno beat setting the tone.
Rex swallows, sweat dripping down his neck faster with the motion, and waits. Watches, trying to catch a tic, a flinch—anything that'll tell him Six's next move, because right now he's just standing and there's no winner yet. Rex's muscles feel heavy enough to fall right through his skin and the sweat's a film over his body but there's no winner yet so he can't stop. It's never gone this long before and the grin comes instantly as he realizes: I might actually beat him this time.
Six knows it too. He never speaks in these battles unless he's correcting form, but he says, "Rex, maybe—"
"—Uh-uh. We're finishing this."
"You're going to finish it with a pulled muscle at this rate."
"Aw, come on, Six—" Rex punches, quick right strike just to warn, and Six dodges with a fluid sidestep "—you and I both know that's not going to happen. Don't tell me you're scared?"
Six drops, kicks, and Rex's brain catches on just in time to jump—but in the landing, he stumbles, loses the half-second he needs to counter.
Six starts, "You're being too—"
And he stops. A foot hangs barely an inch from his face and the BFS locked to hit the center of his gut. It's just that quick, too quick to even see, and he knows the error (though Rex's beaming, taking way too much satisfaction in announcing it).
"And you talk too much."
It started with a simple wish:
Rex asked, "Can I get a dog?"
Six answered, "No."
But Rex was twelve. Probably. Ask Six and he'd say he had to be, because twelve was just that age, when 'No' meant 'You're going to have to do better than that'. And Rex did. He constructed detailed plans demonstrating how having a dog would maximize his training efficiency in new ways and wrote up contracts promising no more breaking out of the base and an eternally clean room. He obeyed orders silently and heaved deep sighs intermittently, playing the full sympathy scale. But after a few months, desperation broke through. A captured EVO turned out to be a dog when cured, and he knew he only had days before Providence found the real owner. The most recent plan was only half-formed, but walking to the training room, Rex went for it:
"Can we make a bet?"
Same answer: "No."But this time Rex saw it coming, leaping in front to stop the agent before saying:
"Hear me out. One bet: that if I fight you, I'll win—"
"—I'll win," he repeated, "and if I win, you've got to do one thing for me, no questions asked."
" . . . Rex, if this is about the dog—"
"—Of course not." And it wasn't completely a lie—there was some genuine curiosity too."Come on, Six! It'll be good training! And hey, if you're going to win, what's the big deal?"
Six sighed, a short little huff of defeat, and Rex grinned; he had it.
Six only had one question:
"And what do I get out of this?"
"I'll . . . quit whining about the dog?"
". . . Okay."
And Six swung around with a kick, knocking Rex and all dreams of canine companions out of commission. It was as easy as breathing, Rex being barely more than half his size, and Six felt good about it. It was over; done. And for that matter it was. Rex made good on his promise: he never spoke of a dog again, and with a smile handed over SeñorSenior the Cocker Spaniel to his owners.
Six couldn't know that it was just the start though.
Six bats the foot away with a hand. "All right," he says, "you win. Now back off before you hit my glasses."
"I really win?"
"Yes." Though who knows what, he thinks.
Rex grins, all teeth bared. "Awesome."
Both leg and sword retreat, and Rex collapses on the floor, finally letting exhaustion in and it swarms. It's enough to make Six's legs twitch, but he doesn't rush. Rex is capable. He's panting, shuddering as he sucks in air, but he's okay. Just finished, adrenaline gone, and though Six might look fine, he sits down next to the kid and gladly gives over control to the floor.
Rex doesn't notice the relaxation though and glares; says, punctuated by breaths: "What . . . are you? You're like . . . a robot."
"It's called 'stamina', Rex. And you waste too much of your energy on pointless strikes."
"Hey . . . I won."
"You were lucky."
"And I won. Can't take that away from me."
Six's eyes roll as he looks away but he says nothing. He wipes sweat off his forehead with a green sleeve but it's like mopping up water with a soaked towel so he strips the jacket, tossing it to the side, and pulls up the shirt sleeves to his elbows. The cool air hits and it's gorgeous on his skin—though not as perfect as the shower he plans to take the second they get out of here.
When Six turns back, Rex is staring at him. Not speaking, and his breathing's settled, but there's something just off about it and he asks, "What?"
Rex whips his head away quickly, looking back to the ceiling. The answer itself is slow though, both in coming and in the words: "Nothing. Just . . . thinking how you're the only person who fights in a suit."
Right. Sure you were. But he plays along: "Well, somebody has a habit of stealing my t-shirts."
"Maybe if somebody bought me t-shirts—"
"Why? You've already got plenty, apparently."
Rex squints; turns back to Six, a unsure smile threatening but not quite coming out. "Did you just make a joke?"
"It happens occasionally."
"Yeah, but that was, like, a real joke. Not Deadpan Snarker from Beyond the Grave."
". . . 'Beyond the grave'?"
". . .Yeah. It made sense in my head."
An eyebrow quirks up but Rex doesn't notice; he's looking at the ceiling again, mouth setting in a thin line that makes him look different. Actually seventeen, for once, if not a little older.
Six doesn't really know if he likes it.
"Well?" he asks, shaking the strangeness off. "You won. What do you want?"
". . . I'm thinking."
It became routine one day. Six wasn't sure how. For a year, Rex was quiet—at least, on any subject of fighting. Demanding he got his way, yes, that was just part of the job. So why at thirteen, Rex needed to break in to his office and say:
"Want to fight?"
Six just didn't know.
"I thought you weren't supposed to talk about dogs again."
". . . What? Oh, please. I'm way over that; Bobo's the only pet I need."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate hearing that."
"We can even get him a collar; it'll be great. But, back to that fight—"
Six sighed. "What do you want now?"
" . . . Okay, there's this concert—"
"And that's why I'm asking: one fight."
And that was how it went until Six back flipped him, case closed. From there it ranged: a stereo, a trip to Six Flags, even a pack of gum. But here was the truth: it wasn't always about the things. The concert he'd been interested in but three weeks later, Rex didn't want the mp3 player he nursed a black eye for—he'd nabbed one someone lost at an attack site months ago.
It was about practice.
He didn't know what it'd be yet. Right then, there was not a damn thing in the world right that Rex wanted more than he had that dog. But when there came a day he did? When there was something he really needed? He wanted to be ready.
He wanted to win.
I can't believe it, Six thinks. You pushed yourself past your limits. You've been asking almost every day. And yet:
"You don't even know, do you?"
But Rex shakes his head. "It's not that," he says, glancing back at Six; but his voice is odd, grinding with a frustrated whine, as he continues, "Just . . . don't know how to say it, you know?"
No. No, Six doesn't, because that's not Rex. Since the first day they met Rex has always been clear, even when he was a ten year old street punk with swords for hands screaming from a train car for everyone to 'go away'.
So what's changed?
Six sighs; like he'll really find out. In the meantime, he's got piles of paperwork still waiting at his desk so he gets up, knees cracking loud. "Well, figure it out fast, or I'll change my mind."
He walks away—stops. Not because he wants to; he can't move, foot locked in place by a trembling hand.
"—I want to go out."
Sounds easy enough, Six thinks. Except you leave anytime you feel like it—whether I allow it or not.
So he asks, "Where?"
And Rex answers, "With you.
"I want to go out with you."
"What is it this time?"
That was all Six asked. Fight after fight, loss after loss, ever since Rex was sixteen. Sometimes he even tried to change the deal; if he won (and he always did), he'd get to know what it was that Rex was looking for this time. But those weren't the terms and Six wasn't the nosy sort so eventually aside from that one question, he stopped. He'd ask as a matter of course, but accept the challenge, win, and that would be all. And Rex was grateful because really:
How did you tell someone that? He'd never had any experience. Circe was momentary—just another loss to feel, really. And with Holiday it meant nothing, He could flirt and make stupid jokes and pull Spanish pick-up lines, but ultimately, it was the dance of a bridesmaid and the ring bearer. She wasn't interested and beyond a very healthy interest in her beauty, neither was he. She loved him in a different way, and he needed that way more than he needed her.
So what did you do when the opposite was true?
His hand's shaking. Rex knows it and hates it. Either he's just too tired to hold it out like that, or he knows he shouldn't. But he can hear the silence that should be there (the radio, all wrong with an upbeat driving bass line, prevents it) and his hand shakes because he can't let go; because if he lets go, he knows, Six will go too.
Rex's voice shakes too, as he says, "—We had a deal, Six. You can't say no."
"I can when it's illegal. You're seventeen—"
"—Then I'll be eighteen," he cuts in, "or nineteen." Rex thinks, then smiles; the mood's all wrong but he feels better if he tries a joke so he says it anyway: "I could be older than you if I wanted to be; it's not like I have a birth date."
"You're still seventeen to me."
His hand stills. Moves to the floor as he pushes himself up, stands his full height, and looks Six in the eye—looks down, just that tiny bit down, to do it, and it's that fraction of an inch that really drives his confidence.
"Fine!" he says. "So what? I'm seventeen now; what does that even matter? I'm not going to stay seventeen."
"—One date. Off the radar, off the map—off anything. After that, decide what you want."
Rex steps closer, voice dropping as he stands close enough to feel Six's breath. He wants to make this clear; needs to make this clear. "I'm not asking for more than anyone else would get here, Six. But I want a chance."
And as focused he is, he still notices, and thinks:
I can see your eyes from here.
Almost like he hears, Six steps back, business posed with pulled back shoulders and tight mouth. "I'll be outside," he says, "when you've actually spent five minutes thinking about this."
Maybe that's what does it. Or maybe it's the eyes, green little lights hidden under dark mirrored lenses. Or maybe it's the tremble, gone from his hand but there, deep in his stomach, but whatever it is, Rex kisses him, pushing forward with every last bit of energy he's got because he knows at any moment Six could back away, and all he'll ever have is this: a memory of chapped lips hastily smashed against his.
He enjoys it though; even more when he realizes that despite it all, he's right, because Six lets it happen. There's four whole beats before he pushes Rex back and even then it's without much effort, not that he really needs it. Rex slides back easily at the touch. He's a burned down wick, and his voice is just as dried and worn and small:
"I've thought about this since I was fifteen. Or sixteen. Or maybe earlier, I don't know. It's all kind of this mess."
"You've known me since you were ten." And the tone's so disbelieving that Rex just has to laugh.
"Not since then. Ew."
I wanted you to be my dad, then. Just so someone was.
"But how . . ."
Rex can't answer. His eyes pulled down to halfway, and he can feel his muscles try to do the same to his whole body. "I don't know. I don't know."
Half of me still thinks you are. Half of me still wants you to be.
He droops, his forehead finding Six's shoulder and his eyes shut. He could sleep here. Standing up like a horse or lying down like . . . whatever. Whatever he's allowed to be. But he could sleep forever here and he's not even sure he's talking about the date anymore when he says:
He hears the sigh, and there are so many years in that short little sigh, like he's doing it on purpose; like he wants to say: 'So many more years than you.'
"You're not thinking straight," Six tries, but Rex just shakes his head against him.
"I know I'm not," he says, clinging on to consciousness, "but just . . . please."
I liked it when I kissed you; that's enough, for me.
I need you more.
". . . Okay."
Rex stirs, lifting his head, just a bit. "Really?"
And Rex feels the warm weight of a hand against his neck push him down again and that's enough.
The title comes from a line in Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood.
Thanks to Audley for the look-over. Hugely useful, as always.
Still don't own it. Still doing it for free,