The title of the story as well as the section titles are taken from the song, “The 8th of November,” sung by the country/rock band Big & Rich. This song has had a rather profound effect on me; while this story in some ways parallels the song, it is not meant to reflect in any way on the song itself or the story that it tells.

This story is an expansion of the two GW500 ficlets I wrote - Dropped in the Jungle and Swallows It Down With His Tears.

This story has been submitted to the 2006 Anime Fest fanfiction contest.

Warnings: Foul language, and one section involves some racial epithets.

The 8th of November

I: Dropped in the Jungle

I smiled, and laughed. The expression felt unreal, plastic. It had been so long since I’d smiled that the very idea of it was something I could barely grasp. The laugh wasn’t much better – wooden and unpracticed. It hadn’t been a particularly amusing joke anyway, at least. Humor was something Heero simply didn’t do.

Still trying to smile, I pulled the bandage away from the burns that covered his leg from ankle to groin. It peeled away with an audible sucking noise, wet and stinking. Heero made a shuddering sound halfway between a growl and a whine, the muscles of his belly rippling under his grimy tank top. I hadn’t wanted to put bandages on him at all, but it was the only way to keep the insects off.

“Next time,” I told him, “try to pick somewhere more hospitable to crash.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, his eyes wide, pupils dilated until they threatened to swallow the blue of his irises. His breath stuttered out as he tried to laugh. “I’ll try not getting set on fire, too, while I’m at it.”

I pulled the last of the bandages from the inadequate first aid kit, the only thing I’d managed to salvage from the wreckage of Heero’s helicopter. The soiled bandages, I tossed on the ground nearby. The cloud of flies that had been trying for Heero’s leg followed it in a black swarm.

Even moving as slowly and gently as I could, laying the bandages onto his leg made his hands clench, his fingernails ripping moldy splinters from the felled tree we’d made into his bed. Gentleness had never been my forte to begin with. I unscrewed the top of my canteen and sloshed the pitiful amount of water in it – there wasn’t enough left to make a difference when it came to dying of thirst. I emptied the water over the dry bandage. Not sterile, but nothing here was. It would help the pain, though, if only a little.

As I sat back, he met my eyes. “How bad is it?” he asked. “Tell me the truth.”

I didn’t want to answer at all. Heero was a man who would die of thirst in a lake of lies. “Bad,” I admitted. “It’s already infected.”

He didn’t look surprised; perhaps the pain had already informed him of what my eyes and nose had told me. He closed his eyes, his lips drawn in a tight grimace. “Shit.”

I let my now empty canteen drop to the ground. “If it’s any comfort, the dehydration will take us both before the blood poisoning gets you, I think.”

Heero snorted, his eyes still tightly shut. “Duo’s right. You’re quite the cheerful fellow.”

“I suppose,” I said, with a humorless chuckle. “I once had the knack, but I think I’ve forgotten.” I glanced at the small pile of dogtags, wound together on a twist of cloth that sat next to my rifle. Heero couldn’t see them; his wounds distracted him from asking what had become of the rest of our unit. It was for the best. “I have little to laugh about.”

“Neither do I,” he said. “Good thing he laughs enough for the both of us.” Heero reached up a shaking hand, scraping at the straggles of sweat-soaked hair that threatened his eyes. I leaned forward and wiped them back for him. My fingers left dirty streaks behind. “Shit,” Heero said, again. “He’s… he’ll be upset.”

I opened my mouth to speak – of course Duo would be upset. Losing comrades – friends – never got easier. But something in Heero’s tone caught me. Heero was not an emotional man by nature, but his voice was hoarse with a different kind of pain.

As I thought, I picked up an empty shell casing from the ground and rolled it between my fingers. I sorted through everything I had seen of Heero and our friend, all snatches of conversations and odd moments that had left me feeling confused.

“Ah,” I said. “I see.”

Heero’s eyes snapped open at my words, his face setting in the tired parody of his normal, sullen glare. “What are you - ? It’ not like that! Not like whatever you’re thinking,” he growled.

“Really,” I said. “And what am I thinking?”

For a moment, his chest and shoulders tense, like he was going to sit up, then he let his head fall back against the tree trunk. “I… I don’t know.”

I wasn’t certain, myself. I was confused, and faintly disgusted. “So what is it like, then?”

“Don’t ask me to explain it, Wufei. I can’t,” Heero said. “I can’t. But… Duo… he’s been there for me. He’s helped me. He’s… a friend. He’s the one breath of real air in this goddamn jungle. If you – if you look at him like that, I’ll – I’ll kill you!” He seemed to have forgotten for a moment that he couldn’t even sit up without my help.

I tried to breathe deeply, but the hot, fetid breath of the jungle and the smell of nearby rot was too much for me. I nudged at the empty canteen by my foot. What was my problem? Heero hadn’t changed in the last two minutes. Even though he wasn’t here, I could be certain that Duo hadn’t either. Two men… the thought made my stomach churn, but at the same time, if they were at all happy, who was I to spit on that happiness. At least Heero had something that he could hold on to. I didn’t. “Alright.”

His glare unraveled into confusion. “Alright?”

“Alright,” I repeated. I shrugged. “Contrary to what Duo might think, I really do prefer people to be happy.” My helmet still had ‘Sergeant Killjoy’ scrawled across it in black ink, thanks to Duo.

Heero’s mouth pulled into a small, crooked smile, so like Duo’s that my breath caught in my throat. “You prefer that people are happy… except for you.”

It seemed to be the day for harsh honesty. “Did Duo tell you that?”

“Some things, I figure out for myself,” Heero said. The smile fell away. “Wufei… if I can’t, tell Duo… just tell him I’m sorry.”

“If I can,” I said. There was no guarantee that either of us would survive this. I wouldn’t waste his time with false assurances.

Satisfied, his eyes slipped shut and he passed out, finally escaping the heat. I laid a hand on his chest, reassuring myself with the unsteady flutter of his heart, then placed an uncertain kiss on his burning, slick forehead.

After that, all I could do was wait, and listen to the distant rumble of the choppers.

* * *

II: Just Doin’ What He Had to Do

The thirst didn’t get me, nor blood poisoning Heero. Our luck – if it could be called that – held. Two more days, and the rumble of the choppers brought not the smell of napalm, but rescue.

They sent an entire wing, enough for the wounded of the unit they’d hoped had somehow survived an ambush. They needed only one. Heero rode in a stretcher fixed to the skids. He’d woken only long enough to try to pick up the grenade I’d left near him – a precaution against capture – and lost consciousness again when I wrestled it away from him.

I rode inside, bits of rag stuffed in my ears to keep out the deafening roar of the rotors. I clung to the strap fixed just inside the door with one hand, balancing an assault rifle across my lap with the other. The dogtags, wrapped around my fist, spun and clattered in the wind.

Heero was rushed to surgery, a bag of fluid emptying into each arm by the time he disappeared from my sight. Nothing was wrong with me that sleep, solid food, and fluids – the sort ingested orally – wouldn’t cure. They shuffled me to a tent outside, leaving me on a rickety folding chair at an unsteady card table, with a large cup of water and a wax paper-wrapped ham sandwich sitting in front of me. The tent cleared out quickly; my hands had been given a perfunctory wash, but nothing else had. I stunk of death and the jungle.

I drank the water greedily. It had a few chips of ice in it, and was cold enough to make my head hurt and my throat close up. I went back for another cup, and another. The ham sandwich, its pink insides pressed against the translucent paper, I ignored.

After days with nothing but my own stink and Heero’s to keep me company, I didn’t notice it any more. Perhaps that was how I caught the sweet sting of cigarette smoke, a familiar brand. I stood, clutching my water cup, and went to look for the source of the smell.

Duo stood in a patch of shade provided by the tent, his eyes fixed on the door of the temporary hospital. A cigarette butt dangled from his lips, burned nearly to the filter. He fished another cigarette out of the crumpled pack rolled into his sleeve and lit it from the still smoldering butt.

“Duo, have –“ I started.

He yelped, dropping both new and dying cigarettes on the ground. He only glanced at me as he bent to pick up the fresh one, blowing imaginary dirt off of it as he crushed the other with the toe of his boot. “Shit, man, don’t sneak up on a guy like that. Gave me a fucking heart attack.”

“Sorry,” I said. I’d had moments like that, myself. Even in supposed safety, you couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was waiting behind you, ready to make quick work with a knife.

“Just… just heard you got back in. Finished a run a couple hours ago. Thought I’d see how you were doing.” He said it all in one rushing breath, then sucked a quarter inch of paper off of his cigarette.

“I’m fine,” I said. “But—“

“How about the other guys? It sounded bad. Real bad.”

“They all died in the ambush. There’s no one left but Heero and myself.”

A hectic light showed in Duo’s eyes. He nodded jerkily. “That’s some shit, man. Some bad shit. How… is he?”

Duo, I might have lied to. Despite his claims about personal honesty, I thought he would appreciate it. But I had already made a promise. “When the chopper went down, his leg was trapped beneath the control panel. Broken in at least two places. Third degree burns…” At a loss for words, I pointed to my foot, then up to my hip. A smoky breath hissed from between Duo’s teeth. “I did my best, Duo. But… it was infected. Badly. More than that… we just arrived. There is no more to know, yet."

Despite the fact that the cigarette was only half burned, Duo painstakingly took another out, lit it off the first, and dropped the half-finished one on the ground to be crushed. His hands were shaking. “So is he going to make it?” he asked, his voice the softest I’d ever heard from him.

“I don’t know. I’ve told you everything.”

He shook his head. “That’s some bullshit copout,” he said. “You… you were there, Wufei. Is he going to make it?”

I stared at the muddy toes of my own boots. What kind of power was Duo trying to give me? “If it’s a matter of will, I think he’ll live. But his leg…”

Duo laughed mirthlessly. “So he gets to go home, one way or another.” He sniffed. “Shit.”

“Duo, he told me…” I hesitated. Maybe Heero would get a chance to say that – and what he’d really wanted to say – to Duo later. But maybe I was wrong, and he would die. Maybe Duo would get sent out in a few minutes on a run and get shot down. Maybe it would be my turn next. “He said to tell you he was sorry.”

Duo shook his head, his shoulders shuddering. “That asshole.” He looked up at me quickly, his expression unreadable with his eyes hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Bastard owes me.”

Feeling as if my arm belonged to someone else, I reached out to pat him awkwardly on the shoulder. His skin was damp with sweat; the Airborne tattoo on his upper arm shone in the sun. I had the same tattoo on my own shoulder, as did Heero, and any of a hundred now-dead young men. “Duo, I understand. Heero told…”

“Shut up,” Duo said. “Just shut the fuck up now.” He slapped my hand away, hesitated, and then punched me in the arm for good measure. His aim wasn’t very good; his fist glanced off to the side. I stepped back before he could try again.

Duo calmed down quickly, sucked down another quarter inch of his cigarette before speaking again. “I just want to know that the guy’s okay, right? They’re not going to talk to me. So I just have to wait.”

“Yes, we both need to wait.” I wasn’t likely to have more luck than Duo. Not because the doctors wouldn’t tell me, but because they wouldn’t know.

We needed to do something. Just leaving Duo standing here alone wouldn’t do anything but blacken his lungs and break his heart. “It’s hot out here,” I said. “Let’s… let’s go get a drink. We can still keep an eye out.”

“A drink?” Duo looked at me, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “You? You’re asking to go get a drink?”

I gave him a wan smile. “So it would seem.”

“Well, hot damn. I get to be the first man on the planet to see you drunk.” He shot a quick glance at the temporary hospital’s unmoving door, his face darkening for a moment. “I guess… well, I guess I can’t pass that up.”

“You can tell Heero all about. And then he can be the second person in the world to see me drunk.”

Duo nodded. “Okay, let’s go.”

The further we got from the hospital, the more unhappy Duo looked. He clung to his smile – and his cigarettes – but glanced over his shoulder often. I was more concerned with watching Duo than looking where I was going. I saw the other soldiers out of the corner of my eye, but with fatigue-dulled reflexes, I had run into them before I really comprehended that a collision was about to occur.

There were two of them, one blond, one with dark brown hair. Both smelled of beer and smoke and had the wide-eyed stare of a man who has seen more than he wants.

We went down in a tangle of confused shouts and yelps. Duo grabbed me by the arm and yanked me to my feet, then bent to help the blonde one up.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going. Are you alright?” I offered my hands to the brunet, feeling foolish.

The soldier grabbed my hand, then looked me in the eye. He yanked his hands away. “What’s a fucking gook doing on our base?” he demanded.

I stepped back quickly, clenching my teeth. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d been called a name. It probably wouldn’t be the last, either.

Duo whipped around. “The hell did you say?”

The man pointed at me. “Fucking gook!”

The blond man shoved Duo from the side. “And you’re hanging around with him.”

“Are you both blind or just fucking stupid?” Duo threw his cigarette down on the ground. “He’s a soldier!”

“Duo…” The look he shot me froze my words in my throat. They were just drunk. Drinking made everyone stupid.

“He’s sure got them slanty eyes,” Blond said.

“Gonna fucking kill us in our beds…” Brunet muttered.

Duo’s voice was very quiet. “This soldier just survived an ambush and about died trying to save his men. You apologize to him now, or I’ll beat one out of you.”

“Duo…”

“’Course he survived! He’s one of them!” Brunet shouted, swaying to his feet.

“Fuckin’ gook lover.”

Duo’s eyes narrowed – not when the man said ‘gook’ again, but at the next word. “What did you call me?”

“Gook lover!”

Duo punched Blond in the jaw. The meaty crack echoed as the man stumbled back. “Get it straight, you idiots. He’s not a fucking gook! He’s a goddamn chink!” He dodged one clumsy punch and threw another, this time at Brunet.

As they traded blows, I could only stand by, feeling like I wanted to vomit. The fight ended quickly; two drunk men against a sober one of Duo’s caliber couldn’t stand long. Duo turned and grinned at me. His teeth were stained red with blood running from his nose. “Fucking teach them to mess with us,” he said.

I stared at the blood welling from his split knuckles. Whoever he thought he was defending, it wasn’t me.

* * *

III: Swallows It Down With His Tears

Heero lost his leg.

I snuck a furtive look into his room while he still slept, his face peaceful but far too pale and hollow. Looking at the neatly bandaged, round stump made me shift from foot to foot, my stomach in knots. I felt like the sickest sort of voyeur. Anaesthetic, antiseptic, and the strange, sweet plastic smell of medical equipment chased me from the room.

It wasn’t that I was running away. I was going to look for Duo. He was on active duty; I was still recovering, and had nothing to do.

I found him at the landing field, sitting half in his chopper. Smoke drifted lazily around his head. He swung his feet in time with some music I couldn’t hear. The smell of napalm was thick in the air.

“Should you be smoking?” I asked.

He sat up a bit straighter, and shrugged. “Left a bunch of people smoking already, today,” he said. “Might as well do it myself.”

He must have just gotten back. I shook my head. “If you can, head to the hospital. I think he’s going to wake up soon.”

That was all I had to say. He jumped out of the helicopter and took off running, heading in the direction that I’d come from. I hadn’t really expected a response. I followed him at a more sedate pace, hoping that he’d handle the stump and the bandages better than I had.

He was gone from sight by the time I got back to the hospital. I took his old place, in the shade of the tent, and waited. They both deserved to have a few stolen moments alone, I supposed. The ground under my feet was littered with Duo’s cigarette butts.

I caught a whiff of soap and a hint of soft, sweet perfume. It was so out of place, I couldn’t believe it. I stepped out of the shade to look around, wondering if I’d gone crazy – though I’d never heard of hallucinating smells before.

Relena stood between me and the hospital, dressed in white and a simple straw hat, her hair cascading down her back in a golden wave. Just the bright sight of her made my eyes water with something indescribable. One of the men from my unit had called her our angel, when she first came to hand out encouragement and letters from home. And she saw our unit more often than most. Everyone had thought she was looking at them, except for the one she was looking at, and me, who noticed her looks.

“Wait,” I called. I hurried to catch up to. “Wait, please.” Relena was a powerful force in our claustrophobic world. They would have told her before informing anyone else.

She smiled at me, her eyes brightening. “Wufei! I’m so glad to see you,” she said. She reached out and took my hands in hers. Her fingers were soft. “They told me what happened to your unit.” Her voice became softer. “I’m so sorry. But… but I’m glad to see you.” She didn’t seem to know what else to say.

I nodded, my movements rather stiff. “It’s hot out,” I said. “Why don’t we go sit in the shade for a while.”

She looked back toward the hospital. “I’m sorry, but I’m here to visit…”

I shook my head, tugging her toward the shade. “No, not yet,” I said. “Let’s visit for a while, alright?”

She must have caught the desperate note in my voice. With one last look at the hospital, she followed me, let me take her to the makeshift bar, the coolest place on the base. There were only a few other men there at this hour. They stared at her, their drinks caught halfway to their lips.

“Order something for me, please,” I said, waving at the bartender.

“Wufei, I…” She was interrupted by the bartender. She ordered two drinks, then turned back to me. “What’s wrong? You look upset.”

“Not upset,” I said. At least I didn’t think so. “You… you look well.”

She gave me a puzzled look. “Why don’t you want me to go to the hospital? I’ve been in there before.”

The bartender set our drinks in front of us. They smelled fruity and sweet. “Heero’s going to wake up soon,” I said.

“All the more reason for me to be there.” She tried to stand. I caught her wrist and pulled her back down, more roughly than I had intended. She tried to tug her hand away, but I hung on.

“When he wakes, there is someone else he should see first,” I said, finally letting go.

She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I can’t tell you. Please… please just believe me.” I picked up my drink, then put it back down unsteadily. I watched her, frowning as some of the cold alcohol flowed over my hand.

Her eyes were clouding up with tears. They spilled over, dropping onto the bar, into her drink.

It made me angry, to see her crying over someone that didn’t care. “Don't cry for someone that's still alive. Not for the fortunate.” It came out far sharper than I’d intended, and her tears only came faster. “It’s… he’s going home, Relena. He has an honorable discharge.” He was going home, without Duo. Relena would go home soon as well – she disappeared every now and then – without any of us.

“It’s okay, Wufei. We’ll get you home soon. All of you. This won’t last much longer.” She smiled in spite of her tears.

This time, I took a long swallow of my drink. It burned my throat going down. I thought of the letters that Relena herself had brought me. Talk of protests. Worries from my school friends, about the venom they heard about soldiers. “Home,” I said.

“Wufei, what’s wrong?” she asked. “You’re starting to scare me. Why won’t you just tell me?”

I looked at my hands, wrapped around the cool glass. I had started biting my fingernails, since our rescue. I thought about my anger at Heero, at Relena, my disgust one moment and jealousy the next. I thought about a handful of dogtags, the names erased by blood and dirt. “It’s not that easy,” I said.

I downed the rest of my drink, so I wouldn’t have to talk. It tasted like salt.