Copyright © 1998
"Pull up! Pull up!" Piper cried as the heads up display showed the enemy on Banditís tail, closing in for a missile lock.
Bandit pulled up sharply, executing a flawless roll to the right that momentarily threw the enemy fighter off. But only for the moment. The Chinese Mao was one of the most advanced fighters in the world and could make even a kid fresh out of flight school look like an ace.
Piper pursued his own prey to the very fringe of the atmosphere, to the extent that only the solid rocket boosters were providing thrust. A familiar tone soundedóhis computer had acquired a lock, finally breaking through his opponentís countermeasures. What followed was completely automatic. The computer launched the weapon; thirty seconds later a brilliant fireball drifted over the horizon.
"I canít shake him!" Bandit screamed. "Damnit, I canít shake him!"
"Hold on buddy, Iím comminí down!" Piper said grimly, as the display showed him he might not be in time.
Bandit was executing a series of dives and rolls to forestall the inevitable, but the Maoís computers had almost broken through the last of Banditís jamming signals. When the last signal failed, a missile would launch; traveling and turning at a speed no human could endure. Ten years ago a Chinese missile would likely fail, but then China had caught the same quality bug that had swept Japan and the Americas. The missile wouldnít fail.
"This is it, Piper," Bandit said, his voice eerily calm though the display showed he was engaged in high stress maneuvers. "I was looking forward to that home cooked meal you promised youíd have your wife cook for us when we got leave."
"Itís still a date, asshole," Piper replied, his voice ragged from the adrenaline pouring through his body. He was closing to weapons range fast and Banditís computer had already uploaded the enemyís defensive information. Heíd have a shot, but the computer predicted heíd arrive ten seconds too late.
Switching the flight controls to fully automatic, Piper, already at full thrust, flipped two buttons, igniting the solid rocket motors in an uncontrolled burn. The seat slammed into his back as the contact was made. A second later, accelerating faster than both man and machine were designed for, the world went white, then black.
"Whoooohooooo!" Banditís voice echoed through the cabin.
Groggily, Piper checked the system, trying to work through the blurred double image. All clear. Two splashed bogies.
"That was un-fucking-believable!" Bandit howled. "You must have been pulling thirteen Gís! You came in so fast Charlie never knew what hit him!"
"Iíd say you owe me a beer," Piper said, suddenly surprised at how weak his voice was.
"Piper, I owe you a whole fucking bar! Shhhiiiit! Olí Bessy hereís telling me the bogie on my tail was commanded by none other than Woeful Wu. Thereís seventy-eight dead red-blooded American pilots waiting to give him a proper welcome on the other side."
"Wu, huh?" Piper asked, still trying to clear his head.
"The ident codes match. I think youíll have more than a beer waiting for you when we get back."
The return trip was uneventful, as was the landing and debrief. The trip from the debrief back to the barracks was not uneventful however, as word of the dreaded fighter aceís demise had rippled like a spark to deadwood throughout the base. Police action or not, the war ground to a halt as the base took a well deserved holiday to celebrate and toast their newfound hero well into the night. The beer, boasts, and bragging flowed freely. With a few drinks under his belt, Piper discovered that he recalled many more details of the encounter than maybe he had told to the debriefing officer.
"Pipe pulled a fifteen G diving roll to intercept Wu!" Bandit was exclaiming, his words slurring a little. "He never stood a chance. Pipe pulled in with guns blazing and I swear every missile popped all making a straight B-line to Woeful Wu, who probably still doesnít know what hit him!" Bandit laughed uproariously at this and the crowed around him joined in.
"Fifteen G?" A voice from the back asked. "Shit, no one can take a fifteen G roll and live to tell about it."
"Hey, Hey!" Bandit cried throwing an arm around Piper who was trying to chase the sting from the last shot of whiskey with another. "Whoís this party for anyway? Itís all in the logs, me boyos." Bandit said as he chomped down on a cigar, a broad grin lightning his athletic face. "Piper pulled a fifteen G rolling dive and walked to debrief as steady as me."
The voice in the back muttered, "fifteen G," again before drifting off.
Someone raised their glass and yelled, "to Piper!"--it was not the first, nor would it be the last toast of the evening.
Piper stood shakily and yelled back, "To Bandit!"
"Bandit?", the toaster asked incredulously.
"To Bandit!" Piper said back firmly. "Who do you think kept Wu occupied while I was busy becoming a hero so we could all get shift-faced?"
Captain Jensen, known as "the Cube," (which could mean either ice or square as depending on whether he was flying or on the ground), stood up and said, "Way I heard it, Olí Bandit was going to be Wuís seventy-ninth flag until you came around."
Piperís eyes narrowed dangerously. "We ainít flying HellJets BOY, and Bandit was holding his own. Iíll take him as my wingman any day of the week, you got a problem with that?"
Sixty pairs of eyes locked on Cube, who suddenly decided heíd had too much to drink and dropped the matter. The mood in the room had turned from festive to awkward silence until Piper raised his glass again and said firmly, "To Bandit!"
"TO BANDIT!" the room cheered. And the party went on.
"Cubeís right." Bandit muttered over a beer later that evening. All but the most dedicated drinkers had left the bar. "My ass was grass. I had a Chinese missile with my name on it ready to go right up where the sun never shines."
"So I save your ass, you save mine. Youíve gotten bogies off my tail before. Itís what a good wingman does, and youíre the best, Bandit. The only one here who donít know that is Cube, and heís got his head stuck up his bunghole."
"Yea, but itís never been this close before." Bandit said quietly. "You and I both know you and your plane shouldnít have survived that burn, man."
Piper shrugged. "We both do what we have to do. Youíd have done the same for me."
Bandit looked at his friend and wondered. Here, now in the bar it would be easy to say Ďyes.í In the cockpit at full burn, knowing that engaging the solids could tear the airplane to shreds, that was something you never knew if you could do or not until it was done. The only man on the base Bandit knew would do it was Piper himself. "Yea," Bandit agreed. It was the expected thing to say, but deep down he still wondered.
"Ten-hut!" someone shouted from the entrance, and all eyes went immediately to the door. Colonel Briggs stared sternly around the room as men instantly staggered to their feet and stood waveringly at attention.
"At ease, men!" The Colonel commanded. "Far be it from me to spoil this festive party youíre all having!"
It was a sarcastic remark. The festivities had ended an hour ago. The few men remaining decided that now would be a perfect time to call it a night, as the Colonel made his way over to the table where Piper and Bandit sat.
"Captain Piper, Captain Gregs," the Colonel greeted them, motioning them to sit. "I guess, given the circumstances, you should be excused for your appearance." Then his usually harsh face broke into a wide smile and he shoved out his hand to shake Piperís. "Well done! Well done, both of you." The pride on his face was the same as a proud father.
"Thank you Sir." Piper said, genuinely moved by this rare display of humanity.
"I understand you have your first furlough in three days."
"Yes sir. Bandit, uh Captain Gregs and I both. I was going to show him around L.A."
"In two weeks, youíre to appear at the Pentagon. It will cut four days off your leave."
"Sir? I donít understand."
"Word of your little sortie has reached Washington, Piper. General Hargrove himself wants to pin a new medal on your uniform. Since heís a General, youíll have to indulge him. It will only take a few days. Is this a problem?"
A little unsure of his answer, since it had been over a year since heíd last touched his wife, Piper none-the-less answered, "No Sir!"
"Good. Youíll still have ten days for yourself. Iíd extend your leave if I could, but weíre shorthanded enough as it is. Those Maoís are eating our lunch, not to mention our best qualified pilots." The Colonel thought a second before saying, "Good job again, Captain Piper. Itís the kind of by-your-seat and damn the consequences flying today that reminds me why we still put men up there. You made me proud to be a soldier again."
"Thank you, sir!" Piper said as the Colonel turned sharply and strode to the door.
"Well, isnít that just the catís meow?" Bandit grinned, punching Piper in the arm. "Olí Pipe sitting up in Washington with the big brass staring at him like some caged animal. Doesnít that just sound fun?"
"Yea." Piper said glumly. "Four less days with Ilene. The army sure knows how to reward its so-called heroes."
"Come on, Pipe. Time to call it a night. Weíve still got two more days of duty before the fun starts, and youíve never been a fun drunk."
"L.A.," Piper said as they stared out the window of the descending plane. "The city of angels."
"Isnít it also the city of gang wars, drug riots, and corrupt cops?" Bandit snickered.
"As long as Ilene lives there, bud, itís the city of angels." Piper said.
"Now me, I couldnít disappoint all the beautiful ladies out there by shacking up with just one. I figure Iíve got a good five, maybe ten years before I need to settle down."
Piper laughed. "I was worse than you bud. Before Ilene I was bringing a different girl home every night, sometimes two! Then I met Ilene and she turned my world upside down. Until her I was just like you Ė I couldnít see myself with just one girl. Then suddenly I couldnít see myself with anyone but her. Funny how that is."
"Yea, har-har." Bandit joked. "The day I meet a woman like that is the day I run out and bed every woman whoíll have me until it passes!"
"Thatís my Bandit, stealing the ladies affections as easily as he steals his splashes."
"Ainít it the truth!" Bandit agreed as he cast a winning smile and a quick wink at the stewardess who was moving through the cockpit to prepare the passengers for landing. She paused a moment and smiled back at him, a slow blush growing on her already rosy cheeks.
"One year, five months, and three days," Piper said wistfully.
"When is the last time you said something understandable." Bandit laughed.
"Thatís how long itís been since Iíve been with Ilene." Piper said.
"Oh. Five hours for me, I guess."
"Five hours?" Piper asked incredulously.
Bandit leaned back in his seat. "While we were waiting at the airport there was a female reporter, really cute one too. She wanted a few thoughts on how the war was going, so we slipped off and I gave her an exclusive. It would have been an hour but the lavatory was in use when I caught the stewardessí eye and the moment passed."
"How can you stand it?" Piper asked with a laugh. There was a bump and dull rumble as the plane touched down.
"It ainít easy buddy. Fortunately, weíve just landed in a city with a few million women."
Banditís eyes were ripe with anticipation.
"Ilene!" Piper shouted as they exited the boarding ramp. He jumped over a waist high rail and pulled a woman into a powerful hug.
Bandit smiled as he made his way over to them, and stopped a discreet distance away. He had seen Ilene before on the vid-phone, and there was no denying she was a drop-dead gorgeous woman. But here in the flesh, Bandit found the vid-phone didnít do her justice. The phone just couldnít capture her graceful form under the simple short-skirted dress, how creamy her complexion was, how her beautifully formed legs seemed to go on as long as the passionate kiss between her hand her husband.
Piper had his hands wrapped firmly around her buttocks, holding her up so her legs could wrap around him. The fevered kiss and the way their hips ground into each other told everyone in the terminal that here were two passionate lovers who had not seen each other for a very, very long time.
Ilene was panting as Piper lowered her enough for her feet to touch the floor. Her cheeks were flushed and two very prominent nipples showed through her simple blouse. The dress was simple, but the effect the dress gave to her lithe form was simply devastating.
"Bandit!" Ilene squealed with delight as her eyes fell on the voyeur a few steps away. She ran over to him and paused to admire him a moment. "I finally get to meet the man who made sure my husband returned to me in one piece! I canít begin to thank you!"
She planted a lush wet kiss on his cheek before drawing him into a strong hug. It was a friendly kiss, a friendly hug, but as the scent of flowers on a warm spring day wafted over him, he felt her nipples push into his chest and felt her waist against his. Banditís cock sprang to full attention. Ilene couldnít help but feel the effect she was having on her husbandís partner, and stepped back, a deep blush appearing on her cheeks. A blush which deepened even further when she lowered her eyes to sneak a glance at the bulge she had evoked.
Her blue eyes twinkled with mischievous delight and an eyebrow raised appraisingly as she said, "Now I know why Jim sayís youíre the ultimate ladyís man."
Bandit, for the first time in his life, was left completely speechless. He had expected a beautiful woman and was not disappointed. He had not expected to find himself attracted to his best friendís wife. The confusion was not helped when Piper walked over, put an arm around Ilene and smiled at him like a man who had everything he ever wanted in life standing beside him in this airport terminal.
"Well, we canít stay here all day!" Piper declared. "We better get back to the house so Ilene and I can make up for some lost time. And then, and then, youíre going to get one helluva home cooked meal!"
"After a year of army rations, I couldnít agree with you more!" Bandit agreed.
"So what have you two got planned for your vacation?" Ilene asked as they walked to the car.
"Well Iím just here for a good home cooked meal." Bandit laughed. "After that Iíve got a hotel room reserved and a rental car and I guess Iím off to see the sights."
"Sights as in the women at the clubs, most likely." Ilene laughed and Piper joined her.
"That sounds like a decent vacation to me, Maíam!" Bandit agreed.
"Well, youíll probably still want the car to get around in," Ilene said, "but I insist you stay with us! Weíve got a spare bedroom and thereís no need for you to spend your hard earned money on a hotel. And you absolutely positively have to let Jim and I show you around a little!"
"Begging your pardon Maíam, but I get the impression Piper has his own plans and they donít include much beyond you and your bedroom." Bandit gave her a sly wink.
Ilene smiled broadly and patted Piper on the butt. "I think we can manage to find a little free time outside of the bedroom," she laughed.
"If youíre sure. I mean I donít want to impose." Bandit said.
"Itís all settled!" Ilene assured him. "Isnít it Jim?"
"Itís what I suggested from the start." Piper agreed. "But Bandit wouldnít agree until he heard it from you."
The stopped in front of an old 1996 white Mustang GT convertible in absolutely mint condition. Piper smiled broadly as Bandit circled the car twice, his mouth resting on his chest. "Awesome! Un-fucking-believably-awsome! V8?"
"V8." Piper smiled back.
"Where do you get the gas?"
"Oh thereís a few collectors around, and you can still get enough gas to keep it running."
Piper hopped over the driverís side door and rested in the driverís seat with a self-satisfied grin. Bandit followed, hopping into the back seat and letting his hands caress the cool leather. Ilene, a bit more sensibly, opened the passenger side door and stepped in. The drive back to Piperís house with the cool California wind rushing through their hair was an experience as exhilarating as anything in the cockpit.
"Youíve got to let me drive it!" Bandit cried as he stepped out onto the driveway.
Piper laughed and tossed Bandit the keys. "Have fun, buddy! I know I will."
Bandit grinned like a kid with a new toy as he settled into the driverís seat. Piper had moved around and scooped Ilene up into his strong arms. For the briefest of seconds, Bandit felt a twang of envy as Piper started carrying the beautiful creature towards the house. But it was only for the briefest of moments before the raw thundering power of a V8 internal combustion engine began to sing its sirenís call.
"God, how I missed this!" Piper murmured as he pushed his face between Ileneís breasts.
Ilene moaned softly as Piper pulled back and sucked a wonderfully erect teat between his lips, her hands played through his hair as she pulled him into her, arching her back ever so slightly in anticipation of the moment he would take her.
Piper pulled away and moved up beside her, gazing at her angelic face while his hand lightly traced the curves of her body. "Youíve grown even more beautiful since we parted."
"Iíve been so alone, Jim." Ilene said, her face showing the full extent of her needs and desires. "Itís been so hard knowing the man of my dreams was half a world away." Her voice hitched and she continued, "Knowing he may never come back to me."
"Iíll always come back to you, Ilene. Youíre the reason I live." Piper replied solemnly as he moved over her.
Ilene reached down and wrapped her hands around her husbandís engorged penis, guiding him to her entrance. Piper moved forward slightly and entered her, savoring the way she engulfed him, feeling her contract herself around him, reveling in the hot, moist sensations. With him fully embedded within her, they both paused, existing for a moment as one. Two lovers, parted yet together again. Then Piper began to move and Ilene moved with him, their moans and screams filling the crisp spring morning air.
Rock and roll thundered even above the roar of the wind as Bandit wove through the traffic. He was doing ninety easy and the car wasnít even beginning to protest. He took a curve marked for fifty at eighty five and let out a loud whoop as the tires stayed glued to the road, the G forces tugging at his body, the wind howling through his hair.
Over the wind and music Bandit heard a shrieking whine and a quick glance in the rear view mirror showed a motorcycle cop right on his tail, lights flashing. Bandit sighed as the joy ride ended and he pulled over to the side of the road. It would be worth the ticket -- he hadnít had so much fun since he had taken his first jet out for a spin. His instructor hadnít been able to withstand the G-forces, Bandit hadnít been able to resist the urge to see what the beauty could do. He had survived his instructorís ranting, no doubt he would survive a traffic ticket.
The figure stepping off the motorcycle was definitely feminine, despite the uniform, though Bandit couldnít see a face in the side mirror. When he looked up he saw the perfect image of authoritative femininity.
The officer studied him a moment, noting his uniform before saying, "Youíre not in a cockpit, flyboy. That was the most reckless piece of driving Iíve seen since I joined the force."
"Shoot, that was nothing." Bandit grinned. "This baby was just starting to get warmed up."
"Uh-huh" The officer said dryly. "License and registration."
Bandit fished out his military ID and rooted around for the registration. "You stayed hot on my tail. You enjoyed it as much as I did." Bandit said playfully as he handed the paperwork to the officer. She said nothing as she studied the ID. "Look Officer, uh, Bannon. Iím new in town, on furlough, and I donít really know anyone here. After you write the ticket you wouldnít be interested in maybe showing me around?"
The officer looked over at Bandit with a mixture of surprise and incredulity on her face. Bandit exuded a boyish charm and sincerity that had made his exploits legendary among his fellow pilots.
"How long are you in town for?" She asked still trying to decide if he was halfway serious.
"Only a few days." Bandit replied. "Then itís back to the war." He rolled his eyes mockingly, "Oh sorry, police action."
"I hear itís really rough over there."
"It is." Bandit agreed. "I never really know when Iíll take off if Iíll be another statistic on the nightly news."
Though he said it with a straight face his tone made a total mockery of the soldiers often used pickup line. So much so that the officer had to laugh and Bandit joined her.
"I was heading back to the station. My shiftís over. Why donít you follow me?" Bandit grinned broadly as she handed back the paperwork without the expected ticket. "And you can call me Jane."
"Nice name." Bandit agreed, then let out a whoosh of excitement as Jane walked back to her cycle and led him back to the station.
"So soon?" Ilene asked in surprise as Piper felt her breasts from behind.
"Hey! Itís been over a year." Piper laughed softly into her ear. "A year without sex, a year thinking and dreaming of you. Iím horny as a teenager."
"Rorrrr." Ilene growled agreeably as she twisted around in his arms to face him.
Piper parted her robe and let it fall to the floor, then he lifted her up and lowered her on to him. Joined, and laughing with each step, Piper carried her back to the bedroom.
"Banditís been gone a while." Ilene said as Piper lowered her onto the bed.
"Good." He replied as he stared at her luscious form stretched out before him.
"We shouldnít be worried?" Ilene asked.
Piper laughed. "Honey, Bandit can take care of himself. My guess is heís already found a pretty little filly to introduce him to the joys of L.A."
"Youíre kidding!" Ilene protested.
"Never about Bandit." Piper said as he slid into her.
Suddenly Ilene lost all interest in their missing house-guest.
"Oh God!" Jane moaned as Bandit moved inside her. "Yes! Fuck me! Fuck me hard!"
Her long fingernails raked Banditís back digging into his flesh as he long shapely legs wrapped around him, the soles of her feet running along Banditís legs.
Bandit smiled knowingly, and altered his pace and technique, a little trick he had learned that always drove the women wild, and Jane proved no exception to the rule. Jane threw her head back and let out a long scream of pure pleasure as her orgasm washed over her. Bandit finally yielded his self-control and followed her, as her hot pussy clenched in orgasmic rapture around his engorged cock.
"Hey guys!" Bandit said as he stepped inside. "Hope you didnít miss me to much!"
"You were gone?" Piper laughed.
"I guess with a woman like Ilene around, you can be excused from missing my normally overwhelming presence." Bandit laughed.
"And where were you?" Ilene asked with an arched eyebrow. She had given only passing credence to Piperís theory, despite the numerous tales of Banditís almost legendary exploits, but seeing his slightly disheveled appearance she began to wonder.
Bandit blushed. "Well, your city seems to have just the nicest cops!"
"Cops?" Piper asked. "My car! Nothing happened to the car!"
"No! Nothing happened to your car!" Bandit said, rolling his eyes. "Itís just that one of L.A.ís finest decided to explain to me why I shouldnít drive it so fast."
"Ohhh. And I suppose one of L.A.ís finest would happen to be a woman?" Piper asked with a wink.
"Why, now that you mention it, I do believe youíre right! I never would have noticed it myself, at least not until she dragged me back to her place." Bandit winked back.
"You are incorrigible!" Ilene accused. "I never really believed half of what Piper told me about you, and only hours after I first meet you, you run off and prove itís all true."
Bandit grinned broadly as he put a fat cigar in his mouth, giving him the appearance of the cat who had just ate the canary, and made the canary enjoy it to boot. "I bet Piper didnít even tell you half of the stuff you wouldnít believe."
"Well, now that you two men have made up for your celibate military lifestyles, I guess Iíd better get dinner started." Ilene declared as she strode into the kitchen.
"A cop?" Piper asked.
"Hey! Youíre not the only one allowed to have fun on his furlough." Bandit said. "I take it the old fireís still burning?"
"At least a three-alarmer" Piper said as he leaned back in the chair.
"You know, I canít remember seeing you quite this happy before, buddy." Bandit said as he took a seat. "Maybe thereís something to this marriage thing Iíve been missing out on."
"Maybe." Piper said with a wink.
Ilene returned, passing out glasses of cold beer and kippers. As they waited for the roast to cook, Ilene settled down into Piperís lap, and listened with baited breath as Bandit told her how Piper had saved his life in their last engagement.
"Hey! Whatís the matter? Pipeís a hero!" Bandit asked, as he finished.
Ilene was trembling and biting her lip; the worry and concern on her face was evident to anyone who looked. "Iím sorry, Bandit, but you just donít know how hard it is for me with Jim away like he is. Itís wonderful he saved you, itís wonderful heís a hero, but you said yourself he never should have survived. Thatís the kind of thing that gives me nightmares." With a trembling hand she wiped a tear away from her eye and stood up. "Iím sorry. Iíd better check dinner."
Bandit gave Piper a confused look and Piper just held up a hand to hold of until Ilene left. "Sorry Bandit, itís a touchy subject around here. We risk our lives every day. Ilene knows that, she just doesnít like to be reminded about it."
"Ohhh" Bandit mouthed, and finished off his beer. "Itís funny, you know. How telling one woman she might never see you again gets her all hot and horny, and another woman all upset."
"The difference is called love, Bandit." Piper said. "Youíll discover the difference one day, I imagine."
Dinner was an elaborate affair, and was so different from normal military fare that it would have been good even had Ilene not been a world-class cook.
"Hmmm." Bandit groaned as he shoveled the food into his mouth. "This is better than sex!"
Ilene laughed joyfully but Piper merely looked at Bandit in open astonishment. "You have a fever or something, buddy? Did you just say something was better than sex?"
Bandit paused, looked at the half-eaten plate before him, then back to Piper. "Women are a dime a dozen, but a good meal, now thatís a rare thing. My Ma wasnít this good a cook!" Bandit grinned and raised his wine glass. "To the lovely and charming cook!" Then he turned his glass towards Piper and finished, "And to the luckiest man alive!"
Piper and Ilene laughed as they raised their glasses to his, completing the toast.
They all helped with the dishes afterwards, and then retired to the living room for a pleasant evening of conversation. The talk was light, often humorous, and pointedly avoided mentioning the war. Piper was telling the tale of how he had first become interested in aviation when Bandit found his eyes wandering over to Ilene.
She was still the gorgeous image of perfection; a beautiful face, with a beautiful figure, in a simple dress that was strikingly erotic. She was exactly the sort of woman Bandit would pursue relentlessly, have a nightís pleasure with, and then move on.
Ilene glanced at Bandit, and for a moment their eyes locked, then she blushed slightly and lowered her eyes . It was all perfectly innocent, but for the briefest second Bandit got the distinct impression that, as Ilene had lowered her eyes, she was sizing him up. Bandit discarded that idea when Ilene returned her attention to Piper, gazing on her husband with adoring eyes.
"Heís right next door!" Ileneís muffled voice protested. "You know how thin these walls are!"
There was a muted chuckle and a muted squeal of delight. "I once drove Bandit from Balikpapan to Samarinda in a hummer. He was in the back with one of the natives, and they were going at it like the world was about to end. If I could do that for him, I think he can put up with a few muffled grunts."
"It feels so nasty!" Ilene protested again, but without much force.
"We wonít be doing anything Bandit hasnít done before. I promise." Piper replied.
Conversation lapsed into a long series of moans and groans. Bandit turned in the bed, trying to push out the sounds of their lovemaking, but if anything the new position only emphasized each movement made in the other room. Bandit tried in vain to push out the unbidden images of Ilene. If the sounds and movements from the next room had to bring up images, Bandit tried to let them be of him and Jane just a few hours earlier.
But Janeís presence had already faded to insignificance. Yet another conquest he had seen, fucked, and moved beyond. She had already joined the mental scrapbook of countless women who had shared his bed. As the sounds next door became more fevered, more passionate, Bandit drifted off to sleep with an erection; Ileneís form moving over his in his mindís eye, and her soft muffled moans in his ears.
"Hope we didnít keep you up." Piper said as he set a cup of hot, steaming coffee in front of Bandit.
"No. I was exhausted. No trouble at all." Bandit said. "But I was thinking, I really should pick up my car, and it wouldnít hurt for me to get that hotel room after all. I mean, I doubt Ilene will be enthusiastic about me bringing the latest object of my affection here."
Piper frowned. "Hmm. I didnít consider that. You going to be spending much time with Jane?"
"Probably. She wants to show me a few clubs tonight."
"Well, you already know her place is free. Thereís no problem at all then, is there?"
Bandit frowned into his coffee. "No, I guess not."
Ilene entered the kitchen like a fresh breeze. "Morning all! My, what a lucky woman I am to wake up to two strong handsome men, and damn if they didnít make coffee too!"
Piper laughed and kissed her warmly. "Looks like Bandit has a date tonight."
"Does it involve handcuffs?" Ilene asked Bandit with a laugh.
Bandit blushed, for some reason feeling awkward talking about Jane with Ilene. "Iím not exactly sure yet. Weíre going to visit a few clubs."
"Sounds like fun." Ilene said. "In the meantime Jim and I get to show you L.A."
"Where do you think we should start?" Piper asked.
"I think we should start at the beach this morning. Nothing like seeing and being seen among the beautiful people. A quick stop back here to shower and then a late lunch at the garden, followed by Magic Island."
Piper considered this. "That sounds like a plan! Sound good to you bud?"
"Youíre the experts." Bandit deferred. "Iíll leave it all in your capable hands."
As Bandit unfolded the beach towel, he realized that agreeing to the beach was a mistake. Seeing Ilene in the short-skirted dresses she liked to wear was bad enough, seeing her in a bikini was devastating. Beautiful people surrounded him, women he would have found himself chasing after like a dog in heat walked by, but everyone paled to insignificance next to this stunningly attractive woman in a two-piece green striped bikini.
After chastising himself, he was finally able to settle back and enjoy the warm rays on his skin. He was resting comfortably, almost between sleep and alertness, when he suddenly felt a pair of delicate, warm, moist hands on his back.
"Youíre going to get a horrible sunburn." Ilene said as she rubbed the lotion into his back.
Bandit said nothing as suddenly every fiber of his being became attuned to the delicate caresses on his back.
Ilene rubbed his shoulder and blades, working the warm lotion into his skin. "Do all pilots have such powerful shoulders?"
"I guess so." Bandit said, then winced at the incredibly lame reply, wincing yet again at why he had wanted the answer to be more suave.
Ileneís touches drifted down to the small of his back before lifting. He could almost feel the heat of her hands as they passed over his butt and rested on the back of his legs. Maybe it was his imagination, but she seemed to take her time doing his upper legs before lightly oiling his lower legs.
"Thanks," he said as she finished.
"Donít mention it," Ilene replied. "Canít have a guest burned to a crisp on his second day, could we?"
Banditís thoughts were an incoherent jumble as he returned to his tanning. He wasnít even pretending that Ilene didnít attract him now. Now he was just trying to ignore it. He had never before met a woman he couldnít have if he just put his mind to it, but here wrapped up in a package that couldnít fail to appeal to him he found a beautiful, sexy woman who just happened to be his best friendís wife. For some reason, the fact that he couldnít have her made him want her all the more.
Lunch and the magic show were almost as bad as the beach. Now with almost a perfect mental image of Ileneís form, even the modestly conservative dress she wore failed to hide her exquisite form to Banditís mindís eye. Lunch was wonderful, the conversation was wonderful, and the magic show was wonderful. But the conversation merely drove home to Bandit just how interesting Ilene really was.
He met Jane at her doorstep promptly at six as promised, but she never had a chance to make it out the door. He met her light polite kiss with a kiss of unrestrained passion and need, overwhelming her with its intensity. Bandit took a step forward, pushing her back into the room and then another. His hand drifted to the back of her elegant white gown and began tugging at the zipper.
Overcome by his desire and confused at his intensity, Jane offered little resistance as her dress fell to the floor. Bandit pulled back, his eyes never leaving hers, and tore off his shirt, popping several buttons in the process. Jane took a deep breath as she accepted the inevitable.
Bandit was not gentle as he took her. He had never needed sex as much as he needed it at this moment. Jane was his salvation, the key to forgetting Ilene. Her hips raised to meet his as he thrust into her, her face contorting into an agonizing expression of ecstasy. With mounting horror Bandit realized he wasnít fucking Jane, he was fucking Ilene. It was Janeís moans he was hearing, but it was Ileneís moans he remembered as he thrust harder, trying with raw physical strength to shatter the illusion. It wasnít Janeís hands on his back, it was Ileneís as she caressed the suntan oil into his skin. It wasnít Janeís face and breasts which filled his vision, it was Ileneís.
"Oh God!" Jane cried.
"Oh God!" Bandit gasped weakly as they moved in orgasmic rapture.
"You got home early last night." Piper said over coffee.
"Jane and I decided to skip the clubs." Bandit explained.
Piper frowned. This wasnít the Bandit he remembered. Sitting across from him was an almost somber man, someone who looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. For a moment, Piper considered asking what was wrong, but only for a moment. Whatever it was, Bandit would deal with it, and he certainly wouldnít appreciate an offer of help. If he needed help heíd ask for it, otherwise there was nothing Piper could do.
Ilene however, didnít know the rules of engagement, and she noticed Banditís glum mood right off the bat. "Whatís up, Bandit? You look like you just lost your best friend."
Bandit looked up at her sharply. "My best friend just happens to be your husband. I wouldnít want to lose him any more than you would!" he snapped and stormed out of the room.
"What?" Ilene asked Piper.
Piper waved her off and followed Bandit into the living room. "You OK?" Piper asked.
"Yea. Sorry. Delayed combat fatigue and all that rot. Look Pipe, Iím gonna hit the town on my own for a couple of days, really cut loose."
"Sure. Anything you want. Itís your furlough too, you know."
"I know." Bandit walked over and picked his keys up off the table. "See you in a couple of days."
Ilene walked up behind Piper as Bandit left the house. "What a strange man."
"Somethingís gotten into him, thatís for sure." Piper mused worriedly. "Knowing Bandit, Iíd say this is exactly how heíd react to falling head over heels in love."
"Love?" Ilene asked arching an eyebrow. "It doesnít look like love. He looks positively miserable."
"Banditís convinced love would be worse than a prison. He enjoys his freedom."
"You donít think love is a prison, do you?" Ilene asked.
Piper turned and gazed lovingly into his wifeís eyes. "Only the best kind. The kind I never want to escape from."
Ilene smiled warmly, but her thoughtful, considerate eyes turned to follow Banditís retreat through the picture window.
It had been seven days since Bandit had fled. It was the seventh day of his drunk. Time had passed in an alcoholic blur of hangovers, buzzes, and uncounted numbers of women, beautiful or not. Sitting across a table from the woman he had woken up with this morning, Bandit was becoming dangerously close to sober, though it was hard to tell exactly considering the bizarre decorations in the womanís apartment.
The woman across from him was pretty enough, but she was dressed in weird colored robes and wearing a gaudy crystal necklace. The crystal was similar to others which dotted the room around him. Bandit rubbed his eyes trying to remember who she was, how he had met her and what they had done the previous night.
The woman drew a card from a large, oversized, strangely marked deck and laid it before him. "Youíre in love." The woman said with all the certainty she might say "Youíre a man." She smiled at the obvious conclusion that he was in love with her, but her smile faded quickly as she laid another card on the table. "A forbidden love." She frowned as she laid three more cards out on the table. "It consumes you." She drew another card from the deck and stared at it a moment before letting it fall on the others. The card fluttered in the air a moment before coming to rest face up.
Bandit had no idea what she was doing or why she was doing it, the cards she had drawn were just pretty pictures, though her words echoed in his mind like an accusation. But the final card, the card that had fallen above the others, turning to face him as it had fallen, was understandable by anyone. A cloaked skeleton wielding a scythe and riding a pale horse appeared below a flowing banner with a single word: "Death".
"Lady, youíre a nut case." Bandit said as the world closed in around him. He rose, found himself naked, and furiously cast his eye around the small apartment looking for his clothes. He found them article by article, leading from the front door to the bedroom.
"The cards never lie," the woman said simply as he began dressing, wincing at the smell of old alcohol and stale smoke that assaulted his senses. "You love another, a forbidden love, and death comes for us all. It does not mean that you will die, only that you will experience death either yourself or that of someone you care about. Let me do a full reading."
"Fine. Do your reading." Bandit growled as he scooped up his shirt, socks and shoes and fled from the apartment.
The bright California sunshine assaulted his senses like a curse as he fled the building. Bandit drove to a nearby cheap motel and checked himself in. He groaned at the man who stared back at him in the mirror. He didnít recognize this person, the unkempt hair, and the dark circles under the eyes. The two-day-old beard said, for the entire world to see, that here was a person who didnít even care about himself. As he stared into the mirror, he realized it was the truth. He didnít care about himself. The only person he cared about was Ilene.
Even in his drunk she had haunted him. His obsession with her was unlike anything he had ever known before. "Bandit, youíre one sick motherfucker." he said into the mirror. The man in the mirror mouthed it right back at him. Bandit fell back onto the bed and buried his eyes in his clenched fists.
"Bandit!" Piper greeted Bandit warmly. "Been painting the town red?"
"More like black and blue." Piper grinned. "There were a bunch of Marines at the bar last night."
"You donít look any worse for the wear!" Piper said with a twinkle in his eye.
"No, but they do!" Bandit laughed and Piper joined him.
Ilene drifted up behind Piper at the door, studying Bandit with a keen and interested eye. "Hell, Iím forgetting my manners. Come on in!"
"Really, I just dropped by to wish you luck and congratulations. You leave tonight donít you?"
"Actually in a couple of hours." Piper said. "More than enough time to share a beer. I canít believe Iím saying this after living with you night and day for more than a year, but hell, I missed you!"
"Same here." Bandit grinned sheepishly.
"Come in Bandit, Iíll get you guys a couple of beers." Ilene said.
Banditís eyes flitted to Ilene then to the ground. "Really, I shouldnít stay."
"Really, you should." Piper said. "Somehow I got the idea you were going to tell me what to expect at this big award presentation but then you up and disappeared."
"Youíve been decorated?" Ilene asked as she handed Bandit a beer.
"It was a long time ago." Bandit said.
"Not that long. It was before we served together, but the way I hear it, Bandit got lucky and shot down three Maoís all by his lonesome. Saved the troops below from an air strike. He got the same sort of treatment I imagined Iíll be getting tomorrow."
Bandit smiled, staring at the beer warily for a moment before setting it on the table. For the next hour, Bandit told Piper what he could expect, most of which was complete and total boredom.
"Oh yea, whatever you do, donít pinch the Generalís wife. She may like it, but the General doesnít." Bandit said with a perfectly straight face. Piper guffawed and Ilene joined him.
"So, what have you been doing with yourself, Bandit?" Ilene asked.
"Oh, exploring the town, meeting people. That sort of thing."
"And now?" she prompted.
Bandit leaned back in the chair and ran a hand through his hair. "And now I just miss being in a cockpit. The furloughís run a bit too long for my liking."
"After today youíve still got four more days." Piper reminded him.
"Well, if you want to hang around tonight, Iím sure I could whip up another meal. Four more if you want, since the invitation is still open." Ilene said.
"You donít know how tempting that sounds." Bandit said. "Really. But with Piper leaving in an hour or so, I think Iíd better pass."
Piper gave Bandit a puzzled glance. "What are you talking about, Bandit?"
"It just wouldnít be proper and all." Bandit said.
"Hell, I trust you every day with my life. Iíve trusted Ilene every day for more than a year. Why in the world should I be concerned about the two people I love and trust the most in this life being together while Iím off getting a few grams of brass pinned to my shirt?"
Bandit flushed. "No reason, I guess. Dinner would be great. But I canít promise anything after that. Iíve met a few people, you see."
Piper laughed uproariously, "Thatís my wingman!"
Bandit cast an uneasy glance at Ilene, and found her staring back at him with a puzzled expression.
"This was every bit as good as the first meal, Ilene." Bandit said as he pushed the empty plate away from him, and patted his swollen belly. "I canít believe I ate as much as I did."
"Jim always did say that he had to work three times harder as the others at the gym to work off my cooking." Ilene said as she began to collect the plates. "But thanks for the compliment."
"Let me help you." Bandit said as he helped her clear the table.
"If you insist. I love cooking, but hate the cleaning."
Ilene ran some hot water and began washing the dishes while Bandit helped her with the drying.
"Youíre quiet tonight." Bandit noted after a few minutes of silence.
"Oh Iím just missing Jim." She looked over at Bandit with a weak smile. "Iím glad you decided to stay at least for dinner. Itís always hard for me when Jim has to leave again. With you around itís not as bad."
"I really shouldnít stay." Bandit said. "I plan to sneak out right after everythingís all tidied up."
Ilene pushed the pot back into the water and turned sharply. "All right, Bandit, what did I do?"
"What?" Bandit asked, surprised at her sudden intensity.
"For a year weíve talked on and off on the Vid-phone, and I rather thought weíd be friends. I got all excited about meeting my husbandís wingman and showing him the town. I barely get to know you and you start avoiding me like the plague!"
Bandit stared at her a moment, noting how she trembled as she stared back at him, how her breasts rose and fell in deep breaths, how her stern, demanding expression somehow made her even more desirable.
Banditís shoulders slumped, and he let out a deep, measured breath. "Itís not you, Ilene. Itís me. You know what kind of man I am. Iíve never met a woman I wanted that I couldnít bed. Well, I finally met a woman I want but canít have."
Ileneís face was a mixture of shock and surprise as she took an involuntary step away from him.
"There. Iíve said it. You didnít leave me very much choice in the matter, either." Bandit said angrily, accusingly. "I donít know what would be worse, chasing you and winning, or chasing you and losing."
"I - I donít know what to say." Ilene stammered and finding her knees suddenly weak, she placed a hand on the counter for support.
"You donít have to say anything." Bandit said. "Itís not your problem. Itís mine."
"You mean you left because, becauseÖ" she was unable to continue.
"Because I was afraid that if I stuck around, Iíd try to seduce you." Bandit finished for her. "Surprised? I sure the hell am. I always thought that I was in the cockpit; that I decided who I liked and who I didnít. But you, you hit me like a ton of bricks, and youíre the one woman in this world I canít have, but right now youíre the only woman in this world I want."
Bandit turned, took a step to leave, and stopped. He swung back around, trembling. He started to say something but stopped, his face a reflection of profound loss as he turned and left.
Slowly Ilene lowered herself into the chair and stared off into the distance.
"I didnít expect to see you again." Ilene said as she stared at Bandit through the screen door.
"I didnít expect to be here again." Bandit said with a weak, quirky grin. "I need to get my bags. Theyíre still in the bedroom and I fly out tomorrow." Ilene stepped back and invited him in. "I wonít be long. I promise." Bandit said.
"I love my husband, Bandit." Ilene said as he was halfway across the living room.
Bandit ground to a halt and turned slowly. "So do I. Heís the brother I never had. Heís the reason Iím here today getting my bags, rather than rotting away in grave."
They stared at each other in awkward silence for a minute before Bandit turned and headed back toward the bedroom again. "If it wasnít for JimÖ" Ilene said quickly then stopped biting her lip as Bandit turned back around. "If it wasnít for Jim, youíre exactly the sort of man I could fall hard for." she finished softly.
"Donít say that." Bandit said. "It doesnít help," he said as a plea.
"I - I just wanted you to know," she said and shook her head as if shaking herself out of a daze, "I admire you for what youíre doing. I mean, I canít very well fault someone for liking me!"
"Oh yea. This is real admirable." Bandit said bitterly. "Falling hard for my best friendís girl then running away from it all like a whipped pup. Real admirable, they ought to give me a medal or something." He turned sharply and disappeared into the bedroom, emerging after a few minutes with his bags.
"Weíre going to meet again, you know." Ilene said. "Either your next furlough, or after the war. You and Jim are too close for us not to meet again. If you keep running away from me, youíll never learn how to deal with this, this whatever it is. Come back for dinner tonight."
Banditís eyes were pained and his teeth clenched as he answered. "Do you know how hard it is for me to be here with you right now, like this? Youíre in my mind, Ilene! Youíre in my fucking mind and I canít get you out! Iíve slept with countless, countless women, but the only woman I can think about is you! I want you so badly it hurts! Itís like an itch I canít scratch, and itís driving me insane trying to deal with it."
Ileneís head fell back as if she had been physically slapped, and Banditís eyes narrowed as he stared at her. "Knowing that, Ilene? Knowing that, do you still think I can learn how to deal with this? Is dinner really such a good idea?"
Ilene straightened herself and tried to meet the passionate intensity of Banditís gaze. "Thereís got to be a wayÖ" she began.
"There isnít. This ends now by me going out that door and staying as far away from you as I can."
Bandit took two steps to the door. "Wait." Bandit paused for a moment and then took another step. "Please." Ilene said again.
"What are you doing, Ilene?" Bandit pleaded.
"I - I - I donít know." Ileneís agonized voice answered him.
Bandit turned and stared at her, studying every pore of her face. Realizing that maybe his desire for her was returned. "Ilene." Bandit implored but was unable to say another word as he stood there.
"For a year, whenever I wondered too long if maybe Jim wouldnít be coming home, whenever it got too bad, he always called. Almost always you were in the background making some quip or another. I liked you Bandit. Youíre everything my mother ever warned me about, but youíre exciting, funny, and more than anything, youíre dangerous. So I like you. In the flesh, youíre all that and more. Handsome, a smile to die for, and even a tight butt. I can deal with finding you attractive and even desirable. Why canít you do the same for me?"
"Because I donít think with my brain, Ilene. In the air, I fly by the seat of my pants, on the ground I go where my heart leads me. Iíve never had to deal with a woman I lusted after as a friend. I donít know how to deal with it. I canít deal with it. This is insane! I should have been out that door five minutes ago. Where this is going is not good."
"So leave." Ilene said finally.
Bandit started to turn and then stopped. "I canít."
"Youíve discovered how to deal with me as a friend?" Ilene asked.
"No. Iíve discovered that you find me attractive and desirable."
"And yet I still love my husband." Ilene said.
"As do I." Bandit said as he took a step towards her.
"Only tonight." Ilene said in a quivering voice. "Tonight and never again."
"God, let it be enough." Bandit said as the bags fell to the floor and he stepped into her embrace.
Exhausted from the ceremony and flight, Piper, seeing the darkened house crept quietly into the bedroom. The general had been very sympathetic, even apologetic about the time he was taking away from Piper, and had his secretary book him a layover stop in LA. It couldnít make up for four lost days, but at least heíd have one more night and morning with his wife before he returned to the action.
In the pale moonlight, something struck him as odd as he noticed the bed, drawing closer fear and dread began to fill him as he realized Ilene was not alone. With surprisingly little feeling he stepped back to the doorway and felt around for the light switch. Ilene and Bandit woke with a start, squinting under the harshness of the unexpected light.
"Get your stuff and get out of my house, Bandit." Piper said in a steady tone.
"Piper!" Bandit exclaimed then stopped as the full realization of what was happening hit home.
"Now." Piper ordered.
Bandit searched Piperís face in vain, grasping at anything that could save their friendship. Finally, under Piperís unwavering glare, Bandit collected his things and quietly left, defeated.
Piperís stone cold eyes followed Bandit, and then turned on his wife, who was sitting up, sobbing quietly on the bed.
Bandit was limping back to base alone. He and Viper had stumbled on a group of three Maoís on patrol. Viper had splashed one and wounded another before a Chinese missile sent both Viper and the plane he was flying down into the tropical jungle miles below in a million tiny pieces. The fight which had followed had taken every shred of skill and luck Bandit possessed.
What saved him may have been his deathwish. Thatís what the other pilots called it. Since coming back from furlough, no one on the base had managed to miss the fact that the two inseparable pilots now avoided each other. The rumors flew as rumors will, a few even coming close to the truth. But what all agreed on was that since returning, Bandit had been taking almost stupid risks, risks that at least for the moment had significantly improved his kill ratio, but risks that none-the-less would not let him survive long.
No sane pilot, when hearing a missile tone, would kill his thrust. The thrust that was the only thing between the pilot and a warhead, and that was never enough. But after Viper bit the big one and the Mao broke through his defenses, Bandit powered down his engines and applied the air brakes at supersonic speed. The enemy fighter was firing its missile as it overshot past him, and the missile had not only lost its lock, but Banditís plane was now in attack position. The computers effortlessly splashed the bogie. The other enemy fighter was too wounded to be much of a threat. Bandit didnít even have to engage as the pilot bailed out, seeing he was alone.
"Red five." The radio squawked. "Blue six is under enemy fire. Transferring telemetry data now. If you can, Piper needs you." The last was certainly not military, apparently combat control felt mentioning Piperís name would spur him to action. Combat control was right. Bandit fired the afterburners without a secondís hesitation.
The situation was grim. Piperís patrol had been attacked by three Maoís. They had splashed one Mao, but Piperís wingman was lost in the process. Now Piper was in a losing battle against two fully armed and uncrippled Maoís.
"Blue six. Iím coming in hot. ETA thirty seconds, stall them as long as you can."
There was a second of static filled silence before the radio burst to life. "I never thought Iíd be happy to see you again in my life, Bandit!"
"Yea well, save the mushy stuff till later. Weíre all sorry here, but no-oneís as sorry as me, and for damn sure no oneís going to be as sorry as those Maoís."
One Mao had hung back while the other hunted Piper. Thanks to Piperís telemetry, Banditís computer had an inside track to the enemy fighterís defenses the moment it appeared on the scope. The Maoís were good but the American over-the-horizon sensors could still peer a little farther than their Chinese counterparts. The first Mao never knew what hit him."
"Only one more ECM layer to go and heíll be through, buddy." Piper said. "Youíre not close enough. Shit, you donít even have any missiles left."
"Just hang on! Iím coming as fast as this garbage scow will take me!"
"Itís over." Piper said. "I forgive you, Bandit. Promise me youíll take care of Ilene. Tell her I died still loving her, that I never stopped. I said some things I wish I never had. I hurt her Bandit. I hurt her bad."
"Tell her yourself." Bandit said as the computer told him he was now in missile range, if heíd had any missiles. The computer predicted fifteen seconds for the Mao to lock on. Bandit switched the display and typed furiously on the keypad. "Fourteen seconds to lock on. Fifteen seconds to the Mao at maximum afterburners and then a one sided dogfight. The Mao still had six devastating missiles while Bandit had only his guns, and in a dogfight the Mao could outmaneuver his plane.
"She never stopped loving you for a second, Piper." Bandit said. "I was wrong, she was wrong, my life was screwed up from the moment I saw her at the airport, but neither of us stopped caring for you, Piper. She never stopped loving you, you never stopped being my best friend."
Banditís fingers hovered over the solid rocket booster switches. A million years ago Piperís fingers had hovered over these same switches, a million years ago Piper had rolled the dice, knowing there was a chance heíd survive and save his friend. Bandit knew as soon as he closed the switch he would die. The computer was wrong. He did have a missile left. A few tons of high tech composite materials with a few thousand gallons of explosive fuel and a helluva lot of inertia.
"Thereís only one man and one woman Iíd do this for Pipe. We had some good times together. Try and remember that. Youíre one lucky son of a bitch."
Bandit flicked the switches and the solids ignited in a kamikaze uncontrolled burn. The designers knew that those switches would more than likely disintegrate the plane, knew it would more than likely kill the pilot, but in a no win situation it offered a slim chance to live. When every card had been played it was an ace in the hole.
As Banditís world went black, his plane slammed into the Mao.
Piper choked back the tears as he stepped up to the podium and stared out over the men and women who had gathered here to pay their final respects to Bandit.
"I never had a friend like Bandit before. He got me in more trouble than anyone Iíd ever been associated with, he saved my bacon more times than I care to count, in the end he caused me more grief than Iíd ever felt before. But when I hated him the most, or thought I hated him, he never stopped being my friend. Bandit was like that. He wore his heart on his sleeve, never said anything he didnít mean, and he might do things no one in their right mind would ever do, but no matter what, if the chips were down he was always exactly the person youíd want to help you pick them up."
Piper sniffed and whipped away a tear. "Iím here today because Bandit saw I was in trouble and he had a choice to make. Bandit chose to save my life at the price of his own. That was Bandit. In life, he was just a man who struggled, like all men struggle, winning or losing in those struggles as his nature dictated. In death, thereís no one here today that would not call him a hero, least of all me."
Piper stepped away from the podium and into the waiting arms of his wife. They stared at each other for a moment, each seeing the pain of their loss reflected in the otherís features, before falling into a long comforting embrace.