By Josef Koelbl III

Tropic was late and he knew it. He flew over Paragon City looking down over Founder’s Falls, his red glowing eyes searching for his destination. If it hadn’t been for that Warrior Hewer, who just wouldn’t go down, he would have had plenty of time to spare. But the life of a superhero rarely goes as planned and the people in his life would just have to accept that.
He saw the building he was looking for and landed on it’s roof. He pulled a package from beneath his cape, opened it and sighed at it’s contents. “I hate these things”, he thought as he removed it and carefully put it down. He then began to take off his costume and put on the tuxedo. When he was dressed he gathered up his outfit, placed it in the package and entered the building taking the elevator down to the 23rd floor.
WillowWind was just putting on her shoes when the doorbell rang. She looked at her watch and frowned. “20 minuets late”, she sighed. She opened the door. Tropic stood there at the threshold, tuxedo, black tie, patent leather shoes. WillowWind looked him up and down. “You’re tie is crooked.” She said as she turned back into her apartment.
Tropic closed the door behind him. “There was this Warrior boss and I had to change and I really don’t want to go to this thing anyway.”, he said as he straightened his tie.
“C’mon, babes, how often does the Mayor give out a Key to the City?”, she said as she stood in front of him and fixed his tie. Tropic raised an eyebrow. A Key to the City was presented almost every day in Paragon City due to the large superhero population.
WillowWind grinned. “Ok, how often do you get a Key to the City?”.
Tropic smiled a crooked half smile. “Well, never actually.” He brushed back a strand of her hair that seemed to perpetually be in front of her face. He finally looked at her fully and saw what she had chosen to wear for the banquet. The gown was black, of course, a halter type of dress that was cut low in front and dipped down in back. It nearly reached the floor and was slit to the thigh on both sides. She was perched on a pair of 4” stiletto heels. A simple necklace adorned her throat and a bracelet circled her wrist.
“You look great.”, Tropic said.
“Just great?”
“Well…Ok…great and hot.”, Tropic smiled.
WillowWind laughed and kissed his cheek. “Good. That’s just the look I was going for.”
Tropic laughed . “I’d hate to see what you would have come up with if you were going for great, hot and naughty!”.
“I’m always naughty, you know that!” She stepped away from him and turned to the kitchen. “You want a drink?”, she asked as she opened a cabinet.
“Do you think we have time?”
“Sure! The limo…”. A buzz came from the intercom in the wall “…has just arrived.” She crossed to the intercom and thanked the buildings doorman. WillowWind turned to Tropic and smiled. “Well, lets get you Keyed!” They left the apartment and took the elevator to the lobby. Outside a long black limousine was waiting for them.
The limousine passed through the quiet streets of Founder’s Falls. WillowWind took notice of the limo’s bar. “Do you want that drink?”, she smiled.
“Sure”, Tropic answered, “Scotch…neat.” He looked out the window at the passing buildings.
WillowWind grimaced. “Uggh, I don’t know how you can drink that stuff.”, she muttered.
Tropic grinned. “It’s natures perfect food.” He took the glass from her and sipped. It tasted hot in his mouth and he smiled. It hit the spot. It seemed he had been doing nothing but fighting the past few days and this rest was more than welcome. He looked over at his companion. She sat back next to him and crossed her legs, her spike heeled foot bouncing up and down.
“What’s that concoction you’re drinking?”, he asked.
“Vodka Orange.”
“Ah, a Screwdriver.”
WillowWind frowned. “No. I refuse to drink anything named after a tool.”
Tropic laughed. “All right then. Vodka Orange it is.” Suddenly something outside the limo caught his eye. “Did you see that? Driver, stop the car!” Tropic stared out the window as the limousine came to a halt.
WillowWind looked as well but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “What is it? If you’re just trying to get out of this banquet I…”
Tropic interrupted her. “No, I thought I saw…There it is again!” He got out of the limo and Willow followed. About twenty yards in front of them there appeared to be a shimmering, phasing in and out of sight. Every time it reappeared it seemed to be more solid.
Willow gripped his arm. “What do you think it is?” The thing wasn’t disappearing anymore and grew even more solid.
Tropic shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s shaped like a disk but I have no idea what it could…” His voice trailed off as the thing became more solid. “Oh no.”, he thought. He could see something inside the thing becoming even more solid.
Then a Rikti headman stepped out.
“IT’S A PORTAL!”, Tropic shouted.
WillowWind and Tropic both sprang into action at the same time. They weren’t in the city at the time of the original invasion but they had seen the devastation and they had both fought Rikti in the past. Now this portal had appeared and more and more Rikti poured out of it.
Tropic and Willow both let loose with blasts that took out a couple of the enemy soldiers. The Rikti turned and fired their energy weapons at the heroes. Willow dived to the right and Tropic ducked out of the way. They turned and watched as the blasts struck the limousine in the trunk, which ignited the gas tank, which caused the limo to explode.
WillowWind turned to Tropic. “Not our fault!”, she yelled.
They watched as the limo was lifted off the ground, engulfed in flames. It landed on its roof and exploded a second time.
Tropic turned to Willow. “Right! Got it! Not our fault!”
They returned to the battle, both firing blast after blast at the alien enemy. Even though the Rikti fell it seemed that for every one they stopped two took their place. Tropic noticed one of the Rikti soldiers was not joining the battle. He stood near the portal with a square device in his hand. Tropic realized this was the Rikti Communications Officer who was keeping the portal stable so his comrades could get through. Tropic targeted the alien and took him down with a well placed fire ball.
Still, more of the Rikti came through. He shouted at WillowWind.” We’ve got to destroy that portal!!”
She nodded, “Got it! Keep them off me!” She dropped the soldier she targeted and ran towards the portal.
Tropic followed firing blast after blast at the Rikti trying to cover his partner. The alien soldiers fell but they were like ants swarming around an anthill. Still he fought, giving WillowWind the protection she needed.
An energy blast caught him square in the chest and knocked him down and back. He sprang back to his feet, raised his arms and called down fire from the sky. The Rikti burned and ran, trying to put out the flames. Tropic cut them down as efficiently as possible.
WillowWind continued to fire energy blast after blast at the portal. It was taking longer than she expected but finally the shimmering disk began to waver. Another blast and it became more erratic. She gathered her strength and shot a powerful beam into the heart of the portal and it exploded in upon itself disappearing from view.
She breathed a sigh of relief. “Done!”, she shouted and turned to mop up the remaining Rikti. She spun around and looked right into the face of a Rikti soldier, it’s great sword already raised and on it’s way down. Suddenly the Rikti burst into flame and dropped to it’s knees. Behind the Rikti, Tropic was just lowering his arm, fire still rising from his hand.
She looked around and all the enemy were down. She raised an eyebrow. “Cutting it a little close, weren’t we?”
Tropic smiled and shrugged. “Well…just a little.”
“You’re tuxedo is a little singed.” WillowWind smoothed out her dress. “I, on the other hand, look fabulous.”
Tropic smiled. “Yes you do.” He looked over at the smoldering husk of the limousine. “I guess we fly.”, he stated simply.
With that they both took to the air and headed to the banquet once more. They flew over the picturesque streets and canals of Founder’s Falls on their way to Talos Island. There they would take the train to Steel Canyon, transfer to the Yellow Line and make the connection to Atlas Park where the banquet was being held.
“We might just make it in time.“, Tropic said. They were passing over the Liberty Town neighborhood of the zone.
WillowWind smiled. “Don’t jinx us, babes. We already lost a limo, which was absolutely not our fault…”
“Right, absolutely.”
“…and the night is still young.”
Tropic laughed. “Hey! The glass is still half full, sweetie. You look great and the tux is only a little singed.” He turned to look forward. They were approaching Williams Square and were almost to the tunnel leading to Talos. “We shouldn’t have any more prob…” He was cut off in mid sentence. An explosion engulfed him and he plummeted down, too dazed to resume flying. He fell 200 feet straight into one of the many canals in the zone. Steam rose from the impact.
WillowWind was knocked back by the explosion and out of the corner of her eye saw her companion hit the water. She zoomed down to the water but came under fire as she neared the site. Looking around franticly she saw her assailants.
“Oh, Crap.”, she muttered. “5th Column.” There was a cadre of at least 15 soldiers rushing towards her. She saw a couple of Steel Valkyrie, three Mek Men and the rest were an assortment on Raserei Elite, Ubermenschen, Unteroffiziere and Obersts. All were formidable foes and all were firing at her.
She rose from the surface of the water and fired blasts of energy at them. One of the Valkyrie went down but a Mek Man had her in his sights. Just as it was about to fire, it was engulfed in a beam of flame and simply melted away. Willow looked behind her and saw Tropic rising from the water, his eyes leaking red fire. She smiled and knew the 5th Column was going to have a very bad day.
WillowWind fired a beam of energy at the remaining Valkyrie. It fell backwards, inert. Tropic sent a fireball at the two remaining Mek Men. One immediately fell to it’s mechanical knees but the other required a second blast before it imploded. Now only the human soldiers were left to deal with. Three ran forward to engage the heroes; the others held back, firing their weapons from a distance.
Two 5th Column fighters ran towards Tropic. He shot one down as he approached but the other soldier struck him solidly in the stomach. He threw a roundhouse right which Tropic blocked and countered with his fire sword. Still the Nazi came at him. Tropic looked around momentarily to see how his partner was faring.
Willow hovered over the Raserei Ubermenschen raining bolt and blast down on her enemy. One well placed ball of force caught the Nazi square in the chest. He staggered backwards and WillowWind dropped down and shot him with another blast of power. The Ubermenschen fell to his knees, wavered for a moment…and turned into a Warwolf.
The animal howled and looked about for its tormentor. She hovered there in front of him, stunned by the soldier’s sudden transformation. The Warwolf lashed out, it’s claws flashing in the moon’s pale light. There was a loud ripping sound and four claw marks appeared on the midsection of WillowWind’s dress.
WillowWind screamed. Luckily, the beast’s claws had missed her flesh but her dress was now officially ruined. “My dress!!”, Willow yelled. “My six hundred dollar dress!!”
“$600 dollars?!?“, Tropic exclaimed and turned toward WillowWind. The 5th Column fist took that opportunity to kick Tropic in the head. Tropic fell stunned. He leaped back to his feet, eyes blazing and hands full of fire. “Oh, that’s it!”, Tropic muttered. He unleashed a blaze of fire at his opponent and the man fell, smoldering, at his feet.
A bullet whizzed past Tropic’s head and another hit the sidewalk at his feet, kicking up tiny shards of concrete. Tropic saw the group of Column soldiers firing at him. “All Right! I have had it!”. He ran toward them and leapt into their midst. He gathered all his energy into himself and released it in one giant blazing inferno. The men surrounding him dropped like stones. He turned and looked for WillowWind.
She had fired blast after blast at the wolf. It still fought but she could see it was getting weaker. WillowWind was seething mad at the beast for ruining her dress and was determined to make it pay. Another blast hit the animal. It staggered back. One more and it wavered on its feet. WillowWind landed in front of the Warwolf, balled up her fist and hit the beast directly on it’s snout. The wolf stepped backwards and fell, unconscious.
Willow stood over the Warwolf and waggled her finger, scolding it. “Bad Dog! Bad, Bad Dog!”
Tropic came over to her side. “You OK?”, he asked.
Willow nodded. She looked at the claw marks on her dress. “It’s ruined.”, she stated simply. She looked up at Tropic and laughed. He stood there, soaking wet, the breast pocket on the tuxedo was torn and hanging crookedly and the left shoulder seam of his jacket had split, the stitching jutting upwards along with the shoulder padding. “But I still look better than you.”, she said smiling.
Tropic laughed. “Your opinion only.” He began to hover and turned towards Williams Square once more. “C’mon. We’re almost to the tunnel and Talos. We can still make the banquet.” He rose higher into the sky.
WillowWind followed. “I can’t go like this! Ms. Liberty is going to be there. I’d never hear the end of it if I showed up wearing an…”
“Hey, you wanted to go and we’re going.”, Tropic said. “I’m too pissed off now to stop and I’m going to get that Key to the City even if it kills me…or us, whichever comes first!” He flew in a direct line to Argo Highway, over Williams Square and into the tunnel muttering to himself as he flew “$600 dollars…I‘ve got $23 dollars in my pocket…I can‘t believe she could spend $600 dollars…and on so little fabric!”. WillowWind sighed and followed.
They emerged in Talos Island and flew directly towards the train station. Tropic turned to WillowWind. “Just have to make two connections and we’re there.”
“Good. Then maybe this night will mercifully end.”
Tropic smiled. “It hasn’t been that bad. Sure we’ve had a couple of setbacks but you have to admit that we came through alright and the company has been top notch.”
WillowWind’s smile seemed to light up the evening sky. “You’re sweet, but you have to admit that…”
Willow was cut off in mid sentence by a woman’s pleading voice. ”Help!…Please no!”
The two heroes looked down and saw a woman being mugged by two Freakshow thugs. Tropic and WillowWind both streaked to the scene immediately. Even though they were tired, beaten up and late for the event, they were still superheroes and this was the sort of thing they fought, no questions asked.
They both fired on the two Freaks cutting them down almost instantly. Suddenly, from behind the rocks that covered the area, about ten Freakshow goons swarmed around them. A tank, juicers, stunners, swipers, smashers…it was a Freakshow convention.
Tropic saw them coming and tried to hover above them. “Oh…Nuts!”, he spit and the battle was on. Both he and Willow concentrated their fire on the tank. He was the most dangerous and the most difficult to put down. The tank tossed a stun grenade upwards and it exploded below Tropic, flipping him backwards. Tropic righted himself and unleashed another blast at the tank.
Suddenly he was caught in a ball of electric fire. He turned to his right and saw a Stunner Freak flying up to engage him. Tropic fought against the hold of the electric force. Finally he freed one hand and shot out a blast of molten fire. The Stunner staggered back in mid-air but quickly recovered and punched Tropic in the ribs. Tropic grimaced and threw forward his arm catching the enemy in a ring of fire, immobilizing the Freak. He hit the gangster with a strike from his fire sword and a blast of firepower. The Freak dropped like a stone.
Tropic looked around for WillowWind. He saw that she had defeated the tank and was engaged with some of the Freaks below. Abruptly, she was hit with a blast of energy and fell to the ground. Tropic rushed to get to her but before he could move he was hit with the same force and plummeted to earth on the other side of the rocks, separated from his companion. As he jumped back to his feet he came face to face with three Freaks, all looking like they could eat hand grenades. “Wonderful.”, Tropic thought and rushed into the heart of them.
WillowWind hit the ground hard and struggled to regain her senses. She saw the Freaks heading towards her. Gathering herself she rose to her feet, a sneer on her lips. “You have no idea how big a mistake you’ve made.”. Her voice was barely above a whisper. The Freaks paused in mid stride and looked at each other. WillowWind leapt up and landed among them.
Tropic blasted one of the Freaks and saw him fall when the other side of the rocks lit up like sunrise. He turned to the remaining Freak, “Oh, she went Nova on your pals!”.
The Freak looked to the rocks and Tropic hit him with a blaze of fire. The Freak swung a roundhouse right at him but Tropic easily blocked it. Still holding onto the arm he buried his knee into the Freak’s midsection doubling the thug over. He raised his right fist overhead and dropped the hammer into the Freak’s elbow, breaking it. The thug screamed and bolted upright. Tropic said calmly, “Crime doesn’t pay.”, and buried his right fist in the gangster’s face. The Freak dropped to his knees and was finished.
Tropic turned and was about to climb over the rock to get to Willow but she was already standing at the top of it.
“Why does this keep happening to us?”, she called down to him.
Tropic shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”
He looked up at WillowWind and smiled. Apparently when she fell she had fallen in mud. The dress was now ripped, muddy and torn.
She dropped down beside Tropic and put her had on his shoulder to steady herself as she took off her shoe. She held it up and examined the broken heel. WillowWind threw it to the ground, took off her other shoe, and tossed it down to join its pair.
“You owe me a new pair of shoes.”, she said simply and leapt into the air, flying towards the train station.
“What? Why? How do you figure that I…”, Tropic argued as he followed her skyward.
“I bought them for the occasion, they matched the dress, they’re ruined, you owe me a new pair of shoes.”
Tropic realized that the discussion was over. They arrived at the station and waited for the train to Steel Canyon.
As the train pulled into the station WillowWind said to Tropic, “By the way, the seam on the back of your jacket has split.”. She got on the train in front of him. He joined her and held the strap and they were on their way to Steel Canyon.
The train rumbled towards its destination. WillowWind stood behind Tropic trying to make herself as small as possible. She knew she looked a mess and did not want to be the center of attention. She also was regretting forcing Tropic to go to this banquet because now he was determined to get there no matter what.
For his part, Tropic grasped the strap and stood bolt upright, shoulders back, chest out, staring straight ahead. The passengers on the train, on the other hand, were staring at the disheveled couple. They looked at the pair wearing what used to be elegant formal clothing and whispered amongst themselves.
There were also other heroes on board looking at the two. One, dressed in black and red with a red faceplate and a large red letter A on his chest looked over and said, “Rough night?”.
Tropic looked at him. “Tolerable.”, he replied and turned to stare ahead again.
The hero looked at Tropic and Willow, his faceplate betraying no emotion and simply said, “Riiiight.”.
Thankfully, the train picked that moment to pull into the Steel Canyon station. They disembarked and took to the sky once more, making their way across the zone to the yellow line and then Atlas Park.
They flew through the man-made canyons of the neighborhood side by side. WillowWind grumbled as under her breath, “I look horrible…and I’m sure there’ll be photographers there…and Ms. Liberty, I’m sure she’ll have something to say about my outfit…as if she should talk…wearing that short skirt…barely covers her rear end…”. Her voice trailed off but Tropic could tell her mind was going a mile a minute.
“Don’t worry about it.”, he told her. “After what we’ve been through tonight just to get there, I don’t think anybody is going to say anything.” He paused for a moment and looked over at her. “And if they do we’ll see how they like a fireball up their…”.
Unexpectedly, they were both caught in a whirlwind which spun them with the force of a hurricane. They were both thrown powerfully into the wall of a skyscraper, the air knocked out of both of them. They plummeted to the street below and landed hard.
Tropic pushed himself up to his knees and looked for their attacker. He stood hesitantly still unsure of his footing after the fall. He looked over at WillowWind. She had risen to her hands and knees, still trying to catch her breath. Tropic heard a whizzing sound and suddenly a shuriken impeded itself in the wall of the building behind him. Another hit him in the shoulder. It stung for a moment and then melted away in the molten fire that coursed through his system, not leaving a mark. He looked up and saw the reason for their fall
“The Tsoo.”, Tropic muttered. “Can this night get any worse!”, he yelled.
“Apparently not.”, WillowWind said. She had gathered her senses and stood next to Tropic looking over at the oncoming enemy. A sorcerer, some enforcers, ink men and she thought she even saw an Ancestral Spirit. “I swear, Tropic, if they ever offer you another Key to the City…just say no!”. With that she unleashed a beam of electric power at the Tsoo sorcerer.
The sorcerer was the most worrisome of the gang. His wide variety of powers allowed him to attack enemies or aid large groups of friends. Taking him out of the battle quickly was the most prudent action. WillowWind hit the sorcerer again with a blast and the foe disappeared. She looked around frantically but he was nowhere to be seen. A Dragon Enforcer rushed to the attack. She ducked the strike and engulfed him in electric fire. The man fell and she felt a wave of heat behind her. She spun around and saw the sorcerer at her feet, smoke rising from his body.
“Got your back, partner, cause I like looking at it!”, Tropic said and returned to his foe. The Enforcer had been held a bay by a ring of fire but when Tropic turned to him the ring dissipated. The Tsoo warrior rushed to the attack. He fired a kick to Tropic’s head but Tropic was able to block it. The warrior then hit him with the back of his fist and Tropic fell backwards, the wall of the skyscraper breaking his fall.
The Tsoo Enforcer smiled wickedly believing he had the hero beaten. “Time to die, gooder!”, he sneered and drew a dagger from his belt. He moved in for the kill, stabbing downward but Tropic was able to catch the man’s wrist with his left hand. Holding the deadly weapon at bay, Tropic slammed his right elbow into the Enforcer’s face. He reared back and punched the warrior in the face, breaking nose and cracking teeth. He spun the thug around and slammed him into the wall of the building.
The back of the Tsoo Enforcer’s head cracked against the stone. Still holding the man’s wrist, Tropic dug the fingers of his right hand under the Tsoo’s grip on the knife, effectively stripping the weapon away from him. Tropic took the dagger and buried it in the thug’s right thigh. He screamed in agony, grabbing his leg and slid down the wall to the sidewalk. Tropic turned and attacked the remaining enemy.
WillowWind was having a horrible time dealing with the Ink Man who had assaulted her. She felt sluggish and slow, her arms and legs seemed to be caught in quicksand. She knew the tattoos that covered his body were magical in nature and enhanced his mental powers. She rallied herself and struck the Ink Man with a jarring bolt of electricity. She was momentarily freed from his grasp and her mind raced, trying to formulate some plan of attack.
She saw the Tsoo Enforcer that Tropic had stabbed with the dagger just struggling to his feet. WillowWind sped over to him, followed closely by the Ink Man. Just as the Enforcer regained his footing, she grasped the dagger and pulled it from the man’s thigh. She spun around, knowing the Ink Man was almost directly behind her, and hit him with all her might in the temple with the butt of the hilt. The Ink Man’s eyes rolled up and back into his head and he fell to the sidewalk unconscious.
“Here, hold this.”, she said as she turned back to the Enforcer and drove the dagger back into the man’s thigh. The thug screamed and passed out from the pain. She turned to find Tropic and saw him blasting an Ancestor Spirit. The bolt passed thru the thing with no effect. Tropic turned his back to it and smiled at WillowWind. The Spirit suddenly appeared behind him again. He spun around and shot a bolt of fire at it. The Tsoo Spirit was engulfed in flame and fell to the ground defeated.
The remaining Tsoo gang members looked at each other, then looked at the advancing heroes. Their comrades lay unconscious in the street. In the space of a minute the two heroes had had defeated five of their fellows and were now coming at them. The thugs looked at each other again and then ran away.
Topic and WillowWind watched them go. They turned to each other and burst out laughing. “Well”, Tropic said, “that saved us some time.”
“I wish that would have happened earlier”, Willow sighed, “with the Rikti…”
“And the 5th Column…”, Tropic added.
“And the Freaks.” Willow Wind gazed after the retreating Tsoo. “These guys seem to be the only ones with the right idea.” She rose into the air and turned toward the train station. “Hey, babes”, she called down to Tropic, “lets skip the train and just go directly to Atlas Park. I don’t need all those people on the train staring at me.” She frowned at the thought. “I figure there’ll be enough staring when we get to the banquet.”, she said quietly.
Tropic joined her in the air. He saw that she was truly worried what the people at the Key ceremony would think of her appearance. He smiled a crooked half smile and made it a point that she noticed him looking her up and down.
“Remember when I picked you up?”, he asked. She nodded looking at him quizzically. “I said you looked great and hot. That’s still true only now you look great, hot and badass! And if anyone says any different they’ll have to talk to me. And that will be a ‘hot’ conversation.”
WillowWind smiled broadly, flashing white teeth. “Ok, lets go! The banquet only started…”, she looked at her wrist, “…well,…now my watch is broken …but I’m sure it only started a few minutes ago!”
They took off again following the highway and then into the tunnel which led to Atlas Park. Emerging on the other side they flew in the direction of City Hall. The banquet was being held at the Paragon City Hilton which was near Atlas Plaza. The two heroes looked at each other and smiled. A few more minutes and they would be at the ceremony and then perhaps they could relax.
They landed in the parking lot of the hotel and began to make their way to the entrance. Suddenly, three Hellions blocked their path.
“Hey, folks.”, the gang leader sneered, casually swinging his bat, “you look like you already had some problems tonight.” His two companions snickered. “But that don’t mean you don’t have to pay for da parking.” He smirked at the couple.
Tropic and WillowWind looked at each other shook their heads. He turned back to the Hellions. Tropic’s voice was calm, measured and low. When he spoke it was in a tone that could chill snow.
“Don’t…even…think about it.” Tropic’s eyes blazed brighter and WillowWind seemed to be surrounded by a glowing aura.
The thugs stared, stunned, at their intended victims and realized they had made a very dangerous mistake. They backed away slowly, looked at each other and ran, leaving behind the bat used to threaten the couple. The heroes entered the hotel and made their way to the banquet hall followed by the stares of everyone in the lobby.
The Mayor was ten minutes into his speech praising the heroes of Paragon City in general and Tropic in particular. The banquet had begun about a half hour ago and the guest of honor still had not arrived. The Mayor was disappointed and angry. It was just not acceptable, in his eyes, to be chosen to receive such an award as a Key to the City and then to simply not show up. “I’ll be talking to M.A.G.I. about this insult to the city”, the Mayor thought when the doors at the back of the banquet hall swung open.
The Mayor’s speech died in his throat when he saw the two heroes. Everyone in the hall looked at the Mayor expectantly and then turned in their seats to see what he was looking at. On the dais, Ms. Liberty, Valkyrie, Positron and Synapse stood, staring at the disordered appearance of their colleagues. All conversation in the room ended immediately as they beheld the state of the two heroes.
Tropic and WillowWind stood at the doorway for a moment. Willow slid her arm through Tropic’s. He smiled at her and then they made their way up the side of the hall to the dais, the eyes of the assembled guests riveted to the pair. The strobe like effect of the camera flashes lit up the room.
WillowWind’s gown was a sight to behold. The black outfit was adorned at the midsection with the claw marks of the 5th Column Warwolf. The bottom was torn and tattered. Her stockings were a collection of runs and tears. She had fallen in mud and the dress, as well as her back, were caked with the dried earth. She wore no shoes and her mascara had streaked down one side of her face. Her hair was, as the fashion editor of the Paragon Times noted in the next days paper, a “mess”.
Tropic looked no better. His tie was long gone. Both shoulder seams of the jacket had split and thread and padding jutted out. The seam in the back had ripped open. The breast pocket had been torn almost completely off and hung there at an angle. But the worst part was because of the dunking in the canal in Founder’s Falls, the suit had shrunk. What was a 44 long now appeared to be a 42 short. The sleeves came up to mid forearm and the pants ended well above the ankle.
They arrived at the stage and Tropic held WillowWind’s chair out for her. He approached the Mayor and waited expectantly. The Mayor just stood there looking at the hero. Tropic cleared his throat and motioned with his eyes toward the plaque.
“Um…Mr. Mayor?”, Tropic whispered.
The Mayor looked to the table and gathered himself with a jolt. “Yes…right…of course.”. He picked up the award and turned to the audience.
“Tropic,”, the Mayor began, “in recognition of your courage and service to this city, especially in stopping the Nemesis and Circle of Thorns pact and in halting the 5th Column vampiri project, it is my honor to present you with this Key to the City with gratitude and appreciation.”. He gave the award to Tropic with a flourish and shook his hand vigorously while turning to smile at the photographers. Those in the hall stood and applauded. Willow looked over to Ms. Liberty, who was also seated at the dais. Ms. Liberty shook her head, smiled and winked at her.
Tropic stepped to the podium and waited for the applause to end. He looked down and saw his breast pocket hanging there. With his right had he reached over and held it in place, looking as though he was going to say the pledge of allegiance. He looked at the crowd, which was watching him intently. “It’s a rental.”, he said simply, still holding the pocket in place. The audience laughed and he looked out at the assembly of citizens and heroes.
He gripped both sides of the podium. “Mr. Mayor, Honored Guests, Heroes, Ladies and Gentlemen. A funny thing happened on the way to the banquet…”

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