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Signs of Home (Summer Contest Entry)

A collaboration between Paul (as Tom Carcetti) and James (as Adam Jensen-Carcetti)

Soundtrack: Empty Gold by Halsey, Blood in the Cut by K.Flay, Revenge by Chevelle

July hits with the force of a train, announcing that summer has come to Baltimore in its entirety, bringing with it thicker smells of decay from the harbor and trash-filled lots alike. Broken glass along pavement and scattered in unmowed vacant patches reflects the sun like daggers into the eyes of passersby. Metal becomes unbearable to the touch by noon. What few air conditioners there are to go around in this part of town struggle valiantly in their ultimately futile battle against the heat as it climbs ever closer to hitting the triple-digit mark before August even hits.

 

With this heat comes lethargy. Weed-grown, trash-strewn playgrounds rust untouched, their lead paint long ago having begun to flake and peel from the sun. Mangy stray dogs wander through alleys, avoiding kicks and searching for something the sun has not yet turned too ripe to eat. Old men lounge on stoops, cigarettes and sweating beers in hand, attempting to find shade from the cracking bricks of row houses that long ago lost their shine. Ants swarm the carcass of a dead pigeon that met its demise via window, tearing past feathers and beginning a process of decay that reflects the state of the city, only mercifully sped up instead of drawn out to an agonizing and slow death. Why something can't just do that to the entire rotting corpse of this place is a question even a deity would struggle to answer. It might just be the mercy killing that's needed.

 

With this heat comes freedom- from school, from homework, from responsibility. Young children and teenagers alike, cut free from the bonds of their usual work, find themselves cast adrift as poor parents who must continue their normal schedules can't figure out what to do with them. In a place where going out to play could result in a hypodermic in the foot or a knife in the gut, those that stay sitting on stoops are the good kids. Those that find work for their idle hands on the corners or as runners are staring down a life that will likely not end well. Some parents notice. Some don't care. Others encourage the behavior. Some are following in their father's footsteps, which brings pride. This is life here, on the West side. And the East? Not too different- although saying as much is a good way to end up needing an ambulance.

 

With this heat comes anger. Crime rates rise. Fistfights increase. Murders and robberies soar. Summer is a dangerous time, even before temperatures peak out at the top of their range. Tom Carcetti knows this. He grew up with it. The sound of sketchy ice cream trucks, battered vans often hawking more than their treats alone, is a siren song of childhood. Dirty public pools, now rarer than ever, are a godsend. These are the sounds and smells and sights of summer.

 

These are the signs of home.

 

Vacation from the swamp, as Washington DC is so affectionately called by anyone in political circles, was a welcome thing to be gifted. Pitching the idea of taking it back to Baltimore, though, got more than a few looks from Secret Service, the President, and his travelling companion alike. But it had been too long since he'd gone home, and far too long since he'd spent a summer on the streets of the city that molded him into what he's become.

 

As the afternoon fades into a murky, humid evening, the sun beginning its slow descent and leaving the sky a languid, feverish orange, water gushes from a popped fire hydrant, still pouring out onto the street where kids spent hours playing with no intervention from cops or maintenance workers. Even adults joined in the fun, and the one officer that passed merely smiled in knowing acceptance and moved along. It's late now, though, and it hasn't been reported. Apparently, it was time for this street's gutters to be cleaned, even if it will rack up the city's water bill, which they can surely barely pay as it is. There's nothing like wasting good, potable water on frivolous things, right?

 

The fundraiser party was for the Baltimore school system. It lasted most of the afternoon, but in the evening, it has begun to turn into a drinking marathon. And as people have begun to consume more alcohol in a misguided effort to beat the heat, the music has grown louder, and so have the voices. It's by that time Tom turns to his companion and whispers to leave. Agreement is made fast, as the two men know each other far too well to think either of them enjoys such settings. A few words to Secret Service and a couple of public goodbyes, and they're free. At least...as free as the Vice President and his cohort can be.

 

Tom steps across the deepening puddle of runoff water to reach the sidewalk, his move turning into a half-hearted jump to get across what might as well be an unsurpassable body of water at this point.

 

"Jesus. It's like the fuckin' Mississippi." His quiet complaint is lodged as he recovers, bending down to rub at his knee with a pained frown and another swear. "Fuck this. Anybody got a hacksaw? I think it'd be easier to cut this leg off right above the knee."

 

“Never been,” Adam Jensen, the “traveling companion,” newly branded with the surname Carcetti, responds as he wipes his head with a towel. His arms are overheating too much with the summer mugginess, causing the metal to burn what precious skin he has left on contact. The towel at least collects his sweat as his internal Augs struggle to keep up with the heat. “But if you ask me, I think both of us could do with never going outside again.”

 

They’ve been married a solid year, and the two play off one another as if they’ve known each other for much longer. Which, in reality, they have. From secret love affair to an announcement that shook the nation (again) during Vice President Carcetti’s second run for office, the two are inseparable at this point. Vacation to Baltimore, though, seems to only make him question his husband's sanity. The heat is unbearable. They should have gone to Detroit.

 

“Where’s the car? Why are we walking again?”

 

"Jesus, we've been driving all day. I wanted to stretch. But now I'm regretting everything. Seriously, anybody got a hacksaw?"

 

"Sir, maybe we should get a car delivered. It's just a phone call, and-"

 

"I'm not having it," Tommy snaps at one of the two Secret Service agents tailing behind them. "What's next, is Tweedledum gonna suggest my cane?" The injuries he bears from the assassination attempt are severe, but the fact that he's out in public again is more than just a show for the press. He didn't announce his planned presence at this event. What lucky reporters and photographers, both amateur and professional, that caught him there will have exclusives. This is a test of his own willpower and physical capability more than anything else. He's yet to announce his planned run for the Presidency, but that day is coming very, very soon.

 

The Unkillable Tommy Carcetti- your one and only sane choice for the highest office in the land. Who else are you going to vote for? A Cheeto with a clump on their head pulled straight out of a shower drain's hair trap? Between the knife he took between the ribs as a Baltimore City Councilman and the assault rifle fire he survived slightly over a year ago, he's proven his ability to stand tall under the most harrowing of circumstances.

 

At least, in public, where he holds back his swearing and tears. Those are reserved for physical therapy and home, where only Jensen and his Secret Service guards can hear and see how much pain he's in behind closed doors.

 

"Anybody got Advil or somethin'? Please?"

 

Jensen digs into his pockets and shakes a pill bottle. “I knew you’d forget your pain meds, Carcetti. I know you too well.” He rubs that in before handing his husband the bottle, adjusting his shades so they sit better on his nose. He’s long abandoned the shielding protective eyewear, knowing he looks out of place with it on.

 

“And you’re complaining, whining, and boring me to death. Just tell them to call the car, or I will make use that cane.” He’s become hyper-protective since the assassination attempt left Carcetti’s knee a wreck and Jensen unable to stop it. Since then, he’s been mothering him a little too much, but the Aug would never admit it.

 

"Thanks." The bottle is taken, although grudgingly. It sounds like there's at least three, and that's plenty for him. If he takes these now, he knows he can't have the heavy stuff at home. But desperation is desperation, and he's ailing badly. "I don't wanna dry-swallow these and end up puking in the gutter. We're stopping to get water." It's not an offer or a question. It's an order.

 

He squints into the night, past dim, grungy light from overhead poles that comes in hues ranging from piss-yellow to barely-there brown. The toe of his expensive, Italian-leather shoe catches on a raised cement edge and scuffs.

 

"COCKsucker." That got a bit loud. Mercifully, anyone out here tonight won't know who he is, or simply won't care. "Fuck." Now his GOOD foot is aching, his BAD knee is throbbing, and he's growing even more pissed off. "There. Okay? We'll stop there, I'll get water, I'll take the fuckin' pills, and I'll get a snack to keep them down." When silence follows, he turns, whirling to face the two Secret Service guards and his husband.

 

"What? I'm an old fuckin' man, and my delicate stomach can't handle them without food. Impeach me!" The anger is sharp and pointed, stemming from his pain and his exhaustion. It's characteristic of him, and neither of the other three will be remotely offended or surprised.

 

“Carcetti,” Jensen snaps, only to take off his shades, tuck them into his jacket, and pull the angry little man along towards the storefront. He’s tired and irritated himself from the heat, unable to keep himself cool with how hot it’s growing. The idea of a cold soft drink gets him a little excited. “We should have brought the damn car.”

 

Now they’re both grumpy. This won’t bode well for their security, who has dealt with how annoyed and angry these two can get when they’ve been exposed to too much stimulation. Something is nagging at the back of his skull, though, making him nervous. He shakes it off, sliding off his suit jacket and rolling his sleeves up to his elbows like it’ll do much good. His arms are fucking metal.

 

He waits for one of the men to open the door for him.

 

The convenience store is run-down, a typical example of its type. The windows, save for the one on the door with chicken wire doubled-up inside of it, are all boarded over for safety. That, or they've already all been broken out. Either is plausible. The neon signs flicker weakly, coaxing passersby to buy a lottery ticket. God knows it's the only money the poor, ailing education funds see around here. Taggers have made a mess of the plywood elsewhere. None of that is even visible to the pissed-off politician who grew up here.

 

"Will you two stay outside? My husband and I are having a moment." Tommy's question is, once again, an order disguised as something else. The agents know better. One shrugs to the other, who mouths a simple phrase: Thank fucking god. Dealing with these two can be exhausting when they're pissed off.

 

The interior is typical. Refrigerated cases line the back wall. Rows of fatty, salt-laden, pre-packaged snacks line several short aisles. Another features toiletries, car fluids, and emergency supplies. Behind the counter, cigarettes, chew, and alcohol can be purchased. Tommy waves to the bored attendant, who barely gives the pair a second look. All told, Jensen and Tommy bring the store's population up to six. Three other patrons are browsing- a mother and her young teenage son, and a strung-out man who looks fresh off his latest shoot-up.

 

Normal.

 

Outside, the two agents slip to the side of the building to wait. One lights up a cigarette, and gossip starts to flow.

 

Jensen heads straight for the fountain drinks, and spoils himself with soda. Then it’s for jerky, where he spends several moments trying to decide if he wants pork or beef. He keeps an eye on Tommy as he makes his way around, finally ending up at his side and thinking a moment about a beer. Does he want one?

 

“Do I want a beer?” Might as well ask the one man who knows him best. It won’t make him drunk, but it’ll cure his little withdrawals that several days of talking have created.

 

"Do you want to be in the news for buying a beer at a place like this at this time of night?" The question is meant to be as biting as it sounds. Tommy grabs a bag of M&Ms to go with his water bottle and turns to limp his way to the counter.

 

Before he can get there, the ding of the bells haphazardly tied to the inside of the door clink dully as it opens again. A Baltimorian dressed a bit too thickly for the weather walks in, his letter jacket bearing the Orioles colors. The door slams shut, and he approaches the counter.

 

"What can I get you, broth-"

 

The gunshot echoes so loudly in the small, enclosed space that it's hard to register. Tommy freezes, dropping what he's holding. The pill bottle rolls away from him with a clatter and finds a new home underneath a dusty, disgusting shelf. The clerk sinks and drops to the ground, half of his skull blown away and his brain matter painting the glass display of cigarettes and chew behind him. The mother screams. Tom is frozen, locked up in a personal hell of memories and fear.

 

The agents outside rush to the door. The shooter turns his massive handgun on the door and fires again, the bullet ripping straight through the chest of the first and dropping him in seconds.

 

"Don't PLAY, motherfucker!" The warning is shouted to the second, who quickly whips around the corner again and dials 9-1-1. "GET ON YOUR KNEES! All of you, GET the fuck over here, NOW!" The gunman gestures to an open space by the freezer section. The strung-out man collapses in fear, the floor beneath him soon collecting a yellow puddle. The smell isn't recognizable from anything else in the store already. The mother shields her son and does as asked, a hand up as she tries to protect herself and her child.

 

Jensen yanks Carcetti down and over as hard as he can, getting ready to leap forward and jab this son of a bitch with this wrist blades that haven’t seen action in years. His first priority is to protect his husband, then protect the others inside. Unless Carcetti stops him.

 

“Stay down,” he hisses in Carcetti’s ear. “I’ll move in a-”

 

"No!" Tom hisses, letting Jensen shelter him. "Don't do it, they'll know what you can do! You're gonna get more people killed, Adam. Not now. I know how guys like this work." He tugs Jensen with him over towards the others and hangs on his arm to drop to his knees one at a time. His wince as his bad one hits is huge, and the whimper of pain is a noise he barely silences. Suddenly, his stubbed toes and scuffed shoe don’t seem to be pressing issues anymore.

 

“I can talk to him, then.” Jensen is on his knees as well, which whir in protest to being bent so awkwardly. He’s whispering as quietly as he can. “I’ve talked a lot of people out of these kinds of things...”

 

"Not like this you haven't." Tom grits his teeth and straightens up, risking a glance at the gunman. "This is Baltimore."

 

"SHUT UP." The man aims the weapon at the junkie. "Wallets. Phones. Keys. On the floor, right fuckin' now, motherfuckers."

 

Tommy keeps a hand up and visible as he reaches into his pockets one at a time as ordered, tossing the sparse contents out on the ground.

 

A blur off in his left peripheral signals the junkie is bolting for it. He slips in the puddle of his own piss and crashes down into a metal stand of snack-sized chip offerings. The gun fires again, punching a hole through his back. The child screams and Tommy curls in on himself, holding his gut as if it were his own that would spill out should he move his arms. He's survived it once. He doesn't think he can again.

 

Outside, sirens are starting to blare. The gunman, apparently not after money or anything more than fame, is furious. He bears the look of a crazed madman. Whatever brought him here tonight is going to end in death, and he knows it will be his own.

 

"He knows he's gonna die, Adam. He wants to take us all with him." The whisper is broken. "Don't fuck this up."

 

Jensen snarls, but looks towards where his wedding ring and wallet are on the floor, angry that they’ve been parted from him and even more angry he can’t do anything about this.

 

He inhales, his Augs doing the talking as he reads this kid’s body language, information spilling into his head as he licks his lips and opens his mouth.

 

“Hey. You don’t have to do this.” How cliché.

 

"The fuck you know about what I don't have to do, white boy?" Nice, Jensen. Tom is cringing. "It's all gone to shit. I either go home and get shot in my bed or I go out tonight and get fuckin' remembered. I ain't gonna sit around and wait."

 

The sirens are louder now, and there is clear police activity outside. The boarded windows make it hard to tell how much for normal eyes. Responding officers are blocking off the scene as a hostage team is en route.

 

“This is how you want to be remembered? A faceless thug?” His words are chosen carefully, but it’s been a very long time since he’s had to do this. He’s rusty. This could go badly.

 

The sirens outside provide some relief. At least he can keep Jensen from getting killed. The mother and child? Not so much.

 

Badly is an understatement. The elephant gun is swung downwards and cracks into Tommy's skull with a noise far too loud. He crumples down, his world going red and brown and black all at once. The pain is loud, like white noise from an empty TV station. He bit his tongue. Blood rolls from his mouth, such wounds always looking more severe than they are. There's no way that didn't cause a concussion, if not worse. There's blood, but...somehow, the skull isn't cracked. He moans into the tile and stays down.

 

"You got anything else to say, smart-ass?"

 

“Fuck.” Shooter forgotten, Jensen is instantly cradling Tommy on his lap, looking at the shooter with flared glowing eyes. “You just pistol whipped the Vice President.”

 

Bad move, kid. Metal fingers are brushing hair away from the wound, tempted to just kill the shooter right there. But that, like Tommy said, would just cause more problems. He grits his teeth, gaze moving back up towards the shooter.

 

"Say fuckin' what?" The weapon is turned on the child now. The mother screams and pleads, shielding him. The shooter kicks her away and drags the boy towards himself, holding the weapon right to the top of the child's head.

 

"THIS IS BALTIMORE PD." The voice cracks over the loudspeaker, the noises outside growing. They make Tommy's head buzz. He can't see straight. Words aren't coming to him. He wonders if they ever will again. Right now they feel slippery and taste like iron. "TALK TO US, SON."

 

He glances to his hostages and stares at Tommy for a moment longer before the gun is waved as an extension of his hand.

 

"You that mayor. I remember you. Shit." He realizes it, now, and it's too late to change things. But in the end, it's just an even more valuable bargaining chip, and he needs all the help he can get. "HEY!" He shouts, knowing he can be heard through the plywood. "I've got the fuckin' VP in here, man, and I'll hurt him worse! Back the fuck off!"

 

Shit. That's going to make this even worse. The surviving Secret Service agent has already confirmed this with the police, but now they know Tommy is hurt. The limited field of view they have inside probably means they don't know who is alive and who is dead. They've only heard shots fired, if they even know how many of those there have been.

 

Thus, a standoff begins that lasts far past the fall of the sun, deep into the night. Hours pass, and negotiations are failing. The shooter paces, brandishing the weapon and kicking over displays. He's nervous and circling like a cornered animal. Tommy finds his words again after half an hour, but stays down. After a bit of cleaning, though, it's clear the blow to the head isn't as bad as it first appeared. Count your blessings, right?

 

By 1:00 AM, everyone is exhausted, dirty, and tired, including the police outside, and especially the shooter.

 

“Look, kid, you got me, you got the VP. The kid and the mom, they’re just collateral. Kill the Vice President, you’re a legend. Kill a mom and you’re the same as every other forgotten madman. Are you really a man willing to kill a child in hopes people will remember you for maybe two more weeks than every other gunman in town?”

 

Jensen is trying again, this time trying to appeal to him rather than convince him otherwise.

 

“You know Carcetti, then you know me. We’re what’s really valuable here.“

 

"You his husband?" He points to the two masculine wedding rings among the gathered wallets and phones. He's thinking about it. Finally, he nods. It's small and angry, and it shows how tired he is.

 

"Hey. Get the fuck up." His order to the drowsy mother and child is harsh. They rise when ordered. What they don't expect is to be ushered to the door. "Get out. Go." The body of the downed agent has long been removed. They cross bloodstained steps, faces streaked with tears and sweat, and rush into the arms of Baltimore PD outside.

 

Tommy exhales audibly with relief, now back to sitting against the refrigerator case behind him.

 

The gunman stands there for a moment, thinking about what he's done. He turns to look at his last two remaining live hostages, his lips twitching as his face falls. He realizes what he's done. The gun raises...and turns towards his own temple.

 

"WAIT!" The voice of Carcetti cuts through the thick, nauseating air. The smell of bile, of blood, of shit, of urine, and of worse is not something a man can grow accustomed to, no matter what. It always weighs heavily in the sinuses, like a coating of toxic paint. "Kid, please. Wait." Surprising even Jensen, he stands, gripping the handle of the door directly behind him to do so. His other hand is held out, palm open. His face is a perfect picture of fear and sincerity, his face half covered in dried blood and his hair matted and ruffled.

 

"Don't pull that trigger, son. Please." What's he doing?

 

“Carcetti,” Jensen warns, suddenly getting overwhelmed from Carcetti abruptly talking as well. He shakes it off, metal hand on the floor and his other curled into a fist, ready to tackle the kid down if he tries anything to hurt Tommy again. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.

 

His shoulders are starting to ache from the gravity of this situation. Getting the mother and kid out was hard enough, but now they have to talk this kid out of suicide? He feels conflicted. Really, he’s tired and wants this over with.

 

Tommy better know what he’s doing.

 

"Hey. Listen to me." Tommy drops the hand he's reaching out with, and stands up as straight as he can. His arms fall to his sides loosely, his shoulders lopsided as he takes weight off of his bad leg and therefore throws off his posture. "This city eats people alive. It fuckin' destroys you. I ain't got a clue what brought you here to this point. I can't understand. I won't ever. But, man, this? This ain't gonna do it. I wrote the death penalty out back in 2014, son. I promise you won't eat that. Please. Walk out with me. I promise they won't shoot you."

 

There's desperation in his voice, a broken plea. He wants to save a life tonight. He wants it more than anything else.

 

"We'll go out first. You come behind us. We'll shield you, okay? Just...please. Don't do this, kid. You're, what...twenty-five?" There are tears in his eyes, from stress, pain, and fear. "C'mon. Please."

 

The gunman hesitates for a long time, staring down the face of the battered, smaller politician. This is likely the first time he's heard and seen sincerity from one. Hell, this might be the first time anyone had to this degree, if this were being televised. Thank fucking god it's not.

 

"Aight." The reply is quiet. The gun is lowered. "Come on." He gestures with his other hand. "You two first."

 

"Good. Good. Thank you." Tommy kneels awkwardly to grab for his wedding ring. He slips it on his bloodied hand and passes Jensen his before grabbing his husband's arm and limping forward towards the door.

 

“Carcetti…” Another grit in the teeth from Jensen. This is a bad idea. It has bad written all over it. But from the look he’s given, and the fact that a gun isn’t on him, he can’t do anything but comply. So inside, he gently takes Tommy’s arm, knowing full well that knee is horrible and that he’s probably got a concussion and moves forward, his gaze dropping down to the rings on the floor before gently moving forward.

 

“I hope you know what you're doing,” Jensen’s convinced that gun’s fucked his brain up somehow. Right foot. left foot. He’s moving very slow, pausing only when his hand reaches the door.

 

DON’T SHOOT,” he shouts out in that deep, loud voice, waiting a moment before the door is gently pushed open.

 

Tommy is using both arms to hold onto Jensen to stay upright. He's doing his best to hold it together, knowing that now news cameras are on them. He's a bloody mess, but so long as he stays standing, he looks superhuman to everyone watching and everyone that will see him later. He can survive this. He can survive anything. He can-

 

The shot rings out from behind them. The spatter of gore strikes their backs and heads. The gunman's body collapses.

 

The cops raise their weapons.

 

Jensen can’t even shout. Carcetti is shoved down under him, time slowing as thick metal plates just out of his arms to form a small shield as Jensen throws himself on top of Tommy. Gunshots follow, making his ears ring and his head throb in pain. He landed on Tommy pretty hard, and given his weight it can’t be doing the smaller man any favors. The slowing down of time seems to stop and everything catches up, hitting Jensen hard in the face.

 

His only thought is if Tommy is still breathing under him.

 

Two shots are taken, shots that very well may have ended up hitting the two survivors. Imagine that headline- Vice President killed by Baltimore PD after being held hostage in a convenience store for nine hours. That's not the eulogy Tommy deserves. Hell, that's not the eulogy ANYONE deserves.

 

Quiet shock ripples through the crowd. An officer breaks the spell and rushes towards the two men. Paramedics charge forward. Soon, they're engulfed in a swarm of the good old BPD blue.

 

---

 

The cameras, bright lights, and loud voices are finally fading away as a perimeter is established around the ambulance Tommy and Jensen are situated in. Secured down to the gurney, Tommy sits halfway up, haggard face looking like that of a man who just left a warzone. He's covered in blood- his own, and that of the dead. His eyes are hollow and listless. An IV is feeding him anti-nausea medication, painkillers, and fluids for now. The head trauma is mercifully incredibly mild. For once, he got lucky.

 

"This fuckin' city..." The words feel like sandpaper being scratched against the inside of his throat. He coughs and tries again, his gaze still fixated out the open back doors of the ambulance and the quieting flurry of activity around the scene. "This fuckin' city eats people alive."

 

“There was nothing we could do,” Jensen isn’t scuffed, but there’s some attention that’s been given to him. His shirt is torn and dirty, he’ll have to throw it away when he gets home. “Kid was messed up. Bad. If anything, he just got what he wanted.”

 

It’s not what Tommy wants to hear.

 

"Just 'cause he wanted it doesn't mean it's what shoulda happened." He wants to mean it. He really does. But there's a faraway look on his face that suggests with all he's seen and done, with all he's lived through, that he's not so sure he believes that anymore, no matter how many times he says it for the media.

 

"There was nothing we could do?" He laughs once, the sound bitter and harsh against murky nighttime air. A car alarm is blaring somewhere nearby. Chatter from crowds echoes like the calls of crickets in the night. A door slams down the street.

 

"That's just what we tell ourselves to pretend the big, gaping wound that is this fuckin' city ain't here."

 

July hits with the force of a train, announcing that summer has come to Baltimore in its entirety. With its heat comes lethargy, freedom, and anger.

 

These are the signs of home.

 

Somewhere in the night, from an open window, a radio broadcasts news with a signal so poor the dozing inhabitant of the apartment would never be able to make it out even if he were to be awake.

 

"-sorry to interrupt our programming tonight to report that a fatal hostage situation involving Vice President Thomas Carcetti and his husband, Adam Carcetti, occurred on the tenth block of-"

 

The fire hydrant's pour continues unabated. The ants have finished off the pigeon carcass.

 

Life in Baltimore moves on.

 

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