Hell's Afire
by pepcidDC and Firefly

SHSVS, Episode 704

**********

Hutch tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music on the radio, whistling under his breath. He breathed in the crisp morning air and smiled. The smog was at a minimum and the sky was clear. He loved this kind of fall day.

Slowing, he made the turn toward Starsky's apartment. All around him were signs of the impending Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, and goblins decorated many front yards and store windows. He was glad they weren't going to be working Halloween night. The loonies would be bad enough during the day. He just hoped this year's wouldn't be as harrowing as the last two.

Since things were finally cooling down with IA, he and Starsky had begun house hunting again. Just this past weekend they had looked at three more, one of which had captured them both. It was even affordable--barely. It was big. It was idyllic. It was perfect--almost too perfect. The only detractor seemed to be its proximity to the freeway, and that was actually a good thing for them. On a first look, the house seemed to be in good shape, though it would need some fixing up. Hutch shook his head. It was awful pricey. They'd have to get it inspected, but first they'd have to really think about it some more. He wasn't willing to jump into it after just one look.

Starsky's apartment came in sight, and he picked up the beat of his fingers, whistling happily. By lunchtime, Merle should have the tune-up finished on the Tomato, and they could switch vehicles. Hutch certainly didn't mind driving on occasion, and, though their tastes in vehicles were about as far apart as the moon from the Earth, it was far more fun to watch Starsky drive than to watch the road. He grinned.

He pulled onto Starsky's street, still whistling. Life was good.

KABOOM! A ball of flame and debris shot into the sky.

Hutch skidded to a stop and bailed from the car.

"Starsky!"

He stood frozen. Then he began to run. Burning debris made him duck and dodge as he rushed forward. A large chunk of wall dropped just inches from his feet. It slowed him only a moment. Only when a burning timber clipped him on the head, did he concede the futility of his efforts. He stumbled back, staring at the burning structure. "Starsky," he mouthed. Heartsick and near panic, he cursed his inability to get closer.

Tenants from the other apartment units were racing out into the street now. Fire truck sirens sounded in the distance. Hutch barely noted them. A single tear tracked down his cheek, his shoulders slumped, and slowly he turned back to his car. He kept glancing over his shoulder at the inferno.

Once Hutch reached the vehicle, he leaned on the roof. He dropped his forehead into the crook of his elbow, trying desperately to get his breathing under control. He straightened and reached for the mic. His hands were trembling, and he clenched his free hand into a fist.

"D-dispatch, th-this is Z-Zebra Three."

"Dispatch. Go ahead Zebra Three."

Shakily, Hutch relayed the dreaded information. "E-explosion at 2480 Highland. O-officer st-status unknown."

"Ten-four, Zebra Three." There was a brief pause, then the dispatcher's hesitant voice. "Hutch? Is it Starsky?"

Hutch turned to stare at the fire again, swallowing back his tears. "Yeah."

"Ten-four, Hutch. I'll inform Captain Dobey," the voice said quietly.

Hutch nodded and let the mic slip from numb fingers.

**********

Lizzie Thorpe considered herself a professional. She held herself to a fairly high standard when dealing with the public--witnesses, victims, and suspects. She was polite, concerned, controlled at all times, regardless of the provocation offered. A Professional Law Enforcement Officer.

She gritted her teeth and smiled. "Mrs. Dobsen, this has to stop."

The elderly black lady sitting in front of her nodded and smiled back. She looked stylish and elegant in a plum-colored suit, with matching hat, shoes, and purse. It made Lizzie feel like a rumpled elephant.

"Child, do you know how much my medications cost?" Mrs. Dobsen spoke quietly, lifting both hands to make subtle adjustments to her hat. The handcuffs she wore slipped down her thin wrists. Mrs. Dobsen was the quintessential grandmotherly woman dressed to the nines, in her Sunday-go-to-meeting best.

Pity her rap sheet was as long as she was tall.

Arturo, the big fink, was no help. He was seated at his desk, hiding behind folders he didn't need to read. The fact that his shoulders were shaking convulsively was a dead giveaway that he was laughing.

She was going to kill him.

Lizzie took in a deep breath. "Mrs. Dobsen, you can't keep stealing and hocking items. It's against the law."

Mrs. Dobsen gave her one of the looks her grandmother used to give when Lizzie had said something obvious. "Child, do you know how much my Social Security check is?" She turned in her chair and looked around the room. "Where is that nice Detective Hutchinson? He's usually the one I talk to."

"Mrs. Dobsen, you could go to jail."

Mrs. Dobsen swiveled back in her chair, her eyes wide with surprise. Lizzie noticed that one eye was cloudier than the other, noticed the wrinkles in the dark skin. "Are they pressing charges, child?"

Lizzie set her teeth again, Mrs. Dobsen knowing full well the store managers had indicated they would not press charges. They merely stated that Mrs. Dobsen was no longer welcome to shop in their store. According to the sheet, the last seven times the victims of the theft had declined to prosecute. Even after they'd been told of Mrs. Dobsen's history. When pressed, the store managers had all rolled their eyes and asked how that would look.

Mrs. Dobsen knew that Lizzie knew she was going to be released, once she'd received a stern talking-to. Which did absolutely no good whatsoever. Lizzie was certain, while Mrs. Dobsen was a regular church-goer, she had no fear of God, the police, or the devil himself.

Mrs. Dobsen smiled, and the only thing that saved her at that point was that it was a sincere smile, not a gloating smile or a smirk. "Could I have a cup of coffee, please?"

Arturo was up in a flash. "Please, ladies. Let me." He sauntered over to the pot, whistling between his teeth, with a big shit-eating grin.

"Such a nice young man." Mrs. Dobsen smiled. "Are you two dating?"

Lizzie grit her teeth. "Mrs. Dobsen, I'm going to release you, since there are no pending charges." Mrs. Dobsen extended her wrists to allow Lizzie to remove the cuffs. "But you really have to stop--"

The door behind her opened, and Lizzie turned in her chair. As Captain Dobey emerged, her jaw dropped. She'd never seen that look before. He was ashen and leaned on the doorjamb for support.

"Captain?" Arturo stood frozen, coffee mug in one hand, pot in the other.

"It's--" Dobey closed his eyes. "Got a call. Starsky's..." His voice trailed off, but his expression made the message all too clear.

"God, no." Lizzie jumped up and pulled her captain toward a chair. "Captain--?"

"No." Dobey resisted. "No, Lizzie, we need to get to the scene. Hutch is there, and I'm afraid--"

Arturo grabbed his keys. "Let's go."

Lizzie followed them numbly. It couldn't be. It just couldn't be. She didn't remember leaving the building or getting in the car, but found herself sitting in Arturo's car, Arturo in the front seat and Dobey next to him. And Mrs. Dobsen next to her.

Lizzie turned and looked at the old lady, as did Dobey. "Mrs. Dobsen--"

"I'm going with you." She sat there, prim and proper, clutching her purse.

Dobey shrugged and nodded to Arturo, who started the car.

**********

The smoke was visible for miles.

Black and thick, it billowed up and into the blue sky. Lizzie caught her breath at the sight. Arturo said something in Spanish, then transferred his attention to the road as he snaked the car through traffic. Even as they watched, flames would emerge, roaring up then concealing themselves again in inky blackness. Somehow, it reminded Lizzie of the burning skin of a marshmallow, and she fought back her tears.

Finally, they managed to park at the corner and emerged from the car to the roar of the fire and smoke. Firefighters were everywhere, water pouring on the defiant blaze. The three of them stood for a moment, speechless at the sheer fury of the flames.

Arturo pointed, and Lizzie heard Dobey suck in his breath at the sight of Hutch. He was sitting on the running board of one of the rigs, oblivious to events around him, head in his hands. Not fighting to get into the building, or pacing, or displaying any of the behavior Lizzie had seen previously when Starsky was in danger. It scared her deeply--the stillness, the hands sunk into the blond hair, the pain of the hunched shoulders.

"That poor man," Mrs. Dobsen whispered.

Dobey grabbed Lizzie and raised his voice to be heard. "You stay with Hutch and don't let him out of your sight. Arturo and I will try to get some information." He put his head in close to her ear. "Lizzie, if you can, get his gun."

Lizzie jerked her head back in shock, opening her mouth to protest, but the look in Dobey's eyes stopped her.

Dobey wasn't guessing or taking precautions.

Dobey knew.

Frantic, she looked at Arturo, who nodded in agreement. Lizzie turned back to Dobey and gave a sharp nod. She headed over to Hutch. If she'd been scared before, she was terrified now.

"Hutch?" Lizzie knelt in front of him, trying to block Hutch's view in case he looked up. "Hutch, it's Lizzie."

Nothing. No response. Mrs. Dobsen managed to wedge her skinny body next to Hutch's on the running board. She took his pale white hands in her thin black ones and held them tight. "Detective?"

Hutch didn't move, didn't react. Mrs. Dobsen released one hand and put a thin arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer. "He's cold, honey."

"I'll get a blanket." Lizzie moved to one of the EMT units and grabbed a couple of blankets. Dobey, Arturo, and a big bear of a man with "Fire Chief" imprinted on his uniform were standing near Hutch when she returned. Mrs. Dobsen helped her get the blankets around Hutch, but she knew they were both listening to the other conversation.

"Arson." The fire chief took off his helmet and wiped his forehead. "No doubt about it. We got a description of events from Detective Hutchinson and from some of the neighbors. There was an initial explosion and then the fire started."

"Couldn't it be a gas leak?" Arturo asked quietly.

"No. A gas leak might explain the explosion, but not this hot of a fire." The chief put his helmet back on. "I admit it's speculation at this point, but I'll lay you odds that I'm right."

Dobey turned slightly, dropping his voice. "Any idea if...?" He let his voice trail off as he darted a glance at Hutch.

The chief also looked at the detective. "No. As far as we can tell from neighbors and the other residents, there was only one potential occupant left inside when it blew. By the time we got here, we couldn't get anyone in to attempt a rescue. One of the walls went almost immediately."

Lizzie stood and looked at the fire again, her heart in her throat. In one of the remaining windows, a jack-o-lantern had caught fire, its blackened face alight with unholy glee. She shivered at the macabre sight. She turned away, her eyes filling.

"Gonna be a while before it cools enough that we can get in and search. I'm thinking tonight, maybe tomorrow." The chief kept his voice down. "Soon as we know something, we'll be in touch."

"You can reach us at the Ninth Precinct. Captain Harold Dobey."

"Mike O'Leary. I'll be in touch."

Dobey thanked the man and shook his hand. As the chief walked off, Dobey turned and knelt by Hutch. "I'm going to take Arturo and make sure the uniforms are getting statements from any possible witnesses. Are you okay here?"

Hutch never looked up.

Dobey put a hand on Hutch's shoulder for just a moment. Arturo looked up and moved away, but Lizzie knew her partner and wasn't surprised to see him wiping his eyes.

Dobey stood, and he and Arturo melted into the crowd, intent on their mission. Lizzie moved in closer and looked at Mrs. Dobsen. "I've never seen him like this. Before, whenever Starsky has been..." Lizzie cleared her throat. "He's always reacted with denial, or arguments, always fought--"

Mrs. Dobsen gave a very lady-like snort. "Foolish girl, don't you see the difference?" She pulled Hutch's head over and put her mouth to his ear. Lizzie leaned forward to catch the words.

"It's only bricks and mortar, child. Things that you cherish, true. Things of this world you think will last forever and a day. A blow to the heart, Detective, make no mistake."

To her surprise, Lizzie saw Hutch's head move slightly. Almost a nod.

"But you need to understand and focus on my words now. You need to remember that the things of this Earth are just that--things." Mrs. Dobsen hugged Hutch tight, over the blankets. "The only thing that truly matters is how you feel for each other. Lord love you, child. That's stored in your head and heart, not your closet."

Hutch's head turned, and he seemed to focus on the thin black woman.

"You told him how you feel, your partner, right?" Mrs. Dobsen asked.

Hutch nodded.

"Used more than words, too, I imagine. I've seen you tease Detective Starsky, seen him smile so big and bright." Mrs. Dobsen smiled at Hutch. "Heard him laugh." She drew out the last word, and Hutch nodded again, getting a bit of life in his eyes.

Mrs. Dobsen nodded. "That's what matters. That can never be burned, Detective, never be consumed or destroyed. Etched in the fiber of your being, I expect." She looked out over the ruins. "Maybe etched in the very fabric of the universe."

Lizzie wiped her eyes.

Mrs. Dobsen pulled back slightly from Hutch. "You're not thinking clearly, and that's understandable." Her voice changed, sharpening slightly. "But you see a body here? You actually see Detective Starsky in the building before this happened?" Her voice got sharper. "You see him die?"

Lizzie sucked in a breath.

For a long moment, Hutch sat frozen. Then he drew a breath. "N-no."

"You giving up? Without looking? Without thinking?" Mrs. Dobsen pulled back her arm and sat straight up.

Hutch straightened slightly, too, and the blankets fell back a little off his shoulders. "He was s-supposed to be w-waiting for me."

"Supposed to be. You know for sure he was?"

"No." Hutch looked puzzled and turned to face the burning building, as if seeing it for the first time. He frowned, thinking.

"All right then." Mrs. Dobsen patted his arm. "Have faith, Detective." She started to stand, but fell back. "Lord, these old knees have stiffened something terrible."

Hutch stood, draped in blankets, and helped her up. He gave her a soft smile. "Thank you, Mrs. Dobsen."

She tipped her head back to look up at him. "You take care, child. I'll be praying for you and Detective Starsky." She put her hands under the blanket and wrapped her arms around Hutch, giving him a big hug. He leaned down and engulfed her, almost lifting her feet off the pavement.

He released her, and she stepped back, adjusting her hat. "Now, maybe I could get a ride back home from one of these nice gentlemen?"

Lizzie smiled and offered her a hand. "I'll see you get a ride, Mrs. Dobsen."        

"Thank you, child."

It didn't take Lizzie long to arrange for a uniform to drive Mrs. Dobsen home, since they all seemed to know her. Lizzie helped her to the squad car. "Thank you for talking to Hutch, Mrs. Dobsen."

"You're welcome, child." Mrs. Dobsen sat on the seat. "Before I go..." She opened her plum-colored purse and pulled out Hutch's gun, using her thumb and forefinger. "You better take this."

Lizzie gaped. "How did you--?" She shook her head in amazement.

Mrs. Dobsen smiled, and Lizzie recognized the pride in her "professionalism." "You watch over him, young lady. And tell that nice Detective Starsky hello when you find him."

Lizzie smiled. "I will, Mrs. Dobsen. I will."

**********

Lizzie, Arturo, and Dobey worked at getting Hutch away from the scene and into a car. While Hutch was responsive to questions, the pain in his eyes and the dullness of his spirit were still there. He wouldn't look away from the fire for long.

Nothing seemed to work, until Arturo knelt and started speaking Spanish. Dobey and Lizzie stayed close. They stiffened when Arturo used a word they both recognized.

Vengeance.

Dobey glared at Arturo, who stood and shrugged.

Hutch stood, threw off the blankets, and headed for his car.

They followed silently, Lizzie slipping Hutch's gun to Dobey.

**********

Minnie was waiting in the squadroom, amidst stacks of files. "I've been pulling all the files Starsky's been involved in for the past two years." She gestured to the desks around them. Minnie blinked hard, and Lizzie knew the tears weren't far off. "I can go back further when you're done with these. There's fresh coffee, and...." Her voice trailed off for a moment. "How bad--? Did they find--?" She couldn't finish.

"Hutch. Call Huggy before we start on this," Dobey said. Hutch nodded and walked slowly to his desk.

Dobey put his arm around Minnie's shoulders. "Minnie, we don't know if Starsky was in his apartment. They have to wait for things to cool before they can search. So we don't know anything for sure." He led her to a chair and made her take a seat. "It's going to take a while to go through these files. We could use your help."

Minnie nodded with a weak smile, and they got started.

It took time. They had to double-check the records, make calls to confirm information, contact people. Slowly, the stacks grew. This one still in prison, that one dead, that one on death row. Dobey insisted they try to check the family members of victims that might hold a grudge. Each time they thought they had a lead, one of them would concentrate on that file until they had tracked it down. The hours crept by as the files shifted piles, and their hunt continued. Other officers stopped by, offering to run down leads so they didn't have to leave the phones. They'd get calls patched through Dispatch, and the possibilities got narrower and narrower.

At one point, Huggy called to report no luck with his contacts. They had all stared at Hutch, his long back hunched as he took the news. He'd hung up the phone and pulled another file in front of him.

Then Merle the Earl called about Starsky's car, and Lizzie had to look away at the pain in Hutch's eyes. He'd asked Merle to deliver the car to the station, where it would be safe. Hutch didn't say anything after he hung up, just turned and grabbed another file.

Lizzie saw it first, saw Hutch just staring at the file in front of him, not really reading, just staring. She stood and stretched, and headed for the coffeepot. "Hey, Arturo."

"Hmm?"

"You want coffee?"

Arturo grunted and she took the pot over. As she filled his cup, she nudged him until he looked up, then she nodded her head in Hutch's direction. Arturo took the hint.
"Hutch?"

"Yeah?"

"How's that house hunting going?"

Hutch turned and looked at them with dazed eyes. "Huh?"

"You and Starsky, you've been looking for an investment property, right?"

"Yeah." Hutch cleared his throat. "Yeah, we have. Been looking for a while."

Lizzie went back to her desk. "You find anything?"

"No, not really. Although we've been shown every rundown piece of property in the Bay City area." Hutch looked into his coffee cup, got up, and went to the pot to pour himself some more.

Dobey snorted. "Not surprised."

Minnie twisted in her chair. "You haven't found nothing?"

Hutch took a sip of coffee. "Well, there's this one that Teddy showed us."

"Teddy?" Dobey looked up. "That's Huggy's realtor cousin, right?"

"Yeah, he called us and took us to look at this one." Hutch looked wistfully at his mug. Lizzie watched as his face relaxed, and she saw a hint of a smile. Hutch continued. "I mean, it was a really neat property, but it was so big, and it would really be pushing the budget..." His voice trailed off.

"Tell me about it," Lizzie said. The others nodded encouragement.

Hutch turned, fussing with the pot in preparation of making more coffee. "Well, it's off the freeway, where they put in that ramp by the new park entrance. Remember those two old women who died about four years ago and left all their land to the park system?"

"Sure," Dobey answered. "That added the lake to the park and lots of land around it." He leaned back in his chair. "I think that ramp's only about five or ten minutes from downtown."

"Yeah, well, the old ladies had a house near the lake, between the lake and the freeway. When they donated the land, they put restrictions on the sale of the house and the land around it. So the park hasn't really been able to sell it."

"Restrictions?" Arturo leaned back in his chair and stretched.

"Yeah." Hutch grinned. "There's an old man that lives there, in some kind of cottage at the back of the property, supposedly the caretaker. He scared the hell out of Starsky when we went out to look at the place. Beard, long hair, and crazy as a loon." The smile faded, and Hutch just stood there, looking without really seeing.

"A caretaker?" Arturo prompted.

Hutch started but recovered quickly. "Yeah, I guess the old guy has a say in who can buy the property, and gets to live there as long he's alive. The place is deteriorating with nobody living in the house."

"What's it like?" Lizzie asked.

"Well, it's big and--"

"Details, Hutchinson!" Lizzie barked, and they all chuckled.

"It's a two-story house, painted this really terrible color. Teddy called it pink, but Starsk called it 'Caucasian.' It's terrible. The driveway runs the length of the house, all the way back to a garage that used to be a carriage house. Between the house and the garage are a big old greenhouse and a courtyard that used to be a garden. Looks like hell right now, but with some work, it could be something. There are paths that run down to the water and..."

The details spilled out of Hutch like water, and Lizzie smiled, encouraging him as they worked. He talked about the big bedrooms, and the windows, and the fireplaces, and the woodwork that had been painted over, and the hardwood floors that needed refinishing, and the big kitchen, and that the attic was still crammed with stuff. Lizzie could almost see it in her mind's eye. That's not an investment, she chuckled to herself. That's a lifetime.

She froze.

Her cop instinct kicked in. She didn't react, didn't turn her head to look at Hutch, or Arturo. Didn't raise an eyebrow, or exclaim suddenly. She just froze and reviewed what she knew. Reviewed Hutch and Starsky, letting her mind assess and evaluate. Pictures, events, actions, words from the last two years. And with the professional skills she'd acquired and was so damn proud of, it all clicked into place. With an almost audible "snap."

Why hadn't she seen it before?

"Sounds good," Arturo spoke, and Lizzie snapped back to reality. "Why haven't you put in an offer?"

Hutch shrugged. "Teddy seems to think the park people are more than willing to accept a low offer, but their idea of low is on the high side of our budget. That, and it's a big commitment."

Dobey spoke up. "Starsky's pretty handy, Hutch. You might be able to do a lot of the work yourselves."

"Or get one of Huggy's cousins," Minnie added.

Their soft laughter was broken by the ringing of several phones, and they were back to work in an instant, looking for a lead.

**********

The newspaper article was getting worn around the edges, and the creases made some of the words hard to read, so he was careful as he pulled it from his wallet. He spread it out on his thigh and looked at it as he ate his hamburger, careful not to dribble ketchup on it. The table was covered in glassware and stuff he was working on. He didn't want to ruin the paper. He balanced on his stool and chewed carefully.

The picture was in color, showing bright, beautiful flames devouring the old theater. He loved looking at that part, because the flames looked alive and hungry. It made him feel good to imagine the tiny flames licking at the old dry stuff, growing stronger and brighter, and finally raging out of every opening, one bright ball of yellow and red. There'd be heat and smoke, and the really pretty flames, cleansing everything.

He shifted in his seat as his dick hardened.

He darted a quick look around the lab, but no one was around. That's why Dan had picked this warehouse, 'cause no one ever came around. Rent was cheap, and the place was really old. It was kinda creepy, but he was the only one here. He could eat and look at the picture without anyone bothering him. Except now, he had to look at the bad part of the picture, the part on the street, where they were helping that blond pig up out of the sewer, with some other pigs in the background. He'd drawn a nice red circle around that face, so he could really concentrate on it. Frowning, he studied the man's face. It would've been perfect, would've been special, even more special than the others, if The Blond had died. He should'a died, should'a been consumed.

His dick softened.

He finished the burger, wiped his hands on his pants, and slurped what was left of his Coke. Dan said it didn't matter. That he shouldn't think about it so much. Dan said it'd been a good fire, a perfect fire. Dan said to think about other things.

Dan was all right, letting him play with stuff and mix stuff on his own between making drugs, but Dan wasn't right about this. Should've been perfect this time, too, but something always seemed to go wrong. Joey grimaced and shot a glance at the closet.

He tilted his head slightly, still sucking on the straw, and looked up at the ceiling. He'd packed some newspaper soaked in kerosene in the nooks, up tight to the ceiling, and linked them with a cord that he'd treated. He looked around at the piles of wooden pallets he'd found and set up around the warehouse, each with its own pretty pile of burnables. It looked good and it would burn, but there was more that he could do. Dan had said they'd be getting out of this place soon, that they'd been here too long. He needed to work on the fuse he'd laid out, so he could light just one match to ignite the whole place. He didn't have much time left. He felt his dick stir as he looked at the ceiling, seeing how it would go, thinking about the flames. He sighed and slurped the last of his soda.

Lunch finished, he folded the clipping carefully and placed it back in his wallet. Time to get back to work, because Dan said they had to ship out the stuff fast and move on. Standing, he ran his hand through his long hair and moved to the tables.

But even as he worked, he thought about it. About the fire. About The Blond.

Dan was wrong.

So wrong.

**********

The phones had grown quiet, and Dobey had sent Minnie home in a squad car around midnight. She'd protested, but had been cut off by an enormous yawn, and finally agreed to go and get some sleep.

Arturo had managed to convince Hutch to shower and change into some fresh clothes. In a final desperate effort, they'd pulled all the arson cases in the last year, open and closed. Hutch had one in front of him, staring at it.

"You all look like shit."

Lizzie looked up to see Fire Chief O'Leary walk into the room. He'd clearly come from the scene of the fire, damp with sweat and bringing the smell of smoke with him.

Dobey stood. "You don't look so good yourself."

"Yeah. Got any coffee?" Lizzie watched as the big man settled into a chair and took a cup from Dobey. She braced herself for bad news and glanced at Hutch.

Hutch was staring at the fire chief, utter fear in his eyes.

O'Leary took a drink and then returned Hutch's stare. "Son, I couldn't just call, and I hope you'll forgive me. There was no body in our initial search."

Hutch dropped his face into his hands.

"Want you to understand, with the accelerants that were used, there's a small possibility that we might have missed something." The chief leaned back in the chair and rubbed his face. "But we've searched the best we can for the moment and found nothing. Once the site has cooled off, we'll search again, but I don't think your partner was in there."
Lizzie closed her eyes and let the relief flow through her. She heard Arturo whisper something, and suspected it was a prayer.

O'Leary stood. "I'm going to get some sleep, then get back to the site this afternoon."

Hutch looked up. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

Dobey stood. "We can't thank you enough, Chief."

O'Leary shook his head. "Don't. I remember his partner from that theater fire last year. Never so glad in my life to see two sewer rats crawl out of one of them holes." He grinned. "Your partner pulled off a miracle last year. Looks like he's gonna try to do it again, eh?"

Dobey escorted the man to the door as Hutch, Lizzie, and Arturo lunged for the stack of arson files.

**********

It was a business decision.

Yeah, that's how he had to think of it. Like them businessmen. He liked the kid, and God knew he had a hell of a way with the mixes and formulas. Gotta admit the kid made it look easy, made it seem like magic. They'd even had some fun. A few laughs. Like watching the kid light the fires in that old theater, with that cop lying sprawled on the floor, out like a light. Hell, he'd kinda enjoyed watching the kid dance around as the flames licked at the old wood. They'd both been laughing in the sewers, and when they were sitting in the truck, watching the fire from a couple blocks away. Was damn good, them sharing some whiskey and laughing, the kid crowing about how it was a perfect, perfect fire!

But that was the problem. That cop and his partner. The kid had read the paper the next day, seen the picture of Curly Hair watching as they pulled The Blond from the sewer, alive and in one piece. Gave him the shivers it did, when the kid looked at him with those sad, dead eyes, saying how it wasn't perfect no more.

Dan shifted in his seat as he drove the truck, careful to keep to the speed limit. He shouldn't have gone out of town, shouldn't have left the kid, not right now. The news he'd seen this morning, that cop's apartment blowing all to hell, then burning. He had a bad feeling. Hadn't caught the cop's name or seen a picture, but it sure sounded like the kid's handiwork.

So far, he'd kept the kid hidden from the street. Kid seemed happy, eating junk food and mixing drugs and planning fires. He'd always picked good places for him to work in, places that were quiet and isolated. Always let the kid burn them once they had to move on. Hell, he got a kick out of it, too.

Dan sighed. Had to face the facts. The kid was getting out of control, talking wild about those cops and the fire. As good as the kid was, maybe it was time to cut him loose. Close up this lab, let the kid start the fire, and then plug him in the back. The fire'd take care of the body, and he could move on. Hated like hell to do it, but it was a business decision, pure and simple.

He'd see. Damn, the money was real good. Maybe he'd try just one more site. Set the kid up, have him run out a few more shipments and then kill him.

Dan sighed as he guided the truck to a stop by the warehouse. He had to get out of business. These decisions were gonna give him an ulcer.

**********

"What the fuck do you mean you closed it?" Hutch's face was a vivid snarl as he towered over Arturo and slammed his hand on the desk.

"We didn't close it. We left it sit," Arturo snarled back, springing to his feet. "Damn it, Lizzie and I worked the case, but there was nothing to work. No leads, no--"

"You didn't work it hard enough!" Hutch accused, stepping closer. "If you had, you'd have caught them, and Starsky would be--"

"Stop it!" Lizzie put herself between the two men, protecting her partner. "You just shut the hell up, Hutchinson. My partner--"

"You were assigned to the case, Thorpe." Hutch's face was ugly. "You both can just go to--"

"Why is it the coffee here always tastes terrible?"

They froze at the sound of Dobey's voice. They stood there, breathing hard, tempers barely under control.

"The layers of grit just seem to build and build until you do something drastic." Dobey held up the pot. "I keep thinking I should rinse it with some bleach, maybe get rid of the bitterness."

"You do that, and we'll taste bleach for a month," Lizzie offered.

"That would be an improvement." Dobey set the pot down and caught Hutch's eye. "You done?"

Hutch looked away. There was a long, painful silence before he spoke. "Y-yeah."

"Good." Dobey laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "We've been at this too long, without food or a break. Let's--"

"I'm not leaving." Lizzie suppressed a nervous giggle at the pout on Hutch's face.

"I'm not telling you to," Dobey answered. "Let's get some take-out and eat in my office. Once we've got some food in our stomachs, we'll talk about the case. Arturo and Lizzie can review the file and their notes while we call for food." Dobey guided Hutch into his office and closed the door behind them.

Arturo turned back to his desk, where the file on Lou Turpin's death and the burning of his theater lay scattered about. Lizzie could feel the tension radiating off her partner.

"He had no right to--" Arturo growled.

Lizzie leaned forward and touched the middle of his back. Arturo stopped talking and took a deep breath. She could feel him trying to relax under her hand.

"I'm going to check on my daughter," Lizzie said softly.

Arturo nodded. "Guess I should call home, too, let Carolyn know what's going on." He took a few steps toward the door. "Gonna hit the can first."

"I'd feel the same, you know," Lizzie called after him. "If it were you."

Arturo stopped in the doorway and looked back. "Yeah." He gave her a rueful look. "Me, too."

**********

"Hey, Joey." Dan walked into the warehouse, pleased to see boxes ready to go. It looked like the kid had been working, after all.

"Hey, Dan." The kid was at the tables, fussing with some of the beakers. He didn't look up to meet Dan's eyes. Dan got a bad feeling.

"You finish that last batch?"

"Yeah." The kid nodded toward a stack of boxes off to the side. "All boxed and ready to go."

"Great." Dan opened a box to see the contents. "Looks real good, kid. We can get the truck loaded, and I can make this delivery."

Joey smiled but continued to fiddle with the bottles on the table.

Dan grew suspicious. "You get something to eat?"

"Yeah. Went out for a while. Got myself something."

"You went out for a while?"

"Yeah."

Dan gave him a long look, and Joey started to flush. The kid's face always gave him away. Dan opened his mouth, but a sound from the closet drew his attention. Ignoring Joey's protest, Dan flung open the door. Out spilled mops, brooms, a few buckets, and one man with dark curly hair, tied, gagged, and blindfolded.

"Well, shit." Dan looked down at the man at his feet. "This yours?"

"Yeah." Joey came and toed the guy over onto his back. There didn't seem to be any sign the man was conscious.

"Fuck." Dan glared at the kid. "You blew that apartment."

"Yeah." Joey smiled. "Did good, too. Did ya see? Was it in the paper?"

"Heard it on the radio. That cop's apartment, right?"

"Yeah."

"And this is the cop, isn't it?" Dan glared.

"Well..." Joey took a step back. "Yeah. It would'a been perfect, but he was supposed to be in it, Dan." Dan couldn't believe it, but the kid actually pouted. "I was watching for the fire, right after the explosion, and found him back by the trash. Couldn't just leave him there, so I made like I was helping him to the car and brought him here."

"Shit, you stuck around to watch?"

Joey looked at Dan through the hair that had fallen over his face. "Yeah."

"Fuckin' stupid, kid. Real fucking stupid."

"But, Dan--" The kid sniveled as he pulled the newspaper clipping from his wallet.

Dan ripped it out of his hand and threw it on the table. "You brought him here, and he can see and hear and tell--"

"No, no, no, Dan. He got knocked out and I used some stuff on him. I can give him more." The kid fumbled with a bottle and a syringe on the table.

"Joey--"

"Dan, listen, man, I know you're mad, but it had to be perfect, you know? And it would'a been but for him. I wanted to hurt The Blond, so I figured--" Joey filled the syringe and jabbed the unconscious man in the arm.

"Joey, you stupid fucker, you didn't think. You're a fucking idiot." Dan heaved a sigh. "All right, I made a decision. This was a good location, but we're done here. You got the place rigged?"

Joey grinned. "Yeah! Almost. I still need to do a few things."

Dan wasn't paying much attention, staring down at the cop. "Well, let's load the van, and then you can mess with whatever, okay? We gotta get out of here."

"What about--?" Joey jerked his head toward the man on the floor.

"We'll leave him here. It's too dangerous, kid. Just too dangerous."

"But I need him, Dan. Need him to--" Joey's voice whined and grated on Dan's nerves.

"Shut the fuck up. I told you that killin' cops is bad for business, and I ain't running around town with one in the fucking trunk. Now get those boxes on the fucking truck."

Joey stomped to the boxes, hefted one, and stomped out to the van. His greasy hair had fallen to conceal his face, but Dan had a glimpse of the sullen look shot his way. Stupid kid. No choice now, have to shut everything down. Hell of a thing, blowing up a cop's apartment. Shit, even if the kid hadn't been seen, the cops'd be acting like there was a hair up their asses for months. Dan knelt and studied the cop sprawled on the floor. The guy looked like he'd been through a war zone, what with the burns and all. The blindfold looked good and tight, and the guy seemed out, but shit, who knew what he'd seen or heard. Dan's eyes widened as he realized the cop still had his gun in his holster. Fucking stupid.

Joey stomped back in to grab another box. He stopped and glared at Dan. "What ya doing with my pig?"

"Checking to see how bad you fucked this up, you stupid shithead. Now load the damn truck."

Joey picked up another box and stomped off.

Dan searched the cop quickly, and with more confidence when there was no reaction. Kid hadn't bothered to take the wallet or even the guy's bracelet. Nice. Looked like real gold. Too dangerous, though. With his luck, someone would recognize it. Better to leave things the way they were. He had to admit, this was a fine package here. If he had more time, he'd take advantage of the situation. Instead, he took just a few minutes to run his hands over the firm ass and strong thighs. He eyed the bulge in the jeans, then shook his head. Hell, he needed to stay focused here. Business was business.
Dan pulled the gun from the holster. Nice piece, fully loaded. Convenient. Dan pushed it into the back of his jeans and hoisted the cop up, shoving him back into the closet with the brooms. Fire'd take care of him very nicely. The wallet would give them a name and call off any searches. Dan closed the door tight, then turned to see Joey coming for the next box. "Hey, kid."

Joey stopped and looked at him mulishly.

"Listen, kid, it'll be okay. We'll load up and torch this place and move on, okay?"

Joey's face lit up. "Yeah?" He looked to where the fuse had been set up, then back at Dan. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Okay?"

"Okay!" Joey grabbed the next box and moved quickly for the door.
Dan sighed and pulled the gun, checking the ammo again. Yeah, load the truck, take the essentials, kill the kid, light the fuse, and get the fuck out before the place went up.

Crap, these business decisions were gonna be the death of him, sooner or later.

**********

The gun was back in Hutch's holster when Dobey and Hutch came out of his office after the food arrived. No one said anything, for which Lizzie was grateful. As far as she was concerned, the less said the better.

They'd each managed to choke down a few bites of egg burritos and had gone over all of the notes on the investigation. There was nothing there--nothing from Forensics, nothing about the arson that helped. Other than two names and the description Hutch had given them, there'd been no leads on the identities of the two men.

They were reviewing the fire chief's report when the phone rang. Lizzie took the call. The others were watching her face and stiffened when her eyes went bleak as she put the handset in the cradle. "There's a warehouse fire at West and Main. An explosion and fire. They want us down there; say it could be the same guy. There's a DB."

Hutch lurched up, and Lizzie was glad to see Arturo reach out and steady him.

"I'll cover the phones," Dobey spoke quietly. "Call if--"

"We will, Captain," Lizzie said as she followed Arturo and Hutch out the door.

**********

Hutch stared at the smoldering warehouse as Arturo pulled in behind the pumper. There were a few hoses still spraying water, but for the most part the fire was out. Slowly, Hutch climbed out of the car, dreading what he might find. Lizzie and Arturo opened their doors. Hutch walked around the car, feeling numb, his stomach churning. God, please...

Movement at one of the doors of the warehouse caught his attention. The coroner's people emerged with a gurney bearing the unmistakable black body bag. Hutch fell back against the car, catching himself on the hood. Lizzie moaned and buried her face in her hands. Hutch barely registered Arturo squeezing his shoulder.

"Hey."

Hutch thought someone spoke. He didn't know. He was trying to summon the courage to look at the body. He could almost hear the zipper as it moved down, revealing...

"Hey." A little louder, and another hand came to rest on his shoulder.

Hutch dragged his attention away from the gurney and found Mike O'Leary standing next to him, in full gear, dripping water and smelling like smoke.

"Your partner has dark curly hair, right?"

Hutch couldn't fathom why he was asking, but slowly nodded.

Inexplicably, the chief grinned. "They found a guy tied up in a closet. We think it's your partner. They just left for Memorial."

Hutch stared for a long moment, processing. Hope flared, strong and bright, just as Lizzie let out a whoop and leaped to give O'Leary a hug. Arturo's laughter, strong and joyous followed Hutch as he leapt into motion, practically jumping over the hood of the car.

"Call us when you know anything!" Arturo called.

Hutch waved an acknowledgment as he pulled away, foot to the floor, the silent litany, "Please be Starsky, please be Starsky," running through his head.

**********

Lizzie and Arturo watched Hutch disappear, then turned back to the fire chief. They were grinning like loons. Lizzie's clothes were wet, but she didn't give a damn.

The fire chief grinned right back at them, but sobered quickly. "That was the good news. The bad news is we still have a dead body. The warehouse was rigged for arson, but something went wrong. The explosion blew the hell out of the windows, but the fire didn't really take. As far as we can tell, the fuse wasn't set properly. You got your work cut out for you."

Arturo flashed him another smile. "Beats burying a friend."

O'Leary nodded. "Amen to that."

**********

Hutch ran into the ER and rushed to the admittance desk. He slapped his badge on the counter. "Starsky, where is he?"

"Excuse me?" The admitting clerk looked confused and a bit annoyed.

"Detective David Starsky. He was brought in a few minutes ago. Possibly a burn victim."

The clerk typed something into her terminal. After agonizing moments for Hutch, she finally looked up. "A Detective Starsky is in Treatment Room Three. Down the hall to your right."

"Thank you." Hutch took off. He found the treatment room and slipped inside, hugging the wall. All kinds of hospital personnel surrounded the gurney, and at first, Hutch couldn't see who they were working on. Then the tide parted and he caught his first glimpse of dark curly hair. Hutch closed his eyes, his knees growing weak. Tears pricked. He ignored them.

"Sir, you shouldn't be in here."

Hutch opened his eyes to find a nurse next to him. He could now see more of Starsky. Even scraped and soot-smeared, Starsky's face was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen. He forced himself to answer the nurse before she had him removed from the room. "I-I'm Detective Hutchinson. He's my partner. He's been...missing since yesterday morning. We thought...he was caught in an explosion. H-he was found at the site of a warehouse fire."

The nurse patted his arm. "All right. You can stay, but only if you stay here."

"Thank you."

The nurse returned to her duty. Hutch stayed put; watching, waiting, drinking in Starsky's face.

Eventually, the doctors and nurses finished administering to their patient, and one of the doctors came over to Hutch.

"H-how is he?"

"He'll be fine. We're going to admit him for some overnight observation, but I don't foresee any complications."

"What?"

"We've treated him for minor smoke inhalation and some minor first- and second-degree burns. All should heal cleanly, without complications. He does have some deep bruising along his left side that involves his left shoulder."

"Why is he unconscious?"

The doctor sighed. "He has a mild concussion, and he's apparently been drugged. That, and the fact we want to keep an eye on his lungs, is the main reason we want to hold him for observation."

Hutch looked up sharply at that. "Drugged?"

"It appears to be some kind of sedative or knock-out drug. He's been in and out since he was brought in."

Hutch swallowed, the old memory and fear of heroine addiction resurfacing. "He'll be all right?"

The doctor nodded. "Yes, he'll be fine. Because of his past history of lung injury, we'll want to watch for increased congestion, but with rest and quiet, his lungs should recover just fine. Whatever drug he was given has already begun to wear off with no apparent side-effects." The doctor waited a moment. "They'll be taking him up to a room shortly. If you have any further questions, I'm Dr. Paulsen."

Hutch shook the doctor's hand, barely taking his eyes off Starsky. He watched as the nurses and orderlies prepared to move him. Smoothly, they transferred Starsky to a gurney and wheeled him out. Hutch followed.

About fifteen minutes later, Hutch was ensconced in a chair next to Starsky's bed. He sat with elbows resting on his knees, simply watching Starsky's face and listening to him breathe. Precious air filled the lungs and was exhaled with only a faint wheeze.

Hutch rubbed his hands over his face. He was starting to come down from the adrenaline. A noise brought his head up. Starsky moaned softly and moved. Hutch stood and clasped Starsky's hand.

Blue eyes opened slowly, blinked, then stayed open, staring up at Hutch. Awareness came, and that wonderful smile spread slowly over his handsome face. Hutch felt all the knots in his stomach ease at the sight.

"Hey," Hutch whispered, smiling.

"Hey," Starsky answered, then coughed lightly. "What happened?"

"What do you remember?"

"Explosion? Darkness. Voices." Starsky coughed again. Hutch frowned and pushed the nurse call button.

"Yeah, that's pretty much what happened. You were caught in a fire. Got some smoke in your lungs."

Starsky nodded, already drifting off again.

A nurse finally appeared.

"He woke up a while ago, coughing."

"Some coughing is to be expected," she said as she began checking Starsky's vitals. "Everything's okay. He'll be in and out until that drug fully wears off." She wrote in Starsky's chart, smiled at Hutch, and left again.

For the next few hours, Starsky drifted in and out of consciousness. He'd wake up, cough a bit, smile at Hutch, and drift off again. Hutch didn't push him, figuring any questioning could wait until Starsky was a bit more coherent. The nurses checked on them regularly, pleased at his friend's progress. One of the older nurses had gotten some soup from the cafeteria and, in no uncertain terms, demanded that Hutch eat.

Hutch was startled from a doze as Lizzie and Arturo came into the room, bringing the faint smell of smoke with them.

"Hey, Hutch. How is he?" Lizzie asked.

"Docs say he's going to be okay. Minor burns and bruises. Concussion. They're keeping an eye on his lungs."

"Does he remember what happened?" Arturo asked.

"Yeah."

Everyone's head turned at the raspy voice from the bed.

"Hey." Hutch leaned forward, gripping Starsky's arm. "You with me for good?"

Starsky grinned around a yawn. "Always."

Hutch's grip tightened, message received.

"So what do you remember?"

"Not much. I was tied up, blindfolded. I heard arguing. I think I heard a gunshot, but I'm not sure. I remember heat and smoke, someone hauling me out of the fire, an ambulance ride, and waking up here." Starsky coughed a little, then cleared his throat. "Water?"

Hutch put a straw to Starsky's lips and let him drink his fill. "Better?"

Starsky licked his lips and cleared his throat. "Yeah, thanks." He blinked and looked around at the others. "What's the situation?"

Hutch glanced at Lizzie and Arturo, and nodded.

"We've got an arson bomber with a personal vendetta. We have a DB and what looked like the remains of a drug lab," Lizzie said.

"Why me?"

Lizzie shrugged. "We don't know. Do you remember anything before the warehouse?"

"I was waiting for Hutch to pick me up at my place. I remember getting whacked in the head by something, then nothing until I came to in a closet."

Hutch gave Starsky some more water.

"Do either of you recognize this guy?" Arturo held out a Polaroid photograph.

Hutch took the photo, glanced at it, and showed it to Starsky. Starsky shook his head. "Don't think I know him. He the DB?" Starsky asked.

"Yeah. We're hoping to get some ID from his prints," Arturo said.

Hutch studied the picture, his brow furrowed. "He looks vaguely familiar."

"Oh?" Lizzie pressed.

Hutch shook his head. "I don't know. I've seen him before. I know I have."

"Keep thinking on it. It'll come to you," Lizzie said.

Arturo put a foot up on one of the chairs and took out his notebook. "The warehouse where you were found was being used as a methamphetamine lab. It'd been rigged to explode, then ignite. The explosion went fine." Arturo looked up and grinned at Starsky. "The fire chief thinks that closet saved you there."

"Explains why I got a headache." Starsky grinned back, then frowned. "A meth lab? Rigged to blow." He turned his head. "Hutch. The theater?"

Hutch was staring at the photograph. "Yeah, that's the only case we could think of that might have a connection. This could be the older guy. Dan, I think. Hard to say."

Arturo snorted. "You were concussed and beaten, Hutch. Can't imagine why you might not have a clear picture of him. But he fits the description you gave at the time."

"How'd he die?" Starsky's voice was still rough.

"Gunshot," Lizzie said.

"Find a gun?" Hutch asked.

"No."

"Shit. Where's my gun?" Starsky fumbled to raise the bed, then gasped in pain.

Hutch reached over and eased the bed up for him. "You got some bad burns on your back, Starsk. Just stay still."

"Sounds like a plan." Starsky focused on Arturo. "Where's my gun?"

"Did you have it on you when you got knocked out?"

Starsky bit his lip, thinking hard. "Yeah, pretty sure. Was I wearing a holster?" Remembering the holster among the personal effects the hospital personnel had handed him, Hutch nodded. Starsky grimaced. "Then, I had it on me."

"Your gun has fourteen rounds, right?" Arturo asked quietly.

Starsky nodded, his face bleak.

"We're hoping for some fingerprints from the glass and equipment that remained intact," Lizzie spoke quietly. "Working under the assumption these were the same guys who torched the theater last year, we've got an APB out on the other arsonist, Joey, based on Hutch's original description." She paused and glanced at Arturo.

Arturo pulled a plastic evidence bag out of his pocket. "They found this at the warehouse."

Hutch took the bag and studied the newspaper clipping. "Shit."

"What?" Starsky made an aborted effort to reach for the bag, but Hutch handed it to him at the first evidence of pain. "Son-of-a-bitch, you know what this means?" He rolled onto his side and started to get out of bed, hissing at the pain.

"What the hell? What do you think you're doing?" Hutch exclaimed.

"Checking out." Starsky hit the call button. "Because what this means is that there's a crazed arsonist out there, one that's graduated to explosives and now murder. He's got my gun, and you're his target." Starsky glared at him and raised his voice over the storm of protest. "Ain't no way I'm staying here overnight. I'm getting out, even if it's against medical advice."

"Dobey wants you to get some rest, you and Hutch," Lizzie protested.

"Fine." Starsky stood, grabbing Hutch for balance. "There's no way I'm not watching Hutch's back. Hutch can swing me past my place, and I can get some clean clothes and we can grab a nap."

The others looked away. Hutch cleared his throat. "I think you have some clean stuff at my place. Let's go there."

Starsky frowned. "There something you're not telling me?"

**********

He sat in his car, his nose running, his eyes filled with tears. Sobbing, unable to get a breath, he pulled his shirttail out of his jeans and blew his nose.

His fire, his lovely fire. It had died before it ever really got started. Oh, the windows had blown good, that'd been okay, and the flames had flared, that'd been good, but then...nothing. It had just petered out with a bunch of smoke, nothing more. He watched down the street as the firefighters killed what was left of his fire.

And Dan had tried to kill him! What the fuck? Joey blew his nose again hard and wiped his eyes. Tried to fucking shoot him. Joey was still shaking as he stuffed his shirt back into his jeans, looking at the gun on the seat next to him. They'd been fighting about the cop, yelling like crazy, Dan saying all kinds of nasty things. Then he'd pulled the gun. Joey'd never been so scared in his life, and he still didn't know how he'd gotten the gun away from Dan. All he remembered was the sound of the shot and lighting the fuse before running from the building.

Which turned his eyes back to his failure. The fuses. He hadn't gotten the fuses right. He gripped the steering wheel tight as hate flared deep in his heart, and snarled. He'd seen them take out the body bag, seen them load his bait into the ambulance. He couldn't go back, couldn't try again, and Dan was dead, and nothing was perfect, and it was all The Blond's fault. His world crashed in around him, and Joey put his head down on the steering wheel and sobbed.

He took a deep breath, tried to get calm. He had his car at least. With all his stuff. He glanced at the bottles on the floor of the passenger seat, then thought about the stuff in the trunk. Still had that. Still had his lighter. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. Yeah, he still had that. He carefully pulled out his lighter and flicked it, watching the flame, growing calmer as the metal warmed in his hand.

He could fix this, still make it perfect, still make it work. It'd be okay. He pictured The Blond in his mind's eye, burning, burning, burning. His breathing slowed, and the familiar comforting tingle started in his groin. He watched the flame as he rubbed his privates through his jeans.

Just as the ache grew, Joey stopped, catching his breath. No, that was for later. After he'd fixed this.

He started the car and slowly pulled away from the curb, careful not to jar his bottles too much.

**********

Hutch pulled the car over and shut off the engine. Starsky eased out of the vehicle and simply stood, staring. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. Yellow tape cordoned off the block, and the fire chief's people were picking through the debris. On either side of a blackened hole stood the gutted shells of former apartment units. Slowly, it sank in that that blackened hole used to be his home. One wall was all that was left standing, and it was propped precariously by charred timbers and rubble. Smoke still curled out of that rubble, testament to the amount of fuel and the heat of the fire. His apartment had been the epicenter. He had been the target. Starsky braced his hands against the car. He had only vague memories of the explosion.

He became aware of Hutch coming to stand close to him, a hand coming to rest on his back, deftly avoiding the bandage there.

"I'm sorry," Starsky whispered.

"For what?" There was obvious confusion in Hutch's voice.

Starsky inclined his chin toward the blackened ruins, his eyes remaining glued to them. "For putting you through that."

Hutch took in a shaky breath, but his hand never stopped its gentle rubbing. "N-not your fault. I-I'm just so grateful you weren't in there."

Starsky nodded, reaching back with one hand and gripping Hutch's wrist. They stood in silence for a while. "You know, I don't really remember the explosion. I ran out back to pitch the trash. The next thing I know, there's this loud blast and I'm doing a bird imitation, flying through the air. Surprised I didn't break my neck. Something slammed me in the back of the head, and that's all I remember until I woke up someplace else. But that's all still kinda hazy. Clearest memory is waking up in the hospital this morning with your bright blue eyes starin' at me." Starsky finally turned away from the sight of the wreckage and focused on Hutch with a smile.

Hutch returned the smile. "You ready to go?"

Starsky glanced once more at the smoking blackened rubble of his former home. "Yeah, let's go."

He didn't say anything as Hutch hovered while he eased himself into the car. Hutch shut his door and hurried around to the driver's side. Hutch never once looked at the ruins. Starsky understood.

"You know what's stupid?" Starsky asked, halfway to Hutch's place.

"What?"

"I'm gonna miss that pizza box."

Hutch glanced at him, confusion plain. "Pizza box?"

"Yeah, the pizza box. Been through two Christmases, seems a shame it won't see another."

Hutch's eyes widened incredulously for a moment. "Pizza box?" he mouthed, then the light dawned. He started laughing. Starsky grinned and chuckled quietly.

**********

Hutch watched as Starsky eased his battered body under the shower spray. Starsky's hiss of pain as water struck the various burns was almost inaudible.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Hutch asked softly, quickly stepping in behind him and laying steadying hands on Starsky's hips.

Starsky turned slowly, smiling sweetly at him. "I am now." Barely more than a whisper, but Hutch thrilled to hear it.

"Let me take care of you. Please? I-I--"

Starsky pressed fingers to his lips. "Shh. It's okay. I'm here, I'm okay. I'm all yours."

Hutch swallowed, then nodded jerkily and drew Starsky slowly into his arms. Starsky came willingly, meeting Hutch's seeking lips in a gentle kiss. Starsky sighed and rested his forehead against Hutch's shoulder. Hutch swallowed again and simply held him for a time, reveling in the fact he still had Starsky to hold.

Gently, thoroughly, and with the utmost care, Hutch began to bathe every inch of Starsky. He started with his hair. He lathered and rinsed the thick dark curls until every trace of the smoke smell was gone. It was nearly impossible to avoid the deep burn striping the back of Starsky's shoulders, but the protective burn bandage remained sealed.

While his fingers massaged Starsky's scalp, his lips sought Starsky's mouth. He seemed only too eager to comply. A faint groan escaped Starsky as he attempted to raise his arms to embrace Hutch. Hutch stopped him with a gentle touch, sliding his fingers lightly to the livid purple bruise spreading over Starsky's left shoulder. Starsky twitched at the barely there touch, but quickly relaxed into the soothing caress.

Finished with Starsky's hair, Hutch soaped his hands and began a sudsing massage of Starsky's body. He left soft kisses in the wake of the rinsing water. He urged Starsky to lean against the wall, and began to lather the hairy chest, combing through the fine pelt. Starsky gasped when Hutch's fingertips grazed his taught nipples and he smiled tenderly into Starsky's heavy-lidded eyes. The corners of Starsky's lips turned up. Hutch leaned back and let the water rinse the soap away. He admired the firm masculine chest, becoming mesmerized by the precious expansion and contraction of the ribcage.

Light fingers traced down his cheek, snapping him out of his reverie. He raised his eyes to Starsky's. Understanding, love, and affection shone back at him.

"I'm here," Starsky whispered. "I'm okay."

Hutch nodded, swallowing again. He lowered his head, slowly, holding Starsky's gaze as long as possible. Then, he latched onto one nipple. Starsky gasped again, his good hand coming up to card through Hutch's hair. After a long moment, Hutch left the nipple he was laving, flicked his tongue over the other, then captured Starsky's mouth. More than passionate, the kiss was loving, affirming, a recommitment.

"Love you so much," Hutch murmured against Starsky's lips. He didn't wait for Starsky's hummed response, as he sank to his knees. Kneeling in front of Starsky, he continued his bathing ministrations. He sudsed and rinsed and caressed Starsky's lower limbs, carefully avoiding his lover's obvious arousal. His hands stilled, coming to rest on Starsky's hips. He gazed up at Starsky, making sure he had his full attention. Starsky was still smiling, his eyes glowing with love.

Hutch soaped his hands once more. With tender care, he wrapped his fingers around Starsky's shaft and balls, stroking and cleansing. Their eyes remained locked. Starsky's lips parted as his breath began to come in shallow pants.

Hutch let the water rinse away the soap, his hands still caressing, his gaze still latched to Starsky's. Slowly, slowly, he leaned forward, watching. Starsky licked his lips, his breath even shallower. Hutch opened his mouth and swallowed Starsky's cock. Starsky shouted, then groaned as Hutch twirled and twisted his tongue around the sensitive shaft. Starsky's eyes slid shut, and Hutch began to suck and lick. Starsky's hand was back, alternately combing through his hair and caressing the shell of his ear. He watched the pleasure chase over Starsky's face. He bobbed gently up and down, letting his cheeks hollow with the suction. While his mouth was busy, he once again soaped his hands. He wrapped one around his own straining shaft, the other fondled Starsky's balls. Starsky moaned again, spreading his legs a little more. Hutch took the invitation and slipped a finger inside. Starsky was moaning constantly now.

Hutch kept a slow and easy rhythm with mouth and hands. He wanted to savor Starsky, to worship him, love him. Starsky's hips started to rock, and Hutch increased the pace. Hutch worked Starsky's cock with all the skill he'd learned over their past two years together. His finger thrust in and out of the tight ass, his palm gently bumped the furred sac on each push, his fisted palm kept pace on his own cock. Hutch felt Starsky's balls draw up, and he plunged his finger deep inside, hitting the pleasure nub he sought. Starsky cried out and warm fluid jetted down Hutch's throat. Hutch continued to suck until he was sure he'd sucked Starsky dry, then lapped and licked the slowly softening shaft as he gently pulled away. His own release was almost an afterthought, as he watched Starsky's pleasure.

Starsky's eyes slowly opened and he gazed down at Hutch, his chest heaving in the aftermath. He smiled sleepily and tugged weakly on Hutch's hair. Hutch got shakily to his feet, braced his hands on either side of Starsky's head, and leaned in to capture the still parted lips.

"Love you, Blintz," Starsky said softly.

Hutch kissed Starsky deeply. "Love you, too, Starsk. More than I can ever show you."

Starsky traced his lips, smiling fondly. "Feel the same, Hutch."

They shared another long kiss, before Starsky broke gently away. "Much as I love ya, Blondie, the water's startin' to get cold."

Hutch nodded and reluctantly stepped away and turned off the water. Carefully, he helped Starsky out of the shower and dried him off. Starsky heaved a sigh as he settled into their bed.

Hutch stood by the side, glass in one hand, pills in another. Starsky shook his head. "Nope. Aspirin, Tylenol, okay. No pain pills."

"Starsk, you're gonna hurt in the morning."

Starsky nodded. "Maybe. But I'll be awake and alert. That's where I need to be." He looked closely at his partner. "Now get into bed and help me get comfy."

Hutch smiled and crawled in. It took some doing, but they finally found a comfortable position that didn't stress the burns on Starsky's back, falling almost instantly asleep.

When the phone rang hours later, it was long moments before Hutch's arm reached out to snag it. Tension flooded through him as he listened to the caller. As he hung up the phone, he met Starsky's questioning, concerned eyes.

"Dobey. The station's on fire."

**********

The fire chief was outside when they arrived. Mike O'Leary flashed them a rueful grin as they walked up. "We gotta stop meeting like this."

The corridors were black with smoke and filled with water. Dobey was swearing when they found him. Apparently, the suspect had walked through the station spreading some kind of clear gel over walls and floors that ignited and burned. O'Leary thought it acted a lot like napalm, and he wasn't happy.

They gathered in one of the conference rooms that had escaped damage. Everyone had a mug, and Arturo had snagged a pot of coffee from one of the other departments. They talked, comparing notes, reviewing the old case file again, trying desperately to find one shred of a lead. After a few hours, Hutch went to the window and braced one hand on the wall. Starsky watched him out of the corner of his eye.

Finally, Hutch turned and focused on Starsky. "What do we know, partner?" Hutch's voice drew the attention of the others, and all eyes were focused on him.

Starsky felt his mouth go dry and looked away. His gut rolled, telling him he wasn't gonna like this. "Don't want to hear this, Hutch."

"There comes a time, you gotta step back and look at a case, look at it hard," Hutch's smooth voice continued. Starsky noticed that Dobey was studying his coffee mug, and Lizzie was looking at her shoes. A quick glance told him that Arturo had found an interesting spot on the wall. Hutch kept talking, his reasonable and professional voice low and polished. "So, partner, what do we know?"

Starsky finally looked into those bright blue eyes. I know I love you. I know that as soon as this is over, I'm getting you alone and loving you until you can't walk. Then I'm gonna kill you for what you're about to do. Because we both know the only answer to this problem is to lure the guy out. Starsky closed his eyes and answered his partner. "We know his name is Joey."

"Could be a nickname," Dobey muttered.

"We know he's a chemist, or has a background in chemistry," Lizzie added.

"We've assumed that, Lizzie," Hutch corrected.

"He's a firebug," Arturo said quietly.

"Yeah." Hutch's voice was just as quiet. "And he's using explosives as well."

"We know--" Starsky's voice cracked in his throat. "We know he's focused on you."

And his bright, golden blintz nodded. "Yeah."

"We know anything else?" Dobey asked. "Did we overlook anything? Any leads, any known associates, any place to start looking?"

Silence.

"Suggestions?" Dobey asked.

Hutch gave a soft snort, put his mug down, and stretched that long lean body, lifting his arms over his head. "Sure." Hutch lowered his arms and stood there, a resigned smile on his handsome face. "There's only one thing to do."

Everyone looked at him except Starsky. Starsky knew if he looked at his lover, his life, his fucking soul, the growing anger in his gut would spill out.

Hutch continued, "We set a trap using the only bait we got. Me."

**********

Starsky yanked Hutch into the men's locker room and shoved the door closed, locking it. He braced himself against it and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I'm trying to catch a murdering arsonist!"

"By making yourself bait? Have you forgotten what this guy almost did to you in that theater? What he almost did to me?"

Hutch slammed his fist into a locker door, leaving an impressive dent. "Of course I haven't forgotten! That's why I have to do this! I have to stop this guy before he kills somebody else. Starsky, he's after us. If we can lure him out on our own terms, we stand a much better chance of catching him before he gets the drop on us again."

Starsky stared at Hutch unhappily. He knew Hutch was right, but he wasn't sure of Hutch's motivation.

Hutch moved a little closer, holding out his hands beseechingly. "Starsk, I can't go through that again. I thought I'd lost you in that explosion. I thought our luck had finally run out. I've got to stop him."

"And do you think I could handle losing you any better?" Starsky asked quietly. "Because if you do, you're wrong."

Hutch looked stricken. "Of course not. I-it'd just be--"

"Easier for you to do this than let me? I know, and now you know how I'm feeling right now."

Hutch dropped his gaze, nodding slightly. A moment later, he lifted his head and met Starsky's eyes again, determination written on his face.

"We have to catch this creep, Starsk, and this is the best way to draw him out. This is no different than any other time we've made ourselves bait."

"You sure about that? This is more personal than other times we've done this. Are you sure you're not out for some vengeance?"

Starsky was glad Hutch didn't answer right away. It meant he was giving the question serious thought. Finally, Hutch looked at him again. "Maybe a little, but it really is the best way."

Starsky continued to frown, studying Hutch. He dropped his arms and straightened. "Yeah, it probably is. I just wanted to make sure you were doing this for the right reasons. But this doesn't mean I have to like it."

Hutch smiled slightly, moving close enough to touch him. "I know," Hutch whispered. "But I also know you'll be there to back me up."

Starsky gave fleeting thought to stopping his grin, but let it form. "You bet your sweet ass I'll be there," he said throatily. He darted a kiss to Hutch's lips then turned and pulled the door open, leaving a suddenly dazed Hutch to gather his scattered wits.

Starsky chuckled silently as he pranced back to the bullpen. He tossed a grin over his shoulder when Hutch caught up to him moments later. Hutch's expression warned of payback to come. Starsky looked forward to it.

**********

Lizzie sat down next to Arturo on the bench outside the men's locker room and handed him a cup of coffee. "They still at it?"

"Yeah." Arturo thanked her with a smile and took a sip. "Is Dobey setting up surveillance?"

Lizzie nodded, then winced as she heard someone or something hit one of the lockers. "Sounds bad."

"Nah," Arturo said, chuckling. "They've locked themselves in and been going at it hammer and tongs. They're just lettin' off steam. Glad to see it. Hutch was scarin' me there for a while."

Lizzie shot him a look and rolled her eyes. "Men."

Arturo laughed.

Lizzie leaned back against the wall and sipped her coffee. Arturo clearly didn't have a clue, and she wasn't about to give him one. Hell, she wasn't sure how she felt about it. Part of her was amazed at how "normal" they seemed, and part of her was uncomfortable thinking about certain physical aspects.

Part of her was terrified for them.

But the largest part of her rejoiced that they'd found each other, that they had each other's love and strength.

It grew quiet in the locker room, and Arturo looked at her. "Told ya they'd work it out."

Lizzie just smiled and let a very tiny part of her wonder what they were really doing in there.

**********

Joey flicked on the light and looked around. Nice place. He liked the plants.

Easy enough to follow the cops from the hospital. Easy enough to spread some stuff around the police station and cause some trouble. Not perfect, but it didn't have to be. Perfect was for later.

He went into the bedroom, looked at the rumpled sheets, and decided to start with the bed. He'd have to time this one better, so he would have time to get to the station. That red and white car was so pretty. It'd look good going up in flames. If he did it right, there'd be nothing left. If he did this right, he'd get the car, Curly Hair, and The Blond all at once. That would be so perfect.

Joey smiled, rubbed his crotch, and went to work.

**********

Hutch wanted coffee and aspirin. He closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead, and sighed.

Actually, what he wanted was about forty-eight hours alone with his lover. Somewhere safe and sane and very isolated.

Instead, he and his partner were in one of the undamaged conference rooms on the first floor of the station. As before, Dobey and the other detectives were gathered around. This time, with O'Leary and some of his arson investigators. For once, the commissioner was taking the hands-off approach, but he wanted hourly reports. It was only a matter of time before the press made a connection, and that would make their jobs even harder.

The goal now was to set a trap, and they were centering their attention on Hutch's apartment. Dobey had sent a fire crew and some undercover officers to set up the first ring of watchers and to check the apartment. Hutch, with Starsky hovering nearby, had been working with a sketch artist, trying to get something on the arsonist. Hutch's memory was hazy, but at this point, they were desperate.

Starsky shifted in his chair and eased his shoulders. The burns on his back must be bothering him. Hutch looked at him in concern, but Starsky waved him off, pointing at the developing portrait. Hutch nodded and refocused on the artist's sketch.

The phone rang. Lizzie grabbed it, then handed it off to the fire chief.

"What?"

Every head turned.

O'Leary started cursing, and Hutch had to admire the man's command of the language.

"Our man beat us to it. Hutchinson's apartment was rigged to blow on a timer." Everyone started cursing, Dobey the loudest. "The bomb squad was called in and they managed to get the bomb out, but the fire started when they tried to disarm it." O'Leary caught Hutch's eye. "Sounds like your bedroom went up in flames. Other than that, smoke and water damage, but some of your valuables are salvageable."

Hutch caught his breath and glanced at his partner--his relatively healthy partner, standing there staring back at him. His wonderful, loving, intelligent partner, who got his message loud and clear and sent it back with a quirk of his lips. The most valuable thing I have is right here in this room.

"...safe house," Dobey was saying. "In Nova Scotia. I want you there yesterday."

"Arctic Circle," Arturo offered. "Nothing to burn."

Starsky raised his eyebrows and turned to fill his cup. Hutch picked up the ball. "No way, Captain. This nut is out of control, and we need to get him off the streets."

Starsky moved to lean against the window, looking out over the parking lot.

"Nut is right. This has to be a head case of some kind, someone who gets off on lighting fires." O'Leary looked as exhausted as the rest of them.

"If you put them in a safe house, you're gonna have to leak the location of the house to the press," Arturo said. "Gonna have to get him to come to us."

Voices were raised on that point. Hutch rolled his eyes and focused on his partner, who was standing at the window, frozen in the act of raising his cup to his lips.

"Hutch."

Hutch reached his partner's side in a few steps and looked out the window. He backed away from the window quickly and moved off. "Captain--"

Starsky pulled back as well, putting his mug on the table.

Hutch continued, "There's a man with long hair, doing something to my car."

"He's got a gun in his waistband," Starsky growled.

That got everyone's attention. "No way," Lizzie said. "He can't be that fucking stupid."

"Yeah, he can." O'Leary rose. "They like to watch, you know."

"Is he still there?" Dobey asked, reaching for the phone.

"Yeah." Starsky was tilting his head, staying as far back as possible, but still keeping the guy in view. "Still there, but--"

"All right, let's do this quiet--" Dobey didn't get a chance to say anything more. Someone on the street started yelling.

Starsky was out the door, Hutch right behind him. Lizzie and Arturo moved as well, drawing their weapons as they ran for the doors.

Starsky and Hutch burst through the doors to the outside just as shots were fired. Hutch caught a brief glimpse of a uniform down on the sidewalk, as he dived for cover behind a squad car. Starsky moved in the opposite direction, finding his own shelter by one of the fire trucks closer to the Torino, pressing his body against the metal.

Other officers on the street were scattering, running for cover wherever they could find it.

Joey was standing by Hutch's car, Starsky's gun grasped in both hands, screaming something.
Hutch couldn't make it out. The gun in his hand barked twice, slamming rounds into the fire truck. Hutch watched in amazement as the kid lowered the gun and reached back into the car. What the hell?

Lizzie and Arturo hit the doors at that point, moving out and covering the kid. Arturo headed slightly off to the side, yelling for Joey to surrender, but Lizzie moved straight in, trying to take advantage while the kid had his back turned, getting much closer.

Too close. Joey turned, jerked up the gun, and fired without even aiming.

Lizzie went down like a stone.

Hutch gasped, hearing Arturo's scream of rage as he lunged for cover close to Starsky. Joey swiveled, trying to bring the gun to bear on Arturo, but he'd already ducked out of sight. Hutch couldn't see Lizzie well enough to determine her condition, and he didn't dare take his eyes off the kid for an instant. Instead, he focused on what Joey was screaming as he pulled something from his pocket.

"You fucking bastards! You've ruined it!"

Hutch had no clue what was going on in Joey's head. At this point, he just wanted a clear shot. He moved around the front of the vehicle, knelt, and took aim, just as Joey threw something in the car window and ran toward Hutch.

KABOOM! The car blew all to hell, engulfed in flames and black smoke.

Hutch was rocked by the force of the blast and the heat. Through bleary eyes, he saw Joey run past him and jump into a different car. Even as he fumbled for his gun, Joey pulled the car out and sped away from Hutch's position.

Hutch staggered up, desperate to get off a shot, but when he stood, he realized Dobey was standing in the street, facing down the oncoming car.

For brief seconds, it looked like the captain was playing chicken, waiting for the kid to blink first. But the whine of the engine told Hutch that Joey had no intention of stopping.

Dobey got off two shots, cracking the windshield and causing the driver to swerve wildly. Dobey jumped back, and Hutch watched...praying.

The car clipped Dobey as it passed, tossing him to the side like a broken doll.

Hutch moved, rage building in his chest, getting into the street, gun at the ready, taking aim at one of the tires from behind. But movement drew his eyes to the sight of Starsky making a jump for the Torino, and in an instant he saw it. Saw the kid's plan. Set fire to Hutch's car and lure him and Starsky into the Torino for a chase, then blow them and it all to hell in one fell swoop.

Hutch didn't have any air in his lungs, but he screamed anyway, trying to stop his lover, knowing the car was a death trap.

Starsky didn't hear, didn't stop, moving for the car door.

Arturo heard and tackled Starsky, taking him down to the sidewalk.

In an instant, Hutch's eyes flicked and focused on the fleeing car, and he brought his gun to bear, taking two shots at the tires.

The car veered and hit a telephone pole at full speed. The noise was deafening--the scream of twisted metal and shattering glass. Hutch started running, pausing as he neared Dobey and Lizzie. But firemen and paramedics were spilling from vehicles and the building, and Hutch kept moving, intent on securing Joey. Arturo and Starsky were also moving, staying low, trying to get into position.

The front of the car was crushed, steam rising from the engine. The kid had a cut on his forehead and looked dazed and confused. There was some kind of liquid dripping from the trunk, and when Joey opened his door, liquid spilled out from there as well, pooling on the pavement.

Hutch could smell gasoline mixed with other things, and his eyes started to burn. He aimed his gun and moved slowly forward. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of other officers and rescue personnel, but his focus was on the man in the car.

Joey still seemed dazed, looking at him without really seeing him.

"Get out of the car. Slowly." Starsky moved to flank him as Arturo moved around. Hutch repeated his words until Joey turned his head to look at him. Awareness flooded those eyes, as did anger.

"It's all your fault, you fucking asshole." The kid started crying. "The theater, you ruined it. Ruined it." The veins in the kid's neck stood out as he screamed, spittle flying.

Hutch stopped where he was, still aimed at Joey's head. "Get out of the car, now!"

Joey fumbled for something on the seat of the car, even as he screamed his hatred. "Fuck you! I'll show you perfect. I'll show you all--"

"Arturo, down!" Starsky yelled as he tackled Hutch, throwing them both to the pavement.

Joey held up his lighter. "You fucking assholes! It's gonna be--"

Starsky rolled them over and over, moving away from the vehicle and the leaking fluids. Hutch scrambled to help, each pulling the other to get as far away as they could before--

"Perfect!" Joey flicked the lighter. A spark flew, but nothing happened. His mouth wide open in fury, the kid screamed again as he flicked it harder. "Perf--"

The car blew--a ball of pure, bright, perfect flame that surged straight up into the sky.

The scream went higher for a second, then cut off as the once human figure slumped forward against the wheel. Hutch and Starsky scrambled, feeling the heat wash over them as they reached cover behind a vehicle. The gas tank went for a second explosion.

For long moments, there was only the sound of their panting breaths as they tried to fill their lungs. Sirens went off in the distance, and the fire from the car crackled behind them. They both sat there, looking into each other's eyes.

Hutch turned his head slightly to see Arturo and some paramedics helping Lizzie. She was sitting up, but looked to be in pain. "I think Lizzie's going to be okay."

"Good." Starsky wiped his forehead with his hands. "Dobey?"

Hutch leaned forward to see Dobey arguing with paramedics. He slumped back. "Looks okay."

"Good." Starsky focused one eye on Hutch. "I hate Halloween."

"Me, too," Hutch croaked. "I love you."

Starsky nodded. "Me, too."

A fireman moved their way. "You guys okay?" When they waved him off, he grimaced. "Whatever you do, stay away from that red and white car. It's rigged to blow and we gotta get the bomb squad to disarm it." He headed toward the Torino, where a crowd stood a safe distance from the car.

Starsky rubbed his forehead. "I need a shower."

Hutch blinked at him. "I don't think we have a shower anymore."

"Yeah." Starsky lifted his head. "Remember that big old claw-foot bathtub in that house by the freeway?"

Hutch nodded. "Yeah." He sagged onto the sidewalk. "Let's call Teddy and make an offer."

Starsky flopped next to him with a stifled groan, resting his aching head in his hands. "You got it, partner."

**********

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Coming December 23, 2003 on Starsky & Hutch:

Bag O' Holliday Goodies

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