Flames licked at the roof, trying to get their last taste of the structure before they were doused and smothered by the firefighters.
None of the bystanders were paying any attention to that.
Their eyes were locked on the door, the empty frame that gaped like the maw of some ancient beast of myth and legend.
It had swallowed Shawn some five or ten minutes—or a thousand years—ago.
There was no sign of him yet.
Neither him, nor the one thing that would drive a man into a burning building when common sense said to run as far and fast the other direction as he could.
"Do you see him?" Lassiter asked, standing next to Gus, but got only a shake of a head.
Gus had been searching, scrutinizing—desperately seeking—trying to focus his eyes more and straining them in the process, hoping, praying—silently begging—for some sign of movement, a shadow or a flash of color—please, God, anything—that would prove he hadn't lost his best friend—best friends—to this act of vengeance.
The crude lettering, in vivid dripping red spray paint that had—thankfully—long been consumed by the flames and heat, scrawled across the formerly pristine white front of the house, had made it quite clear that this wasn't an accident, not a horrible twist of random bad luck.
This fire had been set with deliberation and intent to kill.
And the person it was meant for hadn't even been home.
Shawn had been out with Gus, celebrating their successful completion of another case.
Juliet had gone home earlier with a headache, brought on by the long hours they'd worked to reach this point.
Which meant that Juliet had been inside, sleeping, when the house she and Shawn had bought went up in smoke and ash around her.
Shawn had frantically dialed her cell phone while Gus drove at speeds well above the limit, converging with the parade of vehicles bearing sirens and light-bars that washed the scene with garish reds and whites, a few blues mixed in as their colleagues came to help rescue one of their own.
She hadn't answered and eventually it went to voicemail.
Shawn hadn't even waited for the car to stop—or slow down, really—before leaping out, hitting the ground and stumbling, but pushing up and continuing forward.
Lassiter—among others—had tried to grab him as he made a beeline for the house, but Shawn was not to be deterred and he didn't pull his punches when they were necessary to retain or reclaim his freedom to move.
He crossed the line set by the firemen, ducked the bodies slowed by bulky equipment, and was up the stairs and into the house before anyone could quite comprehend what they were seeing.
"SHAWN!" Gus yelled even as Lassiter was bellowing, "SPENCER! DAMMIT, GET BACK HERE!"
That had been an eternity ago and he still hadn't returned.
Lassiter was explaining to Chief Vick—in words harsh with anger and gestures sharp with worry—what had happened.
Gus was trying not to throw up at the thought that he had just lost both of his friends.
And then there was a rush of sound, a swelling wave that swept back over the crowd, rebounding when it reached the back and then breaking when it hit the front again with excited shouts from the firemen running forward to greet the figure stumbling and staggering down the steps.
It was Shawn.
And he had Juliet, curled up in his arms, cradled against his chest.
She wasn't moving, one arm hung limply down, and he crashed to his knees ten feet from the bottom step, coughing and hacking, the only clear spots in the soot on his face the tracks cleared by his tearing eyes.
He was yelling, screaming, trying to get through to her, and when the firemen surrounded him and tried to take her away, Gus saw a fist swing outward, keeping them at bay for a moment.
The fist spread as it finished the arc, fingers gentle as they cupped her cheek, brushing back the hair from her eyes.
He was murmuring to her, quietly begging her to not leave him.
He'd finally gotten her to accept him as a permanent fixture in her life, had allowed him the joy of basking in her presence whenever he wanted to.
She couldn't leave him now.
The scene blurred and Gus had to raise a hand to his mouth, the back of his fist pressing to his tightly clamped lips.
He couldn't hear Shawn's words, but he could read the two words that kept falling from his lips.
"Please. Please, Jules. Please."
Another fireman dared to get back within range and Shawn's head came up, lips curled in a snarl, no longer soft in plea, but hard in challenge. His eyes all but shone with defiance, despite the fire being behind him.
He growled—actually growled—and clutched Juliet closer to him, reason having fled in the face of his grief.
Lassiter and Chief headed over to try and talk some sense into him and Gus followed, pulled along in their wake like a ship being towed by a tugboat.
"Spencer!" Lassiter barked.
Shawn's defiance melted.
"Lassie," he croaked, then had to pause to cough. His eyes went down to Juliet. "I can't- I can't- She won't-"
Lassiter knelt next to Shawn, his voice gentled as he said, "I know. Let them help her. They can help."
Shawn looked Lassiter in the eye, then down at Juliet, then back up. His eyes flicked up to Chief and then Gus. Both nodded.
"O-okay," he said and reluctantly loosened his hold, bending forward to settle her on the ground, hands loving as he laid her head on the grass, wet from early dew and the water from the hoses that was running downhill to the street.
Lassiter stepped to the side and squeezed Shawn's shoulder as he moved around to where he could maneuver the other man to his feet while the paramedics moved in, swarming like vultures on a fresh carcass.
A glance from Lassiter and Gus moved forward, around to Shawn's side, the two of them getting a grip on his arms and lifting him, backing up.
He resisted, but the fight was gone out of him.
He couldn't do more than weakly bat away the EMT who came to treat his wounds, oxygen tank in hand and eyes focused on the gash on Shawn's temple from which a thin stream of blood leaked. "No! Jules! Focus on her!"
Shawn refused to hold still and finally Lassiter waved him off.
"Give him a minute," he said. The EMT retreated.
Shawn coughed, doubling over and Gus wrapped his arm in Shawn's and held on, the other hand coming up to rub his friend's back.
That seemed to clue Shawn into the fact that he wasn't alone with the damn interfering emergency personnel.
He craned his head and blinked smoke-irritated eyes.
"It's okay, Shawn. You got her out," he said, feeling wholly inadequate, but not knowing what else to say. What could you say?
"She wasn't moving," Shawn said. "She-" He coughed and hacked and spit, making a face at the disgusting effects of the smoke. "She was in bed. She didn't even . . ." His voice cracked again and his knees went out.
She didn't even wake up," he said in disbelief, the enormity of what might have happened just now hitting him. "She-" Shawn grabbed Gus' shirt and yanked him down to his level. "She didn't even wake up."
Gus could see the terror, the horror of what might have been, in those hazel eyes and felt it welling up in his own gut, unfurling like the smoke that still drifted and curled around them.
His eyes left Gus' abruptly and he let go of Gus' shirt, his attention focused wholly on the soot-blackened neon-yellow of the firemen and the white and blue of the paramedics, all still hunched over the limp form of his wife.
"Oh G-" he choked.
He abruptly threw up, hunched over, spasms wracking his body as he expelled anything and everything he'd eaten in the last few hours, then continuing long after his stomach was empty.
Gus crouched next to him and rubbed his back again, eyes going up to meet Lassiter's grim ones where the detective stood over them.
Then a sound broke through the huddle of emergency personnel, overcoming even the rushing white noise of the hoses dousing the last of the hot spots.
A cough, harsh and ragged and painful just to listen to—but blessed and beautiful all the same.
Shawn's head shot up so fast and hard he almost took Gus out by accident.
A heartbeat to blink and try and decide if that was reality or just wishful thinking, then Shawn was moving over the soaked, muddy ground, crawling on all fours, scrambling back to the huddle, hands coming between the two shoulders directly ahead and splitting them like a swimmer in water, the people in question falling to the side with sounds of protest.
But Shawn didn't hear them, didn't see them, probably had no idea what he'd even done, his whole attention focused on the shaking, convulsing form before him, scooping her up and cradling her to his chest once more.
Her arms came around his back, clutching onto him, seeking an anchor as she tried to ride out the coughing.
Gus stood and looked at Lassiter who turned away just then, one hand swiping at his eyes.
It could have been the smoke. That was probably was the detective would say later.
Gus wouldn't call him on it.
Shawn was rocking, holding onto his wife, murmuring words of gratitude, a prayer of thanks for returning his Jules to him, the tears streaking down his face no longer brought on by the smoke.
He kissed her head, then moved down to her nose, her cheeks, and—once she'd managed to catch her breath—her lips.
She coughed again when they broke apart, then blinked up at him. "Shawn?" she whispered, voice rough and scratchy.
He smiled and laughed, wet and cough-inducing, but it was a laugh all the same.
"Yeah, Jules. I got you. You're gonna be okay. I got you."
She blinked and looked around, eyes widening at the sight of their home, reduced to charred wood and blistered paint and undeniable ruin.
"Shawn?" she said in alarm. "What happened?" Her eyes sought his.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "You're okay." He clutched her tightly, his fear obvious in every line of his body. "You're okay," he repeated. "You're okay."
Gus turned away, unable to keep watching, feeling like he'd already seen something private that he shouldn't have.
Lassiter was staring at the house, and Gus followed the gaze, realized that the detective was still seeing the hateful words.
"Someone is going to jail for this," he vowed quietly, then turned and left, seeking Chief for permission to begin the search.
Gus watched him go, then looked at the remains of the house and shook his head.
He should feel pity for the poor bastard. Whoever had done this had earned the enmity and unrelenting focus of the entire Santa Barbara police force.
He should feel it, but he didn't.
With a silent vow of his own to do whatever was needed to help with this case, he turned and walked away.