He wondered if he had ever said anything way back, way back when it had first happened in the Academy, whether it might have changed the course of things for them both.

The fact was, he hadn't.

The fact was, he would never really know.

He would always, always carry the regret and the guilt for having kept quiet about it all.

Starsky was the one who suffered because he hadn't.

The occupants of the squad room in the Ninth Precinct were just starting to ease into the bustling day shift when the distinctive east coast twang of their fellow cop's voice sounded outside in the corridor. It was audible well before the swing doors burst open with more force than was needed. It wasn't difficult to see that the often highly spirited Detective Starsky was running on overdrive.

"Now don't go gettin' any smart ideas Hutch that ya' goin' to roll with me this week. Remember I'm lettin' ya back here on one condition. Desk work only ya hear? Nothin' else. No drivin', no runnin', no shootin' and no fightin'. Get it, big boy?" Starsky gave the man beside him a stern look to reinforce his words. In turn, Hutch gave him back a look that was as frustrated as his partner's was stern.

A few of the cops looked up from their work, others kept about their business, but all were well aware that the dark haired man was gently steering the tall blond haired cop by one arm, as though without his added support, Hutch might not manage to navigate the short journey to their desk.

Starsky mustered the two of them further inside the room, none too discreetly casting his gaze over the other officers as if challenging them to intrude. If Hutch noticed Starsky's silent message to the room, he chose not to show that he had and instead rolled his eyes at the order, while keeping his own gaze directly centered on his friend and not the occupants of the room.

"Oh, I get it. So, while I've been away I see you've risen to the mighty ranks of Captain of Detectives. Was that a self-promotion or did you win the position with your great skills of annoying the hell of everyone till they locked you in your own separate office?"

"Don't try to change the subject or make me lose my point here by bein' a smartass, Hutchinson. I'm ya' partner and that means I get to say what is best for ya'."

This last comment was made as they were pulling off their jackets and tossing them over the backs of their office chairs.

Just like any normal day back in the squad room Hutch thought…but it wasn't. It was far from normal. He managed to let his gaze meet the eyes of the other officers, nodding with a small smile that felt tight on his face.

"Everyone's pleased to have ya' back Hutch," Starsky offered quietly before his attention turned toward the disarray on the desk, his expression distinctly guilty.

Hutch followed the direction of his partner's gaze and as his own eyes alighted on what Starsky was currently taking in, he raised one eyebrow.

Starsky knew that one eyebrow look and instantly knew that it was not a good sign. He hurried on before Hutch could speak.

"Besides…I ahh..have got a little bit behind in the reports over the past coupla' weeks and well…"

He looked sheepishly now at a toppling pile of files that covered Hutch's side of the desk. He cringed as one of the files crashed to the floor as he spoke.

"Well, we both know that ya' love doin' reports and stuff. " He saw his partner's face had begun to darken and so he was quick to add more as the inspiration came to him. "And um, oh yeah, we both know ya' so good at 'em Hutch. Way better than me."

Nope, his weakened partner still looked pretty pissed off. For someone who was supposed to be still worn down by the recent events - make that, who was, still worn down by recent events, Hutch was looking sufficiently pissed to worry even his healthy, robust partner.

For added safety and in the interest of ensuring that his own healthy body remained intact, Starsky pulled out all the stops.

"Way, way better. Faster at typin' too and smarter with the words and stuff…."

"Starsky..."

"And well ya' know Dobey prefers your style of reports…ya' don't put any of those stupid car descriptions and stuff in and –"

"Starsky," Hutch repeated his name more loudly. Starsky knew this was not going to work.

"It's not going to work Starsky," Hutch confirmed all too quickly.

Starsky dodged the obvious and instead doubled up on his tough cop act. "Don't matter what ya' think about the idea anyway, that's the way we're gonna play it – or I can take ya' back home right now. Got it, Hutch? I'm serious here." He pushed his face up close to his partner's and tried his best to look threatening and mean. Which wasn't easy to pull off given that in the past weeks all he had wanted to do was to protect and care for his friend. That and to lessen some of Hutch's pain and anguish at having gone through a withdrawal from heroin, losing his girlfriend and having had his career threatened.

All because some punk drug king had punished the shit out of him with the needle in order to get him to sell out on the whereabouts of the woman who had wanted to be with Hutch instead of him.

Hutch had been to hell and Starsky had gone part of the way with him over the past weeks. Watching his best friend struggle, fight, push against the sheer torture of withdrawal and the lure of addiction had truly been hell on earth.

As Starsky took stock of his best friend now he was secretly appalled at the changes in him. He was thinner than he had ever been, his tall frame was more stooped, his face gaunt, his sky blue eyes often took on a haunted, fearful light to them as if he sensed threats from every new stimulus. Even his white blond hair seemed not to glow so brightly.

It made Starsky sick. It made him want to beat his fist into a wall and pretend it was Forrest's face. It made him want to shoot Monk again although he had already killed him once. There just weren't enough of the accountable parties around on whom he could vent his fury.

So instead he had been doing a great job on suffocating Hutch with his hovering presence. It was wasn't enough, not nearly enough, but at least it reassured him to know that Hutch was nearby and safe.

There was a problem, however. Starsky's continued shadowing had begun to wear thin on his restless partner. Hutch was trying to get back on his feet and no longer needed nor wanted his Starsky's overly protective shield. And so, with no heads to bust and a friend who refused any more caring, Starsky was left feeling inadequate. Powerless. At times almost helpless. Still, he understood that he couldn't do this anymore to Hutch. He had worn them both down with his constant worrying about Hutch's recovery and the anger he harbored for what had been done to him at the hands of Forrest and his men.

He knew that Hutch wanted to start to put it all behind him and Starsky's need to hover was hardly helping him achieve that goal. In the end, Starsky had conceded that it was probably best for Hutch to return to work - more prematurely than Starsky would have liked. He had put him off now for a whole week. Hutch refused any more time at home. He wanted back on the force and he needed to feel that his job was going to be secure given the prejudicial experience he had gone through.

A heroin junkie on the force was not good. Hutch needed to prove to himself that he could step up to the plate and show himself, his partner and his Captain, that he was not compromised by what had been done to him.

"I cannot let that fucking needle take any more from me than it already has! You have got to agree to let me back and soon!" Hutch had railed against Starsky, himself and the world in general. That had been last week and Starsky had finally relented. He agreed that today would be the day Hutch could return. Not of course that it was Starsky's decision, but both men knew that in their relationship, all decisions were dependent on how the other felt about them. What affected one affected the other. Their closeness was so tight that actions, behaviors, and decisions on life tended to be mutually acceptable and workable for them both.

Starsky was jolted back from all of these thoughts that had crowded his mind since Hutch had been abducted. He had to try and cut loose a bit and let his friend have some free rein.

Hutch would be okay he knew – but God it was hard to stop the worrying thoughts.

He was surprised to see that Hutch had just quietly sat down at his desk and had begun pushing things around, sorting out the files and reports.

Now he felt worried that Hutch had relented and accepted his bullying tactic too easily. Had he gone too far?

" So – umm – good. Well, I see you're fine with that then Hutch? Good. Good – I knew you'd see sense about those reports and stuff."

He decided to shelve his bullying act for the time being and instead quickly reverted to worrying.

Hutch could obviously sense the slight shift in his friend. "Starsky. Just sit down and shut up. I know what you're trying to do and ok I'll play along with the game, for now. All right I'll stick to the freaking desk for the next few days, no strenuous activities. You have my word."

He could see that Starsky was worried as always, and softened at his partner. He spoke more quietly now as other staff arrived to start their own mornings on the job. "It's okay Starsk. Believe me, I'm going to be okay." He gave his friend a long encouraging look. "We're both going to be okay very soon."

He waited for a second and then seeing the other officers and some of the administration staff, he changed his tact.

He raised his voice again; purposely letting the other cops hear his words.

"So, if you want me to start going through all of this mess you have accumulated for me while I was off sick, then it is only fair that you go get the coffees. And umm Starsky, pick me up a tuna and mayo sandwich while you are down in the cafeteria hey?"

He winked at his friend who realized the ever-smart mouthed blond had tricked him. "You know I am trying to build up after that flu' Starsk…I need all the nourishment I can get. I'll just wait here and make a start on all of this ok?"

As Starsky grumbled his way out of the squad room to make good his run to the cafeteria, he smiled to himself.

Well he may be weaker and he may be skinnier but he sure as hell hasn't lost any condition off of his smart-ass attitude.

Once the door had swung closed on his partner's back, Hutch exhaled and slumped back in his chair.

Hutch understood implicitly that what lay ahead in the short term was going to be hard work. Starsky was going to be hard work. In the meantime, Hutch knew he had to face up to doing some of his own hard work. He turned around now to greet his co-workers, other cops and a couple of office assistants. They had been milling in the background throwing welcoming nods in his direction, but once Starsky had left his side, some of them came up to him.

Probably couldn't get near me before he thought, only half in humor.

There were the usual slaps on the back, handshakes and soft punches to the shoulder that were the dialogue of office camaraderie. Everyone was being very kind to him, welcoming him back to work after his extended "illness".

A couple of the female staff were all clucky, commenting on how he needed fattening up and how badly the bout of flu' had surely knocked him. The men were also solicitous but less touchy feely and were making jokes about him staying clear of them as they didn't want the dreaded bug.

He joked along with them and made as if to pull himself a safer distance from their desks and pulled out his handkerchief to half cover his face. A few coughs and splutters added to the act. Lots of the usual office laughs and innuendos and he played his part well.

Yep, this sure had been one shit of an illness.

But it wasn't funny and Hutch really didn't feel like laughing. He half wished now he hadn't sent Starsky off on that errand. Starsky would know how to deal with these first awkward moments back when everyone wanted a bit of him and he felt he was being dissected and examined under a microscope. Felt that if they looked too closely they could easily see the truth.

See the scars of my needle tracks.

He was terrified they would see the truth. Wondered if any or how many of them suspected that Starsky's cover story of his being off sick with the flu was not the real story. It was a battle to suppress the impulse to tell them the dirty secrets of what had really been behind his absence. What would they all think if he spewed it all out?

..."I haven't had the flu, a virus or any contagious or medical illness. Can't get what I've had from airborne particles. This illness comes on the end of a hot needle. This illness rips out your soul and your brain. It's a bad one boys. Pray it never happens to you. Pray no one ever ties you down and pumps you full of heroin for days on end until you are begging and frothing at the mouth for it.

Pray they then don't leave you strung out and you have to scrape yourself up off the ground because there isn't anymore juice to be had, no more beautiful juice filling your veins to take away the want that is eating you from inside out. "......

Someone was mentioning Starsky's name now and he tried to focus on his audience and look the part. Thinking of Starsky Hutch added another very important piece of silent advice to his peers.

"Pray you have a partner like Starsky to save you from yourself."

Then the few minutes of rising panic was over. One by one, each of them settled down at their desks again, getting on with their day and moving on.

Life was like that of course.

He needn't have worried. In the end, people just focus on the humdrum crap of everyday life and small blips like him being away and coming back were just that … small blips.

Five minutes ago he'd thought he was going to have a full blown panic attack with everyone crowding him for explanations. Now it was business as usual and he blurred into the fabric of the squad room just like he did on any other normal work day.

For the first time in a week, he stopped worrying about his job and how it was going to fall back into place.

So what? Three weeks ago you were a junkie! No big deal. Now let's get back to work.

He was getting there. This was coming together.

Maybe what he'd said to reassure Starsky was true. He was going to be alright. He was going to be solid again.

Feeling freer and more like his old self in weeks, he pulled the first pile of files over closer to him. May as well start looking over these and cross-referencing them with the list of outstanding reports that shone like a beacon on top of the pile. The list was written in bold red capitals, some with asterisks against the names. He recognized Dobey's big looping letters. No doubt he would have been riding Starsky for the reports for weeks. He immediately recognized two of the case names as being undercover jobs that he and Starsky had worked on before he was "indisposed"…that fateful day he left the office early to get ready for his hot date with Jeannie. No wonder Dobey had used asterisks Hutch thought.

The enormity of the paper tasks ahead of him came into view. It was obvious that Starsky was not only "behind" with his paperwork but that in all probability he had done zilch, zero. No paperwork at all in his absence.

"Thanks, Starsky," he muttered to no one in particular but he noticed a few smirks from the sidelines. He tried to ignore the smothered laughs that went with the smirks.

Starsky's hate/hate relationship with paperwork was well known inside the squad room and more often than not was a running inside joke amongst the detectives - a joke which Hutch felt the burden of every time their Captain roared for their weekly outstanding reports.

Fifteen minutes or more had passed and Starsky still hadn't returned with the 'real' coffee he now desperately needed. It was getting to the point that he might have to resort to the squad room bitter brew. He looked over at the warming pot where is sat near Dobey's door.

The first meeting back with Dobey was another hurdle and he would not broach it until Starsky was by his side. Starsky had already filled him in on the fact that Dobey was ensconced in a meeting with another captain from the nineteenth precinct this morning and therefore he was not surprised that he had not surfaced to greet him a welcome back.

As he was thumbing through the filing cabinet, pen in his mouth and list in his hand, he heard the squad door open again. Thinking it was Starsky he turned to make a smart comment about death from coffee deprivation when he saw him. Recognized the face instantly. A face he knew, a face he didn't much like and a face that he would prefer was not here in his squad room. In his and Starsky's workspace.

The man in question saw him too and after a few casual greetings with the other cops, made his way over to the filing cabinet and Hutch. The air of superior nonchalance Hutch remembered so well was still with him.

"Hello, Hutch. Long time since we've seen each other," his deep voice was slow and deliberate, each word almost languorous.

"Ryan," Hutch said simply. He wondered if his own tone reflected his feeling toward the man standing in front of him. "What brings you here?"

"Well, it's hardly surprising that I'd find my way eventually into your stomping ground," Ryan ran his hand over the filing cabinet, looking casually about the room as if looking for something - or someone. "This city might be big, but we both swim in the same filthy pool."

Hutch had to concede that Ryan had a point there and nodded with a quick shrug of his shoulders while quickly taking stock of the fellow cop. "Still, what brings you to our end of the pool?"

In the year or more since he had last seen him at some departmental meeting or whatever, Ryan hadn't changed. Hutch was sure that Ryan was probably thinking the exact opposite about him knowing what a former shadow of himself he now presented.

He could see the other man assessing him though his eyes were hard to read. Those dark brown eyes, too dark really, to be called brown. They were closer to being a muddy black and were hooded under a heavy brow.

Ryan was tall, probably Hutch's height, but with a strong muscular build. He was bigger than a lot of the guys in the force and he was known for his pride in his stature and physique. He spent long hours at the academy gym when they were younger Hutch remembered now. Always pumping himself up with iron. His hair was black to match his eyes and he wore it long like most of them did now, and combed back in a straight black sheet from the heavy dark brows. The effect meant that his dark eyes were the first place a person looked as with no hair falling across his forehead it was hard not to focus on those black inky pools.

The clothes he wore were more upmarket than anything either he or Starsky dressed in on the job. Quality and class were evident in the cut of his trousers and the sheen of the fabric in his shirt.

Undercover cop or not, it seemed to the blond detective that unless he was undercover in some high-end fashion designer murder case or extortion racket of the rich and famous, he would not have blurred too well with the local players.

Ryan put his hand on the other detective's shoulder as a way of greeting. Hutch had to try hard not to reflexively pull away. He looked at the other man's hands. He remembered them for some strange reason. In comparison to his thick body, he had long tapering fingers and fine boned hands. Not a good hand for making a fist. Not a good hand for throwing a punch. Very distinctive hands that Hutch always remembered.

It was apparent that the man felt the blond's antipathy – Hutch's subtle conveyance of dislike and distrust of this dark-haired intruder. And in sensing it he pulled his hand back after only a second and looked at the blond with some sort of silent understanding. In turn, Hutch looked at him.

I know you know how I feel about you Ryan.

Ryan said nothing about his colleague's changed appearance and this only heightened the wariness in Hutch.

Finally, after what seemed a long pause filled with them both sizing each other up, Ryan answered Hutch.

"My captain is in here for a meeting with Dobey and I said I would pick him up, give him a lift back to the precinct as I was in the area following up on a lead. He threw his head toward Dobey's door as if he was as familiar with the layout of this squad room as his own.

The implication of the action was not lost on Hutch. He studied the black-eyed man more closely. Not sure what he was trying to see.

"So…." Ryan lifted his arms up to indicate the entire space of the room. "Starsk's not here today then?"

Hutch cringed at the other man's use of Starsky's shortened name. He was possessive of this truncated version of his friend's name. No one else in the precinct used it, no one else on the streets and occasionally Huggy, but only on rare occasions. Even then it was rare to hear him say it. It was a tag name largely reserved for use only by Hutch himself.

Hearing this man let it slide out of his thin lips did nothing to raise Hutch's opinion of him.

"Starsky? " Hutch purposely used inflection purposely with his partner's full. "Not at the moment no. He's down in the cafeteria getting us some coffees."

He didn't see the need to expand on that. Didn't want to expand on that.

Ryan pulled out a chair and settled his muscular form into it. He didn't look like he was going anywhere soon.

"Well, I guess he'll be back in a minute and I will catch him. Looks like Dobson is going to be a while yet anyway." He cast another pointed look at Dobey's closed door.

The man's body language alone was enough to rankle Huch. Just what you want on your first day back at work Hutchinson. Ryan fucking Lancaster. Guaranteed to make my day sunnier.

A curse and a yelp at the squad room door were welcome diversions from the mounting tension between the two men. Starsky backed into the room juggling a tray laden down with coffee cups and food. Napkins and sugar sachets went flying as he righted the precariously tipped tray at the last minute. He turned, victorious that he had navigated the journey from the cafeteria to squad room with most of the tray's contents still in place.

"Hey Hutch, wait till ya' see what I got ya' here. Better than tuna and mayo…well, I got ya' that too because I know you like that stuff, but these Danishes were real fresh and so were the donuts and I thought what the hell, I'll take 'em all. You need to get - "

The babbled sentence was halted midstream as Starsky was sliding the burgeoning tray onto the desk.

"Hey! Ryan Lancaster! Hey man, howya' goin'?" Starsky effusiveness was in direct contrast to his partner's earlier reticent reception to the dark man and likewise Ryan's attitude to Starsky was totally different than he had been with Hutch. He was smiling up at the curly headed detective with open pleasure at seeing him again.

Ryan stood up now as Starsky turned toward him, his hands now free of the tray. Hutch watched as Starsky went to slap the third man good-naturedly on the back, but was quickly stalled when Ryan grabbed him into an enthusiastic bear hug. When Starsky pulled back to say something to him Ryan lifted his hand and ruffled the curly hair affectionately.

Hutch watched the actions playing out but said nothing. Just waited.

"So Ryan, what's doin'? All the way across town to our precinct?" Starsky turned a little to the side to throw his arm loosely but inclusively around Hutch's shoulder. "What brings ya' to Hutch's and my simple abode at the Ninth?"

Ryan's eyes tracked up to where Starsky's arm lay dangling about Hutch's neck. "I was just telling Hutch, I'm here to pick up the boss. He's having a D and M with your Dobey. Secret stuff you know." He pulled his mouth into a snide grin. "Boring bureacratic shit more likely."

Ryan leaned over and squeezed Starsky's arm for the second time, harder than the first. "God, it's so good to see you again man." Unexpectedly Ryan shifted his hand up higher, transferring his grip up to Starsky's shoulder. Pulled forward and a little off balance by Ryan's jerky movement, Starsky caught his step quickly, and his own arm dropped away from about Hutch's neck as he righted himself. "Seems like years since the academy and then we never see each other much now we're all detectives." Ryan hadn't swept Hutch into his gaze as he spoke about the passing years, thus effectively discounting him in the "we". Starsky hadn't appeared to have noticed that Ryan was talking about just the two of them, but it had not escaped Hutch.

Starsky laughed. "Of course it seems like years since the Academy. It is! You're not a young pup anymore Ryan. None of us are . We'll be lining up for our pensions soon won't we Hutch? " Starsky laughed, turning from Ryan to his partner, and giving him a private grin. He pushed the tray closer to his partner and picked up his coffee placing it into Hutch's hands.

"Here Hutch…your coffee, while it's hot. There's your tuna sandwich and lots of other stuff if you feel like it."

"Starsky, you were going down to get coffee and a sandwich, not the whole buffet."

"Stop ya' whining will ya'…ya' can't live on that tuna shit, its not proper food."

"Oh and I suppose apple Danish and sugar donuts are."

"Hey, I think you know that apart from burritos, they are my staple food."

"Aren't you leaving out pizza, chili dogs, and tacos?"

"Just eat that damn sandwich and drink your coffee, why don't ya?" Starsky fixed his partner with an exasperated glare that was only half serious.

Ryan's expression as he observed the interplay between the two detectives was hard to gauge – his face reflected amusement but his eyes took on a hooded look.

Anyone looking at his face could have seen that he was trying to work out the two levels of this little play. The two partners stopped suddenly and looked up. It was as though they had both felt Ryan's eyes on them.

Ryan in turn quickly recovered his hooded look and gave a half laugh - strained and tight. "Seems that you two have gotten worse over the years. What are you Starsky, his mother?"

Starsky reddened a little at Ryan's accusation and gave a loud throat clear that sounded very much like embarrassment.

"Oh well, Hutch is a fussy bastard and prefers to eat live things that are green and fresh…just trying to introduce him to all the good stuff in life."

"Starsky you've doing that since the Academy. I don't think Hutch here is going to change. But you have got a point…."

And here it comes, thought Hutch. He knew that Ryan had been saving up delivery of the line for optimum punch.

"Hutch you look terrible. What the hell is up with you? Is this undercover work too much for you?"

Hutch wasn't even going to grace Ryan with an answer. He would easily have made do with an indifferent shrug, leave him hanging.

Starsky jumped into the fray.

"Yeah, that's my point Ryan he needs more donuts! Hutch has been decked by this flu. Knocked you for six didn't it Hutch?" Starsky looked worriedly at Hutch.

Hutch wanted to moan. Starsky you have to stop this! You can't go around anticipating every comment, defending me against every whisper, every rumour. It will just wear you down. It is already wearing you down.

Ryan watched how the two partners kept lapsing into a form of a closed one channelled, two-person unit. As he looked away from them he noticed an attractive uniformed officer with milk chocolate skin and huge brown eyes looking over at them. She caught Ryan's eye. She seemed almost sympathetic, understanding to his situation.

"Don't ya' pay them no attention now. This is always how they carry on. Day in and day out."

She gave him a sweet smile but Ryan noticed that she gave an even sweeter one to Starsky as she sidled up to him and patted him lightly on the face. Starsky made no hesitation into sliding closer toward her maternal touch.

"Starsky boy. Leave poor Hutch alone. Can't ya' see he is tired of your nagging about eating your damn donuts and such. You're goin' to wear him out more than that darn flu' has done."

Ryan noticed how Starsky was instantly receptive to this woman's touch and words and gave her his own long smile with a cocked eyebrow and a pout to follow.

"You're right Minnie. He deserves those damn grass sandwiches. I won't waste my donuts on him anymore. But…what da ya' say to you and me finding a quiet corner to ummm….lick the sugar off my….umm, my sweets."

Starsky's tease evoked a delighted cackle of laughter from the attractive Minnie and she punched Starsky affectionately on the arm as she batted her eyelids at him.

Hutch rolled his eyes at his friend's shameless flirting. Seeming to take pity at Hutch's frustration with his partner, Minnie leaned over and gave a soft pat on the blond's cheek. "You've got a lot to handle with this one Hutch."

Hutch put his hand up to cover hers. "He's all yours Minnie, anytime you want him." With a tinkling laugh this time, Minnie shook her head. "Oh no, I think you know he's all yours Detective Hutchinson," and she turned to walk away.

Standing by silently watching the little show before him, Ryan's demeanor changed. The slightly arrogant smile of earlier slipped from his face almost completely.

Anyone who was really watching could see when and how his expression had taken on a new look. One that seemed to close down any lightness in his eyes and gave his handsome face a slightly twisted look. Hutch, whose attention had never strayed far from Ryan, caught the moment the change came over him.

Preoccupied, Starsky was still smiling at Minnie as she walked away, once again apparently oblivious to Ryan's scrutiny of him. But Hutch was far from oblivious. Ryan's studied intensity of his partner evoked old memories for him. Memories that still had the power to make his skin crawl and his muscles bunch. As though he sensed Hutch's waves of unease, Ryan turned slowly to look at him directly. There on his face was a message, which Hutch knew was meant clearly for him and him alone.

A look of quiet loathing.