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The Great Wall of China

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Hutch felt the breath of his partner. It heated the cotton of his shirt first, and then the shallow curve of his shoulder. He hadn't moved in about twenty minutes and he reckoned it was about ten since he'd felt the mattress dip. At the time he had neither opened his eyes nor moved. Just waited, resisting the urge to smile at Starsky's cautious crawl towards him.

As Hutch lay there, listening to the sound and silence of everything right with the world, he thought back to the first time he had stretched out, fully-clothed and exhausted, and awoken to feel Starsky at his shoulder.

All he'd wanted was to lay his sore back down for just one lovely minute. Flying a desk was one thing, cleaning up Gunther's shit was proving to be something else. Truth be told, it was the most satisfying police work he'd ever done. Every time he chipped away at that mountain and got a result, his soul got another air-punch of triumph, another reason to continue on alone for a little longer. Another truth be told, it was the most exhausting police work he had ever done. Having barely convinced Dobey that he could distance his emotions enough to keep his composure, actually accomplishing that required a self-discipline that had his jaw aching at the end of most days. And then at the end of most of those days there was the living reminder of why to go home to.

Hutch ended up with a kind of cot arrangement in his partner's front room, kindly donated by Minnie and pushed aside in the mornings. Starsky's sofa declared war on his back from day one - practically swallowing him whole one memorable evening. Accepting the need for something more comfortable and permanent with a lack of resentment he would have marveled at had he taken the time, Hutch simply thanked Minnie and went about setting up this new part of his life with Starsky. Part of the new set up became the pleasure Hutch took in occasionally napping on Starsky's brand-new orthopedic mattress. Starsky still grumbled about it, seeing it as some kind of comment on his age rather than his injuries. Hutch's back, on the other hand, loved it instantly and without reservation.

That night Starsky was restless. Nothing unfamiliar in that - his healing body often chose the end of a day to resent being healed; just one of the kinks in their post-Gunther life. But it meant that when Hutch should have been sleeping he was distracting his partner with chess and a painkiller, and then later he was having his hand gripped in silence, to the bone, waiting for that same painkiller to let Starsky sleep. Hutch did what he always did. He stayed until Starsky's face and breaths evened out, took the last traces of cold sweat away with a warm sponge, and fell bonelessly across the cot for his own three hours of sleep.

When he came back late that afternoon, after a day spent rushing round the courthouse, the only thing his tired back would let him think of was that mattress. Starsky was not back from his physio session – he got picked up and dropped off three times a week - so the quiet, together with the unusual feeling of not having to do something as soon as he walked in the door was enough. He kicked off his shoes, sprawled on his back and spread his arms out jesus-style, feeling his disks and muscles thank him. Two minutes and he'd head for a hot shower..

He awoke when he tried to turn. A weight of some kind was pinning his right arm, numbing it. He blinked himself awake, as hard and as fast as he could, and raised his head slightly. He saw the curls.

"Starsk?" It was spoken as a puzzled reflex more than a real question. He squinted down. He was in exactly the same position, arms still spread, but at some point Starsky had slotted himself in next to him. He was lying on his left side at maybe a couple of inches parallel all along Hutch's length. His head, pillowed on Hutch's upper arm, was the only point of actual physical contact. A gentle snore escaped. Hutch swallowed, laying his head slowly back and feeling profoundly moved with no real idea why.

Pins and needles eventually forced him up. Not wanting to wake Starsky, who was still dressed in his physio sweats, he held his breath and extracted his arm as gently as possible. Pausing to wrap the thin bedspread around each side of his partner, he got to the doorway and found his head pulled back to look one more time. Wide awake, his brain refused any of its usual introspection. He allowed a contented smile to stretch his face as he quietly closed the door behind him.

They never referred to it, but Hutch took to stretching out on that mattress at least two or three times a week after that. Most of the time he had it to himself – he and Starsky were still on very different time-lines - but the second time he came to to find that curly head on his shoulder, he merely curled his arm up, splayed his fingers across a bicep that was finally starting to fill out, and went back to sleep. The third time it happened his eyes were open and fixed on the ceiling, his mind too busy with the deposition he had just given. Starsky seemed to hesitate at the foot of the bed when he realized his partner was not asleep. Sensing this, Hutch shifted slightly and sent a smile his way. Grinning in return, Starsky inched his way over and took up what had become his unspoken usual spot on Hutch's right hand side. After a moment's self-conscious pause, each then proceeded to entertain the other with a conversation about the new wardrobe and look Edith was trying to equip Dobey with.

They never woke together. The second time Hutch had again carefully extricated himself and returned to the cot. It was Starsky's bed, after all. Starsky's mother, regular as clockwork, had phoned the third time, just as Hutch was torturing Starsky with the image of Dobey in a lemon pantsuit. She knew to let it ring a while, Hutch realized, as he watched his still chuckling partner take a steadying breath and ease himself slowly to the floor.

Instinct told him now that although some minutes had passed, Starsky wasn't asleep. If he listened over the breaths, which were almost back to their old rhythm, he could actually feel his partner's eyelids opening and closing.

Weird.

"What's funny?"

Hutch started, unaware that he had made a noise. "I think I can hear your eyelids."

All he got for this revelation was a decidedly unimpressed grunt. A minute or more went by in the kind of silence Hutch had come to savor. He felt himself starting to drift-

"Did you know that the Great Wall of China can be seen from the moon and is 7,000 kilometres long?"

Hutch peered down. "I tell you I can hear your eyelids and this is what I get?"

"It was built by a buncha different leaders and kept out invading forces for more than ten centuries." Starsky paused, still conversational "Imagine that, huh?"

A low chuckle vibrated from Hutch into Starsky. "Get stuck on PBS again there, Starsk?"

It had happened before. The channel selector on Starsky's TV was fried. Hutch dimly recalled a beer ending up all over it during the welcome home party. For reasons as yet uninvestigated it occasionally liked to flip itself a channel up, which if Starsky was watching daytime Bonanza re-runs, meant the documentary channel.

"Have you know Hutchinson, I am not as lightweight as you think. I watch documentaries."

"Sure you do."

There was a pause.

"Had to wait for Philippe to come in with his key.." Starsky curled in more securely as the laughter started to shake through Hutch. It was infectious, "..never been so grateful to see a six foot Frenchman." Starsky had recently graduated to twice weekly house visits from a gentle bear of a physiotherapist called Philippe. In true Starsky style, he had given him a front door key 'in case' and nicknamed him the Inquisition after their first session. Hutch pointed out that he was mixing his cultures, but Starsky had just shrugged, giving him that "potayto-potahto" look.

As the laughter trailed off, Hutch sobered a little. Starsky must have been suffering if he hadn't gotten up to change channel. He took the opportunity to study the man alongside him. There was a hitch to Starsky's breathing, but that just could be from laughing harder than was good for him. However, Hutch could also see a tightness about the way Starsky was curled, as if he were holding himself back and in from something. Without thinking – something he was getting much better at – he brought his left arm over, took the forearm of Starsky's right, which had bunched up between them, and brought it across to settle on his waist.

A heartbeat. Then another.

"Tough day?" Was all Hutch said, as Starsky's breath caught. It took a moment for the answer.

"Bit, yeah."

In truth, he had spent a miserable hour riding out the kind of spasms he was leaving behind too fucking slowly as far as he was concerned. Philippe expertly kneaded them out, but the experience had left him tense and battle-weary. Starsky swallowed, momentarily floored by the truce and clarity the lightest touch of his partner was now bringing him. He took his first deep breath of the day. As if at a signal, Hutch's hand then dropped to his back, just behind the right lung and began a gentle, open-palmed pressing.

Somewhere a dam broke.

The last of Starsky's reluctance to fall into this comfort took flight. With a grunt of pure relief his body unlocked and tipped forward, taking itself over those last inches that had kept them parallel as he came to rest all along the right side of his partner. He blinked unsteadily at the overwhelming peace of it all, his eyelids brushing against the neck he suddenly found himself pressing into.

"Ssh, ’s okay, it's okay. Just relax, buddy. I got you, Starsk." The words scarcely mattered. The tone, the touch, that was where the healing lay. Somewhere in the release Starsky felt the press of lips through his curls. When Hutch's left arm came up to complete the circle he was held in, he did as he had done long ago on a rickety step, he buried himself in his partner and gave his pain and suffering up to another. No smell of warm leather this time, but the echoing sense of being safe and being home filled him just the same.

Hutch's hands gradually relaxed their pressure as he felt his partner's composure return. He held Starsky securely in his new place, wondering only why it had taken so long for him to get there.

"You okay?" He had felt the moisture on his neck.

"Think so." A little hoarse, but tremor free.

Nothing else needed to be said or done right then, while each took a moment to adjust to where he now found himself.

"Hutch?"

"Mmm…"

"Where we goin'?"

Hutch opened his eyes at that. Starsky raised his head and their eyes met, as they had a thousand times. But this time a bat-squeak of something new and as yet undefined beat in the air between them.

"Don't know, Starsk," said Hutch carefully. Looking for anxiety in the eyes a breath away from his, he calmed. He saw none. At Starsky's smile he understood he was reflecting none back. Starsky's head went back onto the shoulder and he tucked his hand more certainly around Hutch's side.

"Well, that's alright then."

Nothing and everything seemed to have been decided. Hutch would wonder at the painlessness of it all later. For now he was anchored beyond words by the weight of this man. His gratitude had finally found a measure.

Starsky shifted in his clasp and Hutch realized that he was still going to have to get up and let Starsky have room to stretch out and move in sleep as his body demanded.

"Hey! Where you going?" Rather touchingly, Starsky tightened his grasp on his partner at the first signs of movement away.

"Starsk, we're both still dressed, it's getting dark, I'm tired and you're sore."

Starsky eyed him critically." You ain't wearing nothin' you can't sleep in, and neither am I."

"What if I lean on you or something by mistake, I mean, I could hurt-" A hand over his mouth and a deep-throated chuckle cut him off.

"Never happen." He put his hand back around his partner's waist. No way he was giving that up. "What can I say, Blondie? You ain't thousands a-kilometres and no-one's going to see you from space, but you're the Great Wall Of China, Hutch. Built to protect. That's all there is to it."

In the growing dark, Starsky knew when Hutch had taken that in. A hand drifted briefly to his cheek, then settled back on his arm. Starsky chuckled, he couldn't help it."The Great Wall Of Hutch."

"Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"Love you, but need to hear those eyelids closing, buddy."

******