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Thick as Thieves

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“This is Detective Rogers.”

Tony couldn’t help a fond smile at the sound of his voice. “Hey babe,” he replied, “how about dinner at your place tonight?”

“Aw, crap,” Steve grumbled under his breath, then after brief pause where Tony could nearly hear him thinking of ways to make the impossible happen, he said, “I ran out of Werther’s yesterday.”

“It’s been that long?” Tony asked rhetorically, his smile pulling down into a frown. Steve’s attachment to the sibling pair of petty thieves who ran circles around him had been a laugh around the precinct for a long time. But as time passed and they learned more about the young 'low-lives', the more it become clear that there wasn’t anyone else who felt attached, or even concerned, for them.

Now when Steve worried, by a quiet agreement in the precinct, whoever was available covered his paperwork or his caseload instead so that he could hit the streets to dig them out of whatever ditch they had fallen into.

“I’ll call you if I find them early,” Steve promised. “I’m heading out at the end of my shift.“

“Good luck, babe. Call me if you need backup?”

“Always do, Stark,” Steve replied with a grin before hanging up.

“Is he busy?”

Tony turned to his partner just in time to catch the bullet proof vest she tossed at him. “Yeah, we’re in the clear. He’ll be out all night,” he answered grimly, his smile forgotten as he strapped himself into the vest and his attention zeroed in on the task at hand.

“And the Jims will cover Wilson and Rogers tonight,” Natasha told him as she tucked two extra magazines into her belt, then double checked her weapon. She finished before Tony since her conversation had ended quicker, so while Tony was doing a final check of his pistol, Natasha got her hands on his vest to be sure he was strapped in alright.

“That was one time,“ Tony groused at the babying, but Natasha only smirked back at him.

“You’re lucky it only was a pellet gun,“ was all she said to that. “The driver’s map puts the cabin two miles out. If it’s them, only two should be in; the Scranton grocer called to say two of the crew got into town ten minutes ago. They’re picking up bandages and pain killers,” she added as she finished tying up his gear to her satisfaction.

“It’s gotta be them,” Tony agreed. “I’ll circle around; you kill the engine.”

“Stark,” Natasha said in a low, dangerous growl, daring Tony to meet her glare. Luckily, Tony’s instinct for self-preservation was nowhere to be found, so he had no trouble looking her in the eyes. “You asking me to take the truck cause of the baby?”

“In the first trimester? Don’t flatter yourself. No bump, no special treatment,” Tony lied. “Between the two of us, you’ll get it done faster and more quietly. If they hear or see us coming, we’re done.”

Natasha eyed him critically, but she couldn’t disagree with that logic. After a beat, she nodded in agreement. “Thirty minutes to get into position. I’ll give the signal once the truck is taken care of,” she summarized.

“Then I’ll cut the power,” Tony finished. With the plan in as much of an order as it could get, they abandoned their unmarked car in the small clearing at the side of the road to make their way to the cabin on foot.

***

A man who had been guarding the truck heard Natasha on her approach before she ever realized he was there. When she snuck up beside the truck, he had shoved the door open right in her face and thrown her back on the gravel road.

The crunching sound of impact reverberated through the remote wilderness around the cabin, and it was immediately followed by a gun shot. Tony rushed to the scene only seconds later to find two large men restraining Natasha with a knife to her side and a gun to her head. She was bleeding badly from an ugly wound in her left leg.

“Let her go!“ Tony demanded with his weapon drawn. They held Natasha in front of them, though since they were both much larger than her, Tony had plenty of real estate to give his bullets new homes. But with a baby, any injury could be life changing to his partner, and Tony found he couldn’t take that risk.

“You’ve still got a chance, guys,” he said instead in a desperate attempt to de-escalate the situation. “Think this through. You don’t want to hurt a cop.“

“We told you motherfucking pigs to stay away!” the man holding the knife to Natasha’s side barked. “You brought this on yourself—”

You kidnapped two—”

“Put the gun and the knife down,“ Tony raised his voice to interrupt Natasha before the situation spun out of control. “We found the girls alive. This is a chance for you to cooperate, there’s a chance to make a deal here. Let her go, and we’ll talk about this.”

“Yeah, no can do, detective,” a voice said from behind Tony. “If you want your partner to live, you’ll drop your weapon.”

Tony’s expression didn’t change, but when a shotgun tapped him on the shoulder, he held up his hands.

“Stark, don’t,” Natasha snarled as he briefly kneeled on the ground to lay his pistol down. When he stood up to put his hands behind his head, he could only shake his head at her in apology. His lack of self-preservation did not extend to his partner.

“What do you know? Cops got some brains after all,” a different voice said from behind him, and Tony didn’t move or say a word when his vest was torn off him and hands grabbed at him from his neck to his ankles in search of additional weapons.

“Tie him to the flag pole,” the man with a gun to Natasha’s head told Tony’s groper, who was quick to obey the orders. “We’ll be good to you, detective: If you can get free before the sun sets in half an hour, you might have a chance to get out of here before the mountain lions find you.”

Tony dug in his heels and shoved back long enough to twist around and face the man who appeared to be the leader of the group. “Hey—wait! You’re making a mistake—”

One of the two men behind Tony clubbed him over the back of the head with the butt of his rifle, and Tony crumbled to the ground before he could finish. While Natasha was cuffed and thrown into the truck, Tony was dragged over to the flag pole.

“I’m, I’m more valuable,” he slurred as he was shoved up into a sitting position against the flagpole. “Let her go.”

“Yeah, sure you are, detective,” one of them snickered back. “But she’s going to be more fun.”

“I’m fun,” Tony grumbled in a thin voice, visibly fighting a losing battle against a concussion. “Leave her. Take me.”

“You’re not our type, bitch,” the other growled, as if offended by the suggestion alone.

“I am everybody’s type,” Tony insisted, his quiet, slurring words barely intelligible anymore. “I’m Howard Stark’s only son.”

That finally seemed to catch their attention. They started shouting at the other men in their crew; Tony couldn’t hear what they said, but distantly he understood that being lifted to his feet and untied from the flagpole were good signs.

“We’ll take you both,” someone told him triumphantly.

“Then, won’t cooperate,” he rumble at a face that kept fading in and out of his vision. “He doesn’t ransom. Want his money, you need me.”

“Fine,” some gruff voice decided eventually. “She gets the flagpole; you come with us. Fair trade.”

“Deal.”

They did as they promised. Without any help for her gunshot wound or her fractured jaw, Natasha was tied and cuffed to the flagpole and left to survive the night while Tony was shoved into the back of a truck.

The last thing Tony remembered was watching his partner’s head slump forward, and despite the icy chill of alarm clawing at his chest, he couldn’t keep his head up any longer. The world faded to darkness, and he remembered no more.

***

“This is Detective Rogers,” Steve answered his cell when it rang sometime close to 1am that night. He still hadn’t found the Maximoff twins, and he was really hoping whoever was on the other end of the call would tell him they’d been picked up for vandalism or petty theft again. Anything was better than thinking worse.

“Hey pal, where’s your boyfriend?” Bucky asked around a mouthful of food. “I’ve talked to him before about keeping my girlfriend out too late.”

Steve came to an immediate halt in the middle of the rail yard. He frowned down as he asked, “What do you mean? He should be home, he was making dinner plans.”

“If he is, he’s not answering his phone.”

“Could they be... out together?” Steve wondered, trying not to let that uncomfortable seed of fear grow so readily yet in his gut. “Dinner? Movie? Gym?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky said after a brief pause. “She hasn’t been feeling so good this week, actually. She didn’t even want to see that pop-up Frida exhibit in the park last week, now that I think about it.”

“That... okay, let me try him—“

“Oh, hey—that’s probably her calling, man, false alarm. Good luck with those street urchins!”

“No problem, Buck; give her my best,” Steve said with a big smile of relief. He pocketed the phone and decided on only one more hour before heading home.

Who was he kidding? After that scare, he was going to Tony’s place for the night. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he needed to hear Tony’s voice that minute to convince himself it all had just been an ugly coincidence.

His phone rang in his hand just as he pulled it out to call Tony himself. It was Bucky again.

“Steve, Tasha’s in the ICU at Presbyterian.”

“I’m on my way.”

***

“I believe we’re through the worst of it, Mr. Barnes,” the doctor told Bucky while Rhodey and Steve hovered at his sides. “She’s stable, and should make a full recovery, with therapy. But I’m afraid the blood loss was too severe. We could not save the child.”

“The—the what?“ Bucky breathed, and behind him, Steve had to take a step back to sit in a chair against the wall. Rhodey handled the news with a touch better composure, closing his eyes and bowing his head as he quietly tried to process what the doctor had said.

“She’s—she didn’t tell me she was—she can’t have been,” Bucky stammered, hysterically clinging to that single detail in his shock. “She would have told me.”

“Mr. Barnes,” the doctor said in a calm tone born from experience, “she will be regaining consciousness in the next twenty minutes. She has suffered intense emotional and physical trauma. The nurses had to sedate her immediately on arrival. She was delirious from a number of things, including severe blood loss. In my professional opinion,” he added with more emphasis, “she has been through enough distress tonight. Take this time to compose yourself, for her sake.”

“We understand, doctor. Thank you,” Rhodey said politely, and with a firm grip of his partner’s shoulders, he guided Bucky to the seats opposite Steve in the waiting room.

Steve was already on his phone, praying for Tony to pick up between every cruel, unanswered ring.

“You get a hold of Tony?” Rhodey asked Steve, but Steve couldn’t bring himself to reply. To say no made it all too real, and he couldn’t do it.

Instead, he shook his head.

“I got this,” Rhodey said then. “I’ll call if we need you.”

“Bucky,” Steve said, more as an explanation than an attempt to get his best friend’s attention.

“Tony needs you more right now,” Rhodey promised. “If Natasha is in the hospital, she wasn’t alone. And if he is alright, she’ll need to know.”

There wasn’t anything Tony wouldn’t have done for his partner; Steve knew that as well as Rhodey.

“Call me the minute she’s up,” Steve said, and he was already calling his own partner as he got to his feet.

***

They found the cabin, they found the accomplice working as a grocery clerk in Scranton, but it wasn’t until they found the dumped truck in Binghamton that they picked up a real trail.

Natasha had heard enough of Tony’s improvised negotiations to know they were after money. Not revenge, not any political statements or overtures, only straight forward greed. At first, nobody in the precinct really believed that their Tony Stark, the slovenly-chic dresser who looked like he rolled in gun oil and slept on beds made of clean and dirty laundry, was related to billionaire Howard Stark. But one phone call to a representative of Stark Inc. put them through to the genius inventor’s stable of lawyers who wouldn’t necessarily confirm paternity, but also insisted that someone was romping through upstate New York withdrawing thousands of dollars who Stark would not be pressing charges against.

Steve and Sam leaned on Stark’s banks with enough warrants and demands to have days worth of security footage pulled in Binghamton. They drove out in person to verify that the culprit was, in fact, their Tony: their Detective Stark.

His face was badly bruised under his baseball cap, and he was favoring his right arm, but there was no question it was him.

The only problem was that he was there alone. There was nobody nearby to force him to rob his father, which outside street cameras confirmed.

“You sure he’s the victim here?” the local sheriff asked after the fourth review of the tapes.

Sam’s warning was the only thing that helped the man escape Steve’s sudden rage. The next time they saw him, it was with two of his well-armed deputies in tow, and a politely worded invitation for the two City cops to get the hell out of his county and never come back.

“It’s him alright,” Sam reported to the precinct while Steve sped back to the city. “Can’t tell who’s got him, but something weird’s going on. He looked all messed up.”

“The bank flagged another withdrawal in Buffalo an hour ago,” Rhodey told them, and both Sam and Steve frowned at the phone.

“They’re going for the border,” Sam said quietly, and Steve immediately threw on the siren and pulled the car across the highway median.

“Call ahead to Buffalo PD and Border Patrol,” Steve told Rhodey while Sam’s head was still spinning from the unholy stunt Steve had just pulled. “They cannot cross the border.”

“Already on it.”

***

The MO to date had been to linger in towns for a few days at a time, withdrawing the daily limit every time for maximum profit.

By the second day in Buffalo, Rhodey and Clint had a fairly robust prediction of their favorite spots pinned down. Steve and Sam picked one each, and they lurked in the shadows in the hopes of finding their kidnapped friend.

Sam saw him first, and he watched from a distance as Tony pulled up in an old Volvo, walked straight to the ATM, then got back in his car to drive away.

Steve didn’t believe Sam’s report until the same Volvo pulled up to the ATM he was watching only forty minutes later, and he got to witness the exact same behavior for himself.

There were no other people in the car, and there weren’t people hiding in plain sight that either of them could tell that Tony might have been intimidated by.

Now that he had seen Tony in person, there was no force that could keep Steve from following him. He pulled into traffic and tailed the Volvo as carefully as he could in his unmarked police car. Tony drove them through the city on two more ATM stops before finally pulling out of town and driving out to a sketchy outskirt of the city.

“What a cliche,” Steve told Sam over the phone once he had parked in a nearby clearing with a good view of the old warehouse. “They’re hiding in a warehouse.”

“They could at least try to be original,” Sam agreed quietly over speaker while he drove up to find his partner. “How many are they?”

“I haven’t seen anyone but Tony enter the building yet,” Steve said with a clear disappointment. “The windows are boarded up, and I can’t see any other cars.”

“Do we call for back up?” Sam asked after a beat, knowing his partner well enough that he could suspect what his decision would be before Steve did.

“They’re less than two hours from the border,” Steve reminded him, as if Sam wasn’t already aware. “Tony doesn’t have the time to wait for a warrant.”

“If we get caught, it will only get worse,” Sam reasoned.

“Call the Jims,” Steve decided finally. “Tell then to be here before sunset. We go in tonight.”

***

Bucky hadn’t left Natasha’s side since she woke up, but Tony had traded his chance at freedom for her. They all knew who between the pair of them had a greater chance of survival and escape in a kidnapping, too, and it wasn’t Tony. There was no question of why Tony had made the decision he made. So if Bucky didn’t already owe the man enough to be a part of his rescue, Natasha would have personally shot him for the betrayal.

When Sam ultimately called, Bucky did not hesitate once. He told Natasha to listen to the doctors while he was gone, and promised to call her the minute Tony was safe.

With Rhodey behind the wheel, they made it up to Buffalo well before night fall. Sam had collected the most recent blueprints of the building, but they were over 40 years old, and the building seemed long abandoned. Their vantage points and the structural integrity of the building was anybody’s guess.

“Our best bet is the basement, if it hasn’t been walled up,” Steve told the three other detectives hovering around the hood of his car where Sam had spread the blueprints out for everyone to see. “Two through the basement, two through this door to the stairwell. Less chance of being noticed early on.”

“No windows open on the whole perimeter?” Rhodey asked, frowning down at the map as if it would tell them how to get at least a clue of what waited them inside if he was angry enough. “We might put him in worse risk if we run into the lion’s den.”

“The lion’s den won’t be hiding in the stairwell,” Sam reminded him while he caught up to the other detectives, strapping himself into his bulletproof vest and going through a final weapon’s check.

Bucky looked between his partner and his best friend, and eventually Steve got tired of waiting and asked him to spit it out. “We could send two in through the stairwell before we try the basement. Stairs would be a quick place to check if the basement is still accessible from the rest of the building.”

“Alright, good compromise,” Steve decided. “Sam, we’ll take the stairs; Rhodey, Bucky, I want you waiting at the outdoor basement doors. Phones on silent, we’ll send you a text once we get eyes on the basement. If you don’t hear from us in ten, go in.”

“That’s not safe,” Tony muttered, rather unimpressed. “You’d sink four detectives for me? I mean, that’s sweet, in a morbid way, but they should plan to pull back and call for back up.”

All four detectives pulled their weapons at the unexpected sound of another voice, and it was Rhodey who first realized what had happened. He lunged at his best friend with a fierce hug, only to be grabbed by Steve before he made contact. Steve was the one who had seen videos of Tony’s busted face, and the way he favored his right arm.

Tony shuffled closer to them then with a cautious grin, “Thanks, babe,” he mumbled, but he held his left arm up for Rhodey in invitation to a hug. Rhodey approached much more carefully then, more concerned to look his best friend over for injuries than hugging him.

“To—Tony? Damn, it’s good to see you, man,“ Sam stammered in surprise and relief, but realizing how Steve and Rhodey were likely distracted (and Bucky was busy texting Natasha), he tried to make himself useful by grabbing the binoculars to see if there was a threat on its way.

“Hospital,” Tony told them before any of the bruises, injuries, or the plentiful blood stains on his shirt and his hair really caught their attention. “Soon as possible.”

“We’ll be here,” Bucky promised Steve, who still hadn’t regained his color since Tony had showed up. “Call Buffalo PD. Get him to a hospital.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed quietly, but his lips still pulled up in a smile. “Kinda urgent? Really urgent.”

Steve nodded numbly, still in a shock that seemed to slow the world around him down to something akin to the speed of molasses. But when he looked back at Tony again, and he recognized those confident, laughing brown eyes, he moved closer to his boyfriend by some unspeakable magnetism. Gently, he wrapped Tony in his arms, cradling the back of his head and holding him as close as he dared without hurting him.

Rhodey got behind the wheel of the car he and Bucky had driven out, and Steve seemed to have enough wherewithal to lead Tony to the backseat, even letting him go briefly to let Tony slide in before following him into the car where he again pulled Tony into his arms.

Without lifting his head from the warmth of Steve’s shoulder, Tony quietly asked for his partner.

“Natasha?”

“Natasha is safe,” Steve murmured in reply, pushing his hat back to press a soft kiss to the top of his head.

Thy were minutes from the hospital, and soon Tony would have all the help he needed. They were safe. It occurred to Steve almost as an afterthought that they had also caught the notorious group of human traffickers Natasha and Tony had been after for months, and just like that, Steve was overcome with a new perspective of life. He knew what was most important to him now that he finally had Tony back in his arms. As if sensing the changes taking place in Steve’s heart, Tony hummed softly under his breath and relaxed against the firm cushion of Steve’s vest, melting into his protective embrace.

Things were changing, and they were changing for the better.