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Trickster’s Fancy

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Trickster’s Fancy.

It's a ridiculous name for something that basically amounts to a large lump of coal, Vasquez thinks as he circles around the display case. Even a lump of coal as expensive as this one.

Snorting derisively to himself, he stops moving and stands directly in front of the glass container, or at least as close to it as he can get without triggering the motion sensors. All this fuss over a simple diamond is something he'll never understand. It's just a rock when you get down to it. A shiny, pretty rock perhaps, but a rock nonetheless.

"No soul," he grunts to himself as he stares down at the jewel. It rests delicately atop the velvet cushion someone's seen fit to grace it with, somehow managing to up the level of pretentiousness surrounding the thing even further. A gaudy display for a tacky bauble. "Why someone would assign a value of millions of dollars to this is beyond me."

"Then it's probably a good thing you're working as an exhibition officer, and not someone who has a bit more clout in the jewelry industry," a voice drawls from behind him. "Otherwise, I imagine you'd have the whole field up in arms."

Another man might have been startled to learn he was no longer alone in the gallery, but Vasquez makes it a point to keep his guard up when he's working, so he'd heard the newcomer coming long before he'd spoken. Still, it's never smart to tip one's hand unless it's necessary, which is why he makes a show of jumping and whirling around.

"Mr. Robicheaux," he barks, injecting just the right level of nerves into his voice when he turns to find the museum curator standing in the doorway with a faint grin curling his lips. "It's not nice to sneak up on people, you know."

Robicheaux dips his head slightly. He probably means to look contrite, but there's too much of an impish sparkle in his eye for him to pull it off. A fact Vasquez is tempted to point out, but doesn't.

Instead he fists his hands in the pockets of his dress slacks, aiming for a posture of studied nonchalance. "Were you looking for me?"

"As a matter of fact, I was," Robicheaux replies. Stepping forward into the room, he comes to stand next to Vasquez, gazing down at the display case when the other man turns with him. "But now you've gone and gotten me all distracted with your insults to the Fancy here. What'd she ever do to you?"

Vasquez suspects that if Robicheaux had any idea how loaded a question that was, not even he would bother to ask it. Goodnight Robicheaux might have a reputation for being a bit of an odd duck - and he’s certainly shown himself to be that during his and Vasquez's admittedly brief acquaintance - but his manners are second to none.

Shaking his head, Vasquez forces himself away from a thought pattern that's only going to lead to trouble, and focuses on the question he's just been asked. "The rock itself has done nothing," he says simply. "It's the people who value it more than the art others pour their heart and soul into that I can't stand."

He waves an errant hand at the display case, frowning down at his own reflection in the glass. "Passion wasn't involved in creating this. Technique, skill, nothing like that played a role. Someone dug it out of the ground and decided it was worth something. That's all."

Robicheaux stares at him for a few moments before throwing his head back with laughter. "Good lord, son," he says in between guffaws. "Tell me how you really feel, why don't you?"

Vasquez shrugs. "It's like you said, I'm not here to have anything to do with this," another wave of his hand encompasses the Fancy and all that entails. "I don't have to pretend to like it."

"Oh, I don't know," Robicheaux says jovially. Crossing his arms over his chest, he rocks back and forth on his heels, oddly putting Vasquez in mind of a little boy with a secret he’s gleefully hiding. "You have to admit, she's got quite the story behind her."

"Yes, yes, I'm aware of the legend." Not sure he's ever heard someone personify a gemstone before, Vasquez casts the diamond with another disparaging gaze. "Truth be told, I think its history is the only interesting thing about it."

"It's my favourite detail as well, I have to say," Robicheaux agrees. "Although I won't deny that I appreciate the number of patrons it's attracting to my museum."

Of course he does, Vasquez thinks sardonically, and it's not like anyone should be surprised at the attention the diamond is getting either. The amount of times the thing has been stolen or disappeared throughout its history haven't actually been quantified, and its latest resurgence has brought with it all sorts of confusion as well.

Twenty years ago, Trickster's Fancy had been stolen right out from under the noses of the best security staff England's most famous museum had to offer. Believed to have been the work of a then-notorious thief known only as Shade, both man and diamond had dropped off the map immediately after. The former had never been heard from again, but the Fancy had recently turned up in, of all things, the estate sale of a recently deceased gentleman who's entire collection Robicheaux had purchased for a song.

Because the diamond was technically stolen property, there was still some confusion over who it belonged too. However, as its last true owner - a wealthy dowager who'd lent it to various museums in her day, including the one it had inevitably been stolen from - had passed away without issue some years previous, Robicheaux had put forward an argument that basically amounted to 'finders keepers'.  

"You have to realize no one is ever going to let you maintain it permanently," Vasquez says now. He quirks an eyebrow at Robicheaux, who merely smiles winsomely back at him. "The only reason you've been able to hold onto it this long is that various parties are all fighting for it amongst themselves. Once a true winner emerges from the pack, whoever it is will come for you."

"Of that I have no doubt," Robicheaux says easily, "but the one thing that everyone has agreed upon is, until that happens, I can display it here. Safely locked away under the best security arrangement imaginable."

That much Vasquez will give him. Robicheaux's security set up is like nothing he's ever seen before, and he supposes that makes sense given both the Fancy's value and reputation. Still. "Do you really think you can beat the legend where so many others have failed? No one has ever had the thing publicly in their possession for what? A year at most? Each time it gets inevitably made off with and isn't seen for decades, even centuries."

"I know," Robicheaux says, practically gleeful. "It's got folks flocking to my little corner of the globe for now, and even if it does get nicked again, so what? It'll just become another addition to the story. I might even be able to keep people coming here just to see where it last was.”

Vasquez gives him his best pained expression. "Please tell me you managed to get it insured," he says. He likes Robicheaux, but he wouldn't put it past the man to have honestly forgotten such a critical detail in all his excitement.

Luckily, it turns out he needn't have bothered. "Yes, yes," Robicheaux says, waving an errant hand. "That was the first thing I did once I realized what I'd stumbled across. Besides, Billy would have my head if I just left it out here in the open without a policy on it."

Vasquez has a sudden urge to grind his teeth at the mention of Billy Rocks, Robicheaux's husband. Together for something like twenty years, the two of them represent opposite sides of the museum business, with Robicheaux acting as curator and setting up the displays, while Rocks designs the security systems to protect his eccentric partner's flights of fancy.

Outwardly, however, he maintains his pleasant facade. “Well, that’s certainly a relief,” he says. “At least one of you cares about the little details like that. You’re lucky to have him.”

“In oh so many ways,” Robicheaux agrees. “Though he does have his downsides, as it happens. In fact, he’s about as snobby as you when it comes to the difference between man made art and jewels.”

“Although,” he says, and here his eyes start sparkling. “I will tell you what I tell him whenever he starts going on in a similar fashion. Somebody,” he says, nodding toward the Fancy, “with great skill and great determination, took their time to carve that rock into what it is today, and they poured as much of their heart and soul into it as those painters you’re so fond of.”

“Then again, I imagine you already knew that,” he adds as he turns to leave. “Otherwise, I doubt you’d spend nearly as much time in here as you do.”

“It’s part of my job to spend time in here,” Vasquez calls after him. “I’m in charge of the displays, remember?”

He gets no response to this, but he hadn’t really been expecting one. Robicheaux’s the type of eccentric oddball who’s going to think whatever he pleases, and there’s nothing Vasquez can say to stop him. Nor, to be perfectly honest, is he all that interested in having his employer delve more deeply into his interest in the diamond.

After all, it wasn't like he was about to admit why he'd really been with the Fancy, now was it?

*****

"I need more time." Hunched over the desk in his office with the door safely locked, Vasquez grits these words out through clenched teeth, and waits for the hated voice on the other end of the line to respond.

He's not left waiting long.

"I'm sorry?" Bartholomew Bogue says slowly. He sounds coolly disinterested, but Vasquez knows from painful experience that's just a mask locked tightly in place. "I must not have heard you right. Did you just ask for an extension on this project? Or worse, demand one?"

Project. If it were anybody else Vasquez would scoff at the use of the word. Unfortunately, anything that might even be remotely construed as sarcasm right now could result in disaster. Steeling himself, he takes a deep breath and chooses his next words very carefully.

"You picked me for this job because I'm the best, correct? Because there's nowhere I can't get both into and out of without leaving a trace?" There's no response to this, but the silence develops an annoyed air, as if it wants to protest this claim, and doesn't like that it can't.

"I'll do everything I can to get you what you want, I swear," Vasquez says now, hating himself for the desperate lilt his voice has developed, and hoping that Bogue doesn't recognize his words for the pure bravado they are. "But I need more time. This place is a fortress, and the person who designed the security system, especially the measures around the Fancy, is nothing short of a genius. I'm not at a point where I can break it yet, not and get far enough away to make the delivery."

That gets a noise out of the other man. It's displeased to say the least, but with a thoughtful edge that gives Vasquez hope. Several long seconds pass where he mentally rhymes off a prayer to the god his mama puts so much stock in, until finally he has his answer.

"Fine." Bogue grunts, revealing more emotion than usual with his obvious irritation. "How long?"

"I can't answer that," Vasquez replies, wishing like hell that he could, but knowing full well that frank honesty is the best case scenario for getting out of this conversation unscathed. "I need to study the system more. Figure out how it works, and what I need to bypass it without getting caught. Putting a set deadline on that will only lead to you being disappointed."

"I see," Bogue says then. “Well," he continues on, "since I cannot stress to you how little you want me to be disappointed in this situation, I suppose I will have to accept your terms, Mr. Vasquez."

"However," he adds, and the relieved breath Vasquez was about to let out freezes in his chest, along with possibly the blood in his veins. "My patience is not without limits. You have two months. Is that clear?"

Swallowing, Vasquez nods before realizing that there's no one around to see him. In all honesty, a two month extension was probably better than he dared hope for when he'd started this conversation. "Sí,” he says quickly, slipping back into his mother tongue for a brief moment. "I understand."

"Good. I expect to hear better news from you at our next scheduled check in." And with that the line goes dead, leaving Vasquez alone, slumped over the desk in his cramped office as he tries to get his breathing under control.

His phone buzzes about a minute later, signalling an incoming message that Vasquez knows he's not currently equipped to handle. No one he'd care to hear from has this number, and text messages only ever mean one thing.

Shoving back and away from his desk, Vasquez climbs slowly to his feet. He knows he has work he should be doing, but this latest conversation has left him shaky and in need of something to settle his nerves. Telling himself he'll be back in only a little while, he grabs his coat off the rack and heads for the door.

*****

The city is - well, does it really matter what the city is like? Or even which one it is when you get down to it? The city is where he’s stuck, and it’s somewhere he’d rather be anywhere else.

Leaving isn’t an option, however, so he’s going to have to settle for the next best thing.

They’ve got him set up in a rental condo not far from the museum. It’s a lovely place, albeit not at all arranged to his usual tastes, and he hates it almost as much as he hates the person responsible for his living there. Reasonably certain it’s been bugged on top of everything else, he spends as little time as possible in it, and the same goes for the surrounding area.

Seeing no point in changing that on tonight of all nights, Vasquez exits the museum, and immediately flags down a cab. He never bothers with the things when he’s going to and from work, he simply walks. The only time he takes a cab is when he’s heading somewhere too far for that.

The museum sits practically right in the centre of the city, but if a person travels far enough towards the outskirts, he or she will hit the water, the beach, and, most important of all, any number of hole in the wall drinking establishments that are set up to catch the flood of tourists that wander along the boardwalk day in and day out.

Vasquez has come down here on more than one occasion when he needed a place to clear his head. As a result, even though he’s never set foot in any of them until tonight, he knows where all the bars can be found, and he heads for a spot that he knows has several tucked away as soon as he exits the cab.

The street is quite literally just one long row of bars, or perhaps two since the things dot either side of it. Picking one at random, Vasquez points himself towards it before he can start to tell himself that maybe getting blind drunk isn’t a good idea.

There’s a sign near the door that informs him the place is called Faraday’s, and he’s surprised to find that the inside is vastly different from the outside. Possessing a rustic quality supported by both dim lighting and furniture that largely edges towards wood and leather, Vasquez is put in mind of some kind of brew pub. It’s a far cry from the sleek, chic bars he typically patronizes, but not in a way that’s off putting.

Likely because it’s still early in the evening, the pub is largely unoccupied. A dark-haired waiter, who’s probably a college student working here to earn a few extra bucks based on age and appearance, is delivering an order to the lone booth with people sitting in it, and the only other person present is a large, broad shouldered man behind the bar.

The bartender flashes Vasquez a bright smile as he settles down on a stool in front of him. His eyes are very green, and seem to sparkle, as if he’s in on a big joke that no one else is aware of. “What can I get you?” He asks, his accent such that Vasquez is willing to bet he originally hails from somewhere in the Midwest.

Vasquez considers his options before deciding he doesn’t care if it makes him look like a stereotype. “Tequila,” he grunts. “The nicest you have.”

The bartender pauses, his nose wrinkling while he evidently thinks this over. “You know,” he says finally, “I’m honestly not sure if I have any of that kicking around. It’s not a huge seller for me. You in a hurry?”

When Vasquez shakes his head, the bartender grins again. “Then wait here. I’ll see if I have anything tucked away in the back.” He heads off without another word, leaving Vasquez to his own devices. Yes 

Sighing, Vasquez rests one hand on the countertop, while the other fishes his phone out of his suit jacket. He can either look at the picture now, while he’s in public and there will be witnesses to keep his reaction in check, or once he’s by himself again where he’ll be likely to throw something. Deciding this is the better choice, he keys in his passcode, and then opens the most recent message.

It’s Rosario this time, the picture such that it’s obviously taken from a decent distance away, probably with some kind of surveillance camera. She’s playing soccer in this one, likely in practice since she’s not wearing her official team jersey, and her hair is whipping behind her as she tries to evade the crowd of children all intent on stealing the ball from her.

She looks both happy and healthy. Vasquez only wishes the photo didn’t represent clear and present danger. Shutting off his phone because he can’t bear to look at it any longer, he stuffs it back in his pocket just as the bartender returns.

“No tequila,” the man says apologetically. He holds up a bottle that looks slightly more expensive than most of the others gracing the shelves. “How about some of my best whiskey to make up for it?”

At this point Vasquez doesn’t give a damn what’s in his glass, so long as it’s alcoholic. Nodding to show his agreement, he watches the bartender crack open the bottle and pour him a generous helping. Then he takes it, and knocks back a hearty gulp with a sigh.

“Whoa, there,” the bartender says, his eyes widening as Vasquez doesn’t so much as stutter. “Rough night?”

“Work problems,” Vasquez grunts. He supposes that’s only sort of a lie, and it has the added bonus of not revealing anything it shouldn’t. “Today was not a good day.”

“And you think getting blackout drunk in the middle of the week is the way to deal with it?” The bartender asks dubiously, then he snorts. “Take it from someone who used to make a habit of that, big guy, it’s not gonna help.”

Pausing with the glass halfway to his lips for a second swig, Vasquez narrows his eyes. “I don’t recall asking for anyone’s opinion, guero,” he says icily. “Do you pry into the personal lives of all your customers, or am I just lucky?”

The bartender dips his head in acknowledgement of Vasquez’s point, but his expression doesn’t change. “Part of my job is keeping an eye out for folks who look like they might overindulge,” he says. “Though I’ll admit I’m usually pretty crap at it. If I’m following the manual, however, I think this is the bit where I’m supposed to tell you to remember all the good things you have going on in your life, and that you’ve got people who wouldn’t want you to do this.”

The air between them turns weighted and heavy, like it can tell Vasquez is precariously balanced, but not which way he’s going to fall. Thinking once again about Rosario - as well as Francesca, and Carmen, and - heaven forbid - his mother, he grunts and decides to take the safer route.

“You have a manual?” He asks, setting his glass down on the bar top without drinking from it this time. “You’ll have to forgive me for saying so, but I wasn’t aware the field of bartending was so regimented.”

“It’s a secret art,” the other man replies, his broad grin from earlier returning as he senses a win where Vasquez is concerned. “Passed down from generation to generation, with only those in the loop allowed to know our ways.”

“I see,” Vasquez says dryly. “So your father taught you, and his father before him, and so on and so on?”

“Actually, I got scammed into taking this place over from my 85 year old great aunt after she decided she was tired of tossing drunks out on their asses,” is the reply, “but close enough.”

Vasquez snorts. “And where is this great aunt now? Not in a nursing home somewhere, I hope?”

“Not even close,” the bartender snorts. “She bought a condo down in Florida, and now she spends her days as a snowbird, and her nights as one of those drunks being tossed out of bars.”

Disbelieving, Vasquez is about to reply, but then he makes the mistake of glancing to his right and is promptly struck dumb with horror. "What is that?"

"What's what?" Following Vasquez's gaze, the bartender glances over until he too has a full view of the large print of dogs playing poker that dominates one wall of the establishment. "Oh come on, man, it's a classic."

"It's an abomination," Vasquez flatly. "An already tacky disaster that has for some reason been mass produced in popular culture at the expense of better works. Do you know it's actually one of a series?"

The bartender indicates through his posture that he did not know this, but fully expects Vasquez to enlighten him whether he wants it or not. Clearly he's smarter than he looks.

"There are eighteen in total," Vasquez says without hesitating. "The first was painted in 1894, with the last being done in about 1910. Most of them were created to advertise cigars of all things, but for some reason they've been burned into the American psyche as great art. The original sold for the better part of seven hundred thousand dollars a few years ago."

"And from the look on your face I'm guessing you don't think it should've sold for seven hundred dollars period," the bartender drawls, snorting when Vasquez shrugs in admission.

"You should complain to the owner," Vasquez suggests. "Being forced to look at it every time you're on shift probably constitutes some form of torture. There might be in a lawsuit in it for you."

"Only in a serious case of biting my nose to spite my face," the bartender replies, and at Vasquez's confused expression he stretches out a hand, chuckling as he does so. "Joshua Faraday. That'd be my last name on the door there."

Vasquez stares down at the proffered hand, wondering if he's actually expected to take it. "Rafael Marquez," he says, the lie slipping off his tongue as easily as ever. "And I'd apologize for insulting your taste in artwork if it appeared you had any."

Drawing his hand back, Faraday raises both arms in the air, palms up in a show of surrender. "Part of me thinks I should be offended, but you obviously have some kind of background in this stuff, so maybe I'll let it pass. Let me guess," rearranging himself he props his elbows on the countertop, chin in hands, "you're an artist."

"Not quite." Vasquez is skilled enough when it comes to putting pencil to paper or brush to canvas, but that's never been where his true passion lies. "Art historian, with a specific leaning towards North American works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though I'm familiar with other eras as well."

Faraday does the math in his head. "Hence why you know more than any man should about a series that started in 1894. Are you saying this classic piece doesn't deserve its reputation, or to hang proudly in my bar?"

"Please," trying hard not to scoff, but failing anyway, Vasquez waves a hand to illustrate the rustic decor of the pub. "It doesn't even go with anything in here. You'd be better off with something out of the Hudson River School - frontier landscapes," he says, picturing some of the pieces he has tucked away in his own personal collection. "Not - this."

"I'll keep that in mind should I ever decide to redecorate," Faraday says lazily. "Now, should I ask if you want that whiskey or not? Because it's just going to waste sitting there by your elbow."

Startled, Vasquez glances down at his still mostly full glass. For a few brief moments, he'd been able to forget about all the things going on in his life, including what it's driven him to come in search of. He winces as he's reminded of the most recent picture. "Right," he says sombrely. "Thank you."

“You don’t actually have to drink it, you know,” Faraday says almost kindly. “I won’t be offended.”

Vasquez looks at him quizzically as he picks up his drink. “I have to tell you, for a bartender, you’re not very good at selling your most important commodity.”

Rather than look upset, Faraday just grins.

*****

"I saw that," a quiet voice says from behind him, and it takes every ounce of willpower Josh has not to jump. Only the better part of a year's worth of experience allows him to maintain his dignity as he turns around slowly.

"What've I told you about sneaking up on me like that?" He demands. "I'm too old for this kind of shit, kid, and so are you."

Red says nothing aloud, but the single dark eyebrow he raises in response is more than enough commentary where Josh is concerned. The guy is a natural born instigator, who just happens to be good at hiding it behind a facade of studied indifference. Josh’d almost be impressed if it weren't for the fact that he's Red's most frequent victim.

"Did you need something?" He asks now. "Because last I checked your shift started over an hour ago, which means you've got tables to be waiting on."

Red makes a show of holding up the notepad he uses to take orders with. "I need drinks from you," he says calmly, "and I figured while I was over here I'd let you know I saw you flirting with the guy in the suit."

Josh groans inwardly, wishing that literally any of the other half dozen college students he employs part time had been working tonight. All the rest care about is getting through their shifts with as much in tips as possible, but Red's far too observant by half, and worse, he's known Josh since before he'd started working in the pub, so he's more likely to call him out if he catches him doing something he shouldn't.

Like ignoring the bulk of his customers in favour of a stranger who fits the definition of tall, dark, and handsome to a tee.

“I wasn’t flirting,” he insists, all evidence to the contrary aside. “I was providing quality service to a customer while the establishment was slow enough to allow me to do so.”

“He wanted tequila,” Josh explains when Red just stares at him blankly. “I didn’t think we had any, but I checked everywhere since we weren’t that busy out front. Then I brought him the good whiskey to make up for it.”

“Like I said,” Red says pointedly. “Flirting.”

“I don’t flirt with customers,” Josh denies. “It’s bad for business.”

“Please,” Red scoffs. “A) You flirt with anything that moves, and B) You do plenty of things that are bad for business. One of these days someone who shouldn’t is going to catch Ava in here, and then we’re going to get shut down.”

“We?” Josh echoes. “What is this ‘we’ of which you speak? Your name isn’t on the lease, last time I checked.”

“Maybe not,” Red admits, “but we both know you’d be lost without me, so I’m still right.”

“You are nothing of the sort,” Josh informs him. Then he gestures at the table Red had previously been waiting before he’d made his way over here. “You’re also neglecting your customers.”

Following Josh’s gaze, Red shrugs and then waggles his order pad in the air again. “I already told you I need drinks from you. Technically, that means you’re the one neglecting my customers.”

Sighing heavily, Josh makes a show of swiping the pad out of his hands to take a look at what he needs. It’s nothing fancy, the kind of assortment he could put together with his eyes closed, so he figures it’d take a stronger man than him to keep from glancing surreptitiously at the lone person still sitting at the far end of the bar while he works.

“Josh, stop that,” Red sighs, his voice going all scolding like he’s once again forgotten who’s the boss and who’s the employee in this relationship - something he does basically every other week. “Quit creeping on him. He looks like he wants to be alone.”

“He doesn’t,” Josh says quickly, some strange spark of intuition telling him Red’s wrong. “He got pretty enthusiastic when I was talking to him. Has a lot of feelings about art.”

“Art.” Red says flatly, and when Josh looks up he finds he’s being stared at like a bug under a microscope. “You talked about art. You.”

“Now why are you saying it like that?” Josh complains. Not pausing in his work, he shoots Red his best hangdog expression. “I like art just fine.”

“The only art you have in your entire apartment is a Black Sabbath poster, and a bunch of crayon drawings on the fridge,” Red notes. “Try and remember I’ve been there.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Josh mutters. Pretty sure his face is heating, he nevertheless takes another look at the subject of their earlier conversation. “He made fun of me too. Apparently, he’s an art historian who doesn’t enjoy dogs playing poker.”

“Then he’s already proven he has better taste than you,” Red says calmly. “Can I have my drinks now, or do you need a few more minutes to eyeball a paying customer?”

“His name’s Rafael,” Josh replies, not missing the way Red rolls his eyes heavenward. “What? He offered it up, I didn’t ask!”

“You’re pathetic,” Red says now. “I know your love life’s taken a turn for the worse in recent years, but even you can do better than people drowning their sorrows in a pub at six thirty on a Tuesday night.”

“Thanks,” Josh says dryly. Finally finished with the drinks, he hands them over, and watches Red set them up on a tray.

He keeps right on watching until Red’s moved off in search of his table, and then subtly switches to eying Rafael where he’s still hunched over the bar. It’s starting to pick up, meaning Josh isn’t really going to have time to wander over again, but he can’t help but find himself hoping the man comes back another evening.

*****

Vasquez comes into work the next morning feeling oddly relaxed.

He’d surprised himself by sticking only to his initially ordered drink, which he’d nursed over the course of a couple hours while the pub had rolled along around him. He’d not struck up any further conversations, aside from Faraday coming over a couple times to ask if he wanted anything else, but he’d nevertheless left in a much better mood than the one in which he’d arrived. It appears that a night away from the disaster that his real life has become had done him a world of good, and now he’s half-considering a return tonight as a way to blow off steam.

He’s also, even though he knows it’s a terrible idea, wondering if he might be able to push for more than a drink this time round. There had been a definite look in Faraday’s eye, a spark of attraction that promised some good old fashioned, rough and tumble fun if he played his cards right. It wouldn’t be able to amount to anything more than that, of course, but it also wouldn’t need to.

“Are you whistling?” A quiet voice asks from out of nowhere, and Vasquez cranes his neck first to the right and then to the left before spotting its owner. Billy Rocks, the man in charge of the museum’s security, and therefore the current bane of Vasquez’s existence, is leaning up against one of the various nooks and crannies that dot the back halls of the building, somehow managing not to look out of place.

Vasquez blinks. “I have a better question,” he replies. “Are you lying in wait for me, and if so, why?”

Rocks grins at this, the expression tiny and nowhere near as effusive as those his husband likes to give. “I was just passing through. Then I heard the racket you were making, and figured I’d stop and say hello.”

To Vasquez’s knowledge, this is already the longest conversation he and Rocks have had since he’s been here - meaning he has no idea why the man would care about greeting him. However, it never does to piss off the last person in the world you want getting suspicious of you, so he decides to play along. “I wasn’t whistling,” he denies, going back to Rocks’ original question. “Or at least, I don’t think I was.”

“You were,” Rocks says simply, no room whatsoever for argument in his voice. “Not a tune I recognized, but definitely something. I’ll have to tell Goody. He thinks you don’t smile enough,” he adds when Vasquez merely blinks at him. “He has a tendency to worry about people’s general wellbeing, does Goodnight.”

Vasquez has no desire to find out what that means, and says as much. “If you must, please tell him I’m certainly not someone he has to stress about.”

“Please,” Rocks scoffs. “I don’t care one way or the other. Although,” he adds with a smirk, “you do look cheerier than normal. Had a fun night last night, did you?”

“I really don’t think that’s any of your business,” Vasquez says, resolving to do a better job of hiding whatever it is that he’s let slip to the taciturn head of security. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work that needs doing.”

“I’m sure you do,” Rocks agrees, and Vasquez isn’t positive, it happens so fast, but he thinks the other man winks at him as he slips past.

Vasquez watches him go until he disappears among the stacks of curios dotting the back rooms, and then turns to once again start heading for his office. He’s got some extra time on his hands this morning, which means he can take a bit to lock the door and study some blueprints while he knows no one will be looking for him.

He steps lightly along, and he’s most definitely not whistling as he goes.

*****

Sam Chisolm looks up from the file folders his has spread out over his desk, and sighs. “Is this really all we have on the man?” He asks plaintively, hoping no doubt in vain that his junior partner will surprise him by whipping out an extended dossier that she’s been holding back.

Unsurprisingly, he has no such luck. Her own face pinched, Emma stares back at him from the other side of his desk, the coffee she has held loosely in one hand doing nothing to help with the tired bags under her eyes. “It’s really all we have,” she says flatly. “Trust me, I’m not any happier about it than you are.”

That one Sam’s not going to argue with her on. Truth be told, she’s probably even less impressed with their minimal information than he is. After all, his wounds have had years to heal, while hers are still painfully fresh.

Sam swallows heavily at that thought, trying his best to banish it to the back of his mind. The higher ups have already tried to get them removed from this case on the grounds that it’s too personal for them. One slip up from either of them will be all it takes to get the matter handed off to a less talented team, while he and Emma are stuck doing mindless busywork for the foreseeable future.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he says now, holding Emma’s gaze until she nods sharply. He glances down at the papers in front of him, shuffling them around as if that might somehow make them more helpful. “Alejandro Vasquez,” he says, trying out the name. “We’re sure he’s involved?”

Emma shrugs in the way she does when she’s pretty certain of something, but doesn’t want to commit wholeheartedly. “We’re guessing that he’s become one of Bogue’s men in recent months. He was definitely with him in Amador.”

Sam winces at the name of Bogue’s latest hit. Not much to look at in and of itself, the tiny town had had only a few claims to fame, one of them being a local museum that had become the subject of a jewel heist. Small and unused to having anything of serious value within it, the security system hadn’t been up to snuff when a professional of Vasquez’s caliber had come calling.

“Some of the boys are calling him a gentleman thief,” Emma says now. Casually prodding at the only photo in the dossier, she turns it around with a swipe of her finger, making it such that the dark eyed man whose image it contains is gazing up at her as opposed to Sam. “Me, I’m thinking no gentleman leaves a dead security guard in his wake.”

“That was a first for him, though,” honesty compels Sam to point out. “By all accounts he’s never left anyone behind with so much as a bruise before Amador.”

“I highly doubt that’s going to make Hobb’s widow feel any better,” Emma says icily, and Sam flashes back to another robbery in another small town; this one having left someone else dead, someone much closer to home.

“There’s no indication Vasquez was present for what happened to Matthew,” Sam starts, only to freeze at the look on Emma’s face. “Not that that matters, of course.”

“You’re damn right it doesn’t,” she growls, tapping the picture forcefully. “I don’t care when he started working for Bogue, only that he is now, and, unlike most of the rest of the bastard’s cronies, that we actually know where he is.”

“That we do,” Sam agrees, pleased to note how for once they at least have that much. He pulls out another photo, this one of the entrance to a large, imposing stone building, and allows himself a grin. “The Rose Creek Museum of the Arts and Sciences,” he reads. “That’s got to be his next target.”

“Probably,” Emma agrees, “but that begs the question of what we do about it. Should we move on him now?”

“No,” Sam shakes his head. “You don’t remove your best piece from the field before you have all the facts. We’ll keep an eye on him for sure, but I want to know what makes this guy tick to see if we can use him.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Emma groans. “You want to bring in Horne, don’t you? Sam, come on.”

“He’s the best at what he does, Emma,” he replies. “I’ll admit he’s a little ... quirky these days, but nobody can get into a suspect’s head quite the way he does. I think it’s worth asking him to come down.”

“Fine,” Emma grumbles. Sitting back in here chair, she takes a swig from the coffee cup she’s yet to relinquish her hold on. “He’d better turn up something worthwhile, though. Otherwise, I’m gonna ask that we do things my way.”

Since Emma’s way will almost certainly leave their thief a little worse for wear, Sam can only hope that Jack Horne, the best profiler he’s ever come across, won’t have lost his touch.

*****

Vasquez’s good mood lasts him throughout the rest of the morning before it abruptly vanishes just ahead of his lunch hour. Hidden away in his office, he’s fiddling with plans for an updated display in one of the less popular museum wings - needing to get at least some real work in if his cover is going to hold - when his phone lights up unexpectedly.

Since the only people who have his number are a handful of men and women associated with the museum (all of whom would either use the direct line for his office or just come knock during business hours) and certain members of a far nastier crowd, Vasquez feels a sense of trepidation when he picks it up.

The Menagerie. 12:00. - m

“Fuck,” Vasquez says succinctly upon reading the message. Safely ensconced in his office, he allows himself a rare moment to show what he’s feeling, and hunches forward over his desk to bury his face in his hands.

“Why now?” He asks aloud, even though he’s pretty sure he already knows the answer. His bargaining for more time yesterday has no doubt pissed Bogue off, so he’s sending one of his watchdogs out to put the fear of god into Vasquez. As if he needs any more of that.

Groaning miserably, Vasquez lifts his head to glare at his phone. As much as he’d like to pretend this isn’t happening, or maybe that he hadn’t seen the message, that would be an utterly stupid thing to do.

Typing out a quick response, he sets an alarm to remind him when he’ll need to leave, and then shoves the phone behind a stack of folders to try and embrace the concept of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

It works to a degree. He’s able to lose himself in the uneventful paperwork until a sharp sense of trepidation washes over him. A few seconds later, the scheduled alarm starts going off. Amazed at the way his body knew this was coming before he did, Vasquez stabs down on his phone to make the noise cut out. Then he grabs for his jacket.

He doesn’t run into anyone as he exits the building, which he supposes is a good thing. It’s another nice day out, so he decides to walk to where he’s going with the hope that’ll give him something else to focus on.

He arrives at The Menagerie a few minutes before he’s due, and nods politely at the young woman manning the podium as he approaches. “Marquez,” he says when she asks him for his name, “but I’m meeting a friend. The reservation is likely under his name.”

Stating it when asked, Vasquez impresses himself by not spitting when the hated name rolls off his tongue. The woman nods, informs him that his ‘friend’ is already here, and offers to lead him to the table. Having no reason to refuse, Vasquez steps back and allows her to do just that.

The restaurant is already starting to fill up for the lunch rush, but Vasquez notes that the clientele are a scale above what one might find in a regular diner or fast food joint. His suit and sleek image make him fit in no problem, sort of an instance of hiding in plain sight.

Following the woman to a secluded table for two located near the back of the building, Vasquez feels an urge to snicker at the inadvertently intimate arrangement. A quick glance at the server is enough to convince him she’s thinking the same thing, and just for a moment his chest feels a little less tight.

Then McCann gestures for him to sit, and that all goes straight out the window.

Taking the remaining seat, Vasquez accepts a menu with a nod of thanks, even though he currently feels sick to his stomach. He tells the server he’d like a few moments to decide, and then watches as she leaves them be.

McCann’s already ordered, he notes. As Vasquez watches, he slices off a piece of steak before bringing it to his mouth and chewing with every sign of enjoyment. “Alejandro,” he says finally, mangling the name as much as ever. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise,” Vasquez lies through his teeth. “It’s been too long.”

“Oh, well, you know. I’ve been busy.” Reaching for the glass resting not far from his hand, McCann takes a few sips before setting it back atop the pristine white table cloth. “The boss has been riding my ass pretty hard lately. He’s thinking of sending me out to New Mexico, he told me this morning.”

Safely hidden under the table, Vasquez’s hands clench unconsciously into fists. “I thought he already has Denali working out there?” He says, trying to play it cool, while inwardly his heart is pounding.

“Eh, you know how it is,” McCann drawls. “The office has got a lot going on these days, and the boss wants to make sure things go smoothly. I figure he’s betting having the two of us go down might spur on productivity.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” Vasquez agrees, knowing he has to choose his next words carefully. “However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that workers who constantly have people looking over their shoulders tend to get stressed. Or even make mistakes.”

McCann pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth. “Evidence?” He repeats. “What kind of evidence?”

“You know,” Vasquez says lamely, doing his best to look innocent. “Studies and things. I’m sure your boss’s employees are doing their best. What if this causes them to stumble?”

They’ve reached a tipping point, one where McCann could go either way, and Vasquez holds his breath while he waits to see how the other man falls.

Several tense seconds tick by, and then McCann snorts. Shoving the latest bite in his mouth, he grins at Vasquez as he chews. “You’re funny, Alejandro,” he says after he swallows. “Always good for a laugh.”

“I try,” Vasquez says weakly, although inwardly he’s seething. No matter how much he may hate Bogue, he actually thinks he hates McCann even more. Probably because he’s the one who always attends little meetings like this, the bastard.

“Right, well, you might have a point,” McCann says now. “I’ve got a ton on my plate right now, and I don’t really feel like flying halfway across the country. Maybe I’ll talk to my boss. Chances are if I explain things he’ll keep me here.”

“Perfect,” Vasquez says, and this time he isn’t lying. As much as he hates the man, he’d much rather have McCann around to cause him trouble as opposed to anybody else.

On the other hand, neither scenario is going to do much for his nerves. Flagging down the server as she passes by, he resolves to stay sober for now, but he is definitely going to that bar tonight. After this, he deserves it.

*****

“Back again so soon?”

Looking up from where he’s been morosely contemplating all the things wrong in his life, Vasquez finds Faraday standing hunched over the bar with his chin in his hands. He grins once he’s certain he has Vasquez’s attention. “I wasn’t sure we’d see you a second time in the same week. Let alone two days in a row.”

Vasquez sighs, too out of sorts to continue maintaining an implacable facade. It’s been a long day - a long month, arguably - and he’s tired. “I wasn’t sure you would either,” he admits, “but I find myself in need of alcohol tonight, and I figure I’m less likely to drink myself into oblivion if I’m in public where there will be witnesses.”

Faraday’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, and he looks vaguely concerned, obviously not having expected Vasquez’s mood. “Somethin’ going on, big guy?” He asks, and Vasquez gives him a look.

“Whatever may or may be going on with me isn’t anything you need to worry about,” he says, trying to sound snide, but mainly just sounding exhausted. “Can I have a drink or not?”

“Of course you can,” Faraday replies. “This is a licensed bar, and so long as you’re of legal drinking age and not banned from it, I am technically obligated to give you drinks in exchange for money. Even when I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

Vasquez snorts outwardly, but inwardly he can’t help but be oddly touched by this unexpected show of concern for his well being. He knows he’s no doubt reading too much into things, as there’s no way that a bartender who’s only just met him for the second time cares much about what happens to him, yet he can’t quite bury the feeling entirely.

“I’m not going to overdo it,” he promises. “Today was once again not a good day, is all, and I need something to help me unwind.”

“Bad habit that,” Faraday muses. “I don’t know what could be so tough in the wild world of art history, but if it’s driving you to drink then maybe you should think about finding a new job.”

“I like this job,” Vasquez grunts, referring specifically to his actual position at the museum, and not his ulterior motive for being there. “It’s been a long time since I was able to do the work I actually trained for.”

“That’s no excuse for letting it make you miserable,” Faraday replies. “Or for trying to live your life as some kind of weird re-enactment of Cheers.”

Vasquez blinks at him. “I have no idea what that means,” he says honestly. “Can I have a drink now or not?”

Faraday continues to hesitate, enough so that Vasquez is considering signalling for one of the waiters to see if they’ll help him. He’s stopped from doing this, however, by an unexpected arrival.

“Dad!” A shrill voice pipes up from out of nowhere. “I can’t find my rainbow shirt!”

His face blanching, Faraday jerks around as a tiny hand becomes visible over the lip of the bar top, latching on to the hem of his t-shirt to shake it vigorously. “Ava! You know you’re not supposed to be down here.”

 

Vas looks over the counter and comes face to face with an unexpected child.

Unable to help himself, Vasquez stretches out, and leans over the counter in search of a better look. An eerily similar set of green eyes narrow as they meet his own, and the young girl now plastered to Faraday’s side gives him an unimpressed look.


“I’m talking to my dad,” she says imperiously. “You can wait.”

“Oh my god, Ava.” Speaking over Vasquez’s startled laugh, Faraday deftly unlatches the child from his person, and begins trying to steer her away. “It’s bad enough you’re risking me getting my license taken away just by being down here, do you have to insult paying customers while you’re at it?”

“He was staring at me!” The girl - Ava - protests. Glaring up at Vasquez, she huffs. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that’s rude?”

“Wow, okay, that’s great. Now I’m definitely disowning you,” Faraday informs her, seemingly oblivious to the way this only makes Vasquez laugh harder. “Get your butt upstairs, little lady.”

“But dad,” she groans, switching gears immediately from annoyed to pleading. “Weren’t you listening? I can’t find my rainbow shirt, and I want to wear it to school tomorrow.”

“A tragedy to be sure,” Faraday says dryly. “I’ll look for it on my break later. You get out of here.”

Sighing heavily, she accepts his gentle nudge with poor grace, but nevertheless stomps towards the back of the bar, and the swinging door she must have originally come through. Vasquez hopes there’s an apartment of some sort back there because otherwise that particular location is no better than out here.

“So,” he says conversationally, once he’s sure she’s gone. “Rainbow shirt?”

“It’s absolutely hideous,” Faraday replies. “It’s this tie dyed monstrosity her usual babysitter gave her for her birthday. I made the mistake of announcing that it looks like someone puked a rainbow all over it, hence the name. She loves it.”

“Oh, of course,” Vasquez says agreeably. “And no doubt you never bother to prevent her from wearing it.”

Faraday shrugs. “Yeah, I'd try feeding you some bullshit about how I'm a firm believer in letting kids express themselves, and how there's all kinds of evidence in support of the same, but in reality her mother dumped her on me when she was all of three days old, and I've pretty much been winging it ever since. She dresses how she wants."

Vasquez gapes at him, frankly taken aback at how blunt he is with regard to his daughter's parenting arrangement. "I ... see," he says slowly. "Well, if it's any consolation, I'm told that freedom of expression is extremely important for children's development, so you're probably making the right call."

Looking intrigued, Faraday rests his forearms on the lip of the bar, and cocks his head to the side. "Is that so? Don't tell me you've got a precious bundle of joy or two hiding somewhere as well?"

"Me? No." Vasquez shakes his head fully intending to offer up another lie like usual, only to be derailed by his own mouth and have the truth come out. "I have a niece though. One who I would guess is about her age. Eight."

"Close." Faraday grins. "Seven."

"Ah." Rosario had been seven the last time Vasquez had seen her. Missing her birthday is just one more thing on the long list of those he doubts he'll ever be able to make up for. "Well, I was almost right."

"That you were," Faraday says amicably. Then his expression shifts as he noticeably goes into business mode. "Now, what'll it be tonight? Fair warning, I still don't have any tequila."

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to be drinking,” Vasquez says slyly, not having forgotten their conversation from before Ava’s arrival. “Weren’t you telling me all about how I shouldn’t drown my problems in alcohol?”

“Sure I was,” Faraday replies, “but that was before you were a witness to what’s technically a crime on my part. I am now attempting to bribe you in the hope you’ll forget about it.”

“Or at least ignore it, yes?” Laughing when Faraday nods, Vasquez leans forward to rest his elbows on the bar. “Bring me a soda,” he says, his mood lightening unexpectedly. “I’ll be nice and not only keep your secret, but appease your worries.”

“Well, ain’t you sweet,” Faraday drawls. His grin is as impish as ever, but Vasquez gets the sense that he’s genuinely pleased with his suggestion. “Comin’ right up.”

He bustles off to go about his job, which takes him practically no time at all. Holding up a bottle for Vasquez to see, he waits until he gets an agreeable nod, and then makes a show of twisting the cap off. “All yours.”

“It’s Rafael, right?” He asks now. “Isn’t that what you told me your name is?”

“Sí,” Vasquez admits, disliking the sound of his alter ego tonight more than ever. “That is what I said, yes.” Hit with a sudden urge to distance himself from it, even slightly, he adds, “You can call me Rafa, if you like.”

“Yeah?” Faraday gives him a pleased smile. “Is that what folks normally call you?”

“No,” honesty compels Vasquez to reply, “but you can do it anyway. In fact, I think I’d prefer it.”

“Well then,” Faraday says, his smile widening. “When you put it like that, how can I resist? Rafa it is. I’m Joshua by the way, or Josh. Either one is fine.”

He extends a hand over the top of the bar, offering it up to shake, and against his better judgement, this time Vasquez takes it.

*****

“Vasquez is working under an assumed name.”

Sam shoots Emma a warning look before she can spit out whatever sarcastic comment is inevitably percolating in the back of her mind. He knows she’s not in favour of bringing Horne in on this case, knows she thinks he’s washed up and possibly unbalanced after so long on the force, but he’s seen the old boy in action before, and he thinks having him around could be useful here.

Once he’s certain his partner isn’t about to say something she shouldn’t, he turns back to the latest addition to their team.

Horne gazes serenely back at him, and there’s a certain sparkle in his eye that makes Sam half wonder if maybe he isn’t testing them to gauge their reactions. The older man leans back in his chair, rests his hands on his ample stomach, and raises a single eyebrow without saying a word.

Sam decides to take his last comment at face value. “We know he’s using an assumed name,” he says slowly. “He always does that on jobs. That’s all part of how he operates. Just like his habit of taking on official positions in the museums and galleries he’s about to hit.”

“Not this time,” Horne replies. He shifts and pulls a single sheet of paper out of the dossier he’d been provided with upon arrival. “Oh, you’ve got that part about him taking on jobs correct, but you’ve missed something notable about this alias.”

“Which is?” Emma asks. She looks intrigued in spite of herself, like she doesn’t want to be grasping at straws that might not help them, but can’t stop herself.

Horne smiles and taps his paper. Upon looking at it, Sam can see it’s a list of names and corresponding locations. “Every job that we know or think Vasquez can be tied to has him assuming a different persona. He’s never once, not in all his heists, been the same person. Until now. He was Rafael Marquez in Amador, and he’s Rafael Marquez now.”

“Which means, what, exactly?” Sam asks.

Again, Horne smiles. “I haven’t the faintest idea,” he replies. “As you know, I only just got here, and I’ve barely had a chance to start examining the file. However,” he adds when even Sam can’t quite contain an exasperated noise. “Where you get one change in a usual method, you usually get others. If we get lucky, we might turn up something we can use.”

“Or it might mean absolutely nothing,” Emma grunts, crossing her arms over her chest in annoyance.

“Or it might do that,” Horne agrees. “I never said this was a perfect method. On the other hand, we know where Vasquez is, and where he’s found employment this time. That’s as good a place to start as any.”

“We should get a detailed list of everything currently on display in the museum, and also anything it has tucked away in its archives.” He says then. “Figuring out what Vasquez is after could go a long way towards helping us. Mainly because it’ll really be whatever Bogue is after.”

“In the meantime,” and now Horne is speaking with an air of finality that suggests this meeting is done. “I’ll start doing my homework on Vasquez. Getting a feel for his usual way of operating should help us predict his next move. You’ve got him under surveillance, I imagine?”

“Good.” Horne smiles when Sam nods. “Then let’s see what there is to see.”

*****

Although he does much of his work, where ‘work’ here refers to the job for Bogue, in his office at the museum, Vasquez also pokes away at the job while safely tucked away in his condo. While he doesn’t like spending much time there, it’s got a level of privacy the museum can’t reach. Plus, he does need somewhere to sleep.

Unfortunately, this means he also needs to keep up appearances, and make sure the condo is stocked with regular, everyday items such as groceries. He’s not always the best at this, which he figures is fair considering everything else he has on his mind, so sometimes he forgets about the more basic necessities.

That’s why he finds himself walking in the produce section of the closest grocery store, reading over labels on the shelves, when he nearly trips over a small body that suddenly appears in his path. Dancing backwards in the nick of time, he narrowly avoids disaster as the distressingly familiar child turns around to glare at him.

“Hey!” She barks, and Vasquez has only a moment to brace himself before she jabs an annoyed finger in his direction. “I recognize you! Dad, that weird guy from the bar is in our grocery store!”

“There are so many things wrong with that sentence, I don’t even know where to begin correcting you.” Rounding a corner with a sigh, Joshua comes to a stop a few inches behind his daughter. “Hey, man,” he says tightly. “Once again I have to apologize for my offspring. She really does know better, I swear.”

Vasquez holds up his hand with a grin, wanting to make it clear he’s not bothered. “It’s alright,” he says lightly. “I think I just startled her is all. I wouldn’t be too thrilled with someone bowling me over in the middle of the aisle either.”

“He almost stepped on me,” the little girl adds helpfully. She holds up her thumb and forefinger so her father can see, the two digits barely a centimetre apart. “He was this close. I nearly died.”

“I’m sure,” Joshua says dryly. “Ava, honey, we’ve talked about how lying is bad. Don’t do it.”

“I wasn’t lying,” she protests. “I was over exaggerating. Red says there’s a difference.”

“Red says a lot of things,” Joshua points out. “Usually to get you going, and to drive me crazy.”

“Short trip,” Ava mutters darkly, and Vasquez can’t help but laugh as her father starts sputtering.

“She’s quite the handful, isn’t she, guero?” He asks in between chuckles. “I’ll bet she keeps you on your toes.”

“You have no idea,” Joshua says fervently. He doesn’t seem bothered by Vasquez’s comments, but the same can’t be said of his child.

Crossing her arms over her chest, Ava glares up at Vasquez. “It’s not nice to talk about people like they’re not there, and I’m right in front of you. Also, what’s a guero? Are you saying mean things about my dad?”

“No,no, Niña,” Vasquez says quickly, shaking his head for emphasis as he adjusts the grocery basket he’s carrying. “It’s a harmless term, I promise, but you’re right, it was rude of me to talk over you like that. Lo siento.”

She wrinkles her nose at this, and glances up at her father, who shrugs. “What’s that mean?” She asks suspiciously.

“It means I’m sorry in Spanish,” Vasquez replies. “I speak both it and English, so I also use both.”

“Oh.” Sounding mollified, Ava cocks her head to the side. “Is that why you talk funny?”

“Ava!” Joshua barks. He sounds mortified, and his face flushes with embarrassment. “Jesus wept, kid! Could you not?”

Feeling about as far from offended as one could possibly be, Vasquez brushes off his ensuing apology with a wave of his hand, and then nods at Ava. “Sí, yes, that’s why I talk funny,” he tells her. “I speak with an accent.”

“Which is nothing to be upset about or make fun of,” Joshua says sternly, glaring at Ava when she looks up at him guilelessly, “and what you just said was way more rude than anything he’s done. Apologize. Now.”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Vasquez says quickly. “I’m not offended, I promise. No apologies necessary. Seriously,” he stresses, holding Joshua’s gaze until he nods. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Fine,” Joshua says with a sigh, “but I owe you a free drink the next time you stop by the bar. Don’t let me forget.”

He considers pointing out yet again that Joshua really does seem to be terrible at selling liquor for a bartender, but he stops himself when he considers how Ava might react to another perceived slight. Instead, he grins. “Alright. Maybe I’ll come in sometime this week.”

It’s a bad idea, he knows it is. The more he keeps returning to the same spot, the more likely he is to get attached to the people there, and that would only cause who knew how many problems. On the other hand, he knows himself well enough to be able to say how this will go down.

He’s going to go back, whether or not he should.

*****

If there’s one thing Josh hates the most about being a small business owner, it’s the amount of responsibility that comes along with it. Sure, that goes hand in hand with the freedom to run the pub as he chooses, but there are times when it feels like the job never stops.

Kind of like fatherhood.

“I can’t believe you,” he mutters once they’re safely in the van with the new stock from the grocery store packed away in the back. “Kid, we seriously need to work on your manners.”

“I learned manners from you,” Ava replies coolly. She’s sitting strapped in next to him, with one of the lighter bags balanced on her lap. “So if there’s a problem with them, it’s your fault.”

“My -?” For nigh on the millionth time, Josh silently resolves to have her spend less time around Red. He’ll never actually do it, of course, Red’s too dependable a babysitter, and Ava loves him too much, but the urge is strong. “I’m thinking very hard about grounding you.”

“Are not,” she replies sunnily, “and you missed the turn.”

Realizing she’s right, Josh curses quietly under his breath, and figures he’d better concentrate on his driving for the moment. He can give Ava a lecture on how to properly talk to people in grocery stores after they’re home.

Because of the hours the pub operates at, Josh tends to do any shopping for supplies early in the day. If he has to go during the week, he goes alone, but on days when she’s not in school he normally takes Ava with him. He’s regretting that a bit this morning.

“I can’t believe you told that poor guy you think he talks funny to his face,” Josh says as they pull up to the entrance. “You do know you could really hurt someone’s feelings doing that, don’t you?”

Ava has the grace to look ashamed, and shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “He said it was okay,” she mutters, but she’s inherited his colouring, which means it’s obvious her face is heating. “You heard him.”

“Yeah, I did,” Josh agrees, “but that doesn’t make it alright. And you know what I didn’t hear? An apology from you,” he says when she shakes her head. “Which is not okay. If you see him again, you’re gonna say you’re sorry. Okay?”

“Okay,” she mumbles, eyes downcast. “I will.” She shifts slightly. “If I don’t see him and you do, will you say it for me?”

“Sure,” Josh says, unable to stay mad in the face of her contrite expression. Leaning over, he chucks her gently under the chin. “Don’t worry about it, Aves, I really don’t think he was bothered.”

“He said he wasn’t,” Ava repeats. She gives him a solemn look. “I’d’ve said sorry if he looked sad, honest!”

“I believe you,” Josh tells her, deciding not to push, “but you’re still going to apologize if you get the chance. Remember that.”

“I will.”

Figuring he’s good to let that be the end of it, Josh flicks her nose, grinning when she makes an annoyed face. “Come on,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt before moving to get hers as well. “I’ve got to get this stuff unloaded and put away, which means we have to get moving.”

Red’s got the opening shift today, and it turns out he’s arrived early because the heavy door gets pushed open as Josh climbs out of the van, and then helps Ava down after him. “I knew you were expecting a bigger haul than normal,” he says by way of explanation when Josh quirks an eyebrow at him. “Figured you could use a hand.”

Josh gives him a suspicious look, but his heart’s not really in it. This isn’t the first time Red’s done something like this, and he very much doubts it’ll be the last. “Thanks,” he says simply. “Can you bring the dolly out so I can start loading it up?”

“Sure.” Disappearing back inside, Red goes to do as asked, while Ava tromps after him, still holding the bag she’d been sitting with on the way home. Josh hopes there’s nothing too delicate in there.

He and Red work largely in silence while they get everything out of the van, and they stack the bags near the front of the bar. Only once everything’s inside do they start opening them to put stuff away.

“So,” Red says finally. “How’s your weekend going?”

“We saw the man from the bar,” Ava declares from where she’s got her head shoved into one of the cupboards as she performs her version of ‘helping’. Josh makes a mental note to check that the right things are in the right place once he’s done unloading all the stock.

For his part, Red’s tone largely doesn’t change, but he does raise one eyebrow knowingly. “What man from the bar?” He asks, and Josh really doesn’t like the teasing look on his face.

Unfortunately, Ava pipes up again before Josh can shush her quiet. “The one who was here the last night when I was down.” She points toward the stool Rafa’s occupied during both his visits. “He was sitting right there, and dressed all fancy.”

“Oh yeah, the guy with the suits,” Red replies. “I saw him a few nights ago.” He now shoots Josh one of his most obnoxious smirks. “He’s still coming back, is he?”

“Only the once so far,” Josh says firmly, deciding to nip Red’s thoughts right in the bud. “You just haven’t been here. Which is something I wish I could say about Ava, who recently decided to sneak down and inform me she was having a laundry crisis.”

“I still didn’t find my shirt,” Ava grumbles, skipping right over the part where she’d been in the bar without permission. “You were supposed to help me look for it.”

Ignoring her as easily as she’s ignoring him, Josh shrugs at Red. “He saw her, was in fact yelled at by her,” Josh says pointedly, “and was luckily more amused than anything else. Personally, I’m inclined to thank him for that.”

“Yeah?” Red asks. Tilting his head to the side, he grins. “How were you planning to do that?”

“Red!” Josh yelps, relieved when the innuendo flies right over Ava’s head. He jerks his head towards her. “Could you not?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure I could.” Settling himself down on one of the stools, Red shrugs. “You make it so easy, and I only have so much willpower.”

“You’re fired.” Josh tells him.

Looking unconcerned, Red turns to Ava. “Did you hear that?”

“Yeah,” she says. “He’s lying though,” she adds, and Josh groans as the two of them share a high five.

“You’re both fired,” he mutters, turning away to cut into another box.

“Still lying!” Ava yells from behind him. “I thought you said that was bad!”

Josh snorts. “Pity for you, I’m the adult in this situation, so different rules apply to me. Also, get down from there,” he says when he sees that she’s climbed up on the step ladder he uses to stock the highest shelves. “You’re gonna fall.”

“Am not,” she disagrees, but at least she scrambles back down with a huff. “You should tell Red about how you invited suit guy for a free drink,” she says, at which point Josh thinks very hard about the merits of boarding schools in foreign countries. If only he could afford one.

“I did not invite him for anything, free or otherwise,” he says when Red turns to him with a delighted look on his face. “Somebody,” he stresses with a glare at Ava, “was being extremely rude, and I offered him a free drink as compensation should he choose to darken our doorstep again. Which, who even knows if he will.”

“Also,” he can’t help but add, even though he knows it’s a terrible idea that will only given them both more ammunition to use against him. “His name is Rafael. Rafa for short.”

“Oh boy,” Red whistles low as he tilts his head towards Ava. “For the record, kid. This is what having a crush looks like. Do yourself a favour, and avoid it for as long as possible.”

Ava stares up at Josh, a look of horror crossing her features. “You think suit guy is cute? Ew, dad!”

Josh regrets every life choice that’s lead him to this point. How has he sunk so low that he’s spending his Saturday afternoon being mocked by his own employee and an elementary schooler? He used to be cool.

“Nobody here believes that,” Red informs him when he says as much aloud.

Josh shrugs, frankly having figured as much. “Whatever,” he says, wishing he could come up with a better response. “It’s true whether you believe me or not.”

“Mhm,” Red replies. “Sure. So, was suit guy as dressed and put together as usual today? He strikes me as the type to do that even when he’s not coming from work.”

“How?” Josh wants to know. “You saw him once.”

“And you’ve seen him, what? Three times?” Red asks. “Like you’re any better.”

“He wasn’t wearing a suit today,” Ava pipes up before Josh can respond. “He was in a sweater and jeans with holes in them.”

“Real holes, or the kind the jeans comes with when you buy them? What, it’s important,” he says when Josh blinks at him. “That sort of fashion choice can tell you a lot about a person.”

Ava makes a show of thinking this over. “Real holes,” she decides after a moment. “I’m pretty sure anyway.”

“So he’s someone who puts effort into appearance for work, but doesn’t necessarily stress when he’s meant to be by himself.” Red nods like what he’s saying means anything whatsoever. “Definitely the better of the two options. If he got dressed up just to go to the grocery store, he’d be someone to avoid.”

Groaning, Josh pulls open another box to begin sorting through its contents. “You can stop talking whenever you feel like,” he says. “I might consider giving you a raise if you do.”

“Will I get one too?” Ava asks.

“Will you - I don’t pay you!” Josh barks. “You’re seven, and you don’t get money for existing. You want an allowance, we can talk about setting up a chore list for you to do.”

For some reason, this suggestion makes her glare at Red. “Thanks a lot,” she grumbles, and not for the first time, Josh finds himself wondering how he’s managed to produce the world’s weirdest kid.

*****

“It’s got to be Trickster’s Fancy, but something about that doesn’t sit right with me. I just wish I could figure out what.” Removing his glass temporarily, Horne scrubs tiredly at his eyes before setting the frames back where they’re supposed to be. “This is the one thing I haven’t missed in my semi-retired state.”

“And what’s that?” Sam asks. It’s just the two of them tonight, pulling a late session while Emma’s off composing a progress report to their superiors. If only they didn’t have so little to provide as an update.

“Trying to figure out marks who won’t cooperate,” Horne sighs. “We know Vasquez was working with Bogue in Amador. There’s never been any question about that. We know he’s working a new job now because he’s always running a con when he’s employed with a museum. We also know he’s still tied to Bogue here because he’s operating under the same alias, and he’s been spotted at least twice dining with one of Bogue’s right hand men.”

“That being James McCann,” Sam supplies helpfully. So far there’s been no sign of Bogue’s other head flunky, a fellow referred to only as Denali, but McCann’s been seen in town, not only with Vasquez, but also a few times on his own.

“Yes,” Horne grunts. “Which also doesn’t fit. Why is McCann here alone? Normally he and Denali come as a matched set.”

“Maybe Denali’s no longer in the picture,” Sam suggests. “Maybe more than we realize went wrong in Amador, and Vasquez has been taken on full time as his replacement.”

“Doesn’t work,” Horne disagrees instantly, shaking his head. “McCann and Denali play two roles for Bogue; bodyguards and enforcement. They don’t deal with the minutia of his plans. Hell, they don’t deal with the plans, period. They’re weapons to be aimed at a target.”

“Whereas Vasquez is all about the details,” Sam says thoughtfully, trying to figure out what that means. “He prefers to go to ground when things get messy, not draw attention to himself with fighting.”

“Exactly,” Horne says. “Oh, I’ve no doubt he can hold his own in a scrap, but he’s not, for lack of a better word, a flunky like the other two. Vasquez has more - finesse. He’s not someone you’d use the way Bogue does Denali and McCann, he’s ...”

Horne trails off, his eyes widening slightly, and Sam finds himself going very, very still as he watches the old man turn down whatever path his thoughts are currently leading him on. “Jack?” He asks when the silence has dragged on for long enough. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking we might have been going about this completely the wrong way,” Horne says flatly. He waves a hand at the piles of paperwork spread out between them, as if to illustrate his point. “What if Vasquez isn’t McCann’s coworker, what if he’s another target?”

“How so?” Sam asks, not following in the slightest.

Horne, however, decides not to clarify matters. Instead, he gets up out of his seat, and begins shuffling the papers back into one solid stack. “Leave it with me,” he says when Sam raising an eyebrow at him. “I need to completely redo my approach here.”

“Which means?” Sam asks, and again he doesn’t receive a decent answer.

“I don’t know yet,” Horne replies cryptically. “But something about this file hasn’t sat well with me since I agreed to look at the case, and it’s high time I took a moment to consider why that is.”

He gives Sam a grim look as he continues rearranging the papers. “If I’m right, we may not be the only ones wanting Bogue to be caught.”

*****

Vasquez is safely tucked away in his locked office, studying a map of the museum’s air vents when his phone rings. Caught up in the fact that he’ll never understand why heist movies always seem to think these things are a viable escape route - never mind the fact that they couldn’t hold his weight, it’d be impossible for him to physically jam himself inside one given the dimensions listed here - he doesn’t immediately answer. In fact, he doesn’t answer at all, and the phone lapses back into silence while he’s still glaring at the sheets in front of him.

He’s starting to think that a nighttime move isn’t a workable option. Initially he’d considered going that route because it meant less witnesses and more time to work. Unfortunately, that was before he’d realized the sheer depth of security measures zeroed in on the Fancy.

Both the display case and the pedestal the diamond sits on are wired directly into the floor. Removing either one of them will trigger an alarm, as will brushing against any of the lasers that dot the gallery room whenever the museum is closed. The same again goes for the motion detectors or the heat sensors.

The security cameras he can deal with, and the manned patrols are easy. He’s already timed their rounds and knows when they’ll be near the Fancy and when they won’t. Even exiting the building won’t be an issue since the key card he has as an employee lets him in and out whenever he pleases.

That was the main reason he’d gone the route of a concentrated long con. An inside job was a thousand times easier to pull off than an outside one. He doesn’t even care that using his card to get out will register his presence at the time of the theft. It’s not like he’s ever planning to come back.

His plan had been to simply stay late one day after work, with no one being the wiser since he does that all the time. Then he’d bypass the other security features and waltz out with the Fancy in hand. Unfortunately, that was before he’d determined the sheer number of alarms he’d trip if he tried.

The biggest problem is that taking down one of the security features automatically triggered the rest. So, for instance, if he knocked out the the lasers first, just to get himself into the gallery, everything else would go off before he snatched the prize. His only option is to shut everything down at once, which, of course (and here he curses Billy Rocks with everything he has) will trigger a complete lockdown of the building.

All of which brings him back to why he’s now considering moving during the day instead. A number, although not all, of the nighttime measures have to be turned off while there are patrons viewing the display. Only Rocks has the clearance to do so, but it’s something to consider.

“Oh please,” Vasquez says aloud now. He just barely resists the sudden urge to sweep the entire mess off his desk, sending it cascading to the floor. “Who am I kidding? There is no way to do this job without setting off some warning system or other. Maldita!”

Hunching forward over the desk, he buries his face in his hands, and takes several shuddering breaths. Impossible task or not, if he wants to keep his family, and not to mention himself alive, he has to come up with a way to beat this thing.

“But no pressure, of course,” he mutters, lifting his head to scrub tiredly at his eyes. He feels old. Old and worn down. “It’s not like everything you care about is on the line, Ale. Not at all.”

Sighing, he starts to sift through his notes for the hundredth time, hoping that somehow something he’s missed will jump out at him, when his phone rings a second time. Guiltily remembering he hadn’t answered it before, he picks it up with a sense of trepidation.

“Hello?” He says, and a sick feeling of dread starts pooling in his stomach when there’s a quiet huff on the other end of the line.

“Nice see its only my men you ignore, and not me,” Bogue says coolly. He doesn’t sound angry, but then, he hasn’t sounded angry when he’d shot a man through the heart either. “McCann informs me he’s been trying to reach you. I assume you have a good reason for not answering?”

Vasquez feels his mouth go dry. His first instinct is to lie and say he’d been caught up with something where he couldn’t pick up, in a meeting with Robicheaux perhaps, but without knowing any details Bogue has, that could make things exponentially worse.

“I’m working on the plan to get you what you want,” he says, unwilling to say the Fancy’s name aloud for reasons he can’t explain. “I got caught up in studying something. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“No, I don’t imagine it will.” Again, Bogue is speaking in that same flat voice, the one without any inflection. If by some miracle he survives this ordeal, Vasquez suspects he’ll here that voice in his nightmares more often than not. “Where are we with regard to that?”

Again, Vasquez wishes he could lie, but the consequences of promising this man something he’s unable to deliver don’t bare thinking about. “No further,” he admits quietly. “I can bypass any of the security features individually, I’m sure of it, but I need to figure out a way to take them all down at once that won’t also set off the alarms.”

“I fail to see why,” Bogue murmurs. “You’re expendable to me. If you get caught, it’s of no matter.”

“It is if I get caught before I get your prize to you,” Vasquez replies. He’s always known he was nothing but collateral damage in this mess, but he’s surprised at Bogue’s shortsightedness. “If I wind up in custody while still possessing it, it’ll land behind a security system that’s even worse than this one. Provided that’s possible, of course. I’m not entirely sure it is.”

“Alejandro,” Bogue says flatly, and oh how Vasquez hates the fact that this man is the only person in his life who currently calls him by his real name. “Need I remind you that, if the scenario you’re describing should come to pass, incarceration will be the least of your concerns?”

“No,” Vasquez says, trying to sound normal as he speaks through suddenly clenched teeth. “Trust me, I promise I haven’t forgotten any of what you’ve said.”

“And yet you still haven’t gotten me what’s mine,” Bogue replies. He makes a tsking sound that causes Vasquez’s skin to crawl. “You know, usually the results I’ve suggested are enough to properly motivate someone.”

“They are,” Vasquez insists. Every cliche he’s ever heard of about how people feel when they’re being threatened is happening to him in this moment, and he hopes against hope that his sounding desperate will be enough to convince Bogue he’s serious. “I’m as motivated as possible, I promise.”

“You are not the one who gets to determine that,” Bogue says, and Vasquez feels his stomach sink for a terrible moment before salvation unexpectedly arrives. “However, for now at least I’m satisfied that there’s nothing further I need to do to spur you on.”

“Should that change, though,” he adds as Vasquez gears up to shower him with gratitude. “Well. We’ll see if that motivation level can’t be turned up another notch or two.”

He ends the conversation before Vasquez has a chance to reply, and the office once again descends into silence.

Vasquez stays frozen to the spot where he is, unable to move for what feels like eons, but in reality is probably only a minute at most. He doesn’t know what to do, has never felt such a jumbled mix of panic and confusion before, and he has no idea how he’s supposed to concentrate on the plans in his current state.

Finally, he’s startled out of his stupor when his phone slips from nerveless fingers, bounces off the arm of the chair he’s sitting in, and then lands on the floor with a clatter. Leaning down, Vasquez stares at the screen as it flashes accusingly up at him, and slowly, oh so slowly remembers the need to breathe.

If he could go back in time and reverse everything he’s done to lead him to this point, he’d do it in a heartbeat. Never mind the money, the plans, the fun he’s had living the life he’s chosen. He’d give it all up, give it all back if it meant he could be living quietly somewhere that his biggest concern was anything other than whether or not his family would be murdered by a brutal madman spurred on by greed.

“But you can’t do that, can you, idiota?” He asks aloud, still staring at the phone. “Not now, and not then. No, you had to get cocky. You had to take on a job to show that you were the best, and now Mama and the girls might very well pay the price for your foolishness. All because you can’t figure out a fucking alarm system.”

Finally cluing in to the fact that he can’t just leave the phone lying where it is, Vasquez leans over to scoop it up off the floor. Checking the casing to make sure it isn’t cracked anywhere, he concludes the damn thing is fine, and then sighs heavily.

“I need to get out of here,” he mutters, standing abruptly.

It’s a bad idea, he knows it, but there’s no way he can work in his current state of mind, and trying to do so will only stress him out further. Trying not to think about how he keep justifying breaks with that very excuse, he makes for the door.

He emerges from his office, surprised to find afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows located up high on the walls. It feels like it should be later given the day he’s had so far, and for some reason this strengthens his resolve to leave.

The museum is unexpectedly busy when he steps into the public areas. There must be a number of tours going on all at once. Too many people are flocking through the halls for it to be anything else.

Not wanting to get roped into any such work, Vasquez pulls out his phone, and taps away at it as he walks, pretending to look busy. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of making it so that he can’t watch where he’s going, and he slams into one of the many patrons who’re scattered about the hallway like some kind of obstacle course.

Letting out a startled noise, he dances back away from the heavy set, older gentleman he’s just collided with, somehow losing the grip on his phone in the process.

Seeing as the damn thing’s already had one encounter with the floor in the last hour, Vasquez is pleasantly surprised when the man he’s hit shows an unexpected amount of dexterity, and fumbles it out of the air.

“Careful there,” the man barks, his voice is surprisingly high for a man of his size, and that combined with the snowy white beard he’s sporting serves to create quite the image. He looks like somebody’s grandpa out for a wander. Hell, that could very well be exactly what he is. “These things can be awful delicate.”

Twisting Vasquez’s phone around in his grip, he eyes it for a couple of seconds before shrugging. “Doesn’t look like it’s any worse for wear. Lucky catch, though, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Vasquez admits, since it had been. “Sorry I almost ran you over. I should have been paying better attention.”

The man waves a hand airily; the hand that’s still holding Vasquez’s phone as it happens. “Not a problem, son. We can’t all be on alert 24/7 now, can we?”

He then winks at Vasquez as he holds the phone out for him to take, like he’s inviting him to share in a joke, but Vasquez is frankly too off kilter to even try and pretend to play along with him. Instead he flashes a brittle smile he’s sure fools nobody, and reaches for the phone.

“Sorry,” he says again. He figures his karma is bad enough that he doesn’t want to add trampling the elderly to the list of his crimes at this point, so it can’t hurt to make nice. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

His question makes the man laugh. “Please,” he says, giving Vasquez a bright smile, “I’m made of pretty stern stuff. I’ve faced worse than the this without any trouble.”

“Oh,” Vasquez says, still feeling frazzled. “I suppose that’s good.”

The man nods, his expression as pleasant as ever, and then surprises Vasquez by leaning forward to pat him on the shoulder. “You look like you could use a break, hmm?” He says. “Hopefully it’s almost quitting time for you today.”

“Uh. Yes.” Vasquez says awkwardly. He’s not used to random museum patrons talking to him like this, or at all really. His job is much more behind the scenes when it comes to interactions. “I was actually just about to cut out early, and go see, um. A friend.” He doesn’t know what makes him phrase it that way, but the words are out before he can take them back.

“Good for you,” the man says, apparently not noticing Vasquez’s stuttering. Either that or he simply doesn’t care. “We all need to do that once in a while. In fact, I’m doing something similar right now.”

“Right,” Vasquez says. It’s just his luck that he’s managed to stumble over someone so talkative. Idly, he finds himself wondering if the old boy has anyone to talk to at home, or if he’s by himself and that’s why he’s so chatty with strangers. Not that it matters either way. “Anyway, my apologies again, and I hope you enjoy the exhibits.”

“I’m going up to see that big diamond the news won’t stop going on about,” is the reply.

In no mood to even pretend to be happy at it’s being brought up, Vasquez is pretty sure he bars his teeth at this mention of the Fancy. Luckily, the old man appears not to notice. He merely nods, and proceeds to walk happily away.

Vasquez watches him go until he melts into the crowd, after which he shrugs and resumes his own walk.

*****

He’s never been to Faraday’s this early in the day before, and it occurs to Vasquez as he approaches that he doesn’t know what hours the bar operates at. However, the door swings open as he presses his hand down on the handle, so he assumes that means he’s good to go inside.

“We’re clo - oh, hey, Rafa,” Joshua says from where he’s sorting through an array of bottles laid out along the bar top. Ava’s perched on a stool on the other side of the counter, and judging by the books and scribblers, seems to be doing her homework. “Damnit, did I leave the front unlocked again?”

“I - the door was open?” Vasquez says, feeling a little foolish as he jerks his thumb backwards to indicate how he’d gotten in. “Sorry, I didn’t realize - I can come back later, or go somewhere else, I suppose.”

Joshua gives him an affronted look. “Get in here,” he says, gesturing Vasquez forward with his right hand. “Go somewhere else,” he mutters as Vasquez shuffles forward against his better judgement. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“Bad day?” He asks when Vasquez gets close enough to lean up against the counter. “You’re never around at this hour.”

“I was off early,” Vasquez lies. He’s half afraid that if he admits to what kind of mood he’s in, he’ll get even more sloppy and let something loose that he really shouldn’t. “I had nowhere else to go.”

“You really need to get out and meet people,” Joshua informs him. “You’ve been here how long now? Certainly long enough to have made a friend or two.”

Vasquez pointedly ignores him. “If you’re not open yet, should I even be in here right now?”

“As a paying customer, probably not, but given that I own the place and can let people in as I see fit ...” Joshua shrugs. “I’m not having that harpy who runs the steakhouse steal my business just because she happens to open shop a few minutes earlier. Sit down.”

“Did you eat yet?” He waits until Vasquez is sitting down to ask this question, and scowls upon receiving a negative response. “Of course you didn’t. Congratulations, Ava and I are having some of tonight’s first round of nachos for supper, and you’ve just elected to join us.”

“Oh, I couldn’t -,” Vasquez starts, but it’s Ava, of all people, who steps in this time.

“You shouldn’t argue with him,” she says without bothering to look up from her scribbler. Vasquez watches as she scratches away with her pencil, working on what appears to be a set of math problems. “He’ll just start saying the same thing over and over until you give in.”

Figuring she’s speaking from experience, Vasquez glances back to Joshua. “Is that true?”

Joshua shrugs and flashes the shameless grin that Vasquez is fast losing any ability to say no to. “More or less,” he admits. “You’d be surprised how good you get at standing your ground when you have a seven year old.”

Ava mutters something that sounds like “oh sure, blame me,” but remains curled over her work, meaning she misses her father’s resulting eye roll.

“Like I said,” Joshua says with a nod towards her. “She’s basically a training kit for how to not back down in a fight.”

Vasquez snorts, but claims his usual stool - the one next to Ava’s as it happens - when Joshua points at it. “Will you at least let me pay you for the meal once you open up?”

“I’ll think about it,” Joshua replies, which Vasquez translates as ‘No, but I’m going to put off the inevitable dispute until later.’ “Now, speaking of supper, I’m actually going to go check on it. Behave.”

“Is he talking to you or to me?” Vasquez asks as Joshua disappears through the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen.

Ava raises her head for the first time all afternoon, and gives him a pitying look. “To me, duh,” she drawls. “He can’t tell you what to do. You’re a grown up.”

Vasquez barely resists a sudden urge to scowl. “You’d be surprised how many people tell me what to do, Niña. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is out of my control.”

She blinks at him, her eyes narrowing slightly. “My name’s Ava,” she says firmly. “Not whatever you just called me.”

“Right, sorry,” Vasquez says quickly, remembering the last time he’d slipped into Spanish colloquialisms around her. “I didn’t mean anything by it. That’s a nickname I call my niece sometimes, I used it without thinking.”

She watches him for a long moment, but to his surprise her defensiveness seems to fade, and not only that, but to be replaced by something that looks an awful lot like embarrassment. “Okay,” she says quietly, toying with her pencil.

Since she seems like she has more to say, Vasquez waits to see if she’s done, or if she’s going to clam up. Despite this, he’s nevertheless surprised when she blurts out an awkward, “I’m sorry.”

“Dad says I was really rude the other day in the grocery store,” she informs him, steamrolling gracelessly over any protest he might make. “He says it’s wrong to tease people about how they talk, and you can really, really hurt a person’s feelings doing it.”

“I didn’t hurt your feelings, did I?” She asks miserably.

“No, not at all,” Vasquez rushes to assure her. “I already told you there was no need to apologize, remember?”

“Yeah,” she agrees, “but sometimes people tell you you don’t have to say sorry because they don’t want to talk to you no more. You weren’t doing that, were you?”

“I definitely was not,” Vasquez says firmly. “However, if it makes you feel better, I’ll accept your apology, and then we’ll be good, yes?”

Ava chews on her bottom lip, clearly thinking the offer over. Eventually, she comes to a decision, and nods once. “Okay.”

“Shake on it?” Vasquez asks, offering her his hand.

To his surprise, she takes it, gripping it firmly with her much smaller one, and laughing when he pretends she squeezes too hard. “I’m really strong,” she says, giggling when he makes a show of flexing his fingers. “Someday I’m gonna be as strong as my dad.”

“Then you’re going to be very strong indeed,” Vasquez says. Joshua has a tendency to wear almost sinfully tight t-shirts when he’s working. The flexing muscles are impressive to say the least.

And not at all something he should be thinking about in the presence of the man’s young daughter, he realizes. His face heating, he nods at Ava’s homework in search of a safer topic. “What are you working on?”

She holds up her notebook for him to see. “Times tables,” she says, shrugging like it’s no big deal. “I got the highest mark in the class on the last test, and I want to see if I can do it again.”

“Congratulations,” Vasquez tells her. “You must be studying very hard.”

“Kinda.” Making a sheepish face, she pulls a different book out of the pile in front of her. “I know the math pretty well already. Mainly, I don’t want to work on this yet.”

Taking the book from her, Vasquez peers down at the front cover. “You don’t like history? Well, now maybe I am a little offended. That’s what I went to school for. College, I mean, once I got older.”

Ava wrinkles her nose. “Why would you do that?” She asks, sounding genuinely confused. “It’s so boring.”

Vasquez laughs. “Some of it, sure, but I got to pick what I wanted to study, so I chose things I was interested in.”

“I’m not interested in any of it,” Ava declares, taking her book back. “We gotta do a big project on the Romans, and I don’t even have a topic yet.”

“No?” Vasquez racks his brain for something he knows about Ancient Rome that might interest her. Unfortunately, it’s decidedly not an area he has a lot of experience with. On the other hand ...

“You know, I work in a museum, and there’s all kinds of things there to see. We even have stuff from Rome. Really old items that people who lived there actually used.”

“Yeah?” Ava looks momentarily interested before shrugging. “I still don’t want to do this project though.”

“Niña,” Vasquez says firmly, “I know exactly how you feel. Right now I’m working on a project that I absolutely hate.”

“Oh, that sucks.” Surprising him, Ava leans over and gives him a commiserating pat on the wrist. “Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before you’re done.”

“Yes. Hopefully.” Not wanting to get maudlin again, Vasquez nods at her textbook. “Why don’t you show me what’s in there, and I’ll try and remember if the museum has anything similar.”

That’s how Joshua finds them a little while later. Neither Vasquez nor Ava hears his return initially, but he clears his throat to get their attention, and when they both look up he’s standing at the counter, holding a plate of food.

“Dinner is served,” he says, placing the plate down with a flourish. “Come and get it while it’s hot.”

Finding himself grinning against his will, Vasquez shares a conspiratorial wink with Ava, and does as he’s told.

*****

Rafa doesn’t show his face again for the better part of a week, and Josh is just barely too proud to admit he’s getting antsy about this when the bell over the door jingles early one Thursday night, and a familiar form steps inside.

“Hey there, stranger,” he says as Rafa crosses the room to claim the spot Josh now thinks of exclusively as his. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Where’ve you been?”

“Working, the same as always.” Rafa sighs as he sits down in his chair, and Josh notices that there are heavy bags under his eyes. Plus, he’s holding himself stiffly, like he’s tense and stressed out.

“Rough week at that office, big guy?” He asks sympathetically. He’s expecting an eye roll or a witty quip in response, but all he gets is a tired nod that makes his gut clench. “Hey, can I get you something special tonight? You look like you could use a pick me up.”

“I could use a lot of things,” Rafa informs him, “but I’ll settle for a plate of those nachos you made me a while back.”

Josh grins, pleased to have a response he can help with. “Well, it’s not technically me who does the cooking, but I’ll have it coming right up. You want a drink to go with it? I can bring you a menu if you like, but I still ...”

“Don’t have any tequila,” Rafa says, a bit of life showing in him as he finishes what’s become a running joke between them. “I know, guero. You never do. It’s as much a constant as that horrible print hanging on the wall there. I’ll have a beer. Whatever you have on tap is fine.”

“Coming right up,” Josh promises. He moves off to shove his head through the swinging doors of the kitchen, yelling quickly for one order of nachos, and then sets about getting that beer. Unfortunately, he returns to find Rafa staring at his phone with a pinched expression on his face.

“If that’s your boss or someone else you work with texting, tell ‘em to fuck off,” he says bluntly. Setting the beer down on the bar top, he motions at the phone when Rafa jerks up with a startled look on his face. “Put it away. You’re done working for the night.”

Sighing, Rafa slides the phone into the pocket of his suit jacket, and then picks up his glass. “I’m never done,” he says morosely, “or at least I don’t feel like I ever will be.”

“Jesus wept,” Josh mutters, feeling another unpleasant sensation roll through him. He’s used to Rafa being frustrated where his job is concerned, but he’s never seen him look quite so at the end of his rope.

“Look,” he says slowly, not sure if he’s about to overstep his bounds or not, but willing to plough ahead anyway. “I know it’s probably none of my business, but if the job makes you this miserable then it’s probably not worth it.”

“It’s not the job,” Rafa says, speaking seriously enough that Josh believes him. “I enjoy the job overall. It’s been nice, in a way, to get back to my roots as it were. I haven’t been able to do this kind of work in years.”

“What I don’t like,” he continues on, accepting the beer Josh offers him and knocking back a swig, “is one, specific project I’m working on. If it would just go away everything would be fine, and I could relax.”

“Well, how long until that happens?” Josh asks.

He gets a brittle smile in return. “I wish I knew. Maybe not ever. However, enough of this talk. It’s just going to make me more depressed. Here. I have something for you, or for you to give to Ava, rather.”

As Josh watches, he reaches back into his jacket, rooting around in it for a moment before pulling out what looks like a pamphlet of some kind. “She mentioned the other day that she’s doing a history project on Ancient Rome. We have an exhibit on that, so I thought this might give her some starting places for choosing a topic.”

He holds the pamphlet out, offering it up to Josh, who stares at it without knowing how to respond. There’s something strange stirring in his gut in the face of a gesture that should otherwise not be that big a deal, and it’s got him feeling wrong footed.

“Joshua?” Rafa asks after more time than is comfortable has passed. He curves his mouth up into a small smile, but it’s forced. “I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?”

When Josh still doesn’t say anything, he starts to pull his arm back; no longer even pretending to smile at this point. “Sorry,” he says awkwardly. “It was a stupid idea. I’m sure she can find much more interesting ideas online.”

His arm lashing out whip-quick, Josh gets a hand over Rafa’s wrist before he can tuck the paper away out of sight. “It’s not stupid,” he says gruffly. “It’s ... thoughtful, and I’m sure Ava will get a kick out of it. Did she tell you she’s got a field trip up your way in a few weeks?”

“Uh, no. She didn’t,” Rafa replies. He still looks cautious, but he relinquishes his hold on the pamphlet when Josh shifts his grip to tug at it. “To see this exhibit?”

“To see a whole bunch of ‘em, I think,” Josh says. He flips the packet over to examine the pictures on the back. “I’ll be honest, I only half read through the permission slip before I signed it.”

That earns him a tiny laugh, and Rafa rests his elbows on top of the bar as Josh pages through the information. “The Roman exhibit is one of the more popular ones. It’s not my favourite though.”

“No?” Looking up at that, Josh offers one of his softer grins. “Too old for your blood, right? You like, what is it, art from the 1800’s, right?”

“Right,” Rafa agrees, giving Josh his first genuine smile of the night. “I don’t dislike the Roman era, though. There are some beautiful pieces that survived from that time period.”

“Well then, maybe someday you can show me around,” Josh decides, only belatedly realizing what he’s just said. “I mean,” he stutters as Rafa’s smile broadens. “Uh - damn, where the hell are those nachos you asked for? I’m gonna go check on that, and then maybe I’ll run this,” here he holds up the pamphlet for emphasis, “up to Ava. She really does need to get started on that project.”

Thanking whatever gods might be listening that Red’s not on shift tonight, Josh waves one of his waitresses, Hilary, over. “I’m taking a quick break,” he says once she’s within earshot. “Cover the bar until I get back?”

At her mumbled agreement, he nods to Rafa, who’s now looking far more bemused than Josh is comfortable with. He supposes that’s a step up from depressed, but he could wish it wasn’t at his own expense. “Back in a little while,” he says.

He takes the stairs up the his apartment two at a time, spurred on by some weird of necessity that wants him to make the delivery to Ava right away.

She’s curled up on the couch when he gets upstairs, playing a game on her tablet. Hitting pause upon spotting him, she gives him a funny look - likely because she knows it’s too early for his normal break time, which is meant to correspond with when she’s supposed to go to bed.

“I finished my homework, honest,” she says, holding up her tablet as if to prove this claim somehow. “You can check if you like.”

Laughing in spite of himself, Josh crosses the room, and sits down on the coffee table. Once he’s assured the damn thing will hold his weight, he gives Ava a wink. “I’m not here to bust you,” he promises. “Rafa popped in tonight, and he brought you something.”

She stares at the pamphlet quizzically when he hands it over. “What’s that for?”

“It’s from his museum,” Josh explains, pleased when she snatches it, and begins flipping through the pages. “He says you told him about your history project - the one on Rome. He thought you might find something you liked in there.”

“That was nice of him,” she says primly. “Is he still here? I should go tell him thank you.”

Recognizing a ploy to get into forbidden territory when he hears one, Faraday shakes an admonishing finger in her face. “I don’t think so,” he says, pulling back when she snaps playfully at him with her teeth. “Hey, no biting!”

She rolls her eyes, clearly not concerned by his protest. Lounging back into the blankets she has piled around her, she opens the booklet to the first page, and begins reading.

“Do you need any help with that?” Josh asks. He knows info packets like this one tend to be dumbed down, and Ava’s always read above her grade level - no idea where that came from - but she’s still only seven.

“If I have questions, I’ll ask Rafa,” she says from behind the pages, not even bothering to look at him. “Will you tell him thank you since I’m not allowed?”

“You’re allowed to say thank you,” Josh says exasperatedly. “You’re just not allowed in the bar during open hours. You know this.”

She flips the pamphlet down, eyeing him disdainfully. “Well I don’t know when I’ll see him again, and making him wait would be rude.”

“Why is it you only care about manners when it’s convenient for you?” Josh wants to know. “Are all kids like this, or are you just special?”

“I’m very special,” she retorts. “Are you gonna thank him for me, or not?”

“Yeah, of course,” Josh grumbles. As if there was ever any doubt, really. “Now, stay up here out of trouble, and no trying to sneak down just because you feel like it. I’ll be up later to tuck you in.”

“‘Kay,” she replies, going right back to her pamphlet as he stands.

The pub is packed by the time Josh gets back downstairs. Nodding at Hilary, he slides into his usual place behind the bar, ready to start doing his thing so she can head off to do hers. Before that, however, there’s something he needs to do, which is why he sidles over to where Rafa’s still sitting in his seat, now munching away on a plate of nachos.

“Ava says thank you,” Josh tells him, and his stomach swoops at the shy smile he gets in return. “She really likes it.”

“Good,” Rafa replies. “I’m glad.”



*****

“You look troubled, Rafael. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone take exhibit layouts as seriously as you do, and I’m including myself in that description. Why don’t you head home for the night?”

“Hmm?” Glancing up from his desk, Vasquez finds is surprised to find Robicheaux standing in the doorway of his office. Given that he hadn’t heard the other man come in, he’s suddenly grateful for his policy of only ever leaving the door unlocked when he’s working on real museum events. “Sorry, What was that?”

Robicheaux frowns, reminding Vasquez absurdly of his mother. “I said go home,” he says firmly. “You’ve been here all day, and it’s past supper time. I appreciate the dedication, son, but this much overtime isn’t necessary.”

If only he knew, Vasquez thinks grimly. He’s used up the bulk of Bogue’s extended timeline, and he’s barely any closer to cracking the damnable security system than he was before. Not able to say so, however, he shrugs.

“I don’t really have much of a life outside of this place,” he says, figuring if he plays the depreciating employee card, it might turn out okay. “I’m still new in town. Don’t really know that many people locally.”

“Hmm, I suppose that makes sense.” Robicheaux’s face takes on a thoughtful cast as he considers this information. “Have you at least taken in the sights?” He asks finally. “I know the city’s not the biggest one in the world, but there’s still plenty to see and do, especially at this time of year.”

He snaps his fingers without warning, a grin lighting up his features. “You should check out the buskers. They come for the festival every spring, and they’re down at the boardwalk now. Some of the acts are quite good. There was a knife thrower a few years back who Billy particularly enjoyed.”

Of course he did. Billy Rocks is absolutely the kind of man who would be impressed by that kind of dangerous show. Vasquez isn’t even remotely surprised, and he says so.

“Heh, yes,” Robicheaux laughs. “He actually struck up a conversation with her later on. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but he’s quite skilled with the things himself. I think he enjoys scaring people with his tricks.”

“Shocking,” Vasquez replies dryly. “No doubt that does nothing to hurt his terrifying image.”

Robicheaux shrugs, but doesn’t continue pursuing the topic. Instead, he nods at Vasquez. “I meant what I said. It’s time for you to call it a night.”

Vasquez considers protesting, but the fact of the matter is he is tired, and he’s not going to get any further ahead feeling like he is. What he needs more than anything, he suspects, is food.

“Do they have meal stands or food trucks out for this festival of yours?” He asks. As usual, he’s got no desire to head back to the condo, so perhaps a trip to somewhere else will do him some good.

“All kinds,” Robicheaux tells him. “And there are a number of restaurants in the area as well. I’m sure you’ll be able to find something to amuse yourself with.”

A traitorous voice in the back of his head reminds Vasquez that the boardwalk isn’t far from Faraday’s; meaning Joshua’s establishment is probably one of the restaurants Robicheaux is referring to. Although it shouldn’t, that basically seals his resolve.

“I’ll check it out,” he decides. Pushing away from his desk, he moves to pick up his suit jacket only to then think better of it. He tends to look out of place enough when he pops into Faraday’s after work, if he’s going to wander around down on the actual beach, he needs something more casual.

“I should probably change first,” he says aloud, figuring that a brief stop over at the condo won’t be the end of the world. So long as he knows he won’t be there long, he tends to handle the place better. “This is not the right outfit for street theatre.”

“I fail to see what you mean by that,” Robicheaux says, and it occurs to Vasquez that he doesn’t think he’s ever seen the man in anything other than three piece suits. “However, I’ll leave you to it. Have a good night.”

Wishing him the same, Vasquez waits for him to leave, and then begins the process of locking down his office.

*****

Robicheaux has been right about the state of the boardwalk. The space is the busiest Vasquez has ever seen it, teeming with life in a mixture of performers, purveyors, and everyday folks out to enjoy their options. He wanders through the crowd, now dressed far more casually than he was at working, slipping in between people as he makes his way along.

He’s not expecting to see anyone familiar in a space as congested as this, but he supposes it’s a testament to how his life has been going these days when he turns to wander down one of the makeshift aisles, and comes face to face with Joshua and Ava.

“You know,” Joshua remarks, as beside him his daughter starts to wriggle excitedly, “I’m starting to think you might be following us.”

Vasquez snorts. “Not even remotely,” He drawls. “This spot was recommended to me by my boss, so if anything, it’s you two who are following me.”

Joshua’s grin broadens, but whatever he’s about to say in response gets interrupted when Ava ducks out of his hold and bounds over to Vasquez. “Rafa, thank you for my book! I used it to pick my project, and my teacher says I made a really good choice.”

“Did you now? Well, I’m glad to hear that.” Crouching down to be more at her level, he winks. “Which idea did you choose?”

She tells him, burbling on happily about her plans, which seem to get more and more extravagant as she goes along. Then, in the way of all young children everywhere, she reverses course abruptly. “We’re going to see the buskers and get ice cream! Do you want to come?”

Vasquez stutters at the unexpected invite. Trying to think up with a reasonable way to say no, he catches Joshua’s eye, and finds himself being stared at in resigned amusement.

“That may have sounded like a request,” Joshua says with a laugh, “but I doubt it actually was one. What do you say?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Vasquez tries, already straightening up to start backing away. “You two clearly have plans, and I don’t want to intrude.”

“I can’t rightly see how you’d be intruding if you had an invite,” Joshua replies, and now he’s giving Vasquez the same hopeful look Ava is. “Come on, Rafa. Come hang out with us.”

“Yeah,” Ava echoes, crossing her arms over her chest. “Come on, Rafa.”

Unable to keep from laughing, Vasquez holds his hands up in a surrender position. “Okay, okay, I guess I can stick around if there’s going to be ice cream involved.”

“It’s the best,” Ava enthuses. Grabbing her father’s hand, she starts to bodily drag him around, and then shocks both men by reaching up to get ahold of Vasquez with the other. “You’ll see, it’s this way.”

“Ava, honey,” Joshua starts to protest, while cutting Vasquez an awkward glance at the same time.

“It’s fine,” Vasquez is quick to tell him. There’s a burst of warmth flooding through his chest right now, and even though he knows he shouldn’t be letting this happen, he also knows he’s not going to stop it. “I’m used to this kind of behaviour from my niece.”

Joshua gives him a very philosophical look, but offers up no further argument.

The ice cream stand is immediately noticeable because of the large cardboard cutout standing beside it. It’s of a cone that’s roughly the size of Vasquez himself, one with a variety of different scoops of ice creams visible atop it. A number of people are already waiting in line, many of them parents with children bouncing excitedly on their toes.

“Popular place,” Vasquez murmurs as they join the throng. None of the other stands seem to be quite this busy. “Is this the only place that serves cold treats?”

“It’s not the only one,” Joshua advises, “but it’s the one most in demand. Take it from someone who’s sampled all the competition, you won’t find a better choice anywhere else.”

“I see,” Vasquez says, glancing around at the milling crowd. “Lucky for me that you knew to stop here. I’d have walked right on by because the line up was too long.”

“You can’t do that.” Having released the hands of both adults, Ava now spins in a circle to wave at all the surrounding booths. “Look at all the fun you’d miss out on - hey, jugglers!”

She whirls back around to stare up at her father with pleading eyes. “Dad, can we go see them?”

“Once you’ve got your ice cream, sure,” Joshua says patiently, “but we’re already here, so we’re waiting for that first.”

“Fiiine,” sighing at the injustices of life, Ava faces forward in the line, huffing occasionally when it doesn’t move fast enough for her. “We’re gonna be here forever though.”

“She suffers so much,” Joshua murmurs in Vasquez’s ear, low enough that Ava misses it. “Dinner and a show, but neither one of ‘em will come fast enough for her.”

Vasquez smirks at him. “You let your child have ice cream for supper?”

The elbow Joshua jabs into his side isn’t altogether unexpected, but it still causes Vasquez to grunt when it connects. “That was uncalled for,” he complains, rubbing the spot dramatically.

“Was not,” Joshua replies, followed by, “Quit being such a baby, I barely touched you.”

“Yes, but I’m very delicate,” Vasquez says mournfully. “I bruise like a peach.”

“Well, maybe I’ll be nice and look it over later to make sure no damage was done,” Joshua offers. His grin in sly, making it clear to Vasquez he knows exactly what he’s saying. “Until then - ice cream.”

Vasquez doesn’t know what to say to that, so in the end he says nothing. Instead they stay in the line while it moves steadily forward until they reach the front of the kiosk, at which point Joshua promptly orders three cones without consulting him.

“I can get my own,” he says. He reaches for his wallet, only to be prevented from pulling it out by the hand Joshua gets on his arm.

“I’m sure you can,” the other man agrees, “but tonight is on me.”

He proceeds to take care of paying, and then presents the first completed cone to Ava, who promptly darts away to see the performers as soon as she has it.

“You’re not getting another one if you drop it,” her father calls after her, but he’s talking to thin air. Rolling his eyes, he takes the second treat when it’s ready, and then hands it to Vasquez. “The same goes for you.”

“Gracias,” Vasquez says, accepting the ice cream cone with as much dignity as he can muster. “You are too kind, guero.”

“The fuck does that even mean, anyway? Guero?” Joshua asks, glancing around carefully to make sure that Ava is still out of earshot. Safely assured that’s she’s still over by the buskers, he turns back to Vasquez. “You keep calling me that, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to be offended or flattered.”

“Eh, something like that,” Vasquez replies, laughing when Joshua gives him an exasperated look. Refusing to explain further, he swipes his tongue over the ice cream he’s still holding, humming when the rich chocolate flavour bursts over his tongue. “This is delicious.”

“It’s homemade.” Using his own cone as an indicator, Joshua gestures back to the booth where he’d purchased the treats. “The family runs a little, I dunno what you’d call it, confectionary place, I guess, where they make all their own stuff. They’re open year round somewhere in the city, but they set up the stand out here every summer. I take Ava here a lot during the season.”

“I can see why.” Licking up another swath of ice cream, Vasquez tries not to make an indecent noise as he swallows. “I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything like it. It’s brilliant.”

“It’s ice cream, man,” Joshua says dryly. “Not anything to go into hysterics over.”

“I beg to differ,” Vasquez tells him. “Good food is like fine art,” he explains when Joshua raises an eyebrow at him. “The right person can easily tell when something is a cut above the rest, and that deserves to be celebrated.”

“Amazing,” Joshua says, sounding awed. “You are so fucking weird. No, I mean it,” he adds as Vasquez rolls his eyes. “You’re like, god, I think you’re one of those hipster people you hear about in the media. I didn’t think they were real, but here you are.”

“What? You’re saying because I have good taste, I’m weird?” Vasquez gives Joshua his most pitying look. “I have to say, guero. It’s a good thing for you this isn’t a date, as you are so far proving to be very bad at it.”

“I - yeah.” At first looking like he’s going to protest, Joshua instead sags over the railing he’s leaning on, his cheeks reddening from where he’s suddenly refusing to meet Vasquez’s eye. “I guess you could say I’m out of practice.”

Feeling slightly cruel for having embarrassed him, Vasquez nudges him with a shoulder, flashing his best sheepish grin when green eyes glance over to meet his own. “I was only teasing, Joshua. Just like you were.”

“Heh,” at least a little of his awkwardness fading, Joshua looks down at the ice cream cone still held in his hands. “I know. The problem is, I am out of practice where this kind of thing is concerned. Most folks turn tail and run the second they find out about Ava, even her own mother did that.”

Sensing they’re getting into sensitive territory, Vasquez nevertheless can’t stop himself from asking the question that’s on the tip of his tongue. “What happened to her? To Ava’s mother, I mean?”

Joshua forces out a laugh with absolutely no humour in it. “Exactly what I just said. She took off the second she found out about Ava, and then she took off a second time as soon as she was born.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Vasquez says, and Joshua sighs heavily, starting to pick at his ice cream again.

“So it’s like this,” he says finally, refusing to make eye contact. “I was into some bad shit before Ava came along. Maybe not the worst stuff out there, okay definitely not the worst, but not good either, you know?”

When all Vasquez can do is shrug helplessly since he can’t tell the truth without opening a much larger can of worms, Joshua snorts. “Okay, fair, obviously you don’t know.”

“Mainly I was into gambling,” he says in a rush. “Not in a visiting the shiny casino on a regular basis kind of way, but in a I made a living in illegal backroom games kind of way.”

“It’s not something I’m proud of,” he continues on when Vasquez motions for him to do so, “but it’s the truth. It wasn’t smart, it wasn’t safe, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of environment to be raising a kid in.”

“I met Val - Ava’s mother - while I was living in Missouri. She was a waitress in a club that used to host some of the worst games in town. We screwed around a few times, nothing serious, and then one day I hear she’s gone and quit her job, nobody knows where she is.”

“Honestly, this is going to sound terrible, but at the time I barely noticed.” He says flatly, his voice having lost most of its usual highs and lows as he relates the story. “I’m not proud of it, but we weren’t a couple, not really, and I had my own problems.”

“But then,” he laughs shakily, “oh, but then. Up she pops about seven months later. Standing on my doorstep out of the blue, holding this shrieking bundle in her arms.”

“I’m not kidding by the way,” he says, humouring beginning to colour his tone again as he turns to look at Vasquez for the first time in the past several minutes. “If you think my kid is loud now, well you should’ve heard her the first time she and I met. She was screaming fit to burst, and poor Val looked like she was one step away from a full on breakdown.”

“She starts talking,” he says, making a large sweeping gesture with the hand holding his ice cream. “Fast and loud, going about a mile a minute to be heard over the racket Ava was making. She tells me she’s mine, and she doesn’t want anything to do with her.”

“God, she actually said that,” he murmurs, his eyes going unfocused, like he’s no longer here, but is instead back in a dingy apartment seven years ago. “Not that she couldn’t take her, but that she didn’t want to. Which, I mean, it’s her choice, I get that, but at the same time, I don’t, you know? Not at this point, anyway.”

“But yeah,” he says quickly, shaking his head in an obvious bid to get back on track. “She tells me she doesn’t want Ava, but she figures I’ve got the right to decide if I do. Then she says if I don’t want her, I can drop her off with children services.”

“Now me, I’m a twenty-six year old fuck up at this point in my life, and I don’t have the first goddamned clue of how to take care of a baby. So, here I open my mouth to tell Val I can’t have anything to do with her crap, when she goes and stuffs the kid into my arms.”

“And then what happened?” Vasquez asks when he pauses, needing to know the answer for reasons he can’t explain.

“She shut up. Ava, I mean. Not Val. Just - total silence between one blink and the next, and there she was staring up at me with the same eyes I see every time I look in the mirror. It was - I don’t have a clue how to describe it. It was one of those defining moments, or whatever.”

“So you kept her,” Vasquez says, following the story to its logical conclusion.

“So I kept her,” Joshua agrees. “I stand there gaping at her like an idiot for I don’t know how long, and when I finally look up again Val’s just fucking gone, not even a door swinging shut behind her. All I’ve got is the kid, and a bagful of stuff her mother dropped by the door without my noticing.”

“Thankfully her birth certificate was in there, listing me as her father. Although, you know what Val called her initially?” Vasquez shakes his head, and he rolls his eyes. “Loretta,” he says, disgust practically pouring off him in waves. “I cannot even begin to describe to you how much my kid is not a Loretta. Took me fucking forever to get it changed too, even though I called her Ava from day one. I had to take Val to court and everything. Or, well, I tried. She didn’t exactly participate, which is part of why I’ve got full custody.”

“How did you come up with Ava?” Vasquez asks, hoping that might be a somewhat safer topic. He can’t believe what Joshua’s been through in his attempts to raise his child, and he feels ashamed that he can’t share the same kind of personal details with him in return.

“It was my mother’s middle name,” is the reply. “She’d been gone for years at that point. Cancer got her when I was only nineteen, but we were always close. I figured the baby could do worse than share something like that with her.”

“Anyway,” he says, shrugging his shoulders like he’s trying to break free of the seriousness of their conversation. “I knew I couldn’t raise Ava where I was, so I got my shit together and came home. My Aunt Ethel, the one I told you about, she was the only relative I had left at that point. She took us in, and let me work in the bar until she was ready to retire. And the rest is history.”

“That is ...” Vasquez racks his brain for a word to do the story justice, coming up unusually blank in the wake of everything he’s just learned.

For his part, Joshua just laughs. “Insane? I figure there’s a good chance that’s the word you’re looking for.”

“No,” Vasquez disagrees because it isn’t. It’s not even close. “That is - Joshua, that’s incredible. What you went through, how you changed to protect someone who needed it.” He shrugs helplessly. “I don’t have that kind of courage.”

“Oh, bullshit,” Joshua scoffs. “It wasn’t courage. It was blind panic running into the kind of cocky attitude that wouldn’t let me quit. Trust me, I fucked up repeatedly during it, and I’m sure I’ll keep right on doing so until she’s grown and living on her own.”

“Yes, well, even if you do, I think you’ll be okay.” Using his free hand, Vasquez points to where Ava’s visible at the edge of the crowd encircling the buskers down on the sand, bouncing on her toes in excitement. “That is a healthy, happy child, guerito. I’d say you’ve done just fine. Even,” he adds slyly, “if I did meet her in a bar that first time.”

“Hey!” Laughing, Joshua swats at his shoulder. “You jackass. I thought you promised not to hold that against me?”

“Eh.” Shrugging, Vasquez busies himself with his now neglected ice cream, suddenly needing a distraction from the way Joshua is looking at him. “Maybe I lied.”

“You don’t really strike me as the lying type,” Joshua informs him, his eyes sparkling as he too takes a bite out of his snack. Chewing and swallowing the piece of cone he’s just snapped off, he grins. “Nobody who’s as bad as you are at hiding his feelings about art is keeping a lid on anything particularly damning.”

Words haven’t been invented yet to describe how much Vasquez wishes that were true; a fact that he blames for what comes out of his mouth next. “My mother’s name is Maria,” he blurts out, suddenly needing to offer up what truths he can in the face of what Joshua’s just laid bare for him. “My father’s name was Luis, but he died when I was sixteen. Heart attack, no one saw it coming.”

“I have two sisters, both younger than me,” he continues on, steamrollering right over Joshua when it looks like he’s going to try and cut him off. “Francesca, she’s a single mother who lives with our Mama, while Carmen, she’s in school to be a doctor. Rosario, that’s my niece, the one I told you about before. She’s eight. Hates school, and loves soccer.”

“I studied art history because I loved art, but wasn’t good enough to make a career of it. Not that art history is the easiest field to break into either,” he adds with a faint laugh. “Honestly, I’ve only worked it sporadically since graduating, hopping from place to place, but this museum is different because I can actually do what I want with it.”

He pauses then, taking a deep breath to try and come up with something, anything else to offer about himself that’s true, huffing it out in exasperation when he realizes he can’t. “I wish I could offer you more that would equal what you just told me, but ...” He shrugs.

“It’s not a game, Rafa,” Joshua tells him, but instead of making him feel better, that just sits even more poorly on Vasquez’s shoulder as it’s a reminder that he can’t even be honest about his own name.

“I never said it was,” he says then. “I just - ugh. I don’t know how to explain it, you know?”

“No,” Joshua replies, smirking when Vasquez shoots him a dirty look. “Oh come on, you left that one wide open.”

“Did not,” Vasquez says mulishly. Needing a distraction, he uses his tongue to gather up the last remnants of his ice cream, and then crunches down on the cone in a few quick bites. “You spend too much time around children.”

“That’s what happens when you have a seven year old,” Joshua shrugs. “Hence why I’m trying to expand my social circle.”

Vasquez winces, all his fears from earlier in the evening coming rushing back in the face of those words. “Guero - Joshua,” he says roughly. “It’s not that easy. Not because you have a child,” he says quickly, “but because - because. Meirda, I can’t explain it.”

His smile dimming, Joshua holds up a hand. “It’s okay,” he says kindly, “I’m not going to try and force anything I just want you to know that if you are interested, then so am I.”

“It’s not that I’m not interested,” honesty compels Vasquez to admit, even though he knows full well he’d be better off keeping his mouth shut. “My life is very complicated, that’s all. I have no idea how long I’ll be here for, for one.”

“That’s weak, Rafa,” Joshua says flatly. “Take it from someone who still knows how to bluff his way out of most situations. You’ve got no poker face, so we both know you don’t believe what you’re saying.”

“I do too,” Vasquez protests, “because my life is complicated.”

“Mhm,” Joshua replies, now looking unimpressed. “Show me someone whose life isn’t, and I’ll show you a liar. You want to try that again?”

Vasquez hangs his head ruefully, fighting a sudden, unexpected urge to laugh. “Alright,” he admits, “I suppose you have me there.”

“Figured I might,” Joshua says, his expression brightening in the wake of Vasquez’s willingness to at least play along with him for a little while. “Seriously, though, why not have a drink with me and see what happens?”

That makes Vasquez snort. “Technically, I get a drink with you more nights than not.”

“Uh, no, you don’t,” Joshua disagrees, giving his head an emphatic shake. “You get a drink from me, not with me,” he says firmly. “There is very much a difference. Trust me, as an owner of a drinking establishment, I’m kind of an expert on these things.”

“And what if I say yes? Hmm, accept your offer,” Vasquez wonders. Toying with the napkin that had come with his ice cream cone, he studiously cleans his fingers, while ignoring the voice screaming in his head that he shouldn’t even be entertaining this idea. “What if it doesn’t go well?”

“Then at least we can say we tried,” Joshua decides. “Which as far as I’m concerned is better than not trying at all.”

“I - maybe,” Vasquez says, not willing to commit one way or the other. “Can I take some time to think about it?”

“Sure,” is the reply, with Joshua looking remarkably nonchalant in light of the serious nature of the conversation. “Take however long you need.” He grins then, as he pushes back from the railing they’ve both been leaning over. “You know where to find me when you’ve made up your mind.”

“In the meantime, though, I’m gonna go reclaim my kid before she decides she wants to join the circus or some shit.” Nodding towards Ava, he lobs his own balled up napkin into a nearby trash can, grinning when he nails the shot no problem.

“Two points,” he laughs, sounding more like he’s talking to himself than to Vasquez. “I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“Yes,” Vasquez agrees, caving easily despite the fact that he knows it’s a terrible idea. “Fairly soon, I’d imagine.”

“Good,” Joshua says, and then he completely derails things by leaning over and brushing a kiss over Vasquez’s mouth. It’s a brief thing, one that lasts for merely a few seconds, and then he’s pulling back with a wink, looking proud of himself.

“Give you a little taste of what you’ve got to look forward to,” he says, grin broadening when Vasquez rolls his eyes. “Night, Rafa.”

“Goodnight,” Vasquez replies, and he luckily manages to wait until Joshua’s back is turned before he buries his face in his hands, and curses himself for what he’s let this turn into.

*****

“You kissed Rafa.”

The words are singsonged at him out of nowhere, and Josh almost chokes on the toothbrush he has shoved in his mouth. Sputtering, he spits toothpaste into the sink, swiping at his chin with the back of his hand before turning to look at Ava.

She’s standing in the bathroom doorway, pjs on, and with a smug grin creasing her face as she waits for him to respond. “I saw you,” she says when he doesn’t say anything. “Don’t lie.”

“I know better than that,” he says weakly. No one on earth knows how to read him better than his kid, so trying to pull a fast one on her is automatically a lost cause. Straightening, he pads over to her, and then crouches down to be at the same eye level. “Is that a problem?”

Suddenly looking uncharacteristically shy, Ava’s grin vanishes, and she chews awkwardly on her bottom lip. “I don’t think so,” she says finally. “He knows about me, and he didn’t run away yet. That’s a good sign, right?”

Josh sighs, wishing he was able to lie to set her fears at ease. “Honestly, kiddo, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never met anyone like him.”

“However,” he says sternly, “what have I told you about blaming yourself for my romance problems?” He asks, poking her lightly when she makes a face at him. “It’s not your fault, Ava. I’m just picky.”

“Then how come Red says you’re easy?” She asks, blinking up at him guilelessly.

“Red says a lot of things,” Josh says through suddenly clenched teeth. He’ll have to remember to threaten to fire the guy more often if that’s the stuff he’s letting come out of his mouth around Ava. “Don’t listen to him. Except when he’s babysitting you and he’s in charge,” he’s quick to add, lest she use that as a loophole for evil.

“Dad,” she says, wrinkling her nose to show she’s not impressed with his attempts to distract her. “Are you and Rafa dating?”

Josh sighs. “I don’t really have an answer to that one, sweetheart. Rafa’s complicated. He’s got his own things going on, I think.”

“Well can’t you help him with that?” She asks. Even if he lives to be a hundred, Josh doesn’t think he’ll ever fully grasp the extent to which children can dumb complicated problems down the way they do. “Maybe if he has someone to help with his problems, then he’ll stay.”

Josh sighs at this, regretting the way he’s played things loose enough to let her get attached to someone who he has no idea is a sure thing. Then again, he supposes there really is no such thing as a sure bet, especially where romance is concerned.

“Rafa will do what he needs to,” he says finally, not missing the way she rolls her eyes at this statement. “I can’t make him do something if it’s not what he wants.”

“Yeah, but you can at least tell him what you want,” she stresses, and for the millionth time, Josh regrets inadvertently siring a kid leagues smarter than he is. “That way he’ll know what his choices are.”

“You may very well have a point,” he says slowly. “However, it’s also definitely past your bedtime, so it’s time to stop picking at me for boy troubles, and get your butt under those blankets.”

She gives him a look that tells him this discussion is far from over, before pivoting on one foot with a huff, and tromping off towards her bedroom. Her footfalls are far heavier than they need to be for someone her size, no doubt deliberately, and he can’t help but laugh as he watches her vanish.



*****

Sam can feel the beginnings of a headache coming on; something that’s been happening to him quite often as of late. He, Emma, and Jack Horne are gathered in his office for one of their regular scheduled briefings, and things are tense.

Horne’s luck with bugging their thief had certainly not been anything to sneeze at, but it seems to have come with more questions than answers. Being able to know where Vasquez is at all times is worthwhile, but since the only places he seems to go are the museum, his condo, and a bar that’s nowhere near the other two locations, they’re having difficulty figuring out how everything pieces together.

Even worse, they have varying thoughts on what’s motivating their quarry, which is starting to cause some friction. Biting back an urge to sigh, Sam sits up a little straighter in his seat when Horne opens his mouth to speak.

“He’s stressed, you can tell as much simply by looking at him.”

Emma let’s out a disbelieving snort, and turns to stare at their profiler after he utters these words. “Is that supposed to mean something to us? Are you expecting us to be, what, sympathetic to a thief and killer?”

Horne leans back in his seat, resting his interlocked hands over the ample girth of his stomach as, instead of looking at Emma, he stares Sam down. "The thing is, I think you've got Vasquez pegged all wrong. Based on the information we have, there's as much a chance that he's another of Bogue's victims as he is a player."

Sam doesn't say anything, merely keeps his gaze locked on the old agent as he runs the words over in his head. Beside him, Emma apparently isn't nearly so willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

"Bullshit," she says harshly. "He killed a man in cold blood, and now he's regularly seen in the company of one of Bogue's most trusted associates. All while having used his background in art history to get himself employed where one of the most valuable diamonds in the world has just been put on display. Do you honestly think he's not involved here?"

"Oh he's after the Fancy," Horne agrees. "Of that I have no doubt. The question is why." Unfolding his arms, he taps one beefy finger firmly on top of Vasquez's file. "People don't completely deviate from established patterns overnight, yet this one has. I don't think that's an accident."

Sam frowns, not sure he's following Horne's logic. "What do you mean?" He asks, needing clarification. "What pattern?"

Horne gives him a faint grin. "Alejandro Vasquez is a thief, more specifically, he's an art thief. Look at the places he's hit in the past. Every last one has had some collection of jewels or valuable stones somewhere, but he's never touched them. He goes for paintings, tapestries, sculptures, most of which don't resurface - implying he's keeping them for himself."

"You said it yourself, Agent Cullen," he adds, catching Emma's eye with his own. "He's an art historian by trade. Indeed, his academic transcripts show he had a focus in North American works of the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, which, I note, are what tend to go missing when he's in town. Diamonds are not something he's ever been associated with."

"So he's branching out," Emma grunts, clearly unconvinced. "Looking for more portable items with a bigger payoff."

That makes Sam snort. "Trickster's Fancy may be easier to hide in your pocket than a painting, but it's also going to be a lot harder to sell given the media frenzy stealing it would generate."

Emma shifts in her chair, piercing him with an incredulous look. "Don't tell me you're buying this crap, Chisolm. We know he's in Bogue's company now, just like he was in Amador. And what about the Harp murder? His fingerprints were all over that gun."

"Which is another thing that makes no sense," Horne cuts in smoothly. He waits until he's sure he has both their attention, and then continues on. "Vasquez has no history of violence prior to this, and has never left evidence in his wake. To go from that to what's frankly one hell of a sloppy murder doesn't fit with what we know of him."

"So it was his first time killing, and he made mistakes due to inexperience," Emma supplies. "You know full well it can take a person time to refine that kind of technique. Hell, maybe it was even an accident."

"Maybe," Horne replies. "Or maybe he's not working with Bogue of his own free will. There's an awful big shift from gentleman thief to cold blooded killer. Too big if you ask me."

"You think Bogue's got something on him," Sam says flatly, and the look on Horne's face tells him he's right.

"I have my suspicions," he says finally. "And remember, you brought me in here to create a profile for this man. Well this is what the evidence is suggesting. It may not be hard proof, but I think it's at least worth considering."

"I think it opens up a whole new can of worms," Emma grumbles.

"It might," Sam acknowledges. "On the other hand, it could give us a new avenue of approach." He stares down at the folder on his desk, left open so that Vasquez's photo is looking back at him.

"I think it might be time to move in on our thief."

*****

About a week later, Vasquez is strolling through one of the main corridors of the museum when someone coughs to get his attention. Turning without thinking, his stomach plummets when he comes face to face with McCann.

“James,” he blurts, his gaze farting around to see if any more of Bogue’s men are present. He doesn’t spot anyone he recognizes, which hopefully means it’s only the head stooge who’s come to see him. “What are you doing here?”

McCann smirks, no doubt able to hear the slight waver in Vasquez’s voice. He’s absolutely the kind of person who’d get off on causing that kind of reaction. “I’m running an errand for work, if you can believe it,” he says casually. “Have you got a sec?”

“I - of course,” Vasquez says weakly. As much as he’d like to try and make an excuse about how Robicheaux needs him or something similar, that’d would only delay the inevitable at best, and piss Bogue off at worst. “We can talk in my office.”

“No need,” McCann says. “I won’t take up much of your time.”

Sauntering forward, he keeps moving until Vasquez is forced to either step back or let the other man crash into him. Choosing to do the former, he shuffles backwards, only stopping once they’re safely out of the way of most of the foot traffic.

“What is it?” Vasquez asks quietly, figuring there as out of ear shot as they’re going to get. Part of him hopes someone will interrupt them, but he doubts he’ll get that lucky. “Why are you here?”

“Oh, I think you know,” McCann murmurs. “He’s concerned about your motivation again. Wanted me to come down and apply a little leverage in person.”

“What kind of leverage?” Vasquez asks, dreading the answer.

“I haven’t decided yet,” McCann replies, which is somehow worse than if he’d gotten descriptive. “There are so many options, and so little time.”

“Listen,” Vasquez says. Getting ready to argue as best as he can, he’s startled when his attention is unexpectedly grabbed in a short time frame.

"Rafa!"

At the sound of a horrifyingly familiar voice calling his name, Vasquez turns away from McCann, and comes face to face with a bouncing Ava. She's got her bookbag resting on her back, her thumbs hooked through the straps as she scurries over to him with a delighted look on her face.

"What're you doing here?" She demands, rocking back and forth on her toes when she comes to a stop in front of him. "Is this where you work? I'm here with my class. We're gonna golook at the dinosaurs!"

Vasquez follows her pointing finger, spotting a tour guide who's just about to head into the science wing with about two dozen children trailing after her. The children are accompanied by several adults who're probably teachers, one of whom - a particularly harried looking young woman - appears to be doing a headcount and coming up short.

"I think they're missing you over there," he says roughly. He nods at the woman who's now counting for the second time. "Is that your teacher?"

Ava cranes her neck around to look at the woman in question, and sighs. "Yeah, that's Ms. Haberdeen. She's really bossy."

"Most are," Vasquez replies. He's aiming to sound sympathetic, but in reality he wants Ava back with Ms. Haberdeen and the protection she represents. "You should go back to them, though," he insists. "You don't want to be getting in trouble at school."

Heaving a sigh like only a child who's suffering through the persecutions of education can, Ava gives him a betrayed look. "Can't you show me around? That way I'll still see everything I'm supposed to."

Vasquez does have to laugh at that, albeit weakly. "I'm working, cariña. And the tours are not part of my job. Go on, get back to where you're supposed to be."

"Fine," Ava grumbles, looking put out. Then she grins up at him, her expression both sly and remarkably similar to her father's when he wants something. "Are you coming over tonight? I heard Dad say it's been a couple days since he saw you last. I think he misses you."

Now Vasquez makes a strangled sound, partly because McCann is still present, and that represents all sorts of trouble, but also because this has just become one of the most mortifying conversations he's ever taken part in. Exposure to Rosario has long since taught him that children have no filters, but this is ridiculous.

"You," he says forcefully, "can think whatever you please. I think you need to be getting your butt back to your schooling. Look, the teacher is getting flustered."

Following his pointing finger, Ava sees that Ms. Haberdeen has pulled all the children to a stop, and is now ticking names off on a list. "Crap," she says, which is something her father probably wouldn't want her saying, even though she no doubt learned it from him. "Okay, I gotta go. Bye!"

She dashes off without another word, and Vasquez doesn't move until she's safely back within sight of her teacher, the other children closing in around her as the whole group of them finally trudge off.

"Well," a voice suddenly purrs in his ear. "That was interesting."

“I don’t see why,” Vasquez says, aiming for nonchalant, and failing miserably. “Her father runs a bar I frequent from time to time, and I’ve seen her there. She’s got nothing to do with anything.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” McCann says thoughtfully. He cocks his head at where Ava and her classmates have just vanished down the hallway. “Wasn’t I just explaining the concept of leverage to you?”

Vasquez’s heart sinks, but he tries to gamely soldier on. “She’s nothing to me. You have your leverage already, and we both know it. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“Hmm,” McCann replies. “I think I’m going to give the boss a call. If you’ve got time to be getting chummy with bartenders then it stands to reason you’ve got more spare time on your hands than we thought.”

“Also,” he adds, “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go chat in your office.”

Swallowing heavily, Vasquez nods and turns to lead the way.

*****

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sam casts his eyes sideways at Emma, but finds instead of looking at him, she’s gazing up at the sign atop the front entrance to the bar. “We know where Vasquez has been staying thanks to Horne’s bug. Why not move on him there?”

“Because we know where to look for Vasquez if need be,” Sam reiterates. “Whereas we don’t know if someone working here is an accomplice, or the like. I want to get a feel for what’s going on.”

Emma makes an aggrieved noise. “This place doesn’t even look open,” she complains, but when she pushes on the door handle, it gives easily under her hand, swinging inwards invitingly. “Huh, I genuinely wasn’t expecting that.”

“Take it as a sign,” Sam says. Shouldering past her, he steps into the dimly lit bar, noting that all the chairs are still up on the tables, and most of the lights aren’t on. Emma’s right, despite the unlocked entrance, this place isn’t open for business.

About to call out and see if anyone’s around, his doing so becomes a moot point when a large, auburn-haired man shoves through a set of swinging doors with a cellphone pressed to his ear, and a harried expression on his face.

“No, no,” he says to whoever’s on the other end of the line, “I’m telling you, Red, her teacher swears up and down she got on the bus after the field trip, but she’s not back yet, and the route’s long done. Something’s not right!”

The man’s too far away for Sam to make out what the person on the phone is saying, but he doesn’t seem placated in the slightest. “Yes, I did all that. I checked with the school and the trip chaperones, and everyone. No one knows where she is. You’re sure she’s not with you?”

“Right,” he says, his shoulders sagging defeatedly when the person apparently answers in the negative. “I didn’t figure she was, you would’ve called, but I had to check first. I’ve gotta go, though. I think I need to call the cops. Yeah, I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”

The man ends his call, and only then does he glance up and spot Sam and Emma. “Jesus wept,” he blurts, taking a startled step back. “Who the fuck are you people? Oh shit,” he says, suddenly going pale. “Please tell me you’re not cops here to tell me something happened to Ava.”

Sam shoots a look at Emma, who gives him a confused shrug in return. “I’m afraid we don’t know who Ava is, son. My name’s Sam Chisolm, Agent Sam Chisolm. This is my partner, Agent Cullen. We’re here to ask you a few questions about a man who’s recently taken to coming to this establishment.”

“What - no, I don’t have time for that,” the man barks. “My kid never came home from school today, and it can’t wait. She was on a class trip to the arts and culture museum, but nobody’s seen her since.”

Sam blinks as a couple of new puzzle pieces start to fall into place. He’s not sure yet what shape they’re going to take, but he’s positive what they’re dealing with here isn’t a coincidence. “Would that be the Rose Creek Centre for the Arts?”

“Yeah, why?”

Reaching into the pocket on the inside of his coat, Sam pulls out a picture and lays it face up on the bar top. “Because that happens to be where the man we’ve come to ask you about is employed. Does he look familiar to you?”

The man’s brow furrows as he stares down at the shot of Vasquez. “That’s Rafa,” he says slowly. “Rafa Marquez. No way would he hurt my kid. He comes in here and makes fun of the art on the walls for fucksakes.”

“Sir - I’m sorry, who are you anyway?” Sam asks, belatedly realizing he hasn’t bothered to find that out.

“Joshua Faraday,” is the prompt reply. “I own this place.”

“Right, well,” Sam rolls his shoulders, almost positive what he has to say isn’t going to go over well. “The man you think you know doesn’t exist.”

“His name’s Vasquez,” Emma supplies helpfully. “He’s an international art thief. We’ve been tracking him as part of an operation to take down both him and his employer.”

“Bullshit,” Faraday says succinctly. “Rafa’s not a thief, he’s an art historian. He sits here and yammers on about how dogs playing poker is an offence to the eye, and I should make the decor match; that kind of thing.”

“He’s trained as an art historian,” Emma agrees, “but typically he uses those skills to get himself into the museums he’s targeting. This isn’t the first time he’s taken on a job somewhere he planned to steal from.”

“Again, bullshit,” Faraday says. “Rafa’s in here all the time. I know him.”

“With all due respect, no you don’t,” Sam says. He tries to keep his voice low, hoping to act as a calming influence, but he gets the sense Faraday’s a naturally belligerent sort. “We know him, or we know what he’s done, anyway.”

“He’s not just wanted for theft,” he adds carefully. “The last job Vasquez was on saw a security guard wind up dead, and he’s the main suspect. You may think you know who he is, but he’s a master when it comes to hiding in plain sight.”

Faraday’s eyes dart back and forth between Sam and Emma, clearly looking for some sign that this is all a big joke, or some kind of misunderstanding. Just as obviously, he doesn’t find one. “You think he took Ava? For what?”

Sam shakes his head. “I’ve got no idea if he took her or not. His doing so would certainly be outside the norm for him, but he’s been acting differently ever since he came to this city, so who knows.”

“What we need to do now,” he says simply, “is find our masterclass thief. Think, son. Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“I’m right here,” a tired voice says, and when Sam turns at the sound, it’s to find their intended target standing in the doorway with his shoulders slumped.

“Mr. Vasquez, how nice of you to show up.” Stepping around Emma, Sam pulls his badge out, and holds it up so that their new arrival can see. “My partner and I would like a word.”

“Good,” Vasquez replies, shocking Sam by sounding entirely sincere as he speaks.

“I need your help,” the man continues on. His voice catches momentarily, and it’s as he comes further into the bar that Sam realizes he’s not looking at a man who’s putting on a coolly disaffected air. He’s looking at a man who’s just barely managing to keep himself from flying apart at the seams.

“I need your help,” Vasquez repeats. “And Joshua might not know it yet, but so does he.”

*****

“A killer has my daughter.” Joshua says, speaking for the first time after everyone has caught up on recent events. His voice is flat, completely devoid of expression, but his face is that of a condemned man. “I - how?”

“It was my fault,” Vasquez admits miserably, hanging his head in shame. “Like I told you, McCann was at the museum when she came up to talk to me. Bogue must have had him or someone else grab her somewhere between there and home.”

“That’s not what I meant!” Joshua explodes. “Who the fuck are you that you’d somehow bring this kind of thing to my door?”

“He’s exactly who we said he is,” the woman agent says, Cullen, Vasquez thinks he heard her called. “He’s a criminal employed by the man who has your child.”

Joshua shakes his head like he still can’t grasp what he’s being told. “Rafa -“ He starts, and Vasquez winces.

“My name is Alejandro,” he says, even though he suspects Joshua’s already been told as much. “Alejandro Vasquez. Rafael is - he doesn’t exist. He never has.”

“You see,” Cullen says, sounding smug as Joshua closes his mouth with a snap. “He’s a conman, a thief, and a murderer.”

“I’m not -“ Vasquez starts to protest, but she keeps talking over him, clearly not interested in anything he has to say.

“He’s here working a job, we think to try and get his hands on the Trickster’s Fancy for his employer, another murderer, this one by the name of Bartholomew Bogue.” Her voice tightens as she spits out Bogue’s name, her entire posture practically seething with hate. “Given that his boss has now grabbed your kid, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Vasquez here has fucked up somehow.”

“You’ve got it all wrong,” Vasquez tries again. “I’m not one of Bogue’s men. Not voluntarily anyway.”

“Please,” Cullen scoffs. “We know full well this isn’t the only time you’ve run with him, and we know how good you are at lying. Don’t expect us to believe some sob story about how you were coerced into accepting the gig.”

"Oh for - you think I wanted this?" Vasquez shouts, focusing all his attention on Cullen and Chisolm, the second agent, so he doesn't have to look at Joshua. "You honestly think I wanted to be working for a murderer? The kind who will put a little girl in danger to get what he wants? What the fuck kind of person do you two think I am?"

Both agents rear back in a way that would almost be funny if the situation weren't so serious. Cullen continues looking surprised at his vehemence, but Chisolm's expression quickly shifts to one of calculation. "Jack was right, he's got something on you."

That makes Cullen snort. Shaking herself out of her stupor, she glares at Vasquez the way she has been since arriving. "Of course Bogue has something on him, Sam," she snaps. "He witnessed him kill a man."

"Madre de dios!" Desperately wishing he could punch something - if there were ever a time he needed to vent his frustrations, it's now - Vasquez fishes his phone out of his pocket. Thumbing in his passcode, he calls up the folder of photos, and slams the whole mess down in front of the agents. "I didn't kill Hobb. I've never killed anybody. I've been working with Bogue to keep him from killing them!"

Cullen gives him a look fuelled by skepticism, but Chisolm at least seems contemplative as he reaches out to pick up the phone. He scrolls through the photos with a thoughtful sound, only glancing back up once he's all the way through.

"These are surveillance photos," he says. "From the last several months it looks like.”

"Trust me," Vasquez grits out. "I am well aware of what they are."

Now Cullen takes the phone, and for once the level of hostility radiating from her has dimmed such that it's no longer to the point of nearly being visible. "These people, they all look like you. They your family?"

"Sí." Defeated, Vasquez slumps forward in a sudden wave of exhaustion, feeling not unlike a puppet whose strings have just been cut. "Mother, sisters. Niece. Bogue says he will kill them if I don't get him what he wants. Framing me for Hobb's murder was simply a bonus for him. They are what he really has on me. I would have risked jail or having him kill me otherwise."

"I'm not a murderer," he repeats, willing them, all of them, to believe him. "I'm a thief, but only a thief."

“Because that’s so much better,” Joshua says snidely. He’s shifted slightly to put additional distance between them, standing on the opposite side of the room with his arms crossed as he glares at Vasquez for all he’s worth. “You’re still a fucking criminal, and now my kid might take the fall for you!”

He gestures to Cullen and Chisolm, fear and fury all but rolling off him in equal waves. “The hell are you two just standing around for? Shouldn’t you be, oh, I don’t know, arresting him?”

Chisolm eyes him warily for a moment before switching his gaze back to Vasquez. “If we bring you in now, the girl’s as good as dead, isn’t she?”

Joshua makes a gut punched sound, and Vasquez can’t say he blames him. Feeling like Chisolm’s just done the same thing to him, Vasquez swallows heavily, but forces himself to speak. “Yes,” he says, voice hoarse. “Bogue’s using her as leverage. He says he will kill her if I don’t bring him the diamond within the deadline.”

“Which means we can’t arrest you,” Cullen snorts. Her own expression frustrated, she turns to address Joshua as she speaks. “If we bring him in now, not only will Bogue know he’s lost his best chance at getting the Fancy, he’ll also know we’re on to him, at which point your daughter becomes a loose end.”

“Then what do we do?” His desperation plain, Joshua looks like he’s two seconds away from grabbing Cullen, and shaking her until the answer’s fall out. “There’s got to be some way to get Ava back!”

“Not that you can help us with,” Chisolm cuts in. He holds up a hand to stall any protests. “I’m sorry, Faraday, but this isn’t a job for civilians. The best thing you can do right now is stay out of our way, and let us work.”

“What about him?” Joshua demands. Jabbing a finger in Vasquez’s direction, he makes a disgusted sound. “If you’re going to let him go free, what’s to say he won’t go right to Bogue and tell him everything to save his own skin?”

“Joshua, I would never - !” Vasquez starts, but he’s cut off by a resulting glare that stops him in his tracks.

“You, shut the fuck up,” Joshua snarls viciously. “This is all your fault, you utter utter bastard. You put us in danger, and now Ava, my daughter, might pay the price. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got nothing to say here, you got that?”

Not daring to speak, Vasquez nods.

“Good.” His anger by no means relenting, Joshua visibly gets himself under control, and straightens to his full height. “I want my kid back, and I want her back safely. If that doesn’t happen? I’m coming for you.”

Having said his part, Joshua gives him one last glare, before leaving the room at Chisolm’s request. He slams the door as he exits, hard enough that it rattles in its hinges, causing Cullen to let out a low whistle.

“We should probably send someone to keep an eye on him,” she says once it’s just the three of them. “There’s no telling what he might do if left alone.”

“Agreed,” Chisolm replies. “Call in a couple of agents to watch him, and see if you can find Jack while you’re at it. I want to pick his brain and see if he’s got any suggestions on how to move from here.”

Cullen nods, and then she too slips out of the room, albeit much more quietly than Joshua had. Vasquez idly wonders who Jack is, and why his opinion is important, but then decides he’s got bigger things to worry about.

“What do we do now?” He asks hoarsely. “I - there must be something.”

“We don’t do anything,” Chisolm informs him. “For all intents and purposes you’re another civilian in this matter, and I don’t want you getting in the way. What I do want you to do is tell me how to find Bogue.”

“I can’t,” Vasquez says miserably. “I have no idea where he is, or if he’s even in the city. I haven’t seen him the whole time I’ve been here. Only McCann.”

“Alright, fine,” Chisolm says, pinching the bridge of his nose like he’s pretty sure he can feel a headache starting to form. “I wish I could say I’m surprised by that, but Bogue’s always had a knack for staying a step or two ahead of people who are chasing him. What can you tell us?”

“I don’t - probably not anything helpful?” Vasquez shrugs helplessly. “Bogue’s had his eye on the Trickster’s Fancy ever since it was rediscovered. He told me to get it for him, or he’d hurt my family. I get weekly photos of them as proof he has someone watching them, with the odd photo more frequently when I’m not moving fast enough for his liking.”

“And that’s why he grabbed the Faraday girl,” Chisolm surmises. “Because his man saw you with her, and he assumes you’ve been screwing around on his time.”

“Yes,” Vasquez says, flashing back to his earlier phone call with Bogue, this one taken in his office with McCann looming over him as he’d been forced to sit at his desk. “And he’s given me a deadline. He wants the Fancy by tonight, or he’s going to hurt Ava.”

“You knew he was going to take her,” Chisolm says. “He told you that.”

“Sí, during a call this afternoon.” Vasquez makes a face, feeling old beyond his years. “I knew there was going to be no way I could stop him, so I came here to tell Joshua everything. I figured we could go to the police, but you were already here.”

“Lucky for you, yes,” Chisolm says. “We started looking into you after the situation in Amador, and we’ve been tracking your every move for about three weeks now. We noticed you seemed to come here a lot, and thought maybe it was some kind of meeting place.”

Vasquez laughs hollowly. “No, no, nothing like that. Just an inadvertent safe haven for a coward in way over his head. Joshua was ... inviting,” he says, trying to come up with a decent way to describe it. “I first came here to get away from everything, and then I couldn’t stop.”

“And now,” he says, his hands curling into fists as a hot burst of shame trails up his spine, “I’ve put not only my own family in danger, but somebody else’s. That little girl is his whole world. I have to get her back.”

“As I said, you’re staying out of the way,” Chisolm says sternly. “If you want to help you need to give me everything you have on Bogue. Every single detail. Even the smallest thing might be relevant.”

“I don’t see how, but okay.” Sinking down into a chair, Vasquez runs a hand through his hair. “As I said, I haven’t seen Bogue since being here, only McCann. He may have other people watching me, but if he does they’re not ones I recognize.”

“McCann texts me when he wants me. I can give you the number, but not one for Bogue. He always shows up unlisted. Unlike McCann, who I guess I needed to be able to call if anything unexpected happened.”

“Today was the first time he’d ever come to the museum,” he adds, remembering that that had seemed strange at the time. “Before that he always had me meet him at a restaurant. The same one. It’s called The Menagerie.”

“Okay, that’s a start,” Chisolm says, making notes in his phone. “We’ll check out the restaurant, and also see if we can trace the number you have for McCann. Now, you said Bogue gave you a deadline of tonight, yes?”

“Mhm,” Vasquez says. “Midnight.”

“How cliche of him,” Chisolm says dryly. Then his expression sobers. “I know Bogue. I’ve been after him for a long, long time, son. He’s not going to leave this kind of thing in the hands of flunkies. If he’s having heists undergone, and kids snatched up off the streets, then he’s in the city. All my people and I need to do is find him.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Vasquez scoffs. “He’ll be much harder to find than I was. Much harder to track too.”

“No shit. For one thing, we don’t have him bugged. Don’t look so surprised,” he adds when Vasquez jerks around to stare at him. “Like I said, we’ve managed to follow your every move for the past few weeks.”

“I see,” Vasquez shifts in his seat. “A part of me wants to complain about my liberty being infringed upon, but I suspect the double standard might actually see god strike me down on the spot.”

“Very likely,” Chisolm agrees. “Now, keeping in mind that I’ll know if you don’t, what I want you to do is head for that museum, and wait to hear from us. Make it look like you’re playing along. We can’t lock you up without tipping Bogue off, but don’t expect to go free after this. We’ll be watching you every step of the way, and once this is over you’re going to face the music the same as everybody else.”

“I understand,” Vasquez, honestly feeling relieved at the thought of finally facing retribution for this mess. “Just tell me what to do.”

Chisolm shrugs. “Like I said, go to the museum. Make it look like you’re planning to move in on the heist. We’ll be in touch when we’re ready.”

Not really sure what that means, Vasquez nevertheless goes.

*****

Unfortunately, Vasquez is a man who can’t leave well enough alone. Deciding he can’t leave things as they are, instead of exiting Joshua’s office and heading for the exit through the main bar, he turns to the set of stairs that must lead up to his apartment. Knowing it’s a bad idea, but resolving to do it anyway, he starts up the steps.

He can hear the sound of someone pacing inside, and then Joshua’s voice drifts out through the door.

“No, I don’t know. The police are involved! They’re all over the bar, and they’re telling me she’s been kidnaped. I don’t think I’m supposed to say more than that, but they want me to sit around on my ass and wait! How the fuck am I supposed to do that, Red? How the fuck?”

Vasquez swallows. He knows from previous conversation that Red, the waiter from the bar, had initially met the Faradays as a babysitter for Ava. They’ve basically adopted him as one of their own since that time, and it sounds like Joshua is updating him on the situation.

He waits a little longer to see if the conversation will peter out, but it keeps right on going. Knowing he doesn’t have much time before Chisolm’s agents appear to ask him what’s taking so long for him to leave, he takes a deep breath and knocks.

Doing so has no effect. Either Joshua can’t hear him, or he’s too caught up in talking with Red. Trying the doorknob, he finds that it turns under his hand, so he says a mental ‘to hell with it’, and eases it open.

Joshua has his back to him upon entry, but he whirls around when Vasquez clears his throat to get his attention. Freezing mid-sentence, he stares at Vasquez for a long moment. “I have to go,” he tells the caller on the other end of the line in a clipped voice. “I’ll call you back.”

Vasquez is half expecting him to throw the phone at him; he certainly looks like he’s considering it. Instead, however, he shuts it off with a swipe of his thumb, and then carefully sets it down on a nearby shelf. “What,” he asks icily, “are you doing in here?”

That’s a very good question, one Vasquez wishes he had the answer to. “They’re sending me home,” he says, even though he’s not sure why. “Chisolm and his people, I mean. I wanted to see you before I left.”

“Did you now?” Joshua asks snidely. “I’ve got to say, pal, that’s not among the smartest things you’ve ever done. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t take a shot at breaking every bone in your body.”

“I can’t,” Vasquez says honestly, shrugging when Joshua’s eyes narrow. “I wouldn’t blame you one bit. I guess maybe that’s what I wanted to come tell you. That I’m sorry about all of this, and I understand if you hate me now.”

“I really don’t care what you understand,” Joshua replies. His words come out so sharply that Vasquez can’t help but flinch. “All I care about is getting my daughter back safely. You can go hang as far as I’m concerned.”

“Right.” He’d known this was a bad idea, and it’s clear his continued presence is only continuing to cause Joshua more stress. Swallowing heavily, he turns to leave.

“Why’d you keep coming back?” Joshua’s words make him pause, and when he looks over he finds the man staring at him in frustration. “That’s the part I really don’t get. You had to know things were never going to end well for you, so why drag us into the mix?”

“I never intended to,” Vasquez tells him, but for all that the words are true, he knows they just make him sound pathetic. “I came in one night when I couldn’t stand the sight or thought of that museum for a minute longer. All I meant to do was drown my sorrows.”

“But you kept coming back.”

“Yes, I kept coming back,” Vasquez agrees. He gives Joshua a long look. “What do you want me to say? That I should have known better?”

“Yeah,” Joshua grunts, “that’s exactly what I want you to say.” He crosses his arms over his chest, and his expression gets even more closed off. “You knew what kind of mess you’d gotten yourself into, how this Bogue guy would react to anyone you got close to, and you still put us in danger. Why?”

“I didn’t think Bogue would come for your family. Honest, I didn’t.” Vasquez holds his hands up in a placating gesture when Joshua scoffs at him. “I truly thought the only one I was putting at risk was myself, and, to answer your question, I did it because I was lonely.”

“It’s that simple,” he adds when Joshua shifts to openly gape at him. “I’ve been trapped in this mess for months. I am stressed, I am tired, and I haven’t seen my family in almost a year. Maybe it’s a poor excuse, but it’s the only one I have. I was horribly, inescapably lonely, and I felt better when I was around you.”

For one brief, shining moment, he thinks he might have talked his way into some form of forgiveness. There’s an instant, no matter how fleeting, where he thinks he sees the faintest hint of sympathy flash across Joshua’s face. Then it’s gone, replaced by a stony glower.

“I wish you hadn’t,” he says simply.

*****

His heart heavy, Vasquez exits the apartment to find Agent Cullen glowering at him darkly. Having had about all the hate he can take, he acknowledges her with a slight nod, but doesn’t speak. Instead, he tries to shuffle past her so he can head for the stairs.

She stops him with a hand on the elbow. “Sam told you to go back to the museum.”

Figuring Sam must mean Chisolm, Vasquez attempts to draw his arm back, and is surprised with how difficult this is. Cullen is stronger than she looks. “I’m going,” he says, once it’s become clear she’s not letting him go without an explanation. “I just had to talk to Joshua first.”

“I can’t imagine he’s in much of a mood to speak to you,” she replies archly. “Your own situation aside, those of us who’ve been burned by Bart Bogue don’t care much for those who work for him.”

There’s something in her voice, not to mention a look on her face, that tells Vasquez he’ll regret it instantly if he pries into whatever she’s getting at. Deciding he’s had more than enough confrontation for one night, as well as possibly forever, he doesn’t take the bait. “I need to leave,” he says simply. “Bogue will start getting suspicious if I’m gone much longer.”

Her eyes narrowing, Cullen surprises him by abruptly releasing his arm. “There’s a cab outside waiting,” she says. “The driver’s one of ours.”

Something must show on Vasquez’s face because her mouth turns up in a less than pleasant grin. “You don’t honestly think we’d trust you to go somewhere just because you say you will, do you?” She gives him a look like he’s a particularly dim child. “We’re going to be keeping an eye on you.”

Supposing that makes sense, Vasquez makes a show of adjusting his jacket, and tries to appear nonchalant. “Then I guess I’ll just be going, shall I?”

Her answering smile has considerably more teeth in it than he’s comfortable with. “Why don’t you do that?”

Turning his back on Cullen is one of the more uncomfortable things he’s done in recent memory, but Vasquez doesn’t see a way to avoid doing so. Trying not to hunch his shoulders protectively as he walks by, he hurried down the stairs, and then out of the bar.

As he’s expecting, there is a cab idling out front of the building. Wondering if any innocent pedestrians had tried to grab it while he was delayed upstairs, he opens one of the back doors and climbs inside.

“Where to?” A jovial voice asks, and it takes Vasquez a moment before he realizes he knows the man behind the wheel.

“You were in the museum a couple of weeks ago,” he accuses, his eyes narrowing when the old man flashed him a bright grin in the rear-view mirror. “I almost ran you over.”

“Not quite,” the man replies. His voice is momentarily drowned out by the sound of the car starting. “Not to sound trite, but you’d never have gotten anywhere near me if I hadn’t wanted you to. My name’s Jack by the way. Jack Horne.”

It’s on the tip of Vasquez’s tongue to say he couldn’t care less, but he bites down on the words before they can escape his mouth. He’s pissed off enough people already today, and Horne so far doesn’t seem overly hostile.

“You were spying on me, weren’t you?” He asks instead. “Chisolm said you people have had constant eyes on me for a while now.”

“Oh yes,” Horne agrees affably, and Vasquez doesn’t have a lot of experience with government agencies, but he doesn’t think this is par for the course. “It’s an unfortunate part of the job, but sometimes it really is necessary.”

“It also,” he adds casually as they peel away from the curb, “is how I first got the idea that you might not be a willing participant in this mess. You’re welcome for that.”

Vasquez sags back in his seat. “You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not feeling very grateful at the moment. Though I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that this will all be over soon.”

A thought occurs to him as they begin to drive slowly down the road. “How closely have you been following me?” He asks. “I only saw you the one time, and I go to many places.”

“No, you don’t,” Horne snorts. “You go to the museum, your condo, and that bar. As for how closely I’ve been following you, let’s just say I needed only the one encounter to do so indefinitely.”

Vasquez has had too rough a night to parse that out immediately. Wondering what the hell it means, he thinks back on his and Agent Horne’s first encounter. He remembers stalking through the halls, agitated beyond belief and needing to get away, right before he’d slammed into another person and almost lost -

“You bugged my phone!” He barks, genuinely feeling a little scandalized. “You deliberately got in my way, so you could bug my phone.”

“Technically, I made use of an unexpected opportunity,” Horne informs him. “I was actually there to see if I could find some way to bug your office. You showing up when you did was simply a chance too good to ignore.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” In the grand scheme of things, Vasquez knows he’s being irrational, but in his defence, he’s had a very long night following on the heels of a very long year. “You bugged my phone.”

“Yes,” Horne replies amicably. “And because I did that, my coworkers and I were able to arrive at the opportune moment for when you needed us. Or would you rather you were still facing Bogue without any backup?”

“I don’t see how you qualify as backup,” Vasquez grumbles, although he supposes Horne and his people are at least tentatively on his side. “We need to find Bogue if we’re going to have a chance in saving Ava.”

Horne’s posture tenses, and for the first time Vasquez thinks he can see a dangerous person lurking within an otherwise harmless persona. “We’ll save the girl,” he promises. “Bogue is going to make contact with you one way or another, and when he does we’ll move in.”

“And if he calls me from miles away, but doesn’t like what answer I have to give him?” Vasquez digs his fingers into the cheap upholstery covering the car’s seats, certain that if he presses hard enough he’ll leave holes in the fabric. “She’ll be dead before any of us can blink.”

“No,” he says then, lifting his head to stare out the car window and watching the street lamps pass in a blur as they drive by. “We physically find him before he makes any moves, but how? There must be a way.”

“There is,” Horne states. “It’s called following up on the leads you’ve given us. We’ll run them all down, and we’re bound to turn up something eventually.”

“Maybe,” Vasquez says absently, “but even if you’re right there’s no telling how long that we’ll take.” He chews on his bottom lip, his mind working furiously as an idea occurs to him. “Bogue is not a man known for his patience.”

“I know,” Horne says. “As do the rest of the people working this operation, most of them personally. It’s probably a mistake procedurally, but the bulk of our task force has a bone to pick with him.”

Before Vasquez can ask for an explanation, or even decide if he wants to, the car begins to reduce speed. Coming to a stop in front of a familiar looking building, Horne shuts off the ignition with a sigh. “We’re here,” he says, nodding up at the museum. “I assume you can go in by yourself?”

“You’re not coming in with me?” Vasquez asks, snapping back to the hear and now I’m surprise. “I thought I was going to be under constant surveillance?”

“Oh you will be,” Horne assures him. Vasquez can’t be certain due to their admittedly brief acquaintance, but he thinks the old man is silently laughing at him. “We just can’t take the risk of tipping Bogue off by physically going in with you. Rest assured, however, we’ve got every possible way in and out of this place covered.”

“Hmm,” Vasquez says, pondering how he can maybe make use of this. “Good to know. I’ll just see myself out, shall I?”

“Probably a good idea,” Horne agrees. He waggles his fingers above the steering wheel in an aborted wave as Vasquez exits the vehicle, and then slowly drives off. Vasquez watches the car until its taillights vanish into the darkness, after which he starts walking towards the museum’s authorized personnel entrance.

The building has long since been closed down for the evening, but Vasquez’s position had come with a key and security codes in the event that he felt like working after hours. Putting them both to good use now, he lets himself inside, still considering his next move.

Bogue won’t come to them. That’s simply not how he works. He’ll stay wherever it is that he’s currently holding court, and no amount of begging or trickery is going to flush him out. This is a man who expects the things he wants to come to him.

Which might, Vasquez realizes with a start, be something he can make happen, and if he can convince Bogue to let him into whatever sanctuary he’s holding Ava in ...

Smiling for the first time in hours, Vasquez reverses course from where he’s been heading towards his office, and instead begins striding purposefully towards the hall where the Fancy is kept.

*****

The main reason Vasquez has spent so long studying the security systems around the Fancy is that he's wanted to find a way to be successful in the entire heist. He's always known how to get it out of its case and out of the building; what he'd been missing was a way to do that without triggering an alarm that would cut off his head start and get him caught down the road.

After tonight, however, he no longer cares about that.

Wanting to still give himself as much time as possible, he waits until the security guards have finished their rounds, and then slinks out of the shadows where he’s been watching them pass by.

The lasers he’s able to get around simply by moving carefully. He slides through the beams, avoiding most of them by only a hair’s breadth until he’s standing safely on the platform that holds the Fancy. Thinking yet again that if he’d had enough time he might have been able to come up with a way to beat the remaining systems, he sighs at the unfairness of everything.

Then he lifts up the case, snatches the Fancy from its resting spot, and blinks when alarms don’t immediately start blaring.

"You know, I really didn't expect you to get this sloppy," a voice says behind him. "You've been so patient in staking us out that I figured you might come up with something that even I hadn't seen before."

Diamond in hand, Vasquez whirls around just in time to see a shadow detach itself from the wall, and stride forward until he can get a better look at it.

"You've given yourself a five minute window at best," Billy Rocks says, staring down at the empty cushion upon which the Fancy had recently lain. "If I hadn’t shut things off already, you’d be able to get out of the room, maybe even the hallway, but not before the security guards moved in on you." He makes a dismissive noise. "Frankly, I expected better."

"What?" Vasquez asks flatly, unable to come up with anything else.

"Oh, don't mind him, my friend," a new voice says, and now the lights come on as Goodnight Robicheaux wanders into the exhibit room. "We've had a little wager going on with regard to whether or not you'd actually be able to beat his security system. Billy's been betting against you from the start, but I don't think this is how he wanted to win."

"He didn't even try," Rocks grunts, both looking and sounding annoyed. He gives Vasquez a once over that makes him look distinctly unimpressed. "It's one thing to get caught because you had a thorough plan, but couldn't account for one of my variables. This though? This is pathetic. This is the work of an amateur."

"It's also incredibly out of character," Robicheaux adds; the two of them continuing on with their conversation, seemingly oblivious to the way Vasquez is gaping at them. "What's gotten into you, Rafael?”

Vasquez swallows, once again so damned sick of hearing that godawful alias. "That's not my name," he says roughly. After all, it's not like the authorities don't have the real one at this point.

"Well, obviously," Robicheaux replies. "Tonight's anomaly aside, I truly don't think you're incompetent in the field, so there's no way you'd have launched this plan without a well-crafted persona to hide behind."

Still baffled by the night's turn of events, Vasquez glances back and forth between the two men before deciding to ask the question that's at the forefront of his mind. "Who are you people?"

Robicheaux gives him an affronted look. "I," he says loftily, "am Goodnight Ellison Arthur Robicheaux, ungrateful and degenerate son of the late Alister and Valeria Robicheaux, who couldn't be bothered to stay in the family manor after inheriting it, and instead insisted on remaining here with my lovely artifacts and my even lovelier partner."

Silences descends upon the room, Vasquez gives Rocks a look that's meant to say 'Is he kidding?' as much as it is anything else.

Shrugging, Rocks appears unfazed. "You get used to him. I'm Billy."

"He's the Shade," Robicheaux adds helpfully, beaming over at his husband in a way that suggests being an internationally renowned thief is something to be delighted by.  "He's retired these days, though. Well, mostly."

“I ... see,” Vasquez says faintly, in direct contrast to the fact that he really, really does not. “I’m sorry, but what exactly is happening here?”

“You’re trying to steal the most valuable item in this museum, and you’re making a mess of it,” Robicheaux replies. “Frankly, Rafael, I’m a little disappointed too. What made you jump the gun like this?”

“Goody,” Rocks says, sounding mildly exasperated. “Stop trying to find an explanation, and admit that you lost our bet.”

“Shan’t,” Robicheaux says primly. Fixing Vasquez with a haughty stare, he crosses his arms over his chest in a way that’s likely meant to make him look intimidating, but doesn’t really succeed. “Come on now. You’ve been so careful all these months, at least satisfy my curiosity and tell us why you moved before you were ready.”

Figuring he’s got no other choice, Vasquez sighs. “Because the life of a seven year old girl is on the line, and this is my only chance of saving her.”

Both Rocks and Robicheaux blink at him in open confusion. “I’m sorry?” Unsurprisingly, Robicheaux is the one to find his voice first, and he cocks his head to the side while he speaks, as if that might somehow help him understand better. “Is this one of those situations where she needs life saving surgery, and you can’t afford the cost, so you’ve up and decided to steal your way into the money?”

“Because honestly,” he continues on as Vasquez gapes at him, “we have plenty of items that would be far easier to steal. Not to mention, far easier for you to sell so you could get said money. The Fancy’s much too well known.”

Vasquez shares a look with Rocks, who doesn’t appear to be even remotely fazed. “Yeah,” he says impassively, “this is basically how his mind works.”

“It’s a perfectly logical theory!” Robicheaux protests, and if the situation weren’t so dire, Vasquez would have to laugh at his petulant tone. As it is, however, he doesn’t have time for this.

“No one is sick,” he snaps. He holds up the Fancy, scowling at it darkly. “Believe me when I say this damned thing is more trouble than it’s worth, and I’ve got no interest in it period. I’m here under duress, always have been, and if I don’t deliver it to the man who wants it, he’s going to take my failure out on an innocent child.”

“Oh,” Robicheaux says softly, all traces of levity having faded from his tone. “That’s much more sinister than I was expecting. I take it you’ve run out of time where your, for lack of a better word, employer is concerned?”

“Sí,” Vasquez says tiredly. His shoulders slumping, he glances down at the Fancy, turning it over in his hand, and wondering how something so small could cause so much trouble. “He gave me an expedited timeline tonight, and this was all I could think of to do. I figured I’d get caught, but,” he shrugs. “I had to try, you know?”

“Of course you did,” Robicheaux agrees, now sounding kind. “Just like you’re going to have to take it with you.”

“Wait, what?” Jerking his head up in shock, Vasquez is positive he must have misheard that. It’s got to be wishful thinking on his part. Something brought about by all the stress he’s under.

“He means it,” Rocks says when Vasquez turns to him for reassurance. He makes a face when Vasquez simply stares at him. “Neither of us really cares about it, is the thing. I stole it years ago, and we’ve been sitting on it and the rest of my collection for ages.”

“He’s an absolute pack rat, this one,” Robicheaux adds, nodding at his partner. “All these bits and pieces tucked away, and he never wants to show them off. It’s such a waste.”

Rocks’ mouth twitches into an approximation of a grin. “That’s the curator in you talking, Goody.” He gives Vasquez a nod. “Trust me, this one understands my position. Stealing is only part of the fun, keeping the end results where only you can see them is the rest. Right?”

“Right,” Vasquez agrees. That has always been his main reason for doing what he does, after all. “Although, that begs the question of why you decided to put the Fancy on display? You had to know what kind of attention it would attract.”

“That’s all part of the game,” Robicheaux cuts in. “I got to show it to the world like I wanted, and Billy was able to test his mettle against anyone who came for it like he wanted. It’s the most fun we’ve had in years.”

“I went legit when I met him,” Rocks explains, jerking a thumb towards Robicheaux. “Took everything I knew about breaking into security systems, and reverse engineered it into creating all the stuff you’ve been trying to make your way through. It’s interesting work in its own right, but this stunt has been more intriguing than most.”

“Yes, yes,” Robicheaux agrees. “That’s all true and exciting, Cher, but it occurs to me that our friend here doesn’t have time to stand around chatting with us all night.” He flashes Vasquez a quick smile. “Shouldn’t you be going?”

Vasquez shakes his head, still not able to believe what’s happening. “You’re really just going to let me take it? It’s worth a fortune.”

“It’s also insured,” Robicheaux replies. “If you can get it back to us when all is said and done we won’t say no, but I’m not about to let a child die on my watch. Especially not over an expensive rock.”

There’s something in his voice now, a tone that speaks to stories Vasquez isn’t likely to ever find out about, and probably wouldn’t care for even if he did. Whatever else he might be, Goodnight Robicheaux is serious about what he’s offering tonight.

“I can’t guarantee you’ll get it back,” Vasquez says, wanting to nevertheless be clear. “I can’t even guarantee I’ll still be alive within the next few hours.”

Robicheaux snorts. “And people say I’m over dramatic. Get moving, son,” he adds, flapping a hand at Vasquez, as if to spur him forward. “I fully expect to hear all about this once it’s done.”

Vasquez gives him a grateful nod, shares a much more honest and grim look with Rocks, and then dashes out of the room with the diamond in hand.

*****

Vasquez digs his phone out of his pocket as soon as he’s out of the museum. Calling up his contacts list, he stabs his thumb down on McCann’s number, since he doesn’t actually have Bogue’s. The bastard always comes up blocked.

“Evening, Alejandro,” McCann drawls when he picks up. “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve got it,” Vasquez says quickly, thinking fast. “The method I used won’t go unnoticed for long though,” which wasn’t, strictly speaking a lie, “and I’m sure there will be people on my tail. Where do I meet you?”

“Where are you now?” McCann asks crisply, all traces of light gone from his voice. “Still in the museum?”

“I’m just leaving,” Vasquez replies. “Outside around the back.”

“Stay where you are. I’ll be there soon.” Without bothering to say anything further, McCann hangs up on him.

Unable to sit still, Vasquez paces back and forth in the confines of the shadows he’s trying to hide in. This is the stupidest idea he’s ever had, and there’s a solid chance McCann’s just going to kill him and take the diamond off his body rather than bring him back to Bogue still alive.

His worst fears where McCann’s intentions are concerned turn out to be true. A sleek, dark car pulls up not longer after the phone call ends, and the driver’s window rolls down to reveal the bastard himself, grinning faintly.

“Alejandro,” he says. Then simply, “Hand it over.”

Vasquez takes a step back, shaking his head. “Not until I see Ava. I get the diamond, and she goes free. That’s the deal.”

“Deal’s changed,” McCann replies. He holds up a gun in one hand, cocking it with the other. “Give me the jewel.”

“No,” Vasquez refuses. Then a thought occurs to him. “If you kill me here, it’s going to cause all kinds of mess, and probably lead to some questions you don’t like. Besides, Bogue will enjoy watching me squirm.”

McCann tilts his head thoughtfully, and then tips his gun down. “You know, you might have a point there. Or even points, rather. Get in the car.”

Nodding, Vasquez does as he’s told, and slides into the passenger seat. Holding up his hands to show he’s unarmed, he makes no move to touch McCann, and stays exactly where he is, secure in the knowledge that his phone, at least, is now in the vehicle.

They drive to an area of the city that Vasquez isn’t familiar with, one that’s largely industrial if the number of warehouses are anything to go by. If the situation weren’t so dire, he’d consider making a joke about villainous cliches, but his heart simply isn’t in it. Instead, he waits for the car to pull to a stop, and then gets out as soon as McCann tells him to.

Bogue’s standing in the middle of a large open space when Vasquez and McCann enter the building. He’s flanked by a number of henchman Vasquez doesn’t recognize, and spreads his arms wide as they approach.

“Alejandro,” he says expansively, smiling wide. “I hear you have something for me.”

Carefully, Vasquez reaches into his pocket to grab the Fancy. His fingers brush the casing of his phone in the process, and he hopes against hope that he’s managed to predict the situation correctly.

“I want to see the girl first,” he says as he pulls the diamond free. Bogue gasps as he holds it up high enough to be visible to everyone present. “Where is she?”

Bogue hums thoughtfully, his eyes never leaving the glittering jewel gripped in Vasquez’s fingers. “You know what?You’ve done well enough that I’m actually going to give you that much.” He snaps his fingers at McCann. “Go get the kid.”

McCann moves out from where he’s been standing behind Vasquez, leaving him unattended while Bogue and his remaining goons all continue to watch him. They all eye each other warily while McCann’s footsteps fade into the distance, and the sound of a heavy door opening and closing rings out as he disappears.

“You’re going to want to clear out of here as soon as possible,” Vasquez says, wanting to keep Bogue’s attention him. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I haven’t figured out how to crack all the Fancy’s protections yet. I guarantee you someone already knows it’s missing.”

“Perhaps.” Bogue doesn’t seem overly concerned by this idea if the shrug he gives is anything to go by. “On the other hand, all traces should lead only to you, and you were picked up in an unmarked car, driven on a route with minimal traffic cams, and taken to an area you’d previously never set foot in. From where I’m standing, that’s going to make it awfully hard to connect you to me.”

“What is unfortunate,” he continues on, “is that I’m going to have no choice but to get rid of you after this job. You’ve become too much a liability, and I can’t risk having your work get linked back to me. It’s a pity, you truly are good at what you do.”

“I am fantastic at what I do,” Vasquez growls. He figures that in the face of imminent death is no place for false modesty, and he is tired of having to cow down to this man. “If you’d given me the time I said I needed, I’d have been able to complete the heist properly, and you wouldn’t be in this position.”

Bogue’s eyes narrow. “I gave you an extension, and you squandered it,” he snaps. “Don’t try and put the blame for this on me, boy. Your own stupidity got you into this mess, not anything else.”

“There’s some truth to that, I grant you,” Vasquez admits. After all, if he’d never accepted Bogue’s first job offer, he’d have been free and in the clear where the lunatic was concerned. “But at least I can comfort myself with the thought that I’m not a murderer.”

Bogue smiles. It is a distressingly unpleasant expression. “No,” he says softly, “you’re the idiot who put a child in harm’s way without thinking. I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do about your family,” he adds, smirking when Vasquez flinches. “However, I’m afraid your little friend has already seen too much. We’re going to have to make sure the both of you stay quiet.”

“She’s a child,” Vasquez protests. “What is she possibly going to be able to do to you that will have any lasting consequences? Do what you want with me, but let her go.”

“I don’t take orders from people, least of all you,” Bogue says. Then he cocks his head to the side as a door opens closes somewhere in the distance. “Ah, that must be McCann with my other guest now. What’s her name again? I’m honestly not sure anyone’s bothered to tell me.”

“Ava,” Vasquez growls, his hatred for this monster somehow ratcheting up impossibly higher. “Her name is Ava, you fucking hijo di puta.”

“Such language,” Bogue clicks his tongue, and gives a sad shakes of his head as the approaching footsteps draw nearer. “I knew you were lippy, Alejandro, but this is a brand new side to you.”

Any reply Vasquez might make is cut off upon the appearance of the new arrivals.

“Rafa!” Being dragged into view by the grip McCann has on her arm, Ava shrieks when she sees Vasquez, reaching out for him with her free hand. She looks frightened, but otherwise unharmed, and she twists in McCann’s hold in a way that suggests she hasn’t come easy.

"Just let her come to me," Vasquez says desperately. He's past the point of stalling for time by now, and Ava deserves to at least be with him when what's about to happen goes down. "What's it going to hurt?"

Bogue's faint smile is all the more cruel thanks to its mocking edge. The same goes for the way he nods ever so slightly as a signal to McCann. "Let her go," he tells his henchman before turning back to Vasquez. "Never let it be said I'm a man without decency."

McCann releases his grip on Ava as per his employer's instructions, and she launches herself at Vasquez, needing only a moment to cross the divide between them.

"Rafa," she whimpers, skinny arms coming up to clutch at his neck when he drops to his knees to grab her. "Rafa, what's going on? Is daddy coming? Can we go see him if he's not? Is he okay?"

"Shh," he says, bringing a hand up to stroke her hair as she presses her face into his neck. It's a mess, her usually well maintained curls having fallen out of their ponytail and gotten tangled all over the place.

"Your father is fine," he promises, though for how long that will remain true once Joshua learns what's about to happen here, he doesn't dare think about. "He's just stuck somewhere else at the moment, so I came to find you."

"Are we going to him now?" She asks, not having missed the way he's avoided answering most of her questions. "Rafa, I want to go home!"

"I know," he says raggedly, running his thumbs over her cheeks and catching the tears running down them. "I know, Ava, but I need you to look at me for now. Don't think about anything else, just concentrate on my face."

"Rafa," she wails, her upset increasing in the face of his inability to comfort her properly. "You're lying to me, aren't you?"

The amount of times he's lied to her doesn't bear thinking about, but Vasquez realizes abruptly that there's at least one he can correct. "My name is Alejandro," he says softly, glad that at least here at the end he can reclaim it. "My family calls me Ale."

She frowns. "I don't understand. Why did you tell us your name was something else then?"

Out of the corner of his eye Vasquez sees Bogue signal to McCann. Gripping Ava's face in his hands, he holds her steady so she can't see what's coming. "It doesn't matter, just look at me, Ava. I'm here with you, you're not alone."

She sees through him as easily as Rosario ever did when he'd spout similar nonsense at her. Her entire body trembles, and she grips his wrists with her tiny hands, staring up at him with frightened eyes.

"I'm sorry," he says miserably. "You and your father were so much better off before I came along. None of this would have happened if I hadn't."

Ava opens her mouth to say something at the same time McCann pulls his gun. Without thinking, Vasquez presses her slender frame against his chest, wanting to shield her with his body - no matter that such a move is futile.

It's as he does this that all hell breaks loose. Every window along one side of the warehouse shatters, and the next thing he knows a team of heavily armoured bodies are diving through the openings, weapons at the ready.

Vasquez will never know what allows him to move as quickly as he does, but he keeps Ava tucked up against him, meaning to roll out of the line of fire while Bogue and his men are distracted. There's a handful of packing crates not far away that if he can get behind will provide at least some semblance of cover if he can reach them.

He almost makes it. It's only as he's clearing the ridge of the closest crate, shoving Ava safely ahead of him, that he feels the searing pain lance through his side. Letting out a noise akin to a wounded animal, he skids the last few inches necessary to get himself under cover, and then curls over with a hand pressed to the injury.

"Ale?" Any hope he may have had of Ava missing the sound he'd let out is dashed when she appears suddenly in his field of vision. "Ale, what happened?"

Groaning, Vasquez does his best to keep her away from his bad side. "Here," he gasps, getting his free arm around her as he keeps the other clamped over the spot that now sees blood seeping through his fingers. He had no idea getting shot would hurt this much.

"Stay with me and keep your head down," he instructs, doing his best to appear like it isn't becoming difficult to breathe. Try as he might to deny it, he knows the hit is a bad one. "Those are the good guys arriving, and we don't want to get in their way."

Or to have Ava wind up being collateral damage in this mess. Vasquez is confident Chisolm and his team can put Bogue in his place, they just have to hold out long enough for that to happen. That way at least one of them might make it out of here alive.

"Ale?" Ava's voice drags him out of the fog he's getting lost in, but only barely. It's getting harder and harder to concentrate, and he's starting to go numb, which can't be a good thing.

"Hmm?" He asks, voice sounding weak even to his own ears.

"How come you told us your name was something else?" When he dares to look over, he finds her gazing up at him with a serious expression on her face. All this chaos around her, and she's decided that's the most pressing detail.

Still, it's not like she doesn't deserve an answer, especially with everything she's been through. "It's complicated," he starts, unable to stop himself from chuckling when she scowls at him. "Don't look at me like that, Nina. Laughing hurts."

"Then you should tell the truth," she says solemnly, clearly unwilling to let the subject drop. "How come you lied?"

"I didn't want to," he says, matching her serious tone with one of his own. "Bogue was threatening to hurt my family. I had to pretend to be someone I'm not to protect them."

"Oh," she says, and to Vasquez's amazement she seems to accept this as justification of the mess they're in. "I hope they're okay."

"Me too," Vasquez says, coughing. It's getting harder and harder to focus on anything; even Ava's face mere inches away from his own is going blurry. "They are very important to me."

"Ale?" Ava says, reaching out to shake him and repeating his name more insistently when he doesn't respond. "Stay awake! You can't go to sleep here!"

"Sorry," he mumbles. He winces as she shakes him more forcefully, but lacks the energy to ask her to stop. "I don't think I can do what you want."

"You gotta!" She insists. Getting to her feet, she fists her hands in his shirt, and stares at him. "Wake up!"

He hears the sudden tread of heavy boots running on concrete floors. Distantly he realizes that the sound of gunfire has died off. Without thinking, he moves to push away from the crate he's leaning against, fully intending to put himself between Ava and whatever's coming in the even that the wrong side has won.

It doesn't work. All he manages is a pained grunt before sagging back into the base of the crate with Ava's worried shout echoing in his ears. "Come here," he insists, holding her to him with what little strength he has left. He keeps one hand on her, and the other over the wound in his side.

That's how Agent Cullen finds them a few moments later, accompanied by a fresh faced slip of a boy who looks too young to be out of college, let alone running dangerous missions in full combat gear.

"Fuck," Cullen says succinctly as she holsters her gun and crouches down next to him to begin applying pressure to his wound. Meanwhile, her companion starts urgently speaking into his comm. "You weren't supposed to play hero, Vasquez. What is this shit?"

"Don't swear," he rasps. It's getting harder and harder to concentrate, and tilting his chin in Ava's direction takes far more energy than it should. "There's a child present."

"Given the day she's had, I imagine she can handle a little swearing," Cullen declares. Then she motions to her friend. "What's the situation outside, Teddy?"

"Under control," is the prompt reply. "The medics are on their way, and someone's contacting the little one's father."

"Make sure whoever pulls that detail knows they might have to sit on him to keep him under control," Cullen mutters. "The last thing we need here is yet another civilian wandering around unsupervised, especially not one so bullheaded."

Mentioning Joshua sets off a pang somewhere in Vasquez's gut, one that's completely unrelated to the bullet currently taking up residence somewhere in his body. "You should get Ava out of here, and back to him," he insists. "She doesn't belong here."

She doesn't need to see this, he means.

Cullen gives him a grim look, clearly having understood the subtext, and then nods. Once. "Get her out of here, Teddy. Bring her to the hospital set up, and have her checked over to make sure there's no damage we can't see. Christ knows that'd be fitting with the way this mission has gone."

"No!" Ava's voice rings out sharply as the young agent steps forward to grab her. She shrieks in denial as he picks her up like she weighs nothing, her small hands grasping for Vasquez as she's lifted into the air.

"It's okay," Vasquez gasps, willing her to understand. "Go with them. They're the good guys, they'll get you back to your father." They'll finish what I couldn't, he doesn't say. They'll make sure you make it out of here safe and sound.

It's obvious Ava doesn't agree, but there's nothing she can do as she's forcibly removed from the scene. Vasquez watches as she's carried off, still shouting his name, and breathes a sigh of relief once she's safely out of sight. "Thank you," he tells Cullen. "Both for coming after us, and for that."

Cullen shrugs like it was nothing, and maybe for her it was. Just another day on the job, although he doubts that, what with the connotations this specific mission had for her anyway. It's possible she'd wanted Bogue taken out even more than Vasquez himself had.

He opens his mouth to say as much, and yelps when Cullen applies additional pressure to his side. "Don't try to talk," she snaps. "You've lost a lot of blood. You need to conserve your strength."

Absurdly, Vasquez is struck with a sudden urge to laugh. Maybe it's the aforementioned blood loss making him light headed, or maybe it's the knowledge that Bogue has finally been stopped, meaning his family at least will be safe. He doesn't know, and he doesn't care.

"Vasquez, I said shut up," Cullen barks. She curves two fingers over his throat, aiming to track his pulse. "Oh fuck," she swears. "Where are those damn medics? They should be here by now!"

"It's fine," Vasquez insists, wrapping a bloody hand around Cullen's wrist to get her attention. "I don't care what happens to me, I never did, but you need to make sure nothing comes down on Ava or Joshua. Or my family. My mother, my sisters. I did this to keep them safe. Promise me you'll make sure that happens."

"We've already dispatched agents in the area to deal with the man Bogue has on your family," she assures him, looking alarmed when he shudders at this news. It's due to relief, but she must not be able to tell. "Vasquez. Damnit, Vasquez! Stay with me here, the medics are on their way."

He tries to nod to show he heard her, but even that's too much for him now. His eyes slip shut without his permission, and the last thing he hears is Cullen's voice calling his name, while new pounding footsteps signal the arrival of the missing medics.

*****

Josh is pacing the confines of the room under the watchful gaze of two agent types when a phone starts ringing. “What is it?” He demands sharply, dread pooling in his gut as he pictures a thousand different scenarios, each more terrifying than the last. “What’s going on?”

The man doesn’t respond in any way, while the woman holds up a hand to silence him at the same time she pulls the phone from her belt. “Hoskins,” she says crisply, and Josh waits with increasing agitation while she listens to whoever’s speaking on the other end of the line. Her face gives nothing away, but finally she nods once. “Right. We’ll head that way now.”

She thumbs the phone off, and has it part way back to its holster by the time Josh is on her. “What is it?” He demands a second time, getting right in her face despite the fact that she and her friend are armed, while all he’s got are his fists and a willingness to fight dirty.

“Bogue’s in custody, and they’ve got your daughter. Cullen says she seems fine, but they’re taking her to the hospital to get checked out just in case. We’re to take you to meet her there.”

“Then what the fuck are you waiting for?” Josh bursts out, never mind the fact that she’s already turning towards the door. “Let’s fucking go!”

“Profanity isn’t going to help the situation, Mr. Faraday,” she says coolly, and Faraday nails her with the most vicious stare he can.

“Either you deal with my mouth, or I start flinging things,” he snaps, pleased when she recoils slightly, obviously a bit taken aback by his tone. “This has not been a good night for me, and all told I think I’m holding up remarkably well given the bullshit going down.”

“Might want to leave him be, Clara,” the other agent says when Hoskins opens her mouth to reply. “Take it from someone else who’s got kids.”

“Oh, fuck off, Josiah,” Hoskins says, and Josh has to bite down on the urge to comment on her language. “Just stay with him, will you? I’m going to go get the car.”

Her partner falls into step next to Josh as she strides off ahead of them. “Don’t mind her,” he says as he and Josh trail after her. “She means well; she’s just lacking in her presentation at times.”

Josh side-eyes him, wondering if there’s a nice way for him to convey the fact that he’s got no desire to make small talk. In the end, he decides there isn’t, and also that he doesn’t care to pretend as much. “Let’s just go,” he grunts. “I want my kid.”

If he’s offended, Josiah doesn’t show it. Instead, he simply inclines his head in a slight nod, and motions for Josh to follow him with one hand. They make their way out of the building, and over to where Hoskins is climbing into the driver’s seat of a nondescript looking car.

“He’s in the back,” she tells her partner. “You can take whichever remaining seat you want.”

“You’re too kind,” Josiah says lightly. Either he’s not as high strung as she is, or ... well, Josh doesn’t know what other options there might be, and he’s too out of it to focus on coming up with any. All he wants to do is hold Ava, so he can be positive she’s okay.

The trip to the hospital is uneventful, if quicker than it might be given the time of night. There’s next to no traffic on the road, and the lights all seem to be working in their favour because Josh doesn’t think they hit a single one the entire way.

Hoskins pulls up at the front entrance, and Josh has his seatbelt off and the door open before she’s come to a complete stop. Ignoring the startled yells of both agents, he bolts for the building, reasonably certain that the other two are on his heels, but not really caring if not.

“Mr. Faraday, wait!” Josiah barks as he stomps toward the front desk. The look on his face must be something to behold given the way the receptionist visibly flinches in her seat, and she glances back at the agent riding his ass, as if searching for assistance.

A hand lands on Josh’s shoulder before he can start insisting someone tell him where his kid his, and he whirls around to find Josiah way closer than he likes. About to tell the man where he can shove his hands, he freezes when he actually hears what he’s saying.

“You don’t have to ask the staff where your daughter is,” Josiah promises, dragging Josh away from the desk by the hand still clamped on his shoulders. “She’s with more of our people, and we’re going to bring you right up. It’s this way.”

Allowing himself to be steered in the direction that’s promised to lead him to Ava, Josh doesn’t say anything. Part of him wants to go back to the same mixture of cursing and praying he’s been doing all night, but it’s almost as if he’s developed some kind of mental block where that’s concerned. The words are present, but he can’t get them out.

Josh has been in this hospital a time or two thanks to it being the one closest nearby. However, the hallway passes in a blur, and he doesn’t recognize anything until they come through a set of swinging doors, and then a high pitched voice is screaming for his attention.

“Daddy!”

Leaping off the hospital bed she’s perched on, Ava bolts past a startled looking doctor, and streaks across the room right into Josh’s outstretched arms. Her arms are around his neck within seconds, and he hits the floor on his knees without realizing how it happened, focused only on his daughter’s trembling body.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, I promise!” He gasps into her hair, clutching her tight enough he’s probably at risk of doing damage. Not that that’s going to stop him one bit. There’s a solid chance he’s never letting her go again. “I’m here, I’ve got you.”

“Baby, I was so scared,” he says, honesty forcing the words out of his mouth before he can stop and think on whether or not they’ll make things worse. “Thank god you’re alright.”

He pulls up short as a thought occurs to him. Getting his hands on her shoulders, he shifts her backwards so that he can look her over from top to bottom, his alarm only growing when he sees patches of blood on her clothes. “Oh shit,” he breathes, feeling sick. “What happened? Where are you hurt?”

“I’m not,” she says wetly. She tugs at the front of her t-shirt, her tiny body shaking as she sees the blood on it, and starts full on crying. “It’s not mine, it’s Rafa’s. The bad people hurt him!”

Freezing in the middle of swiping at her tears with his sleeve, Josh jerks his head up. “What the hell is she talking about?” He demands, glaring at the agent who’d been flanking Ava upon his arrival. Rafa, or Alejandro, or whatever the fuck he’s actually called, shouldn’t have been anywhere near this operation, and he feels the same dread from before begin to settle in the pit of his stomach when all he gets in response is an evasive look. “Who’s hurt?”

The agent, a lanky, blond kid, who looks frankly too young for this type of work, sighs. “As near as we can figure, Vasquez went in on his own to try and bargain with Bogue. He actually managed to stall long enough for us to get there, but the shooting started before they got clear. He put himself in front of the little one and got hit.”

Ava wails at this, and Josh finds himself torn between comforting her and demanding more information. Wrapping his arms around his daughter, he tucks her head under his chin, and stands, glaring at the agent. “How bad is it?”

The younger man shifts, looking awkward. “You’d have to ask the medical staff,” he says. “They rushed him into surgery as soon as we got here, but -“ the agent shrugs. “He’d lost a lot of blood, I know that.”

Josh shuffles Ava slightly so that she’s balanced more on his hip, rubbing her back while a torrent of emotions course through him. Just a few minutes ago, if pressed, he would have said he never wanted to see Vasquez again. Now, knowing the guy had been willing to die for his kid, he doesn’t know what to think.

“I want to see him,” he says finally. “Where is he?”

“I just told you,” the agent replies, and damnit if the little bastard doesn’t have the nerve to sound annoyed with him. “He’s in surgery, and likely will be for hours yet, unless he doesn’t make it. Then, even if he does, you’re still not going in. He’s a criminal, and he should be questioned about his role in this and other events as soon as possible.”

Ava’s sobbing increases at this, so Josh, reverting back to old habits of years gone by, takes a few steps forward, and punches the guy right in the face. He’s hampered in the move by the child in his arms, but it’s still a decent swing for all that.

Taken by surprise, the agent doubles over clutching his face, and Josh, trying not to think about how he’s just assaulted a federal officer in front of witnesses, turns to the remaining agents and the doctor who’d previously been looking at Ava. “Anyone else want to say that kind of stupid shit?”

He can’t help but feel a little smug when nobody does. Then, adjusting Ava slightly, he kisses the crown of her head. “C’mon, baby,” he says. “Let’s see if we can find some answers.”

*****

Vasquez wakes to the sound of steady beeping, and is instantly annoyed by it. One moment he'd been enjoying a peaceful dream where he'd been about to dig into a plate of his mother's fabled .... , and the next an insistent noise is forcing him awake when he doesn't want to be.

The beeping is the first thing Vasquez registers, and after that comes pain. There's a dull ache emanating from his right side, the kind that indicates he's really done a number on himself this time, and he's not going to be moving much over the next little while.

Unable to suppress a groan, he forces his eyes open. He's not overly surprised to be greeted with a white, sterile ceiling. Everything about his current situation screams hospital, no matter how much he might wish otherwise.

"Ale?" There's a screeching sound off to his side, similar to that of a chair being forced back suddenly along tiled floor, and when Vasquez cranes his neck to look, he finds Ava peering at him over the rails of his bed. "Ale! You're awake!"

"Sí," he murmurs tiredly. Daringly, he reaches a hand out to touch her. She's wearing different clothes than she had been in the warehouse, and someone's tied her hair back and cleaned up all the grime. "Are you alright?"

"Yep, I'm fine," she says brightly. "You gave everyone a big scare though. There were all kinds of doctors and shouting and stuff, and they wouldn't let us see you for ages. Dad did a lot of yelling, and when that didn't work he got Miss Emma to do it for him. She's really scary. I like her better than Teddy though. He's just dumb."

That is far more information than Vasquez is capable of processing right now. Acknowledging that Ava is fine, he decides to focus on the next most important thing. "Where is your father? He cannot have left you here alone."

She shrugs, looking unconcerned. "He went to the canteen for something to eat. I said I'd watch you until he got back." Now she scowls at him. "You weren't supposed to wake up until he was here."

"Sorry," Vasquez replies, even though he's not sure why that's a problem. He's considering asking as much when there's a soft clicking sound, and the door to the room is nudged open.

Like his daughter, Joshua looks much better than he did the last time Vasquez saw him. There's still an uncharacteristic tightness lurking at the corner of his eyes, but the set of his shoulders is relaxed, and he no longer appears on the verge of a breakdown.

"Dad!" Ava barks, dancing excitedly in place, while maintaining her grip on Vasquez's bedrail. "Ale woke up! I told him he should've waited until you got back, but maybe he's not so good at listening, I don't know. Did you get me chocolate milk?"

Rather than reeling back like some people might have, Joshua takes this bombardment of words in stride. Without saying a word to Vasquez, he calmly deposits his armload of snacks down on the little table near the bed, pausing only briefly to retrieve a small brown carton. "Of course I did," he says, popping the carton open and sliding a straw inside before handing the whole package over to Ava. "That's what you asked for, isn't it?"

Nodding happily, Ava accepts the offered carton and takes a hearty gulp. "Did you get anything else good?" She asks around the straw. "I'm starving."

"There's some sandwiches and cookies in there too," Joshua promises, reaching out to steer her gently in the direction of the food. "Eat the sandwiches first."

Ava makes an agreeable noise, and scrambles into the nearest chair to enjoy her lunch. Or possibly her supper or breakfast. Vasquez has no idea what time it is.

Just like he has no idea what to say. He watches warily as Joshua claims the room's other chair, dragging it over to the side of the bed and dropping into it with a sigh. When at least a full minute passes without either of them saying anything, Vasquez clears his throat. "How long was I out?"

"Almost two days if you count the many, many hours you were in surgery," Joshua replies. "We got kept out while they were operating on account of not being family," and here he holds up the most sarcastic set of air quotes Vasquez has ever seen, "so I took Ava home to sleep and get cleaned up. We came back once we heard they'd moved you into recovery though. Been here pretty much ever since."

"You were asleep forever," Ava adds helpfully. Vasquez can't help but notice that, in defiance of her father, she's left the sandwiches untouched and gone straight for the closest packet of cookies. "The doctor said you'd probably wake up soon, but it was still really boring."

"Ava!" Joshua scolds, but Vasquez merely laughs.

"It's okay, guero," he promises, wincing only slightly when the motion tugs at the stitches in his side. He trails the tips of his fingers over the spot where the bullet had pierced his skin. "How bad was it?"

"Bad," Joshua says simply. "Chances are good the only reason you're still here is it missed anything vital when it hit. The amount of blood loss alone was almost enough to do you in."

"Ah," Vasquez says. He shifts slightly in place, and promptly decides that's not a good idea given how much it hurts. "I feel like I got hit by a bus."

"Yeah, you've looked better," Joshua agrees. "But, hey. At least you're alive to tell the tale, right?"

"Sí," Vasquez has to admit this is a much more pleasurable wake up than he'd been expecting, and not just because he'd figured he wouldn't be waking up at all. "Thank you for staying with me."

Joshua shifts awkwardly in his chair, his expression unreadable. "You saved her," he says finally. "I figure keeping you company is the least we could do after something like that."

Vasquez snorts. "She was only in danger in the first place because of me. I don't deserve - " He stops speaking abruptly when Joshua rests a hand on his forearm, honestly confused by the unexpected touch.

"I don't think we need to have this discussion period," Joshua says seriously, "but if we do, it can wait until certain ears aren't in the room."

"He means you're not supposed to have grown up talk in front of me," Ava says helpfully. She now appears to be eating carrot sticks. Vasquez has no idea where she's gotten them.

Safely out of her line of sight, Joshua rolls his eyes heavenward. "I am so fucked when she hits her teens."

"Pretty sure that also constitutes grown up talk," Vasquez points out. He moves to shake an admonishing finger in Joshua's face, and it's only then that he realizes his right arm might be free to do as it pleases, but his left most decidedly isn't. He stares down at the handcuffs effectively trapping him in place, rattling them slightly. "Oh."

Joshua follows his gaze and scowls. "Yeah, sorry about that. I've been trying to convince them this isn't necessary, but no dice. Apparently you being unconscious and gutshot wasn't enough."

Vasquez lifts his left wrist as far as he's able, flexing it in a way that makes light glint off the metal band encircling it. "It's fine," he says, letting the limb drop back down again. He gives Joshua a wan smile. "Honestly, jail is a much better outcome than I'd dare hope for in a while now."

If anything Joshua's scowl gets heavier. "You were in a ridiculous position," he says flatly. "A total rock and a hard place kind of deal, and you still risked your life to save my kid in the process. I'd say that's got to be worth something."

"Joshua, I'm a thief," Vasquez says calmly. "I have stolen literally millions of dollars worth of artwork, most of which I have no desire or intention to give back. Let the agents do what they want with me. In the grand scheme of things it really does not matter."

"I'm also tired," he adds when it looks like Joshua is gearing himself up to keep protesting. Vasquez appreciates the sentiment, he truly does, but compared to what he had been facing, a cell in a high security prison somewhere is basically a vacation destination. "If we have to talk about this, can we at least do it after I've had some more rest?"

His expression softening, Joshua is quick to nod in agreement. "Yeah, sure," he says.  "Whatever you want. Can I get you anything?"

"No, thank you." Reclined against the pillows as he is, there's not much Vasquez can do to adjust his position, though he makes a small attempt regardless. Then, figuring it's not going to get much better than it is now, he closes his eyes and wills sleep to claim him once again.

*****

Vasquez spends most of the next few days sleeping. Sometimes Joshua and Ava are there when he's awake, and sometimes they're not. Either way, though, he spends considerably more time unconscious than not.

Altogether, he supposes his recovery isn't as arduous as it could be. On the other hand, especially due to the ever present handcuffs trapping him in place, he can't help but find himself waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's no way the authorities have forgotten about him, which means he's due for a reckoning.

Then he comes awake one morning, and finds Sam Chisolm sitting across from him in the chair Joshua usually claims. It looks as if his time has come.

"Agent," he says slowly. Wishing he could do more to look as if he wasn't entirely at the man's mercy, Vasquez struggles into a sitting position, hoping his doing so at least makes him appear alert. "I was wondering when you'd be by."

Chisolm gives him a faint smile, looking vaguely amused. "Certain parties wanted to be in here right away," he rumbles. "I think the idea was to press you for the whereabouts of some of your more valuable prizes while you were out of it on painkillers. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed."

"Also," he adds, his smile shifting into something more akin to a roguish grin. "Your bartender friend took a swing at the first person dumb enough to try. He packs a hell of a wallop for a man with no formal training. And his kid bites. I'm guessing the apple didn't fall far from the tree in that family."

Vasquez stares at him, reasonably certain he must have heard the man wrong. Either that or they've upped the dosage of his meds without telling him. "I'm sorry," he says slowly. "Are you saying Joshua punched a federal agent while I was unconscious?"

"Yep," Chisolm says brightly, sounding far more pleased by this than he should. "Lucky for him, we chalked it up to the stress of the situation, and no charges were laid. Also it was Agent Q he decked, who's green enough to need a lesson or two in not underestimating those around him. All told, everything was fine."

"And not just here, either," he says, his expression sobering. "We were able to track down the man Bogue had watching your family. He's in custody now. You don't have to worry about them being hurt."

Vasquez licks suddenly dry lips, unsure of how to respond. "I ..." he tries, only to have words fail him. "Thank you," he says finally, reasonably certain the crushing sense of relief he feels is such that Chisolm can pick up on it too. "I don't know what to say beyond that."

“Yeah, well,” looking uncomfortable in the face of Vasquez’s gratitude, Chisolm crosses one leg over the other, and leans back in his seat. “I have personal experience with what happens to Bogue’s victims, and I wasn’t about to sit by and let him hurt anybody else if I could avoid it. No matter who they’re related to.”

“They have no idea what I do,” Vasquez says quickly. “My mother, my sisters - they think I’m exactly what I pretended to be, and they had nothing to do with the real thing.”

“We know,” Chisolm replies. “There was enough surveillance footage on them that if they were involved in anything untoward, we’d’ve found it. They’re all coming out of this completely unscathed.”

“Unlike me,” Vasquez says ruefully, his mouth crooking into a slight grin despite the seriousness of the situation. He rattles the handcuffs for added effect. “I take it this is the part where you arrest me for real.”

“That depends,” Chisolm informs him, and it’s his turn to grin when Vasquez blinks at him in surprise. “One of the reasons it took so long for anyone to get in here with you is that we’ve been authorized to cut you a deal, and have spent far longer than necessary arguing about what that’s supposed to look like.”

“And you have something to offer now?” Vasquez asks sceptically. Whatever it is, he’s probably still not going to like it, but he figures it can’t hurt to listen. “What is it?”

Chisolm eyes him seriously. “First, I need you to know it’s an all or nothing kind of thing. There won’t be any changes made, and you either take the whole package, or you get tried for the full extent of everything you’ve done.”

Vasquez nods, easily able to see why the agency wouldn’t be interested in negotiating with the likes of him. It’s not like he’s got much of a leg to stand on. “I’m listening.”

“We want you to testify against Bogue,” Chisolm says flatly. “His own men are too afraid, and anyone else who’s seen him work is dead. You give us what we need to nail him, really nail him, and we’ll see to it that you don’t spend the rest of your life behind bars.”

“But that’s not everything,” he adds, right when Vasquez is about to say he can have that for free. “You’re out of the game, Vasquez. For good. You put one toe out of line, if you so much as shoplift a keychain, you’re right back here no matter what testimony you give.”

“We’ll be keeping an eye on you,” he says firmly. “You won’t be tied down, or in custody, or anything like that, but we’ll be checking in from time to time. And not just to make sure you’re behaving yourself.”

Now Chisolm’s mouth twists into a smirk that makes Vasquez decidedly uncomfortable. “The powers that be, with no prompting whatsoever from myself or Agent Cullen, have concluded that you might be useful as a source of information when we’re on similar cases. A sort of theft consultant, as it were. There’s no compensation for it, I’m afraid, but I’m sure you won’t mind letting us pick your brain from time to time.”

Vasquez scowls at him, though there’s no heat in it. “You want to benefit from my experience for free,” he says. “That’s hardly fair.”

“Considering the sheer amount of items you’ve stolen in the past however many years, I think it’s more than fair,” Chisolm replies. “What do you say?”

“Well obviously I am going to say yes,” Vasquez grunts. “You’ve read my file, so you know I’m not an idiot. I know a good deal when I hear one.”

Chisolm’s smirk widens. “I figured you’d see it my way.” Then he shifts forward, offering Vasquez his hand to shake. “Welcome to the right side of the law.”

*****

“The right side of the law,” Goodnight scoffs several weeks later when Vasquez - still healing, but now at least mobile enough to leave town - heads to the museum to say his farewells. “I don’t know this Chisolm fellow, but he sounds like a man with a warped sense of humour.”

“This from someone married to a famous international art thief, who snuck a piece out of said art thief’s collection for the express purpose of seeing if they could find a person good enough to steal it,” Vasquez says dryly. “And you did it all because you were bored. Don’t deny it.”

“Not bored,” Goodnight - he hasn’t been Robicheaux since that night in the Fancy’s gallery - protests. Focusing his gaze over Vasquez’s shoulder, he grins at where Billy is reclined on the couch in his office. “I haven’t been bored in twenty years, cher, but,” he allows, “this was certainly a step up from our usual fun.”

“You two,” Vasquez says bluntly, “are the ones who are warped. Not me.”

“He’s warped,” Billy says, speaking up for the first time. “I’m incorrigible.”

“They mean the same thing in this instance,” Goodnight scoffs. “They’re also irrelevant for all intents and purposes. Going back to our original discussion, Alejandro, are you honestly going to start walking the straight and narrow after all this time?”

Vasquez shrugs, mindful of his still tender wound. “I’m tired, Goodnight,” he says. “I’m tired, and these people know who I am. They know my face, my history, everything. In the grand scheme of things it’s a better offer than I have any right to.”

Goodnight shares another look with Billy, his expression shifting to something more somber. “Fair enough then. In that case, how would you like a job? Or rather, how would you like your old job back under legitimate circumstances?”

Vasquez stares at him for several long moments, before turning laboriously around to look at Billy. “Is he serious?”

“Yes,” Billy replies. “We have a hard time keeping staff around here, and you’re good at what you do. Both legally and illegally.”

“You two,” all Vasquez can do is shake his head at the pair of them. “I am positive I have never met a couple like you, and I doubt I ever will again, either.”

“No chance” Goodnight says, while Billy’s mouth twitches up in a small grin. “Now, do you want the job or not?”

This time Vasquez sighs. “As much as I appreciate the offer, what I really want to do is go home. I have no idea what’s happening with my family, or what they know where I’m concerned. I don’t belong here.”

“I’m not sure even you believe that,” Goodnight sniffs, “but I suppose I can’t fault you for wanting to be with your relatives. If you change your mind at a later date, however, let us know. I’m sure we’ll be able to find something for you to do. Something legal even.”

Unable to stop himself, Vasquez starts to laugh.

*****

His goodbye with Joshua is much more convoluted, for all that it’s possibly shorter. Part of him thinks he shouldn’t even say anything, that he’s better off just ducking into the night and letting the Faraday’s get on with their lives. On the other hand, Joshua and Ava were his main sources of company in the hospital despite all that he put them through. He figures he has to at least say something.

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” Ava asks the question the moment he steps foot in the bar, her face solemn as she gazes up at him from the table her homework is spread across. Vasquez hasn’t yet had a chance to get a word out, but apparently she doesn’t need him to. “Why?”

“Because my family is waiting for me,” he says, which sounds better than ‘Because I don’t belong here’, or ‘Because I can’t possibly stay knowing what I’ve already ruined’. “I have to get back to them.”

“Oh,” she says softly, and it’s clear he’s found the one excuse she won’t argue with. She glances up at where her father is watching her carefully. “Family’s important. Right, Dad?”

“Yeah, it is,” Joshua agrees, curling his hands over her slim shoulders. “Ra - Ale gets to go home now. We should be happy for him.”

Ava sighs at this, but doesn’t offer up any protests. Instead, she looks up at Vasquez, her green eyes sad as she asks, “Can I have a hug before you go?”

His chest tight in a way that has nothing to do with his recent wounds, Vasquez nods. “Of course you can, mija,” he says, voice rough. He opens his arms. “Come here.”

She’s careful when she comes to him, her usual exuberance tamped down as she pads slowly over to him and hooks her arms around his waist. Her grip is strong enough to make his still healing side ache, but he hides the resulting wince
as best as he can, and hunches over to wrap his arms around her skinny shoulders.

“I’m going to miss you, little one,” he murmurs into her hair. “I’m very glad to have met you, and I’m sorry for everything that happened.”

“S’okay,” she mumbles, her own voice muffled where she has her face pressed into his shirt. “I know you didn’t mean for it to happen.” She pulls back slightly to peer up at him. “Will you visit sometimes?”

Vasquez shrugs helplessly, and glances over at her father. “I don’t think that’s really up to me.”

Following his gaze, Ava catches sight of the way Joshua’s watching them warily, and rolls her eyes. “Boys,” she says with a grunt, slipping out of his embrace. “You better visit, or else I’m gonna be mad.”

Joshua snorts. “Is that so?” He drawls. “Well, how about you go be mad somewhere else so I can say my own goodbyes, and we can let poor Ale be on his way. Take your homework with you.”

Sighing at the no doubt numerous injustices in her world, Ava does as she’s told, gathering up the textbooks spread over her table, and shoving them all messily into her backpack. “I’m going. Bye, Ale!”

Watching her leave, Vasquez flashes her a quick wave when she turns around right before opening the door. Then it’s swinging shut behind her, leaving him and Joshua alone in the empty bar.

“So.” He says for lack of anything better. “I guess this is it.”

“Guess so,” Joshua agrees. “You all packed and ready?”

“Yes. What little I have to take with me is all set.” Vasquez shrugs. “Truth be told, most of what I had in the condo were things either supplied by Bogue or obtained for him. None of which I’m particularly interested in keeping.”

“Yeah, fair enough.” Rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck, Joshua suddenly won’t meet his eyes. “Look,” he starts, “about the things I said when Ava was missing, I didn’t know all the facts about what you were facing, and it wasn’t fair. I should have -“

Vasquez holds up a hand to stop him, completely unable to listen to another word. “Joshua, please, please don’t apologize. Nothing you said was unfair, or even wrong for that matter. I did put your family in danger, and I did it because I was selfish, because I was lonely. I had no right to run that kind of risk, and I almost cost you everything by doing it. I deserved every word you yelled at me that night.”

“You didn’t,” Joshua disagrees, “and even if you had, you more than made up for it after. You almost died for her.”

“And I don’t regret it,” Vasquez says, raw and honest. “I haven’t exactly made a habit of doing the right thing in my life,” he admits, as if this might possibly come as a surprise, “but I’m glad that I had the nerve to do it here.”

Joshua shakes his head, for some reason looking bemused. “God,” he says. “You’re a right piece of work sure enough. C’mere, Ava’s not the only one getting a hug before you head out.”

Startled, Vasquez isn’t fast enough to duck away before the other man moves in, and he finds himself caught up in an unexpected embrace. He holds himself stiffly for a moment, but then allows himself to melt into it when it becomes obvious Joshua isn’t going to let him go.

“Thank you,” he says finally, unable to think of anything else. He pats Joshua’s back awkwardly, pretty sure he feels his sides shake with laughter in response.

“Anytime,” Joshua says as he moves back, and then he surprises Vasquez by brushing a quick kiss to his cheek. “Get out of here, Ale. Go home.”

Nodding, Vasquez turns to leave, and tries not to think about how mixed messages are some of the most frustrating things in the world.

*****

The plane ride to New Mexico is long for a number of reasons, not just because of the sheer distance to travel. Even worse, he finds himself getting increasingly nervous the closer to home he gets. He hasn’t spoken to his family for the better part of a year, and he has no idea what to expect when he sees them again.

He considers booking a rental car before he reaches the airport, but decides against it in the end. No matter how mad they are at him, he doubts his relatives are going to be so angry as to not let him in the house. Therefore, a simple cab over should do.

The house doesn’t look any different than usual when he pulls up in front of it. Part of him can’t understand this, and thinks there should be some indication of the passage of time, but the bulk of him just feels relieved. He likes the notion that his family has emerged from this debacle relatively unscathed, whether it’s actually true or not.

He’s currently lacking a set of keys to the house, but his mother has always been a traditionalist at heart. As much stress as that might have caused him in recent memory, it means that he knows exactly how to get inside without having to knock.

Kicking at the loose brick in the walkway until it overturns, Vasquez stoops down to grab the key revealed by his actions. Dragging his single bag along behind him, he sets that under the awning of the front porch before unlocking the door.

Just like on the outside, the house is the same on the inside. Oh there are some changes - a vase of flowers atop the stand in the corner, a pair of bright pink cleats on the shoe rack that he figures must belong to Rosario - but nothing notable.

Leaving his bag where it is, Vasquez doesn’t bother taking his shoes off as he trails into the house, heading straight for the kitchen and the sound of voices he can hear within. He thinks he can pick out three, not four, but since Carmen has her own place elsewhere that likely just means she’s not here.

The voices get more distinct as he draws nearer, and Vasquez takes a deep breath as he rounds the corner.

“So I said to her, I understand why there’s a registration fee, just not how come we have to pay it so early. The season doesn’t start until - madre de dios!” Cutting off mid-sentence, Francesca’s eyes go wide when she sees him, and the mixing bowl she’s studiously drying slips from nerveless fingers to clatter loudly on the tiled floor. “Ale!”

That’s more than enough to send his mother whipping around, and her seat almost topples over backwards as she surges out of it at the sight of him. Her voice overlapping with that of his sister, she’s across the kitchen in no time, flinging her arms around his neck as she alternates between scolding him and thanking god he’s back.

“Where have you been?” She demands. “Mijo, I have never been so scared in all my days. We had not a word from you for so long, and then a man who said he worked for the government showed up out of nowhere. Nowhere! What did you get yourself into?”

Without meaning to, she squeezes him hard enough that he grunts in pain when his wounded side is jostled. Pulling back at his sharp exhalation, she gives him a worried frown. “You’re hurt, aren’t you? What happened?”

Smiling weakly, Vasquez gathers her up in his arms, and buries his face in the greying strands of her hair. “So many questions, Mama,” he murmurs, feeling any inexplicable urge to laugh. “Can’t I have a second to just breathe?”

“You’re lucky you are still breathing,” Francesca barks from where she’s standing with her hands on Rosario’s shoulders. He hadn’t even noticed the girl at first. “We’ve been worried sick, jackass.”

“Francesca!” Their mother somehow manages to sound commanding even with her face tucked into Vasquez’s shoulder. It’s impressive, he’ll give her that. “Don’t talk to your brother that way.”

“It’s okay,” Vasquez says quickly, patting her on the back. “Mama, in this instance she can call me anything she wants, I swear.”

“Not in front of Rosario, she can’t!” Is the reply, and now Vasquez does give in to the laughter that’s trying to burst out. Cackling delightedly, he holds on tighter, letting himself relax for the first time in months.

*****

“You’re really not going to tell us what happened are you?”

Vasquez looks up from where he’s shovelling a plate of his mother’s home cooked food into his mouth, and cocks an eyebrow at the woman in question. It’s just the two of them tonight, as Rosario has a school function that she and Francesca are attending. He’d half considered volunteering to go too, but then Mama had caught his eye in a way that made him think she wanted some time alone with just the two of them.

He hasn’t really had much of that in the months since his return to New Mexico. Francesca and their mother have both insisted he stay in the family home while they convince themselves he’s well and truly alive again, and Carmen is over practically every other night to prove the same thing. The house has been full pretty much non-stop, usually with multiple people keeping an eye on him.

Vasquez chews his current mouthful slowly, using it to delay having to respond as he considers how best to do so. Finally, however, he’s got no choice but to swallow. “You wouldn’t want to know,” is what he decides on. “It would only upset you.”

She snorts at this, arching one eyebrow pointedly as she speaks. “You think I wouldn’t want to know where my only son has been for the past year, and what he has been doing?”

“Sí,” Vasquez replies firmly, his eyes fixing on his plate so he doesn’t have to see the look on her face. “I wasn’t doing anything you’d be proud of, and hearing what that almost cost ... I don’t even want to think about how much you would hate it.”

“And you don’t think I should get to be the judge of that?” She asks somewhat acerbically. He feels a slight nudge against his knee as she prods him under the table. “Alejandro. Look at me, please.”

Figuring he owes her at least that much, Vasquez does so, but he regrets it immediately when he sees the mixture of sadness and worry in her eyes. “I -“ he tries feebly, before falling back on his earlier mantra. “You don’t want to know.”

This time she gives him less of a nudge and more of a kick. “Alejandro,” she says more forcefully. “Mijo, I think I have been very patient all things considered, but I also think I have the right to know at least some of what made my baby disappear without a trace, only to pop up again months later, obviously having been injured.”

“I’m thirty six,” Vasquez protests, but it’s weak, and they both know it. He slumps in his seat, fiddling awkwardly with his utensils. “I can’t tell you everything,” he says after roughly a minute has passed, and she’s still staring at him. “In fact, I can’t even tell you most things.”

“However,” he adds, sort of talking over her when she makes an indecipherable noise, “what I can tell you is this: I did something I should not have. Actually, I did many things I should not have, and overall this caught the attention of a bad, bad man.”

Vasquez flashes back to the moment when he’d truly understood the extent of Bogue’s depravity, and shudders. “He ... convinced me to work for him because there was something he wanted that I might be able to get. I didn’t want to, but if I’d said no there would have been consequences.”

“Consequences for who?” His mother asks softly, frowning when Vasquez shrugs.

“Everybody,” he replies. “And I couldn’t let that happen, so I did what he wanted. Or, I tried, anyway. All told I only succeeded because someone else took pity on me unexpectedly.”

From the way his mother’s mouth twitches, he can tell she doesn’t like that answer at all. “This man,” she says carefully. “The bad one. Where is he now?”

“Jail,” Vasquez tells her, unable to keep the smug sense of satisfaction entirely out of his voice. “He lost in the end, in a large sense thanks to me. Although, there were still repercussions.”

Unwillingly, his hand drifts down to his side, his fingertips resting just above the spot where the bullet had pierced his skin. He’s not sure which of Bogue’s men had actually shot him, or if it had even been the man himself, but he’s had more than one night of waking up in a cold sweat as he’d relived the experience.

“He hurt you,” his mother says. Her voice is soft, but when Vasquez looks up it’s to see that her eyes are burning in anger. “Don’t lie,” she says when he meets her gaze. “You were shuffling around like an old man when you first got home, and you kept wincing when you thought no one was looking. How bad was it?”

“Bad,” Vasquez admits. “Very bad. I don’t regret it though. I was - I got hurt protecting someone important to me. It was the right thing to do, and now they are unharmed. Safe and sound back at home.”

“I see.” Her voice now taking on an entirely different cast, his mother gives him a look akin to the cat that got the canary, and Vasquez finds himself abruptly wishing he hadn’t said anything. “What kind of someone important?”

“Not the kind you’re thinking,” Vasquez grunts, which is technically true since it’d been Ava he’d taken the hit for, not Joshua. He very much wants this conversation to be over now, as the last thing he wants to do is discuss the Faradays with his own relatives.

He hasn’t made any attempt to contact them since that last day in the bar. Despite Ava’s demands he do so, or Joshua’s hints that it might be permitted, he has no idea if they really would want to hear from him. With everything that’s happened, he can’t imagine they would want the reminder of what he represents. Therefore, he’s stayed away.

“Alejandro.”

Vasquez flinches. That’s his mother’s busybody tone. It’s the one she uses when she’s going to prod into his business no matter how much he might wish otherwise. Even worse, it’s the one she uses when she knows she’s going to succeed.

He could reach out, he knows. Given that he has both Joshua’s number and address, it is technically possible. Unlike the other way around, which isn’t. He hadn’t left a forwarding address when he’d taken off, and his only phone at the time had been the one from Bogue, which is long gone.

“Alejandro!” His mother snaps, and now she looks genuinely annoyed. “If you’re done staring off into space, I wouldn’t mind having you answer my questions. What happened to this ‘friend’ of yours? I assume it’s a man.”

“I - there was someone,” he says slowly, “and also the potential of something. It didn’t work out though. There was too much happening in the background for him to deal with.”

That makes her snort. “Yes, I’m sure criminal activity can have that kind of effect on people,” she replies curtly, rolling her eyes when his face flushes. “I don’t know why you look embarrassed, it’s not like we haven’t figured that much out by now.”

“It’s complicated,” Vasquez mutters, blushing even harder when she barks out an incredulous laugh. “Well, it is!”

“Oh stop whining, mijo,” she chides. “So, there was a boy, yes?”

Vasquez feels a sudden urge to bury his face in his hands, or possibly fling himself into traffic. “Mama, I don’t want to talk about this. Can you please go back to yelling at me?”

“Not until you answer me,” she stresses, tapping the table pointedly with one finger. “There was a boy - man, whatever. Where is he now?”

“Back home where he belongs,” Vasquez grunts. “Hopefully not getting into trouble now that I’m no longer around.”

“Hopefully,” his mother agrees. “Have you been talking to him?”

“No.”

“Of course you haven’t,” she sighs. “Why not?”

Vasquez shrugs.

“Helpful.” She starts tapping the table with multiple fingers now. “Are you going to try talking to him?”

“I don’t know what to say,” Vasquez replies, and it’s probably the most honest sentence to come out of his mouth in years. “I caused trouble for him, Mama. Serious trouble. He said he forgave me, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you just get over.”

“Then perhaps you might want to consider going the route of the grand gesture,” she informs him, snickering when he just stares at her blankly. “Oh, mijo. For someone so bright, you truly can be dense at times.”

She sits back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest definitively. “Send him a message,” she says, speaking in a way that isn’t exactly an order, but may as well be. “The kind that he would understand, yet nobody else would.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Vasquez asks. Only it’s no use, all he gets is her shaking her head and telling him his food is going to get cold.

*****

Vasquez thinks it over, and in the end there’s only one message he can come up with that will speak to Joshua and Joshua alone. It takes him some time to put together, though, because he doesn’t know who might be watching or how.

He’s taking a risk doing it, he knows this. The terms of his release are oddly silent when it comes to his past escapades, yet he doubts that means Chisolm and his cronies won’t be all over him given the right opportunity. They may have been willing to turn a blind eye to his other transgressions in favour of seeing Bogue hang (metaphorically), but they’re still agents of the law.

It takes him a couple of weeks to get everything together; weeks where he catches his mother and sisters watching him suspiciously at times, no doubt because he’s acting strange. He supposes he could tell them it’s just nerves weighing on him, except that would set them all in busybody mode, and he wants to be grilled on this even less than he does his criminal behaviour.

Finally everything is set up, and he’s as confident as he can be that his message will at least get where he wants it to. On a whim, he sends his phone number along with it, equal parts hopeful and terrified that Joshua will use it.

His mother catches him in the living room the evening it goes out, effectively cornering him by planting herself in front of the only way in or out, standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips the way she used to do when he was a boy, and she knew he hadn’t finished his homework.

“You are starting to act - I believe the word Francesca used was ‘squirrely’ - again,” she says flatly. “Is there something you want to tell us? Something we should be worried about?”

Groaning, Vasquez folds himself back into the couch cushions, feeling a sudden urge to pout. “It’s nothing bad,” he says, knowing better than trying to deny that there’s something going on. “I just took your advice, is all.”

“And what advice would that be?” She asks, no longer sounding quite so wary.

“The whole -“ He flaps a hand uselessly as he tries to figure out how to phrase it. “Message thing,” he settles on finally. “The kind we were talking about the other day. I sent one.”

“Oh. I see.” Looking pleasantly surprised, she pushes off of the doorway, and comes to sit next on the couch. “Have you heard anything back?”

“He won’t even get it for a couple of weeks,” Vasquez replies. The particular choice he’s gone with isn’t stored in the US, so it’s going to take time for it to reach its destination. “I only just arranged it today.”

“Ah, so this is you being nervous because you don’t know how he’ll react. I understand.” Reaching out, she pats his knee gently. “I’m sure it will be well received.”

“You have absolutely no way of knowing that,” Vasquez points out with a snort. “None whatsoever.”

“Please,” she scoffs, patting him more firmly a second time. “I’m your mother. I know these things.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Vasquez can’t help but ask.

“Then he is obviously a very stupid boy, and not worth you troubling yourself over. Now, give me the remote,” she demands, holding out her hand, palm up. “Let’s see if we can find anything to watch that will distract you.”

Unable to think of a better idea, Vasquez does as he’s told.

*****

Vasquez doesn't think twice about it when his phone rings in the middle of the afternoon. He thumbs the call button without looking at the screen, his eyes remaining focused on the tableau unfolding in front of him as he brings it to his ear. "Hello?"

"You sent me a painting." Joshua's voice, as recognizable as ever, is the last thing Vasquez was expecting to hear today, and it takes him a moment before he's able to respond.

"I did," he says finally, since he had, after all, done just that. "One I thought might suit your place well. Do you like it?"

"That depends," Joshua says faintly. "Is it stolen?"

Vasquez laughs in spite of himself. "Guero, I have no idea if this is a secure line or not. Do you really want me to answer that question?"

"That's all the answer I need," Joshua replies grimly, and Vasquez's stomach sinks at the thought that his gesture is going to be rebuffed. He should have known, however, that Joshua remains full of surprises.

"I'm keeping it," he declares firmly, and Vasquez can easily picture the cocky grin that's no doubt curling the corner of his mouth as they speak. "Anybody comes looking though - I'm tossing your ass under the bus."

"Seems fair," Vasquez agrees.

"Mhm," Joshua trails off now, as if he's not sure what to say once he's gotten his main reason for calling out of the way. "Where are you, anyway?" He asks suddenly. "Tell me you're not hanging upside down in an air vent, or something."

"Please," Vasquez scoffs. "I'm reformed, remember?" He says in the face of all evidence to the contrary. "I'm at my niece's soccer practice."

"Yeah?" Joshua's voice softens, all traces of exasperated teasing vanishing in light of this news. "How is she? And your Ma and sisters? All good?"

"All good," Vasquez confirms. "Safe and sound, and thankfully no longer yelling at me for everything I put them through. Not sure I deserve that last part, but I'll take it nevertheless."

"It's what family does, big guy." Joshua replies. "They shout because they care."

"Mmm," Vasquez hums quietly. "And how is your family doing? Everything good with Ava?"

Joshua goes silent for a moment, and then says quietly, "She's ... okay. Every once in a while she has nightmares about what happened, but they're few and far between these days."

"Fuck," Vasquez says succinctly. Leaning forward, he pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling guilty. "I'm sorry. I really should not have kept coming around. If I hadn't - "

"Ale, shut up," Joshua's tone is firm when he cuts him off, one that brokes no room for argument. Vasquez wonders if he learned it in dealing with Ava. "What happened wasn't your fault. I never should have said that."

"No," Vasquez disagrees. "You absolutely should have said that since it was true. Going out and forming personal connections was the last thing I should have been doing in my situation. I just did it anyway because ... well."

"Yeah," Joshua says, something lurking in his voice that Vasquez can't identify. "I know."

"She misses you, you know. Ava." Josh says, switching topics so abruptly it almost gives Vasquez whiplash. "She keeps telling me we need a vacation, and that New Mexico looks nice."

"New Mexico is nice," Vasquez insists, letting out a wounded noise when Joshua makes a scoffing sound in reply. "And if you want to come visit, guero, just say the word. I'll be happy to show you around."

"Maybe I'll take you up on that someday," Joshua says, setting Vasquez's hopes ratcheting up, only to dash them again almost immediately. "But I should go. I've got shit to do before I open for the evening, including figuring out where to put this thing you've sent me."

"Make sure you put it somewhere secure," Vasquez starts to say, but it turns out he's talking to air. Apparently done speaking as abruptly as he'd started, Joshua huffs out a quick goodbye and hangs up the phone.

Vasquez shakes his head as he tucks his cell back into his pocket, unsure of what he's feeling. Part of him is pleased to have heard from Joshua after so long, but most of him is just confused. He doesn't know what he's meant to read into this phone call, if anything.

He's so lost in thought, in fact, that he doesn't notice Rosario bearing down on him until she's almost on top of him. "Uncle Ale," she says staunchly, shaking a finger in his face when he jumps at her arrival. "You're supposed to be watching me play."

"Sí, Nina, I am," he promises, flashing her his most charming grin. "I just had to take a very important call, that's it."

"Oh." Seemingly mollified, she sits down on the bench next to him, and begins unlacing her cleats. Practice must have ended without his realizing it - too caught up in his conversation with Joshua.

"You're not in trouble again, are you?" She asks, and when Vasquez looks at her face, he finds she's watching him with a pinched expression, the same one her mother gives him whenever she tries to make him hand over the details of what happened and he refuses.

"I'm not in trouble," he promises. Curling an arm over her shoulders, he marvels at how he's managed to feel guilty about upsetting not one but two children in such a brief timespan. "I was talking to somebody ... special."

Rosario's eyes narrow. "So this is boy trouble?" She says. "Gross."

Vasquez laughs at her expression. "Hey, someday you might have boy trouble of your own, and then how will you feel knowing you made fun of your poor uncle?"

"I'm smarter than that," she says primly. Cleats off and sneakers now in their place, she stands and gives him her most imperious look. "I'm ready."

"I can see that." Grabbing the backpack that holds all her gear, Vasquez scrambles off of the benches, helping her follow after him. "Let's get you home then."

Rosario's quiet as they head for his truck, a beast of a machine that isn't anything at all like the sleek piece he'd been maintaining before returning home. She climbs up into the cab without help - barely - and has herself buckled in by the time he's come around to claim his own seat.

"So who's the boy?" She asks as he keys the ignition, snickering when he turns his best scowl on her.

"There's no boy," he says firmly. Craning his neck around, he moves to back slowly out of the parking lot, mindful of the various parents and children heading to their own vehicles now that practice is done. Hoping in vain that she'll drop the subject.

No such luck.

"You said it was someone special," she says as they pull onto the main road. "Sure sounds like there's a boy to me."

Cursing inwardly, Vasquez deeply regrets his previous choice of wards. "There was a possibility of ... something," he admits, not really knowing how to explain this to an eight year old. "But I'm back here now, and he lives far away."

"Can he come here?" She asks curiously. "People move all the time. I've got a kid in my class who used to live in Minnesota."

Thinking this new child is probably better off in New Mexico than in the frigid hellscape that is Minnesota - he'd spent a couple months there one winter for a job, never again - Vasquez considers how best to answer.

"He's very far away," he says finally, which is true. Joshua is essentially on the other side of the country. "And it's not just himself he'd have to move," he continues on. "He - my friend, he has a daughter, and a business. A life. It'd be an awful lot of work for him to just follow one person."

Rosario goes quiet long enough that he thinks she's dropped the subject. He watches out of the corner of his eye as she fiddles with her seatbelt, and then, "Why can't you go to him?"

Startled but trying not to show it, Vasquez gives her a weak grin. "Don't tell me you're anxious to be rid of me already," he says, laughing when she shoots him a narrow eyed glare. "I've only been back for a few. months."

"You don't have a kid or a business," she replies, effectively cutting him off. "And mom's been saying forever that you don't have a life outside of museums. Are there museums where your friend is?"

"There are," Vasquez says faintly, baffled by the turn this conversation is taking. "But that's his home, not mine."

"Home is supposed to be where you're happy," Rosario says solemnly. "Mom and Aunt Carmen say you're not happy. I heard them."

"I'm - Rosario, I'm fine," Vasquez insists. Telling himself he needs to concentrate on his driving, he stares straight ahead at the road, refusing to meet her gaze. "Your mother and aunt don't know what they're talking about."

"Abuela said it too," she says now, and Vasquez winces. "Abuela's never wrong."

"Rosa -" Vasquez starts, but it's no use. She's got him well and truly cornered, and they both know it.

"Would you be happy wherever your friend is?" She asks, and for that Vasquez has no answer.

*****

"You look like you got hit by a bus." Tilting her head to the side, Francesca accepts Rosario's soccer gear bag as Vasquez hands it over, her eyes never leaving his face. "What happened?"

"Your child gave me the third degree while I was trapped in a moving vehicle with her, and couldn't run away." Vasquez rolls his shoulders as he says this, feeling like he's taken multiple punches despite the opposite being the case. "Did you put her up to that?"

"Please," Francesca scoffs as she slings the bag over her back, and watches Rosario run up the front steps into the house. "She was explicitly told not to pick at you for info."

"Ah." Vasquez grunts. "She didn't listen."

"Apparently not." Francesca shrugs, her posture basically screaming 'What can you do?', and not seeming overly concerned. It reminds him of how Joshua reacts whenever Ava does something unpredictable. "Did you want to talk about it?"

"No," Vasquez denies. Then. "She says you think I'm unhappy."

Francesca looks completely unfazed. "Ale, I know you're unhappy. You've been sitting around for I don’t know how many months now like you don't know what to do with yourself. I understand that you can't tell us the full details of what happened, but it's obvious to all of us you're not over it."

"I can't go back," Vasquez says, even though he knows it's a lie and there's nothing stopping him aside from his own hangups.

His sister evidentially sees right through him. "Bullshit," she says flatly. "Mama already ratted you out that you left someone special behind. Are you really going to live the rest of your life this way?"

"I -" Vasquez says helplessly. "I don't know."

Francesca's smile is somewhat tired as she gestures for him to follow her inside. "You might want to think about it."

*****

Vasquez takes her advice to heart, and does think about it - which is why he finds himself climbing out of a cab onto a very familiar street a couple weeks later. Fisting his hands in his pockets, he stares up at the sign hanging above the entrance to Faraday's, wondering if he's lost his mind.

He stays where he is, unmoving until a harried looking woman who's entire countenance screams 'student on deadline' almost slams into him in the middle of the sidewalk. Shooting her an apologetic glance, and getting a glare in response as she continues on her way, Vasquez takes a deep breath and approaches the entranceway. It's still an hour before the pub is due to open, but knowing Joshua he's got the door unlocked to let staff and delivery men alike walk inside easily. Squaring his shoulders, he reaches out to turn the door handle.

If it hadn't moved maybe he could have taken that as a sign he shouldn't be here, that he's making a mistake and taking too big a risk. However, the cool metal shifts easily under his palm, slipping downwards as the door opens with a soft click. Steeling himself, Vasquez pushes it back enough that he can squeeze through the resulting space and make his way inside.

Part of him wants to gaze around the bar to see if anything's changed since he was last here, but any chance of that is immediately co-opted by the sight of the familiar man at the far end of the room.

He's hunched over the counter with his head down and his attention focused on a sheath of papers in front of him - probably containing some kind of accounting records if the nearby calculator is anything to go by.

Not sure it's the right thing to do, Vasquez reaches back silently to flick the lock on the door he's just come through; wanting to ensure they have some semblance of privacy for the ensuing conversation. Then he clears his throat.

Joshua swears. "Damnit, Red! I've told you a thousand times not to interrupt me when I'm looking at - oh." Finally looking up from his paperwork, the man freezes mid-sentence when his eyes lock on Vasquez. "... Hi."

"Hi," Vasquez says weakly, shuffling in place. "The - uh - the door was open," he adds, pointing behind himself to better illustrate his claim. "I hope you don't mind."

"It's fine." Joshua's mouth works silently for a bit, and Vasquez can tell the exact moment he mentally says 'to hell with it' and asks what's on his mind. "What're you doing here?"

"I was - Goodnight Robicheaux offered me a job," Vasquez blurts. "Or, well, technically he offered me my old job back. The legal one, I mean. Not the other one."

"Goodnight Robicheaux is insane," Joshua says flatly. "He does remember that you tried to rob him, right?"

Vasquez shrugs helplessly, unable to explain Robicheaux's thought process for obvious reasons. "Apparently he believes in second chances."

"Huh." Looking intrigued, Joshua comes out from behind the bar, only stopping when he's a few feet away from where Vasquez is standing. "So, are you taking the job then?"

"I am ... very seriously considering it," Vasquez admits. "It's in my field, my actual field, I mean, and it's work that I enjoy."

"Mhm," Joshua hums thoughtfully, and cocks his head to the side. "Probably not as exciting as what you used to do though."

Vasquez shrugs. "Probably not," he agrees, "but I think I've had more than enough excitement for the next little while. Possibly even the rest of my life."

Joshua makes the same thoughtful noise again, but his expression goes skeptical. "Ale, why are you here? Is this you giving me a heads up that I might see you out and about in the neighbourhood? Or are you after something else?"

"I was - ," Vasquez groans and scrubs at his face as he tries to explain his presence. "I came to see if maybe you believe in second chances too, I think." He says finally.

"I know I've got no right to ask," he adds in a rush, the words tripping over themselves in his attempt to make this abundantly clear. "But you stayed with me when I was recovering, and you called when I sent the painting. So ... I'm asking."

Rather than answer right away, Joshua props himself up against the nearest table, eyeing Vasquez levelly while crossing his arms over his chest. "I've still got Ava," he says, as if Vasquez could possibly have forgotten. "She comes first, no matter what, and if you put her in danger again ..."

"Never," Vasquez vows, hoping Joshua can hear his sincerity. "Please, you have to know that wasn't ever my intention. I wouldn't risk -"

"I know," Joshua says softly, almost kindly, cutting him off with a raised hand. "I just had to make it clear. No more of this crazy shit. I get the urge to go out looking for trouble, but you're at a whole other level. Unlike you, I’ve never actually been a wanted man.”

"Not anymore," Vasquez insists. "Chisolm and Cullen made it clear they'll be keeping an eye on me. They also said I can expect to hear from them from time to time. Apparently, I get to act as some kind of unpaid consultant if they ever need someone's brain to pick."

"I see," Joshua says, grinning slightly when Vasquez can't quite keep the scowl off his face. "Look at you going all legitimate."

"Don't rub it in," Vasquez grunts. "Let's hope they realize I still have no intention of telling them what happened to everything I've stolen."

Joshua's grin broadens, and he jerks his thumb towards the back of the bar. "So you're telling me I might want to move this in case they ever come calling, huh?"

Following his direction, Vasquez lets his eyes trail over the room, and very nearly chokes on his own spit. "Joshua, you didn't! And without even so much as a protective casing, maldita."

The dogs playing poker - so long the bane of Vasquez's existence whenever he was in this room - are gone. In their place sits the frontier landscape he'd gone through such pains to have safely delivered to this city. There's not a lick of security measures surrounding the thing, and Joshua hasn't even bothered to mount a glass case in front of it, meaning it's exposed to all the grime of the bar on top of everything else. "Do you have any idea how much that's worth?"

"Nope," Joshua says brightly, "and I'd rather you not tell me because I ain't fuckin' moving it. You gave it to me, and I like it where it is."

Vasquez feels a sudden urge to whimper. "It's so exposed. What if somebody recognizes it?"

That makes Joshua snort. "With one very notable exception, my customers are not the sort of people to notice fine art. If, by some miracle, somebody does however, we'll tell them it's a print."

"Please," Vasquez scoffs. "Anyone who knows enough to spot something as being from the Hudson River School will be able to tell - wait, what? What did you say?" His brain finally letting go of his affront long enough to focus on something other than the painting, Vasquez freezes in his tracks. "Did you just use the word 'we'?"

Joshua shrugs. "Might've done. Why? You got a problem with that?"

Vasquez shakes his head slowly, something warm unfurling in his chest as he takes in this ridiculous man. "No, guero," he says fondly. "I really, really don't."

"Good," Joshua says bluntly, and Vasquez doesn't think he's imagining the way his cheeks have reddened slightly. "Now get over here, you asshole. I've got to open up shop in twenty minutes, which doesn't give us much time."

Grinning, Vasquez takes the few requisite steps necessary to put himself within reach, and then allows Joshua to tug him forward by his shirtfront. "Before this goes anywhere, I think you need to know how much that painting is worth."

Joshua cuts him off with a kiss.