Finished! Thanks to everyone who commented on various chapters; you definitely helped motivate me to keep going. A big thanks again to SabaceanBabe for beta-reading, and to her and Lizardbeth J for letting me bounce ideas off of them.
(Non-Americans: for a high school graduation ceremony the students wear a mortarboard and robe, often referred to as a cap and gown. Generally each high school has a color for both that all students have to wear; black is the most common choice. I have no idea if other countries have similar traditions or not.)
The people one level below him milled in small clusters, relatives and friends surrounding the young men and women wearing caps and gowns. It took John a few minutes to spot the group he was looking for; he still wasn't used to seeing Taylor without his loose afro. Instead Taylor's hair was clipped close to his scalp under the traditional mortarboard.
No one in the group had spotted John yet as he looked down from the open stairwell. Joss and Taylor knew he would be there; that was what mattered most.
Joss was laughing at a remark from a man that John assumed was one of the cousins from Virginia. After finishing the conversation, she turned back to look at her son again, tall and slim in his robe.
Not so slim as before. It was about four years ago that he saw Taylor for the first time; the boy's shoulders had widened since then. His chest had filled in, thanks both to time and to Taylor's enjoyment of soccer and basketball. (He didn't have the height or speed to win athletic scholarships, but that hadn't been his goal anyway.)
Not quite three years since Joss had invited John into her life. Hard to believe that much time had already passed.
She still wanted him there, too. When he worked in the Army and in the Agency, he hadn't let himself believe in luck. Nothing could be left to chance: that had been his opinion. Now he was certain that he was damn lucky to have this life and these people in it.
At times he hadn't been sure that they would make it this far. He and Joss constantly renegotiated what they shared: time, spaces, people. She still had a gun-shy attitude now and then, something John understood well. Losing Taylor's father, keeping Taylor safe now, all of the other emotional bruises left by life. Add in his tendency to doubt that he deserved anything good in life; he was pleasantly surprised that their relationship hadn't imploded under the weight.
Surprised and grateful. Grateful for her continued support, grateful that she forgave him when he made colossal errors.
John leaned against the railing to keep the group in sight. He could tell the moment Joss spotted him; she didn't show an obvious reaction, but he could see a tiny smile appear as she glanced away from him again.
Taylor was smiling for more pictures with the Maryland cousins. It had taken some time for John to see that side of his character. Their first interactions happened without Joss knowing, in fact. Taylor sent him a text message saying, Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.
How he managed to get John's number, John didn't know. Nor did he know at the time why Taylor would send him a quote from Mahatma Ghandi. The text messages continued for weeks, with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Bayard Rustin, the Dalai Lama, Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi, even Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Eventually John started answering some of the texts. The slow but steady stream of quotes by famous pacifists amused him, and the simple messages didn't come with a time limit; he could wait and give a thoughtful reply.
The texts from Taylor came first. Later Joss started arranging activities for all three of them: a sortie to a secluded restaurant, dinner at her place, watching basketball at his apartment. None of those activities were held on a regular basis; Joss was still wary of the people who were on the lookout for him, and rightly so. While the FBI didn't have his case on active status, it had never been closed. The CIA had a presence in the city from time to time as well, still operating illegally within the US.
Taylor's safety was still the biggest factor. It was one reason why Taylor's graduation felt like a milestone to John as well.
Taylor's texts expanded to other topics after John and Taylor became better acquainted. Once he asked John to find out what case was upsetting Joss. Another time he sent the message that he'd gotten a four out of five on two of his AP exams, and that John should come over for celebratory Pad Thai. And John's favorite: At Marco's this weekend, please check on Mom. Not because it meant more time with Joss—although that was certainly a fantastic benefit—but because of Taylor's display of trust.
In the crowd below, John saw Fusco and Lee catching up to the group around Taylor. After congratulating the young man, Lionel started looking around for John. He wasn't as good at subtle as Joss, so John amused himself by backing up slightly, making it more difficult for someone to see him.
Lionel had given John a lot of help when he'd first gotten back: helping him find a few more people who were willing to help others, and who didn't mind some slightly shady work.
With Fusco present, three of the four people from the original team were here. John wished that Harold had joined them as well. The man had already sent his best wishes in his own inimitable way: a scholarship for Taylor, one that was newly created, for "children of NYPD officers". Doubtless this meant that Lee Fusco would be a potential recipient in a few years as well.
Joss hadn't figured it out right away. She'd been excitedly talking to John about it when they were curled around each other on his couch, telling him that Taylor didn't even remember applying for it... and then she'd blurted out a surprised Oh!
"G. H. Faulkner. Faulkner—falconer. Son of a bitch," she'd said, and shook her head, thwacking his chest and laughing from the surprise.
That was one of their traditions now. When they watched TV at his place—Joss was a more rabid fan of college sports than he'd expected—she would pretend to get irritated about something, backhand his chest and then insist on removing his shirt to inspect any potential injuries. Neither one of them had had much time for that sort of thing in their past relationships. He found now that he didn't give a damn about being too old for that kind of silliness.
It was ridiculous, but it was theirs.
After the routine inspection, Joss had snuggled into him and said, "I hope he's okay." It was the first time she'd expressed something like that. Not that she had wished Harold any harm or complained about him since John's return, but this was another step.
"He is," John had told her.
The first big hint he'd had that Harold was okay was when he noticed one of his bank accounts had doubled in size: a huge blessing, considering how much money he could burn through while working to help fix people's problems.
Later he'd had a few visits with Harold, and then a memorable visit from Grace.
Forgiveness ran deep in the women in their lives, John concluded. He was still amazed that Joss stayed with him, and grateful that Grace had eventually chosen to reach out to Harold.
Everyone smiled as Fusco took photos of Joss with Taylor. Then Joss took out her camera and took photos of her son with some of his friends. Her smile glowed as she looked at her son, pride radiating from her.
Her hair was pinned up in a complicated arrangement, something he rarely saw. She was beautiful regardless, but he liked her hair pinned up when he could undo the pins later.
Instead he would see her tomorrow. Taylor's paternal grandmother was staying with them, and Joss was bringing her to meet John tomorrow. He planned to cook lunch for them—at a secondary apartment rather than his preferred place.
Leaning over the railing again, John could see and hear Joss's mother ordering everyone around for a few last photos. They'd already met a few times. She didn't know much about John; just enough to be very curious, a trait shared with her daughter. In other ways mother and daughter were dramatically different.
Her mother's attitude spoke of a more relaxed nature; John wondered if Joss would mellow into something like that or if she would keep her drive.
Either way, he was looking forward to finding out.