He collapsed upon her, fully spent. For several long moments he lay too exhausted to move, still feeling the aftershocks of her release through their most intimate contact. Only when she relaxed completely beneath him did he start to shift off her, but her arms gripped him tightly, pulling him back down.
"Don't…" she murmured into his shoulder.
He compromised, rolling them both over onto their sides and tucking her against his chest, her head beneath his chin. She made a contented little sigh as she curled into his side and, within minutes, her breathing had slowed to the gentle rhythms of sleep.
John, however, did not sleep. At least, not right away. These moments were precious… He had spent far too many lonely nights trapped - as he now realized - within his own body, desperately wanting nothing more than simply this: to hold her in his arms again.
He bent to kiss the top of her head and whispered into her hair the words he hadn't yet dared speak again when she was awake. When she might hear them and, like a frightened deer, panic.
"I love you, Helen."
She stiffened in his arms. She hadn't been asleep.
He held his breath, awaiting her response, but there was none.
Eventually, arms still locked around her, he fell asleep himself.
He woke in the middle of the night to an empty space next to him. Getting out of bed, he quickly threw on his clothes and went to find her.
She was where he'd expected she'd be. The place he knew from her friends she'd always retreated to when in need of privacy.
John found her sitting on the roof, at the edge of the parapet, staring out at the city spread below. He stopped at the top of the stairs leading down and inside and stood watching her in silence for several long moments.
Without even turning to look at him, she finally broke the silence herself, her words flying back at him, barely audible on the wind. "In the end, she really was your daughter."
"Helen.. You know that wasn't...."
She chuckled without mirth. Mocking herself. "Not like that. I mean at the very end. When she… left. That was you, John. I'm not sure I'd have had the strength. But she did."
"Yes. You would. For her."
"Maybe…." She was clearly unconvinced. "But you did."
"She was who you taught her to be."
"And look where that got her."
"Helen." He started to step towards her but stopped when she remained unmoving, her back a barrier between them. He tried again. "That wasn't your…"
"Wasn't it?" She had never before sounded so exhausted. So defeated. "If I had--"
"She was wonderful, Helen. Perfect. You did nothing wrong."
She snorted. "Nothing, John? I did everything…"
"No you didn't."
Her voice was small as she answered. "I wasn't speaking simply of Ashley."
"Ah…" He hadn't expected that. Though knowing Helen, he should have. "None of it was your fault."
When she failed to respond, he continued, "Helen. You have to forgive yourself."
"Perhaps…. And maybe one day I will. But not yet…. Not today."
"Well, I'm not going anywhere. Not anymore."
She finally looked over her shoulder at him, a brief, sad smile playing across her features. "I know. And I'll never ask it of you."
He nodded once. It was the best he could hope for. For the moment. He gestured to the stairs behind him. "Now, come back inside. It's cold up here."
Slowly, she stood and headed downstairs. He followed her. But in the shadows at the bottom of the flight of steps she paused, her hand on the door leading inside and her voice, when she spoke, was so low he had to strain to hear her. "I love you, too, you know. I always have. Even when…" Her voice trailed off into nothing, but nothing more was needed.
"Yes, I know."
Then, just as though she hadn't spoken at all, Helen opened the door and stepped through into the brightly lit hall inside. John followed her and together, they headed back to bed.