Building the Old City Sanctuary meant reinforcing its bricks with something besides mortar, and Helen was still struggling to find the right way to do it.
Technology wasn't her strong suit. Night after night she'd tinker in the basement under the watchful gaze of the mermaid, only in part because the upper levels were unfinished. Every time the device sparked, burning Helen's finger in a way sucking on it could hardly soothe, the mermaid's concern sifted through.
There was an unnatural drowsiness flooding her system, prompting Helen to look at the clock.
"Yes, I know it's late," she told her, getting close to the glass. "But that doesn't make it right to force sleep onto me."
The wave receded.
But that wasn't the end of the mermaid's attempts. A curiosity threaded through her mind, entwined with worry separate from Helen's own.
It wasn't that the mermaid was a stranger to Helen's past. Even now, Helen still had to remind her that humans had a concept called "privacy" that she expected the creature to respect. But the details were lost on her, and Helen wasn't exactly eager to relive those situations mentally or verbally.
The device sparked again and Helen had to keep herself from shoving it off the table. "Bloody…"
She sighed. Her head fell into her hands. And the mermaid bathed her in warmth.
"Boundaries," she muttered weakly, but sank into the soothing aura washing over her. She told herself it was because if she lifted her head to scold her, or dared widen the mental channel with response, the mermaid would notice her tears.
She awoke hours later at the desk, the failed circuitry still mocking her. The mermaid clearly hadn't taken her eyes off of her in all that time.
Helen sighed, making her way over to the tank. She wanted to tell her that she didn't need looking after, that everything was fine, that burning herself with faulty machinery was just a hobby she'd taken up out of innocent boredom.
But she couldn't ignore the worried look in the mermaid's eyes any longer, and really… lying to a creature of telepathy, especially when Helen was too exhausted to suppress the feelings betraying her words, was nearly impossible to do.
"You're right," she said softly, hand pressed against the glass. "This will be your home too. You deserve to know what we're up against.
Helen shed her clothes and pushed herself into the tank. The temperature the mermaid's biology required made her shiver, which was often remedied by the mermaid fooling Helen's senses. But today, she denied the proposal. She deserved every pinprick needling against her skin.
Falling beneath the surface, she opened her eyes.
The mermaid nodded in a slanted sort of way, which might have been an illusion from how her seaweed-like hair was always a moment behind. It also might've been that Helen's vision was still adjusting to the blurry blue of the pool.
At least her body had gotten used to the cold a bit, though she would've preferred otherwise.
Realizing she needed air, she nodded upward and swam.
The mermaid, despite being far faster, surfaced alongside her. Her fingers slowly curled into Helen's as she bowed her head toward her.
"Give me a moment." Helen held herself steady along the edge of the pool with her free hand. After a pause, she closed her eyes and let their foreheads meet.
It was more like a flash than a steady reel: John's sweet smile turning dark, careful fingertips evolving into a blade against her throat. Helen was glad they were above water, because she could feel herself breathing hard as her heart pounded. Its rate increased when the faces of those girls, rosy and innocent, turned bloodied and marred.
Helen had failed every single one of them, including the man whose hands performed such unthinkable deeds. And now here she was trying to protect herself, her Sanctuary, when she couldn't offer the same to her victims.
The mermaid had learned, likely from Helen's other memories, that hugs were a gesture of comfort. And so she wasn't surprised that the mermaid's arms folded around her, head resting in the crook of her neck. But such a loving touch after everything she'd revealed sent a shock through her more intense than the cold of the pool.
As it eased, her body moved without her, collapsing into the creature's embrace.