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A Conversation with Miss Kittiwake

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“I must apologize for the inconvenience, Detective,” Finch says, her lips quirking up, just for a second -- a worried smile -- as she stiffly gets into Joss’s car.

“Look, you hardly ever ask for help,” Joss shoots back as she waits for Finch to buckle in; Finch’s moves are slow, much stiffer than usual, and she’s wincing in a way Joss has rarely seen her wince. “For the cases, sure, but for you?” As soon as Finch is ready, Joss pulls out into traffic, trying to keep the ride smooth as she follows GPS toward the address Finch texted her earlier. “Sometimes I swear you’ve got it in your head that it’s a mortal sin to show a little weakness. We all need help sometimes, y’know?”

“I’m well aware,” Finch replies, mildly. “Of course, self-sufficiency is a trait I was trained into quite young. Of necessity.”

“Yeah, how old were you when your brothers threw you into that pool?”

Turning her whole upper body, Finch stares at Joss for a moment, and then settles back into her seat, her lips pulling back into a genuine smile.

“What?”

“Oh, it’s… amusing, at times, to see which details stick around in people’s brains. You’ve hit across one I’d almost forgotten. I’ve never had any brothers, Detective; I’m afraid I made up that detail to make the point both easy to explain and memorable.”

Joss sighs. “Am I ever gonna know anything about you that’s actually true?”

“You already know several facts about me. It’s just that you don’t have enough information to distinguish the truth from the… disguise.”

For a long moment, Finch is silent; when Joss glances her way, she looks oddly thoughtful.

“The truth is,” Finch muses, as if weighing every word, “that I… construct… each of my personas around a core thread of reality, something real about my past. A different piece each time. In this way, they’re easier to remember and to maintain, and it gives me a foundation from which to extrapolate new details as necessary, without overlap or confusion.”

When the ensuing silence conveys that Finch’s confession is done, Joss tries to assimilate the information and any possible good it could do her. Knowing that some tiny piece of Finch’s alias is real doesn’t really give her any information about the woman, nothing she could trust or track down. So Finch has given her data without giving her anything useful. Typical.

“So the only thing I know for real is that you’re an only child. Unless you were lying about that, too.”

“I said only that I’ve never had any brothers,” Finch corrects, and if she is smug about Joss’s slip-up then it doesn’t come through in her voice. “But let me ask you this, Detective: If you were to actually track me down, my real identity, and find evidence for why I’ve been on the run all this time… what would you do with it?”

Joss hesitates; this time, her sigh is heavier. “Hell if I know. I can’t think of a crime short of murder or treason or… or, I dunno, sex trafficking, that’d be worse than the hijinks you’re up to these days, and yet… you’re doing enough good for this city that all I can do is snipe at you a bit about your methods. I can’t say that I’d turn you in even with a smoking gun in my hands.”

When she glances over again, the expression on Finch’s face holds enough mixed emotions that she can’t make out anything concrete before she has to turn her attention back to the road. By the time she can risk another glance, the expression’s gone, back to a slight downturn of the lips, a slight furrow of the brow.

“If I gave you even a few more concrete details, I’m sure you could find me,” Finch murmurs, “if you took the time to look. Given my age, and the fact that I’m on the run… it might take a while, but it wouldn’t be particularly difficult. Although I must warn you that the very act of looking into my case might raise some attention that you probably don’t want to deal with. It’s not merely for my own sake that I have so thoroughly buried my past.

“But these details about me are true,” she says, and hesitates only briefly before concluding: “My mother died before I was old enough to remember her. My father died not knowing who I was. And my real name has never been Harriet.”

“I looked that up,” Joss admits. “I’m guessing you were born around, what, 1960? Harriet was on the decline, at least in the U.S. Went practically extinct within a decade; in 1960 there weren’t even five hundred newborn Harriets across the country.”

“It still seemed like a reasonable name to hide under,” Finch says with a shrug. “Please bear in mind, Detective, that when I was forced to disappear, I had to work out the details on my own, with no training, and practically no warning. Keeping my own name would have been suicide; it was far too memorable. Trying to adjust to a name that I wasn’t used to was… more difficult than I’d expected, and that’s noticeable in its own way. So, I took the middle ground.”

Frowning, Joss tries to work that out. “So, what, a name that’s similar to your actual name, but less notable?”

“Yes. The connection isn’t obvious enough to track. In some strange way, it’s like a form of CAPTCHA, only, instead of blocking computers, it prevents people from reverse-engineering the switch.”

“So, if I knew your original name, the move to Harriet would be obvious, but it’s not obvious in reverse?”

“Precisely.”

“Not Henrietta, then. Because I’d been meaning to look that up as well. Heather? Hester?”

Joss can count on one hand -- with half the fingers left over -- the number of times she’s heard Finch laugh. So the sudden chuckling startles her, but she can’t spare another look because she’s turning the corner.

“I’m that far off, huh?”

Another chuckle, before Finch says, still amused, “I’m just trying to imagine my mother being that… ordinary. That’s what I have left of her, you see: her eccentricities. My father would tell me stories of all the outlandish things she got up to while they were dating, and even after they married. I, ah… sometimes I would… comfort myself, with thoughts of the wonderfully unorthodox fun that we would have had together, had she been able to stay with us just a while longer.”

It’d be easier to feel sympathy if Joss weren’t picking up on more clues that Finch is, quite possibly, making things up again. She sucks in her cheeks and bites them, lightly, her eyes narrowed, and goes for the one possible truth she can see. “So, you were adopted?”

A pause. “I don’t believe that any of the information I’ve told you would lead to that conclusion.”

“You just described a relationship with your father -- enough to build up multiple stories for you to remember -- and yet, earlier, you said that he died not even knowing who you were. You even claimed that it was one of three completely true facts about you. So which is it, Finch? Did your father have a relationship with you or not? Did you have more than one father? Are you just spinning out yarns again?”

The sigh that comes from Finch is tired, or… more like she doesn’t have the energy to be truly tired right now. “Spinning out tales is the way I’ve learned to keep myself safe… and to keep the ones around me, the ones I care about, from getting pulled into matters that could harm them for something as simple as knowing the truth. But I haven’t lied to you, Detective. Not today, not while in this car. I have been very carefully and conscientiously determining which pieces of truth I can pass along without endangering you too badly, and it has been quite the stimulating exercise. I don’t usually feel free to let out even this much about my past.”

“So you’re telling me that you had a close relationship with your father, who died before he knew you. What, did he record messages on tapes or something? Write you a lot of letters?”

“I never said that he died before he knew me. I said that he died not knowing who I was.” A slight tremble to her voice highlights some strong emotion, but Joss can’t look for it right now; the traffic’s tight.

She tries to piece it together, the clues that Finch is giving her, but it’s not adding up. “So he knew you, and then he didn’t know you? How would that even--”

It hits her hard, and she’s almost afraid to give it voice. “Brain damage. Was he--”

“Well,” Finch says, voice calm with decades of acceptance, “the ordinary, commonplace, non-violent form of brain damage. My father developed Alzheimer’s while I was very young. All of the wonderful stories that he used to tell me slowly melted away, along with his skills, and his thoughts, and the ability to manage the most basic tasks and keep track of what he was doing. By the time that I was forced to leave him, he’d forgotten not only me but even the fact that he had ever been married. It’s… not quite the fairy-tale ending that one might hope for, starting off with that much love.”

“I’m so sorry,” Joss murmurs, when she finds her voice again. She resolutely keeps her eyes on the road.

“But the love was there, you see.” There’s nothing particularly sad about her voice, now; a little wistful, maybe. “And it’s not diminished just because it faded. My father’s love created a mother for me. His memories became the memories that I never had the chance to develop for myself. When his memories started to disappear, I tried to make a… a machine that could save them for him. But what I didn’t understand at the time was that he’d already saved them -- the most important ones. He’d given them to me.”

Not knowing what she could possibly say to that, Joss continues driving; they’re close, now, the conversation almost at its end. Perhaps it will be the only time in her life when Finch opens up to her this way, and she tries to treasure it for what it is: a window into a woman who’s spent more time being other people than she has being herself, and yet -- if indeed she’s telling the truth today -- has somehow maintained a sense of who she was, where she came from, and why that even matters.

On the run that way, for so many decades, hiding in plain sight by carefully cultivating what others thought of her… Joss can’t even imagine what that might be like; she’s too used to being herself, trying daily to be the best Joss Carter that she can possibly be. And yet, Finch didn’t seem to have ever had that choice. It’s astounding that she can balance all those aliases and still make room for the memories of a mother she never even got to know.

At the direction of the GPS, Joss pulls into a parking spot outside an unassuming apartment complex. The moment, she supposes, is almost gone.

Finch sits still for a moment, as if deciding. “I’m afraid that I must impose upon you a little longer,” she says finally. “I’m not entirely sure that I could make it in there without collapsing.”

Wordlessly, Joss turns off the engine. Finch asking for this much help is… unprecedented. The woman’s a determinator, with the kind of willpower and pain resistance that Joss envies, so her being on the ropes like this is a little bit unnerving.