Really, it didn't take a genius to realise that the plain daughter of a strikingly beautiful mother was going to have to find props for her self-esteem other than beauty. Mycroft had come to that conclusion when she was seven and a half, the moment Mummy's hollowed-out eyes got unbearably beautiful and she said in a voice that sounded like church, "Darling, this is Sherlock, your little brother." Mycroft was never going to look like Mummy, face all pale and bony, fingers that looked too slender for the weight of the jewellery they bore.
Mycroft's face was round, her hair a shade of brown that suggested she might have a future as a character in a first-person novel, and her fingers had girth. She'd just learnt that word, had looked it up and then underlined it twice in the dictionary, putting her initials and the date beside the entry. Soon the whole dictionary would say MH up and down every margin.
She nodded to herself, proudly, revelling in her ambition. That was when Mummy came into the library holding the squirming bundle of blankets that represented Sherlock and gestured with her chin at the maidservant trailing behind her. The girl put a book of promising thickness and important-looking black leather binding down on the pile next to Mycroft's miniature draughtsman's table. Mycroft caught Mummy's smile but not if it was for her or just the tail end of another one bestowed on Sherlock, who invariably responded with a tiny fist waving searchingly in the air near Mummy's nose. It took both her hands to lift the book into her lap and position it spine up. German-English Dictionary, she read, and wasn't sure if she felt like smiling - there was ever so much to learn. Mummy jiggled Sherlock around until his bottom was tucked against one long forearm, and put her free hand on top of Mycroft's head.
Sherlock as a baby had been quite pretty, from a distance. There was a soft fuzz of dark hair outlining his pulsing pink head, and his eyes shone like colourless stars from between dense eyelashes. Mycroft supposed that all of Mummy's friends and Father's colleagues could only see so much, because they never picked him up or cuddled him close the way Mummy did, the way she let Mycroft do if she was good and sat with her spine braced against the back of the wing chair.
Up close, Sherlock was rather a mess. He had tiny, ugly bumps along his forehead that never settled between white and pink. He had red scratches along his cheeks and a nose that seemed permanently caked up no matter how often Mummy cleaned him. He didn't squirm when she held him, but he also never looked directly at her, no matter that she bent herself nearly in two trying to catch his wandering eye as he lay on her lap, no matter that she patiently wound his tiny fingers around one of hers. They had the same dimples at the base of their fingers, Mycroft saw, and she raised his hand to her lips. He lashed out then, small fist smacking her with unexpected force; his eyes finally met hers when her loose tooth dropped onto his cheek, followed by a respectable amount of dark blood.
Father's hand on the top of her head was too hard, too heavy, and invariably managed to pull some strands of her hair loose from the slides Mummy had clipped it with. She didn't like the way his step on the floor behind her as she was seated, defenceless, on the piano bench, made her shoulders hunch. She didn't like that he still seemed surprised at her, resentful that his first child, the one who bore his father's good name, hadn't been the son he'd always assumed a proper wife would give him.
Mummy's hand on her head was soothing, brushing back hair until it shone smooth, nipping little pinches to her cheeks and unadorned earlobes, a finger pressed to the tip of her nose. Mummy was the one who said that flautists got to face their audience and had their hands at the ready.
Mycroft decided early on: she wasn't going to fight her face. Wasn't going to pluck her eyebrows down to nothing and draw in perfect, surprised-looking arches to leaven the effect of her direct gaze. Wasn't going to paint her mouth red or purple or brown. Wasn't going to stand before a mirror and put on the armour of maquillage, the hundred and one pots of paint feeble weapons that were really crutches in disguise. She didn't kid herself either - if she'd had a different face, had a hint of beauty, she might have done all of it and more. It wasn't as if fighting this way left her hands any cleaner.
She left her freckles untouched as if they didn't bother her in the slightest.
Father called her into his study a week before Mummy packed her bags for Wycombe Abbey. She stood before him in the attitude he liked best, the one he apparently remembered from Eton, with her feet shoulder-width apart and her hands clasped behind her back. She nearly laughed, remembering what Mummy had confided just the night before as she tucked Mycroft into her yellow ruffled bed - that the boys had to stand with their hands behind their backs so as to avoid the temptation of playing with their willies, silly little dangling bits that they thought meant power.
Father adopted the stance too, pacing back and forth in front of her, and as he passed she could see all of her marks on his desk, the careful words of praise from past masters. "It seems you've done rather well," Father said, pausing once he saw where her eye had landed, one corner of his mouth ticking slightly up. "And you're the right sort, you know - you're a Holmes and a credit to your mother and me." Mycroft saw that he was waiting for her to blush or squirm or act demure; none of that was in her nature, so she stayed upright, her cheeks unblushed. "Good, good," Father said. "They say that behind every great man is a great woman, you know. There is no limit to what you can accomplish, you know."
She knew he meant the words as encouragement, that he would expect her letters home to play on that motif, so she kissed his cheek when he bent his head. Even if the spirit of his words was deficient, she had every intention of proving the letter of them correct.
She was a rather poor musician, but the flutes carried the melody in every orchestral piece they played, so she didn't have to do the work the clarinettists did and try to hear the harmonies. And music was hardly the most pressing of her concerns; studies had been done on the bridges the mind made between music and mathematics, but she did not need the former to understand the ins and outs of the latter. It was that that brought the other girls to her, the ability she had of making the numbers do what she wished, the knack she had of explaining what the operations meant in comprehensible fashion.
Her corner room in the Junior House became a hub within a month. Mycroft knew that the headmistress noted that approvingly in her first letter to Father. Mummy, of course, already knew.
Home for hols, and she'd forgotten how small Sherlock was. He was growing, but she was too - her eyes were now at the level of Mummy's chin, and she had to glance downward to take in the new emeralds sparkling around her neck.
"What is the occasion?" Father asked, spreading his napkin on his lap.
"Mycroft is home," Mummy said, smiling as she met Mycroft's eye over the Cornish hens.
Sherlock, sitting at the table in his booster seat, bared his teeth. She wasn't sure if that counted as a smile.
Father spoke like his words would be graded as a fifth-form essay: paragraphs with a topic sentence, evidence, conclusion. It was so easy to know the tenor of his remarks without listening to more than a word or two. Mycroft could read, from the redness of his face, the hitch in his step, and the way he'd focused his gaze on her chin rather than her mouth or eyes that he was sounding her out about the Pauline Everly scandal. "Disgraceful," he said, and she nearly mouthed along with him. "Girl that age running off unchaperoned, meeting with boys from the town." As far as Mycroft knew, it was just the one boy, and Pauline would still be pregnant even if her lover had been going to Harrow.
"Does this go on all the time?" he asked, swinging his gaze up to meet hers.
She had looked this - sex - up one day when Sherlock was being particularly obstreperous, loud in his logical responses to all of nanny's pleadings. Mummy had done it twice, but Mycroft thought, in all fairness, that she and Sherlock were decent results. Pauline was unlikely to have anything but a dull-eyed child, and she had had to endure a boy's tongue and willy inside her. Ghastly.
"No, Father," she assured him promptly.
"No boys sniffing around after you, are there?" he asked. She'd never heard that tone from him before. Though how he would stop them was rather an intriguing question.
"No," she promised; boys were totally uninteresting, plodding and clumsy, not nearly as clever as they thought they were. She had maths that ran through her head like water, she had chess club and fencing. She had a secret.
Her secret's name was Harry, and she was beautiful in a way that meant something and promised more. She had wide, laughing eyes and hair that hit every shade between white-blonde and chestnut. She was lovely, even in the chartreuse shirt that employees had to wear. Mycroft had been in the chemist shop on every weekend trip down into London, pulled along by her classmates who wouldn't do anything as definitive as ask her to lead or leave her out altogether. First it was investigations into the wonders of the cosmetics aisle. Then it had become red-faced purchases of condoms.
Mycroft stood apart, interested in neither, watching Harry wait on the girls who seemed even less interesting than they did before, faces all painted into identical masks. Harry's variegated hair was caught in a messy bun, and Mycroft's maths deserted her when she tried to calculate how long it must be. Harry wore a line of indigo blue rimming each of her eyes. Harry's mouth, unpainted, awakening into rose, looked soft and succulent and delicious.
Harry looked at her one day, after she'd rung up all of the girls' purchases, and smiled.
Mycroft stayed at the top of her class. At the graduation ceremony, she allowed her hair to be curled just enough to flatter her profile; the formalities would all be captured in photographs, of course, and she was willing to concede so much. She wore Mummy's pearls at her throat, a softer shine than the diamonds on the other girls' fingers. Father was proud, accepting congratulations from the other fathers graciously, and offering them in turn for the upcoming weddings. Sherlock looked mutinous; she knew he wanted a new chemistry set, not a suit that would be too small for him in a matter of months.
Mummy, though - Mummy smiled her secret smile and asked Mycroft what she planned to do next.