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Hercules in Her Chamber

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“Women are naturally secretive—and they like to do their own secreting.”
Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia”.

December 12th, 1871

The platform would forever stay in her mind not as a platform, but as a world of steam and loud voices, the rumble of suitcases and shrill shrieks of whistles like bursts of light at the side of her mind. Violet Holmes was gangly and easily distracted, whipping her head from side to side, trying to match sounds to people and people to sounds. Anticipation made the moment surreal. Beside her, she could feel the the heavy, dull weight of Mycroft’s discomfort, as palpable as if it were her own.

“There really is no need to worry," Violet said suddenly. Mycroft, true to form, failed to respond, and simply moved off into the steam with a kind of rigid stateliness—transforming a hard grip on anxiety into something regal. For a moment, Violet stayed where she was amongst the crowds, paralysed by the sudden sheer choice of things with which she could be distracted, head still moving from side to side—here to catch a whistle, there some indistinct name, followed by a muttered curse; a fallen suitcase, dropped glove, flash of copper coins, spinning top, ugly cravat, crying child—and she was the only stationary thing in the world.

“You on your own, miss?” The crowd spat out a little grey man, grinning up at her and being polite in the way certain men were when they were laughing at women.

“Oh, eternally,” Violet said, and strode off. She moved like a man; her body was as hard and awkward as any teenage boy’s, and at the age of seventeen she was fully six foot tall; she knew that that the stranger (an apprentice watchmaker; a charlatan; a drunk, hiding it well) had belonged to some pack of young men standing at a distance, having shoved him into it, baying and laughing at the idea of him courting her.

It was curiously not hurtful. Unpleasant, but not hurtful. Violet had never aspired to beauty. There were better things to hunger for—but Mycroft was slowing, waiting for her, and Violet knew that it would be hardly fair to keep Mycroft waiting in amongst all this glorious mess of splashing colours and noises, no matter the sickening thrill it gave her. Waiting too long would have in any case meant putting off her plans, an unacceptable circumstance. She darted through the spaces in the crowds, utilitarian bonnet nearly flying off, dodging the windmilling arm of a man publicly berating his wife and emerging from the chaos at Mycroft’s elbow, luggage in tow.

“Our carriage, Violet,” Mycroft murmured—as if from somewhere very distant—and urged her into the warm and wood-slatted train without ever touching her.

Their compartment was private, and once the curtains had been drawn and the luggage pushed in front of the door, safe. They had shown their tickets; Mycroft had had a quiet, incongruously charming word with the conductor; Violet had looked obediently holy (if she was to insist upon wearing the plainest dresses she could entreat her dress-maker to fashion and dressing her hair so aggressively simply, she should use it for something—Mycroft didn’t say, but made clear) so that the conductor had found himself listening to the demands of his aching conscience and decided to afford the polite, clever young man and his wan, Puritanical younger sister some much-needed peace and privacy. They were both dressed in mourning black.

Once alone—for Mycroft’s presence had never much counted against solitude—Violet stood in the low red darkness for a moment, and then undid part of her work by returning to the window, disdaining the seats in favour of twitching away the curtain very slightly and pressing her eye to the sliver of bright glass it revealed. She drew off her hat, letting the braid she had curled up under it—unpinned and undressed—wind down her back. She looked out at the platform, suddenly distinctly prosaic now that she wasn’t being drowned in it; the people looked quite ordinary and quite tedious, unenchanted. People milled in shades of grey and brown, children flitted through spaces between adults. She saw the man who had asked her if she was alone laugh right into the ear of one of his friends, the whole pack of them receiving cool looks from an older woman in mourning much more ornate than Violet’s own. Mycroft sighed down into one of the seats opposite and very solidly occupied it.

“You’ll fall when the train starts, Violet.”

“Indeed; that is the plan,” Violet answered, letting Mycroft see the side of her smile. She received only dry silence in response, implying that the comment was really beneath answering; that Mycroft had run out of energy; that Mycroft would allow her to do as she pleased.

A sharp, sickening jolt of excitement—the final hurdle passed, and so easily—forced her into movement. She pulled herself away from the window and turned with a military precision, gripping each side of her coal-black skirt. She was glad to be in mourning; the thought didn’t shock her, for she saw no reason to be particularly sorry about her father’s passing. He had existed. Yes. She scraped the bottom of her heart for something else she could say about him, but found that nothing presented itself. His sole achievement of existence was over. All that remained of him now was an excuse to wear black.

That same mourning black pooled around Violet like a puddle of shadow as she dropped to the floor of the carriage in front of the suitcases which blocked the door, her knees thudding on the floor. From down the carriage, the conductor asked for tickets, tickets, oscillating tone more audible than words. Violet’s fingers skittered nervously but deftly on the fastenings, and then she opened a suitcase—hers—and drew from it a pair of long-bladed silver scissors.

They shone dully in Violet’s hand, recalling promises she had made to herself. The train rattled all around her, and irregular shapes of light flickered through gaps in the curtains. She reached behind her head and closed a fist around the ascetic, dowdy, hideous braid which hung down her back like some lazy half-dead serpent she had to strangle or be poisoned by.

Violet had thought—hoped—that it would be quick. She had, in truth, anticipated doubt—and yet though the thick, dead weight of her hair fought back against the blades and bought itself more than enough time for her to engage in second thoughts, second thoughts never came. She looked for the barest hint of worry and instead found that something in her chest clenched with a desire for something she couldn’t name; it would be gone soon, and then it was.

The braid fell to the floor behind her, defeated. The train rumbled on. Mycroft watched in silence. Violet looked straight ahead, her eyes wide, and breathed, unable to believe—but then she clapped her free hand to the back of her head, where the base of her skull met the top of her neck, and found herself believing. The hair at the nape of her neck was very uneven, Violet discovered through careful exploration with her fingertips, marvelling blindly at it; some of it stuck up in glorious tufts, and rasped daringly against her fingers—some of it was still much too long by far. It was ruined, she realised. The thought was accompanied by an aching swell of joy.

“You resemble a street urchin,” Mycroft yawned at her. Violet was never entirely sure how to gauge Mycroft’s interest in the outside world—the outside world being quite literally everything exterior to Mycroft—but there was a curious strain to her sibling’s voice now. The imperfect, cracking undertone did not quite seem to belong to Mycroft’s smooth, dark bulk.

“You wish I hadn’t done it,” Violet said, fingers still exploring the new geography at the back of her head. Then she smiled, wanly but with great feeling, and corrected herself, because this was only a first step; “You wish I weren’t doing it.”

Mycroft examined the play of light upon the opposite wall with very little interest. “It is your own choice.”

“A choice you wish I hadn’t made.”

“I would rather not lie to you.”

“I see no reason why you should, brother Mycroft,” Violet remarked, and Mycroft glanced upwards and away from her for the briefest moment. “I appreciate candour,” she added, in her high and clever voice, a skinny seventeen year old girl lounging on the floor with all the lazy ease of any moneyed undergraduate. She had not even been accepted to Cambridge yet; had yet to perfectly finalise her plans to gain entry; but it would come with practice, she felt. “But I would rather have help.”

Of course, Mycroft had known from the beginning what Violet’s plans were; Mycroft had known before Violet, for Mycroft had a particular sense for the slowly inevitable. “You have clothes with you.” It wasn’t a question, simply a way to mark the moment—when Violet had found something to be, or perhaps had simply stopped trying to be Violet.

“Well, naturally!”

“I suppose you ought to come here. You have no patience, Violet.”

"Young men are not particularly known for their patience," Violet remarked as she settled herself awkwardly before Mycroft and released the scissors into her sibling’s slow and delicate care, repeating what she had just said in her mind with a mounting excitement which she carefully contained. Mycroft’s general distaste for movement gave way to a certain gentle surety of gesture when forced. Violet closed her eyes and listened to the delicate muted clicks of the scissors—at the back of her neck, around her ears. It took a long time—of course it did, with Mycroft now directing the effort.

“There,” Mycroft said at length, pulling the scissors away from Violet with a flourish. Tiny cuttings of dark brown hair littered her shoulders. “You resemble a slightly higher class of urchin.” Violet barked a laugh and nearly leapt from the seat, putting a hand on Mycroft’s knee to propel herself away; Mycroft winced, unseen behind her back. “Really, Violet.”

“I regret to tell you—” her tone had no regret at all, just a bubbling glee “—that the name is outdated.” Her hands—his hands, her hands? someone's hands; her hands would do, she decided, insofar as it mattered at all—fumbled excitedly within her valise, tugging out clothes in secret shapes. Trousers; a shirt; a waistcoat; a jacket...their dark outlines on the floor were mysterious and foreign, with all the promise of a new landscape, and Violet surveyed them with a certain kinglike satisfaction, something like aching relief in the twist of her mouth. Mycroft watched her profile.

“I was wondering when you would mention that issue. Might I suggest Sherrinford?”

Sherrinford? Violet gave a sharp laugh. A boy. A never-met brother. An empty crib before Mycroft was even born. “Starting out twenty six years dead would be a remarkably inauspicious beginning,” she said. “Sherlock, Mycroft. I intend to be Sherlock Holmes.”