The first piece he ever learned to play, at six years old with feet barely able to reach the pedals, was called Little Black Cat. The second was Mozart's Sonata No. 11 in A Major. Not because Mycroft was any sort of prodigy-it took him three weeks of rigorous practice before he could play the repeat on measures nineteen through twenty-six without fault-but rather, because no instructor who kept something as trivial as a children's piece about a cat in their curriculum would suffice.
No. Even at age six, it wasn't about the music; it wasn't about the way two keys could harmonize so beautifully, or how Mycroft's tiny fingers could create that sound and mold that sound into something magical if he tried really, really hard. No. It was never about the music. It was about Mycroft Holmes making a name for himself, learning a valued skill that society would smile upon as he grew and "applied himself" and performed in every way that mattered.
It was about creating a maestro, not a melody. Which was why Mycroft practiced five hours a day and played concerts for all of his mother's friends. Which was why he kept a list of learnt pieces for his father to keep tabs on and reject and add to.
Which was why, even after thirty years, Mycroft could never remember enjoying the piano as much as when he'd first learned how to play Little Black Cat.
He was entered into his first competition when he was seven. He played Clementi's Sonatina in C Major by memory and was awarded a second place trophy and a certificate with his name on it; the transition between the second and third movements always gave him a bit of trouble, but he held himself together as best he could.
His mother gave him an appraising look and a pat on the head, whispering about violins and duets with a hand on her belly and a faraway look in her eye that she was starting to adopt more and more frequently. His father had been too busy to attend. Mycroft didn't bother showing him his trophy; it wasn't for First.
By the time he was ten and Sherlock was three, Mycroft could play twenty classical/romantic era pieces and twelve baroque era pieces flawlessly and by memory. By the time Mycroft was seventeen and Sherlock was nine, Sherlock could play more than fifty songs on the violin, all from different eras, in different styles, with at least three of which being ones he'd composed.
Mycroft could see it in his father's eyes: Here was the virtuoso he'd wanted. Here was the maestro he'd hoped to create in those long hours of practice and early age lessons Mycroft hadn't taken to nearly as well. And yet, even with their father's pride within his grasp, Sherlock didn't seem to care. He played for himself, played for the music, because he enjoyed it, because it was a distraction, because it kept him still in a world of constant movement. He played because it was as natural to him as breathing. He never picked up his violin because it was demanded of him, he simply chose to, and Mycroft wanted to be angry with him, appalled by him for so nearly having his parents' acceptance and indifferently turning it away. But all Mycroft could ever manage to be was jealous.
The duets his mother had hoped for only lasted until Sherlock was old enough to realize he could say no, something Mycroft may have never perfected but which Sherlock took to just as easily as he did his violin. The utter disregard was always highly frowned upon, but Sherlock was their prodigy, so who were they to argue his desire to play alone?
After a few years, neither of his parents seemed to remember that Mycroft played at all. And if he was being honest with himself, he didn't know whether to be disappointed or relieved.
Mycroft stopped playing the piano altogether when he started at University, opting out of the musical performance focus-much to his mother's confusion and his father's apathetic dismissal-and instead choosing to study politics.
As it turned out, where his skills lacked or floundered in music, they seemed to flourish in his studies. Where five hours a day, seven days a week, at the piano would allow for a frustratingly near-perfect product, a single explanation would produce a perfect understanding of the political viewpoint to be effortlessly stored away in Mycroft's mind. Within weeks of taking up his new focus, Mycroft had memorized every lecture, every assignment, his mind absorbing the information in a way he never could at the piano.
He'd always been a brilliant student-only perfect grades would be accepted in the Holmes household-but at University, he excelled. Finally, he had found the skill that was as natural to him as breathing.
With his first paycheck from MI5, he bought a brand new, black Steinway Grand.
The piano sat, untouched, for years, a bothersome reminder of a life Mycroft seemed unwilling to forget. On the rare occasions he was asked, he claimed it had been purchased as part of the décor. On the even more rare occasions he was asked to play, he claimed not to know how.
It wasn't until he was already nestled comfortably in the inner workings of the British Government, his eyes spread out along all of London to keep tabs on a certain drug-addicted, University dropout, that he even bothered to give the instrument a glance. Were it not for that phone call ("We found him. Vauxhill Arches. It was an overdose.") he may have never played again.
It didn't make sense. Logically, the last place he should have wanted to be was sitting himself down on polished wood and resting his fingers on painfully familiar cuts of ivory. And yet.
Everything seemed to stop for a moment as muscle memory kicked in and Chopin's Prelude in E Minor began to echo seamlessly and effortlessly within the empty parlor. The notes danced and swirled beneath his fingers, painted the room in vibrant, distracting color, and all at once, Mycroft felt his shoulders loosen and his eyes close.
The ebb and flow, crescendo/decrescendo, the way his right hand practically floated above the keys while his left kept a steady, grounding tempo of subtly shifting chords; it was perfection. For the first time in his life, it was as natural and comfortable and necessary as breathing.
He played every song he knew three times.
It wasn't as though the floodgates had opened then. Far from it. Mycroft barely glanced at the piano during his normal routine, far too busy to entertain thoughts of practice or private performance. But it was calming, knowing the instrument was there, having that shoulder he would never admit to leaning on when the stress of work-and more specifically one Sherlock Holmes-became a bit more than he could bear.
The piano became his secret, a personal therapist for trying times and insolent brothers. It became a balm, a friend, a reminder that not all things touched by his parents could be sullied. He was, perhaps, not as taken to the piano as Sherlock to his violin-nor was he by any means as skilled-but he was no novice. His skill was his and his alone, and it was to be admired, even if only by himself.
"And you're sure?"
"Positive. Ms. Hooper just finished the autopsy."
"And there's no way that he might have-"
"It's him, sir."
"Yes. Of course."
"Unless you'd like to come down and identify the body yourself."
"I have a feeling it won't make much difference. Don't you?"
Nothing worked, the problem greater than even this final outlet could overcome. Mycroft got three measures into the Adagio movement of Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique-one of his favorite and most soothing pieces-before slamming the lid over the keys and walking away.
The weight of it all sat heavily enough on his chest that he even considered chopping the blasted instrument into firewood. Instead, he had it sold to a buyer in Tokyo and shipped out within twenty-four hours.
There were moments he wished he hadn't, days that followed his brother's death which were the most trying and stressful, guilt-ridden days he could have ever prepared himself for. But even when his fingers itched to play, his mind swimming with a lack of distraction, he couldn't bring himself to buy it back. He didn't deserve such a diversion. Not anymore.
It wasn't his first clue; he'd had reason to believe for months. It was, however, the final hint, the undeniable truth of what he hadn't allowed himself to hope for over the last three years.
The inner circle of Moriarty's criminal web falls apart, Sebastian Moran goes missing, and a brand new, black Steinway shows up in his parlor overnight. His brother did always have a flare for the dramatic.
The strings pulled to bring Sherlock back from the dead in no way miraculously salvaged their relationship, but it was something. The piano was proof of that, as was the tight-lipped, "Thank you," he received when Mycroft handed him back his meticulously well-cared-for Stradivarius. It was certainly a disappearance that would not go unnoticed by Dr. Watson, a fact that was also recognizably, if silently, appreciated.
It took a year or so after that, before Mycroft finally allowed himself the time and energy to try again. His reluctance was almost palpable, practically transferred to the instrument itself, as though he could sense it shying away; he'd gotten off too easily, his punishment nowhere near severe enough. And yet, when he finally allowed himself to sit in front of those keys, finally allowed his fingers to slowly, softly tap out note after note of a long forgotten piece about a cat, he knew he was forgiven. Even if he hadn't yet forgiven himself, at the very least, he had this.
At the very least, he could breathe again.