When Sherlock was seven, his big brother gave him a paintbrush. It was the end of the school holidays and Mycroft was about to get into the car to go back to school.
“You must be very careful with this paintbrush,” said Mycroft. “It’s magical.”
“Magic is illogical,” Sherlock said. “It doesn’t exist.”
“Nevertheless, it is magical. You will soon find out how it works. Write and tell me about it.”
“I’ll send you a picture!” Sherlock exclaimed.
“Yes, well,” Mycroft smiled. “Wait and see.”
Sherlock carried his paintbrush away to his secret den in the garden. There was a dead bee lying on the floor. Sherlock put it carefully on the old tree stump he used as a table, and fetched his paints. Then he picked up the new paintbrush, and with his tongue poking out, he painstakingly copied the head, with its fine antennae; the thorax with its three pairs of legs and two pairs of translucent wings, and the abdomen with its barbed ovipositor. As he stroked the final touch of paint onto the paper, the painting of the bee sprang to life, and with a brief shake of its wings, the real bee flew away.
Sherlock stared after it, open-mouthed.
“That’s impossible,” he said aloud.
He found a new piece of paper, and after a moment’s thought, he dragged out the laboratory equipment catalogue from the pile of books.
He decided to start with something simple, and carefully painted an Erlenmeyer flask. He realised he was holding his breath as he finished the last line. But as before, the painting came to life, a real Erlenmeyer flask standing on the tree stump table.
By the end of the day, Sherlock had fully restocked his laboratory equipment. (The glassware did tend to have rather a short life.) He wondered about painting a mass spectrometer, but he wasn’t sure he could do a realistic enough copy. And he supposed it would be quite difficult to find somewhere to put it where it wouldn’t cause questions.
He wrote a short note to Mycroft explaining his findings, and hid the paintbrush safely in the back of the den.
Over the next few weeks he painted several things, including several fresh reams of paper. He tried painting the paintbrush itself, but the paintbrush that appeared wasn’t magical. He didn’t paint too many things. He found he was feeling a bit superstitious about it. Superstition was illogical, but then so was magic, so he decided superstition was probably alright.
He secretly painted a couple of little trinkets for classmates; a toy car for Jamie Peverell and a pencil sharpener for Alex Chan. It didn’t help much, they accepted the gifts looking slightly askance, but still wouldn’t play with him.
It was a few weeks after that, that the idea first came to him. First he painted a cage and straw bedding, a food bowl and a water bottle, and then a white rat. The rat popped into three dimensions and sat, grooming its whiskers, watching him. He picked it up carefully, stroked its silky back a couple of times, and put it into the cage.
He wrote to Mycroft about Albus, and got a wary response.
Living creatures are difficult to create. A bee is one thing, and a rat is orders of magnitude more complicated, but you should be cautious about experimenting further. People have very many motivations and personality traits, and an unrounded personality can manifest several psychological disorders.
Sherlock wasn't stupid. What would be the point of creating a person? He couldn’t make the people he already knew be friends with him.
Albus was a fairly satisfactory companion for the next three years. He would sit on Sherlock’s shoulder while he wrote up his chemistry experiments, and groom his unruly curls. When he died of old age, Sherlock dissected him and found him to be a perfectly normal rat, nothing to suggest he had been created by magic.
Sherlock decided not to paint himself another rat. Another pet wouldn’t be the same. He missed Albus, illogically. He’d known Albus wouldn’t live longer than three years. It was silly to feel sad when the inevitable happened.
When Sherlock went to university, a year early, he took the paintbrush with him. That was the first mistake. The second mistake was letting Jim from down the hall see it. Jim had a vicious talent for recognising when something was important to someone, and using it to hurt them. He nagged Sherlock to paint him a picture, and when Sherlock refused, Jim narrowed his eyes at him.
“Why’s it so special, Sherlock?” he lilted. “A present from a secret admirer?”
Sherlock glared at him. “No, from my brother. There’s nothing particularly special about it.”
“So paint me something!”
Sherlock sighed. If he didn’t finish the painting, it wouldn’t come to life, and Jim would never know the secret. Maybe then he’d leave him alone. He did a quick painting of an apple, but left out the calyx. Jim cooed over it, but didn’t leave Sherlock alone. He demanded another picture. Sherlock painted a fountain pen, omitting the breather hole in the nib. Jim insisted on one more. Sherlock painted a goldfish, with no operculum, but as he was moving to put the paintbrush down, Jim jostled his shoulder and the resulting splash of paint completed the picture. They both stared at the little orange fish flopping on the desk. Sherlock felt sick as he watched the lightning-fast calculations flickering behind Jim’s wide dark eyes.
Sherlock thought about sending the paintbrush home, but he didn’t know how safe it would be where he couldn’t see it. Mycroft was no good – Sherlock knew without being told that Mycroft would be angry that he'd let someone else know the secret.
Jim was even more unbearable now. “You could paint anything! A gun! A pretty girl!” Then he gave Sherlock a sly, sideways smile. “Or a pretty boy?” he purred.
Sherlock knew that was supposed to be a dig at his sexuality. He didn’t know why it was supposed to bother him. He did prefer men to women, as if it mattered, but frankly the whole thing seemed like a lot of fuss. He wouldn’t admit it even to himself, but he was a little bit frightened of Jim. There had been something too like enjoyment as he had watched the goldfish struggling, before Sherlock had picked it up and tipped it into his water glass.
Painting a person would be an interesting experiment, of course.
And he understood people better than Mycroft thought.
When Jim dropped out of university and disappeared, Sherlock thought maybe he would try to paint a new companion. Just once, just to see.
He set up his things in the dead hours of one night, and painted. He painted a man, made him nice to look at. He painted his intelligence, his quick wit, his charm. And when Sebastian Wilkes stepped fully formed from the paper, Sherlock had a moment of smugness. Not so complicated after all.
It only took a month for Sherlock to realise how wrong he had been. Seb was completely lacking in morals or compassion. He was self-absorbed and casually cruel, and Sherlock could see he was going to get on well in the business world he was clearly heading for. Sherlock was passionately glad that Jim was not around to know about this mistake.
Sherlock resisted painting any more people for ten years. When Mycroft confiscated the paintbrush to stop Sherlock painting any more cocaine, he went on a two month bender with non-magical cocaine bought from dealers, then finally recognised he was done. Once he had been clean for three months, and had begun turning his genius towards detection, Mycroft returned the paintbrush.
Lestrade was a useful contact within the police force, but sometimes Sherlock needed access to cadavers that Lestrade refused to allow him. Eventually Sherlock braced himself, thought through exactly what had gone wrong with Sebastian, and set to work. He painted a woman this time, made sure to make her compassionate. She had to be intelligent for him to tolerate her. He painted her as dexterous and observant, but reduced the charm and self-esteem. He had learned from that mistake with Seb.
Molly Hooper was a much greater accomplishment than Sebastian had been, but she was still flawed. The lack of charm and self-esteem made her awkward and gauche. Still, she was good at her job, and let him do what he wanted in the morgue, so he counted it a success.
When Jim finally reappeared, he kidnapped Sherlock by the brutal but simple expedient of coshing him over the head from behind. When Sherlock came round, Jim was standing over him in a Vivienne Westwood suit, holding a gun in one hand and the paintbrush in the other.
“Hello Sherlock,” Jim grinned.
Sherlock rubbed his aching head and looked around. They were in a public swimming baths, light bouncing crazily off water and tile.
Jim proffered the paintbrush. “Paint someone for me,” he instructed.
Sherlock shook his head. “It doesn’t work, Jim, you can’t paint people,” he lied.
Jim cocked his head on one side. “I don’t believe you,” he sang. “I need a second-in-command. Paint one for me.”
The beginnings of an idea began to form in Sherlock’s mind. It was a risk. But all the best things in life were. He hung his head and agreed, with reluctance that was partly feigned.
“Excellent,” said Jim, and pushed Sherlock over to an easel. “Paint me a soldier.”
Jim prowled around, calling out the qualities he wanted. “He needs to be very brave… And loyal of course. Oh! He should be a crack shot. That could come in very useful. Let’s see. Strong. Intelligent. He’s never going to be a genius like me, or you, but make him smart. A certain… creative morality. He’ll have to kill people. Make him good-looking. Nice to have good-looking people around the place. Ah, not too tall though. You great tall people. You think you’re clever, but you get so stupid. Must be the effort of pumping blood all the way up that long neck. Hmmm, I think I’ll call him Moran. Goes nicely with Moriarty.”
Sherlock was nearly finished now. He bit his lip as he brushed the final strokes into place.
A soldier stepped out the picture. He scanned the tableau in front of him, Jim with the gun in hand, Sherlock with the paintbrush. As Jim lifted the gun, the soldier pulled a gun of his own from the waistband of his jeans and shot Jim in the head.
He turned to Sherlock. “Don’t like people waving guns around. Makes me nervous.”
Sherlock nodded. “I made you all the things he asked. He just didn’t think to tell me not to make you good.”
The soldier shrugged. “I don’t know about that. I did just shoot a man.”
“Yes. Loyal. Just not to Jim.”
“John Watson, by the way,” the soldier said, and he stuck his hand out for Sherlock to shake.
John is still not perfect. Sherlock thinks he might have overdone the compassion, and possibly also the temper. He wishes he hadn’t saddled him with PTSD. But he is broken in ways that complement Sherlock, and Sherlock thinks John might just be the best painting he’ll ever do.