"No, it's the fourth isotope you're thinking of. The third one is unstable," Molly said. At the microscope, Sherlock said without looking up, "Wrong." Then, he did look up. "No, wait. Maybe, maybe, maybe right -" he leapt off the stool and began shoving papers around on the lab table, looking for one in particular. Molly smiled.
Sherlock's mobile rang, indicating a new text. "Get that, Molly," Sherlock said, busy with the papers.
She was used to being abruptly ordered about the lab by Sherlock, and often now she simply refused. It was her lab, after all. But, seeing he was in the throes of a lead, she took pity on him and fetched out the mobile from his coat pocket, flung carelessly over a stool.
"Read it to me."
Molly opened the text and read it out.
Burn, baby, burn.
There will be no babies in the barrel.
She looked up. "What does that gibberish mean? Is it some kind of code?"
Sherlock, alert at the word "burn", had frozen the moment she had read out "M." "No," he said slowly.
"No? No what?"
"No, it's not code, and no, it's not gibberish. It's a message." He stood up, eyes front, hands in the air. She had learned to be quiet immediately when he did this, and to stay quiet. Always, after some hours, it resulted in an amazing insight. But this time, she didn't have to wait long. In seconds, he stood up in alarm. "No!" he nearly shouted. He seemed to have much more to say, but controlled himself with a great effort.
"Sherlock! What is it?" Molly asked, startled by the look on his face.
He was pacing now, hands to his head. "Barrels, barrels – they're made by COOPERS, another name for which is HOOPER – that's you –" he stabbed a finger in her direction, "—and he must have seen us together, or his men saw us together, and have drawn the wrong conclusions –"
"What? What conclusions?" she asked. He stopped in front of her, abruptly, and looked down at her. "That you and I are a couple," he said urgently.
"Well, incorrect, obviously, but why is that so bad?" Molly responded anxiously.
"Because, Molly, think. I've told you about "M", Moriarty, the man who has sworn to kill me. "Burn", he said. "I will burn you". Those were his words."
"It's never bothered you this much before," Molly said. "Oh … wait … no … I understand." She sat down slowly on a stool. "He means me, burn me, because he thinks I'm with you. Babies in the barrel, that's me, married or something to you, pregnant, babies …" She and Sherlock exchanged a horrified look.
"How can he have decided we were a couple?" she said. "You've only been working in here for a few days, and you wouldn't give me the time of day before."
"But I've been spending a lot of time here over those days," he replied, still agitated. He sat in a desk chair and tapped his fingertips together, rapidly. "People have been talking. John is delighted."
"John? But he knows we're not a couple."
"Yes, but he's happy that others are finally realizing that he and I are not."
She paused, thinking. "Sherlock," she said.
"Not now, Molly! Your life is in danger, and I need to think!"
"Sherlock," she repeated, looking at him.
"What?" he glared back at her.
"Sherlock, were you spending time in here to convince people you are John aren't gay? Did you … did you use me?" Molly looked steadily at him.
"No, Molly," he said, surprised. "That was a side effect. I've been coming for my own reasons. Your lab is far better equipped than my little corner in the kitchen. Your assistance with my current cases and your explanations about women have been most helpful. It's been useful to talk with an ordinary person who happens to be somewhat articulate." A pang shot through Molly's chest, but she ignored it. He says the most horrible things, always, she thought. It's just him.
"You know what we have to do, then," she said, reluctantly.
They both sat in silence. Finally Molly spoke. "The Christmas party, tonight."
"Yes, perfect," he replied.
"But how will Moriarty know?" she asked. "I hardly think you've invited him."
"All of John's and my associates will be there, and some of yours. Be sure to come after everyone else has arrived. I will be sure to make it loud, very public, very ugly, very awkward. Mrs. Hudson will be sure to mention it to the Baker Street gossips at the shop. It will be the talk of the station in the morning," he said, distastefully. "Obviously, very, very obviously, not a couple. He'll find out, quickly enough." he said grimly. "Molly, you can't go home before the party tonight, you realize that? And you'll need to spend the rest of the afternoon upstairs, around people, near the security station. Tell them you're being followed, put them on alert. It might save precious seconds."
"All right, I'll go the cafeteria. I'll have my flat mate bring my things. People will think awful things of you, you know," she said. "If we … if you do it right. The great Sherlock Holmes, the man who can be so heartlessly cruel to a woman, just with his words. "
Sherlock missed the implication, but said, "Given my reputation, they won't have any trouble believing it, I'm sure," he replied. "I'll try to make sure they won't soon forget it."
He paused. "They won't think much of you, either. Pity the pretty pathologist, destroyed for her pathetic schoolgirl crush, in front of all her friends."
Molly looked over at him, speechless. Then, she saw it. The tiny tug at the corner of his lips. "You said that on purpose, didn't you?" she said, incredulous. Pretty?
"Got you," he said, breaking out into a rare, full smile. He does look beautiful, she thought. God, those cheekbones.
She started to laugh. "Mr. Holmes, you are a terrible man."
"So people keep telling me," he agreed. "Obviously, I don't care."
"You could be a good friend, though," she said. "If you tried. If the person could just learn to ignore you when you're being awful anyway."
He came over and stood before her, serious again. "I want you to listen to me now. I am not normally given to speaking like this, but it will be important to you, I recognize that." He took a deep breath, and then continued. "I apologize, sincerely, in advance, for what I'm going to say to you tonight. It will look like I utterly despise you and always have, so that everyone will be forced to conclude that they must have been completely wrong about us being a couple. I'm going to do my utmost to especially convince Moriarty. You must strive to appear surprised and suitably upset. If you can manage a comeback, that might help. I'll pretend to be forced into apologizing, but it will be quite lame."
Finished, he stepped back and took his coat from the stool. "I regret that I won't be able to take further advantage of your assistance in the lab. This death threat is most inconvenient." He turned and strode out, her eyes following.
"Goodbye, Doctor Molly Hooper, MD," he called back over his shoulder.
"Fourth isotope, Mr. Holmes," she called after him. "Must have been."
Not turning, but waving her off dismissively as he walked, "Wrong."
Author's Note: It seems this story didn't end on quite a definitive note. I've had many people sign up to follow it after it was posted complete. The idea is that you know how it goes from here - they meet that evening at 221B, Sherlock protects Molly by being awful to her in front of everyone, and she doesn't end up being one of those targeted by snipers. Thanks for all your interest!