A/N: Here you are, people, last chapter! Thanks for sticking with it so far! And thanks for the death threats - they made my day!
As the counterfeiter raised the gun and pointed it at Holmes's head, I saw my friend's face blanche even paler than before. This man was a cold-blooded murderer of helpless girls; he would have no compunction about shooting us where we stood.
"I really thought we were going to get away with the whole thing, Holmes," the man said, "I had no idea you were so close upon us. How you found out, I'll never know."
Holmes said nothing, but I could tell by his eyes and the way they nervously darted back and forth that he was desperately trying to think of some plan.
And I could tell by his thinly veiled expression of despair that he was not having any luck.
"Anyhow, Holmes, I have no doubt that the police will shortly be following you here, so I must lose no time in completing this mission that you so rudely interrupted," the man said, pulling back the hammer of the gun with a deadly click.
I was nearly shaking with fright – he was going to shoot Holmes right there, in front of my very eyes!
I could not, I would not watch that. If I only had time to think of something!
But unlike most criminals, this man wasted no time in melodramatic monologues before he shot. He took one step backward, carefully aimed the gun, leveled it –
And once again, as I had been doing all through this case, I acted purely on instinct, not on rational thought. All I could think about was the fact that I would not allow Holmes to be killed when I had just gotten him back from the very grave. In consequence, my emotions took over instead of my brain, and I acted without thinking.
I jumped between Holmes and the pistol, grabbing frantically for the man's gun hand.
My groping fingers caught his arm and shoved upward only just in time. The bullet imbedded itself in the ceiling with a shower of dust and plaster. The first feeling I had was that of relief – the second, of desperation as the man twisted viciously out of my grip.
My momentary relief was suddenly shattered with force as I felt a shooting, searing pain in the side of my head – the barrel of the counterfeiter's gun had made direct contact with my head injury, and the force of the blow sent me reeling to a crashing heap upon the ground.
The throbbing in my head had just increased a hundredfold, and I was growing dizzy, vaguely sensing a good deal of warm blood running down the side of my face – the stitches must have come open.
I was distantly aware of Holmes's frightened voice crying my name in a tone of absolute terror, but I was unable to answer him, concentrating all my energy on remaining at least semi-conscious.
"Stupid fool," I heard the counterfeiter growl, "wasted a perfectly good bullet!"
I cracked open one eye and saw that the man was standing with his back toward me. Neither he nor Holmes could see me from that angle, and they would not know that I was conscious. I quickly closed my eyes again, my mind desperately fumbling for a plan.
"You will pay for this, and pay dearly," I heard Holmes say in a low voice, deep with pain and grief and hatred.
"I think not, Holmes. Now get over there with your precious client and the girl – I do not have much time and I want to get this over with quickly. You three first, then that stupid fool over there."
I could hear the frightened sobs of the woman and Eckerton's rapid scared breathing as I felt the vibrations on the floor of Holmes's backing away towards them.
I cracked an eye open once more. Holmes was standing beside Eckerton, his face dead pale, and our client was holding his fiancée tightly – I did not know which of the young people looked more scared.
A fresh wave of nausea swept over me as blood continued to pour down my face from my temple, and I took a long breath, trying to steady my nerves.
There was one chance.
I had fallen upon my left side.
My gun was still in my right jacket pocket.
I began to slowly, silently move my hand to my pocket, keeping an eye on the others. The counterfeiter had stepped forward and was now blocking me from the other three's view, so I was able to pull out my revolver without anyone noticing.
As the counterfeiter once again raised his pistol to point it directly at point-blank range at Holmes's head, I silently raised myself on my left elbow, shaking the hot blood out of my vision, and sighted my own weapon.
I could not miss.
I could not afford to miss.
There was a click as the man cocked his gun, and then I waited no longer. I sighted, cocked, and fired, all in the space of one instant. The girl screamed in fright.
And the counterfeiter dropped without a sound, blood pouring from the wound in the back of his head.
I had stayed on my elbow long enough to make sure the man had fallen before slumping back to the hard floor, trying to control the nausea and dizziness from the blood that was dripping down my face.
"Watson. Watson! Can – can you hear me?" I heard Holmes's frantic, terrified voice as he fell to his knees beside me on the floor.
I opened my eyes with an effort and looked at his pale, scared face – and perceived that he was shaking worse than I.
In an instant Holmes was cradling my head with his left arm, desperately pressing his handkerchief to the wound at my temple with his right, trying frantically to stem the blood flow.
"Yes, old chap, you got him," he answered gently my questioning look, "dead center."
"Good," I gasped, fighting down a wave of nausea.
"Eckerton! I need help here!" Holmes said, his voice trembling as he saw the amount of blood that was already on the floor.
I tried to explain to him that head injuries always involve a deal of blood and that pressing a compress directly onto a head wound is not the best course of action, but he was too distraught to listen to me, and I could feel the arm that was supporting my head shaking with fright as Eckerton gave him his handkerchief as well and then ran down the stairs to call the police.
As Holmes pressed the second handkerchief to the gash in my head, I winced with the pain and closed my eyes, going limp as an attack of dizziness assailed me.
"Watson!?" Holmes's voice was close to panic now.
I sighed, reopening my eyes to look at him.
"Holmes. For heaven's sake, RELAX!" I gasped, trying to focus my blurred vision on his worried face.
He stared at me, his features frozen for a moment, and then to my surprise his arms tightened impulsively around me and he gave me a rigid smile, his grey eyes blinking with a suspiciously rapid movement.
Eckerton came dashing back up to the room, and a moment later the room was invaded by two bobbies from the street and messages were sent to Scotland Yard. Eckerton was sitting on the floor, holding the poor girl, who was still shaking, when Gregson arrived about fifteen minutes later.
He stopped short, seeing Holmes gently tying a makeshift bandage around my head, the dead counterfeiter across the room, and the missing girl safely in the arms of her fiancé, and his jaw dropped so comically I should have laughed if I had not been feeling so lightheaded from the blood loss.
Holmes put an arm round my back and helped me to sit up while explaining what had happened to Gregson. That sudden movement was an extremely bad idea, for I immediately was attacked by dizziness and almost collapsed right into Holmes's arms.
Naturally, I frightened him half to death and had to spend the next five minutes in assuring him I was fine, that I just needed to take things gradually.
Meanwhile, Gregson had given orders and had the body taken outside to a waiting wagon. He was now asking the Stewart girl a few questions with her fiancé protectively looking on.
"Watson – do you think you can stand?" Holmes asked with concern.
"I'm willing to give it a shot," I said dubiously, rubbing absently at the makeshift bandage on my head.
"Don't touch that, Watson!" Holmes snapped worriedly.
I glared weakly at him, and he smiled at my feeble attempt at defiance. Then he slung my arm around his thin shoulders and helped me to my feet, catching me when my legs threatened to give out and supporting nearly all my weight until the fit of dizziness passed.
I was breathing hard with the effort by the time I was able to stand upright, and Holmes lost no time in getting me outside to a cab and heading for the nearest hospital to have the stitches put back in my head, completely and pointedly ignoring Gregson's vociferous protests about leaving the scene before he had a chance to talk to us.
Forty-five minutes and twelve stitches later, Holmes had solicitously settled me in front of a cozy fire in our sitting room, fussing over me as if I had been mortally wounded. Although it might have been annoying coming from anyone else, such affectionate attention was a rare occurrence from my comrade and as such I welcomed it.
He had just spread a blanket over me – even though the fire was nearly an inferno! – when the bell rang; and as it was after midnight, Mrs. Hudson was no longer up. Throwing me an apologetic glance, he jumped for the stairs and I heard a murmur of voices in the hall.
A moment later, the figures of our client and his lovely fiancée were ushered into the room. I made to rise, and the lady waved me graciously back to my position.
"Please, Doctor, do not try to get up," she said, her voice quiet and soft. It was of little wonder that our young client was very obviously deep in love with the charming girl.
"We came by to thank you both, gentlemen," Eckerton said, "we did not have a chance to there at the house because of that confounded inspector and all his questions. I told Annie before I was going to take her home we were going to come by here and thank the two of you."
"I never dreamed I would be found, Mr. Holmes," the girl said, looking at my friend with a deep gratefulness.
"Well, madam, I wish I could claim credit for your rescue but I cannot," Holmes said, "for I would have been killed right there in that house if it had not been for Watson here."
"Luck," I protested, "pure luck, that I had that gun still in my pocket."
"Not luck, Doctor. Providence," the girl said softly, "and I do thank you very much."
"We both do," Eckerton said, drawing the woman protectively closer to him, "we shall forever be in your debt, gentlemen."
Holmes bowed and I nodded, and I was exceedingly glad we had brought that lovely couple back together – a happy ending to a rather sordid case.
"We shall let you both rest now," Eckerton said, "thank you again, Mr. Holmes. No, no, please, we can find our own way out. Good night."
Holmes showed the pair to the door and shut it after them.
"What a lovely couple," I remarked, gingerly settling back upon the couch.
"Three years has not changed that incurable romantic streak in you, Watson," he said, walking over to the mantelpiece and leaning on it, looking at me.
I grinned at him, a little tiredly.
"Oh, come now, Holmes. You have to admit that it is quite a happy ending to a case that we were afraid was not going to be very happy after all," I said.
I saw some unusual emotion flash over Holmes's expressive face, and he sighed and pulled up a chair beside my couch.
"I told you that you were worrying too much about the case, Holmes – you see, you did not fail, even though you were afraid you would," I said to him, not liking the uncertainty I still saw in his eyes.
"I did fail, Watson," he said quietly, his eyes downcast, "completely, absolutely, and utterly failed."
"No, you did not!" I exclaimed, wincing as my vehement tone jolted my headache even more, "that couple is now happily back together and Gregson has the whole counterfeiting gang in jail save that one man. And you foiled a devious scheme to flood the city with counterfeit coins."
"That changes nothing," Holmes said quietly, "the fact remains that I failed. I would have been killed then and there, if you had not jumped in front of me in that bedroom. And then again a few minutes later when he had us cornered. My slowness could have killed us all – could have killed you, Watson – and that was what I have been so afraid of!"
Holmes's voice shook on the last statement, and he refused to lift his eyes to mine.
I was startled at his words – he had never, ever been that open with me before his absence. He had most definitely changed a good deal if he would admit such sentiments to me.
"Holmes, look at me."
He still refused.
"Holmes, you did not fail," I said earnestly.
This time he looked up at me incredulously.
"Watson, you saved my life yet again – I did nothing. He would have shot me in the head; I really thought he was going to, when you jumped in between us," he said, his voice still unsteady, "I was helpless, I could do absolutely nothing to stop it! I nearly lost the entire case through my own stupidity and my utter lack of nerve!"
I tried to remonstrate, but I could see that now he had started he could not stop the flow of words. And as a doctor, I knew he needed to release these feelings or he would have a meltdown, similar to what I had been feeling like earlier in the week.
"Watson, I – I cannot do this for the rest of my life!" he went on, his voice filled with dread and insecurity, "I am not capable of resuming this profession! I cannot drop back into the investigative scene if I continue to make blunders as I did tonight! I am obviously not the man I was three years ago!"
"No, you are not," I replied emphatically, turning over and looking him directly in the face.
He looked at me with a gaze of utter defeat.
"You are not the man you were three years ago, Holmes," I said slowly, "because the man I knew three years ago would have died rather than share such thoughts with another living soul. The Sherlock Holmes I used to know would never have admitted, to me or to anyone else, that he was less than superhuman."
He stared at me, and I smiled at him.
"Change is not always a bad thing, Holmes," I said quietly, "and you did not fail tonight."
"You did not fail, old chap, because – because we are a team now. You are no longer alone in these battles you choose to fight against evil. It does not matter which of us fires the fatal shot that kills the final enemy and closes the case!" I said intensely, "because that is the path we have chosen to take, together – you told me yourself earlier, that we would get through this together. Why are you able to extend help to me but unable to accept it yourself?"
Holmes's intense grey eyes looked at me as if he were gazing straight into my soul, and perhaps he was. For, a moment later, the deep disturbing uncertainty that had so plagued him began to slowly dissipate, and it was replaced by a sudden warmth as his tense face relaxed.
"How does a man get to be so wise in three years, Watson?" he asked at last, a fraction of the old twinkle coming back into his tired eyes.
"One of the great mysteries of life, Holmes, ranking right up there with how a man can have such a phobia about taking cough syrup," I muttered, leaning back wearily, my mind and emotions completely spent by the night's events. My head was throbbing painfully, to boot.
Holmes's laugh was painful to my head but soothing to my mind – laughter was the best medicine in the world, I well knew, and I was glad he could find some amusement to take his mind off this case.
I closed my eyes in exhaustion, grimacing at the pain in my skull and trying to shift to a less painful position. I felt Holmes gently pull the blanket up and tuck it in around me and sensed rather than saw him turn down the gas.
Finally cracking an eye open, I watched him grab his pipe, light it, and then seat himself before the fire, gazing thoughtfully at the dancing flames as if trying to read in them the solution to his inner struggles. Then I closed my eyes once again.
We had come quite a long way since the inception of this case, and we had done more serious soul-searching than either of us would have liked. We had the demons of our pasts to face as well as those that might arise in the future.
But, as I had said to Holmes just now, we were not alone any longer to face our problems. And if we could withstand the demons our own minds conjured up to throw in our paths, then I knew we could weather any storms that outsiders might cast at us.
And as my thoughts began to muddle together when the pain reliever began to take its calming effect, and as I sensed Holmes bending over me to see that I was all right and felt him gently checking the bandage on my head, I finally, for the first time, felt a sensation that I had not felt yet since my return to Baker Street.
I was home.
Finis! Thanks for reading - if you enjoyed, please tell me!