[Narration by Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Esquire]
Before we left Baden-Baden and the scene of our latest adventure I asked Watson if there was anywhere else in central Europe that he wished to see, as Bacchus had asked (begged) me to undertake an investigation in north-eastern Italy and I saw no reason to hurry there (it was actually his seventeenth request but this one suited my own ends and my annoying brother could damn well dance to my tune for once in his life!). Watson surprised me by admitting to some desire to see the famous Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland; not so much that someone with his acrophobia would want to visit such a place but because that particular name had an association with a part of my life that was then still hidden from him. I hoped fervently that he did not detect my surprise and I think that I covered it well enough by agreeing to his wishes at once.
We set out early for Basel and the efficient Swiss guards had our passports checked in the short distance between the border and the station where we had to change trains in the town. Watson had told me that he half-expected that they would detain us because someone had selfishly chosen to get murdered again at precisely the wrong moment but mercifully the town was (at that time) murder-free and after another change of trains at Spiez we made it to the charming town of Meiringen in the early evening. I had booked us in for two nights there and in spite of the brief bad moment that Watson had given me by his request I too was looking forward to seeing the natural wonder as they had a certain meaning to me that I could not yet share with my friend. Much as I wanted to.
The following day we set off for the Falls which were stunningly beautiful. I did not even think to suggest taking the high path knowing that Watson would surely better appreciate this natural beauty from the safety and solidity of the ground, and that.... what on earth?
Watson seemed to be having some sort of panic attack! Uttering a swift and silent prayer of thanks that we had come early enough to avoid the crowds, I rushed over and pulled him into an embrace. Even if there had been a thousand people in that God-forsaken valley I would not have cared; Watson needed me and that was what was important.
Slowly his breathing steadied although he still looked absolutely terrified for some reason. And, I was worried to see, a little ashamed of his reaction.
I was grateful for the physical strength which enabled me to bring his larger frame to a standing position and to then move him away from whatever had caused this aberration. Once we were out of sight of the Falls he seemed to improve still further although he still looked shocked. As was I.
He was still not himself as we finally attained our hotel which fortunately was but a short distance from the Falls. I led him inside and to my room and set him down on the bed.
“Would you like a drink?” I asked. He shook his head.
“C-c-cold!” he muttered. It was I knew quite warm in the room but he clearly felt the sort of inner chill that I was sure no external heat could drive away. Until to my surprise he pulled me back into an embrace.
This... was good. I could feel him beginning to calm down and he instinctively buried his face in my neck. The small whine that I affected not to hear was possibly the most terrible sound that I had ever heard come out of this wonderful human being.
“Do you wish to talk about it?” I asked gently.
He shook his head – not easy from his current position – but I got the message.
“You were gone!” he cried, bursting into speech. “You left me!”
I eased back and looked at him in surprise.
“You know that I would never willingly leave you, John”, I said, realizing only as I said it that it was one of the rare times that I had called him by his Christian name. “Why would I do that?”
“You were gone!” he repeated.
I made a swift decision.
“Would you like to leave this place?” I asked. He looked at me in surprise.
“But you have already paid for our stay here”, he protested.
“All the money I have is not worth your unhappiness”, I said and the look of gratitude I got in return was almost too much for me. “Come. I believe that there is a train back to Spiez and they must have good accommodation there. Then we can head down to Italy.” And away from here, I added silently.
He was clearly torn, wanting to leave but not wanting to let go of me. I felt him shudder again.
“There will be later trains”, I said, reaching over to ring for a timetable to be sent up. I had to get my friend away from this Reichenbach.
Watson was nervous and on edge the whole rest of the day, and he was actually shaking when I came back from a trip to the water closet. I got my timetable for the trains back to Spiez and selected a late afternoon train, then called a boy to take a telegram booking a room in a hotel there. Doubtless we attracted one or two unusual looks when we eventually departed as Watson was anxious not to be parted from me but I did not care for that.
I should perhaps have thought ahead more. Instinctively I had booked two adjoining rooms in our hotel in Spiez but Watson looked terrified when I suggested that it was time for us to turn in. Obviously I could not leave him in his current state so I suggested that we take advantage of the connecting door between our rooms and sleep in the same bed. The look of gratitude that I got for that would have melted a heart of stone.
A good night's sleep in Spiez did my friend the world of good even if I experienced a brief moment of embarrassment when I woke in the morning to find that, despite my best intentions, my body had somehow burrowed its way into Watson's slightly taller frame and pulled him around me. But our relationship had clearly advanced to a new level now and when he woke as I pulled myself up and looked hesitatingly at me, I smiled re-assuringly at him. This was our 'new normal' and I would have been lying if I had not said that it was something that I had always wanted. In truth I wanted more – much, much more - but I was happy that we had got this far even if I was distraught at the way in which it had come about.
We resumed our journey, heading south to the Italian border and the town of Domodossola. This time it was Italian guards who checked our passports and papers on the train, two puffed-up young bucks who clearly thought a great deal of themselves. I was never so happy to see Watson smile as when one of them asked in broken English if he could have my autograph and I not only obliged but promised to send him a signed copy of Watson's next story if he left us his address.
Our first experience of Italian railways was an unnerving one. The engine looked like it should have been up against Mr. Stephenson’s 'Rocket' at the Rainhill Trials half a century ago (and it would probably have lost), not pulling a long rake of coaches through hilly countryside. I wondered if we would even make it to Milan at one point when we slowed to a snail's pace up a steep hill but somehow we scrambled over the top and almost attained a semi-decent speed coming down the other side mostly I suspected thanks to Sir Isaac Newton and his gravity. The trip past Lake Maggiore was breathtakingly beautiful and I was silently relieved that a second natural beauty apparently had not affected my friend like the first had done. Although I had a nagging feeling that just possibly his reaction back at the Falls may have been justified, for reasons that he could not yet be made aware of.
Our hotel in Milan gave us both an experience to remember. As we were checking in on one side of the reception desk a stunningly beautiful young woman was doing the same just a few feet away, dressed in what was very obviously the highest fashion. I never quite understood why women reacted t me in the way that they did especially given that Watson was (and still is) far more good-looking, but then I long ago accepted that understanding the fairer sex was not something that would ever be within my or any man's compass. Frankly I found the way that this woman in particular all but draped herself over me to be quite offensive until I heard what she had to whisper in my ear. I gave her a retort in her own language which had her recoiling rather more rapidly and I smiled at my friend before leading the way upstairs.
“What did you say to her?” he asked. I noted (but did not comment on the fact) that he was definitely annoyed at the woman's presumption.
“She had a message from Bacchus”, I explained and I could see his face fall at that news. “Unfortunately she chose to deliver it a little too personally for my tastes.”
“She was very beautiful”, he offered.
“But she is not you.”
It must have been the undying gratitude in his green eyes that made my mouth temporarily disengage from my brain. In that instant I made a fateful (but ultimately correct) decision.
“I find these sort of things very tiring”, I said. “Bacchus says that the Venice matter is resolved but he now asks that we stop off in Padua where a very delicate diplomatic affair is being attended to by Gaillard. He thinks that my counsel would be beneficial.”
“'The Taming Of The Shrew'”, he said. “Shakespeare, where a match made in Hell turned out all right in the end.”
“But first we shall visit Verona”, I said. “That is a much more appropriate setting as regards the Bard.”
“Oh”, he said. “You mean 'The Two Gentlemen Of Verona'?”
“No”, I said, inwardly sweating at what I feared his reaction might be to what I had in store for him. “I was thinking of the famous balcony from 'Romeo and Juliet', which play is set in that town. I think that it would be an excellent place.”
“For what?” he asked, confused. I levelled him with a look.
“For us to exchange rings”, I said softly. “I know that you do not think highly of yourself John and I wish for you to have a permanent reminder of just how highly I value your presence at my side. And that I will never look at anyone else, man or woman, as long as I have you.”
The look of love – for that was what it was little though I deserved it - which that remark elicited was so wonderful that it was almost painful. I foresaw, correctly, that our evening would involve a whole lot of manly embracing that was definitely not anything else at all, least of all something that started with 'c' and rhymed with huddling.
Milan was enjoyable enough but my friend declined my offer of a stop in Brescia. He evidently could still not believe what I had planned and I was more than happy to prove him wrong.
“We have an appointment”, I explained as we left the restaurant in Verona a few days later. “Just a little way along this street.”
We continued until we reached a jewellery shop. I stopped outside it and, to John's obvious surprise, took his hand. The street was quiet enough but such public declarations of affection were arguably dangerous, probably more so here than back in England.
“I live a dangerous life”, I said softly, “and make far too many enemies. We both know that I am unlikely to make old bones.”
I could see how my words chilled him and placed a gentle finger on his lips to stop him saying anything.
“Despite that you have stayed faithful to me”, I said. “Far more so that I could ever possibly deserve. I can never have the 'married with children' life that so many aspire to, nor would I ever wish for it. But I have you. And I need to make you understand just how important you are to me, John. You are more than just a friend and it is high time that I made that as official as it can be.”
He was so embarrassed that he barely noticed that I had used his first name again. Indeed he looked so uncertain that I nearly kissed him right there in the street. Perhaps fortunately he managed to restrict himself to merely squeezing my hand and uttering a heartfelt ‘thank you!’, albeit in an unusually high-pitched voice. There was definitely some quivering of a lip in there, though.
John must have thought that we would be returning to our hotel but instead I took us a little deeper into town while he spent much of the time fingering his new ring. Like mine it was plain silver but its mere presence on his finger had brought back that wonderful smile to his handsome face and I resolved to spend as much of my life as I could to keeping that smile there.
I led him into a small house that looked unremarkable enough and the lady there smiled as she led us upstairs. She ushered us into the room and I passed her a note before she left. I took John to the window and led him out onto a small balcony. He suddenly got it.
“'Romeo and Juliet'!” he exclaimed. I smiled.
No”, I said simply. “Sherlock and John.”
The street was deserted but for all I cared there could have been a full-scale parade passing by. Then and there we exchanged rings and I held and kissed the man that I valued above all other, on the same balcony famed for a tragic love story that ended in death.
In the end that analogy nearly proved all too correct.