Bernie has never truly understood Reid—not when Elton, blushing, introduces them backstage the second night at the Troubadour and Reid kisses the back of Bernie’s hand, and definitely not when, apparently invisible to every other person gathered around the pool, Reid berates a comatose Elton on a stretcher. (Bernie is tanked out of his mind, unsteady on the heels he wears so much less frequently than Elton does and unable to recall even one of the names of the poor girls he’s dragged along to the party, and yet not a single other screaming guest seems to wonder why Reid’s yells are addressed so intensely into Elton’s face.) He and Elton never discuss Reid in so many words; Reid is just there, easing the music along and keeping Elton happy, much as Bernie himself does.
Nonetheless, Bernie knows when it’s over, watching Elton, three days after having his stomach pumped, carefully ignore Reid during a costume change at the second Dodger Stadium show; that Reid defers without question to Elton’s disdain is proof enough that something has broken. Bernie, full of whisky and weed, in awe of the hordes who chant Elton’s name and raise shivering screams to the brilliant autumn sky as their god reappears onstage, wraps his arm more tightly around today’s lucky girl and smiles, waggling an eyebrow, directly into Reid’s watching, impassive face.
(It’s petty, nothing he’d ever dare do while Elton kept Reid in his bed, but there’s a righteousness to it that can’t be entirely booze, and Reid’s jaw tightens as he looks away. Bernie grins into the girl’s hair.)
Bernie’s thus surprised to find, on their last night in LA after the shows, Elton watching Reid like a kicked dog as Reid flits around tonight’s party at the home of some exec. It’s well past midnight; Bernie’s blood is full of powder, and Elton’s stoned in a corner, temporarily ignored and sighing, fluttering his eyelashes tragically to make a passing group of women giggle. (They don’t stop to talk to him; Elton shifts his weight and tilts his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. Bernie grabs two drinks before approaching.)
“Hey, big star,” he murmurs, slotting into place at Elton’s right elbow. Elton, eyes still closed, reaches out for a glass, which Bernie relinquishes without argument. “Tired?”
Elton laughs as he drains the tumbler. “Not hardly.” One eye flickers open, fixing on a spot not quite in line with Bernie’s head as Elton reaches out for Bernie’s own drink, pouting when Bernie holds it out of reach. “Fetch me another, there’s a good lad.”
“Do some digesting first,” Bernie retorts. “Try a plate of those prawns.”
Elton opens his other eye, and his gaze behind tonight’s blue-rimmed glasses is absolutely cross-eyed, even as he attempts to focus on something over Bernie’s shoulder. Bernie glances back to see Reid laughing with a tall, skinny man who looks barely out of school.
“No thank you, mother,” Elton drawls, shoving his glass at Bernie and pushing himself off the wall. “Don’t be a spoilsport.”
Bernie laughs, a sound that quickly dies as he watches Elton, brushing wrinkles out of his shirt, sidle up alongside Reid and the stranger, who turns to him with an enormous grin as Reid lifts an eyebrow.
“It’s honestly an honor, as stupid as I know that sounds,” an eager American accent says, somehow audible over the party noise as Bernie creeps closer, keeping the group in the corner of his eye. “Absolutely incredible show, beyond belief.”
“Oh, thanks, darling.” That’s one of the bitchiest shades of Elton’s voice, one rarely allowed out in public, and Bernie abandons all pretense, looking up in time to catch Elton, his eyes incautiously wanting, curl his hand around Reid’s elbow while the third man frowns. “Can’t chat, I’m afraid. Mr. Reid, if you’ll follow me—”
Reid steps out of his hold. His grin is tight and yet coldly feral. “Elton doesn’t know how to take a night off,” he explains to his companion without sparing a glance in Elton’s direction. “It’s getting too warm in here; maybe out on the patio—?”
They walk away, close though not touching, the stranger looking back once over his shoulder at Elton, who stands, poleaxed and swaying slightly, face sallow in the poor lighting. Bernie waits until the man turns away before coming up to touch one of Elton’s trembling shoulders. Reid’s words linger as he and his boy disappear into the crowd.
“Probably too much fun, you understand how it is…”
Elton shifts as if to follow; Bernie leans in, pressing his chest against Elton’s to hold him in place.
“Elton.” Bernie’s voice is hoarse; he clears his throat before reaching for Elton’s arm. “Not here, yeah?”
“And why not?” Elton’s voice is entirely too loud, to Bernie’s ears, though no one immediately turns in their direction. He shivers as Bernie’s fingers close around his sweaty wrist, where Bernie can feel how quickly his pulse is working. “He knows what I need.”
“Mate, I think there might be a journalist—”
“Oh, not a journalist.” Elton’s voice only increases in volume, and this time a man by the bar absolutely turns their way. Bernie, looking around, catches sight of a nearby hallway and pushes Elton in that direction. “Wouldn’t want to tell a journalist—”
He continues ranting as Bernie drags him down the hall and through the first open door, which appears to be an office of some sort. Bernie closes the door behind them as Elton throws himself into the desk chair.
“Why does he have to do it right in front of me?”
Elton’s pupils are huge, and while Bernie is full of booze and coke himself, his last line was long enough ago that he feels entirely too sober to deal with this. Elton continues before Bernie can answer.
“He doesn’t deserve me. But I need—” He breaks off, suddenly almost shy, very close to the Reggie whom Bernie thought lived only in his memories, and pauses before leaning to spit on the shag carpet underfoot. “And fuck discretion, too, I know that’s what you want me to think about. You’re as bad as him about fucking discretion.”
Definitely not high enough, though Bernie opens his mouth and lets only mildly bitter coke nonsense fall out anyway.
“I don’t know if there’s actually a journalist around, you twat, but I know trying to shag someone you’ve just chucked is a terrible fucking idea.”
“Ooh, sex advice from the terminally single Mr. Bernard Taupin!” Elton’s in full flaming bitch mode now, without an ounce of teasing, and yet he looks so stoned-out and needy that Bernie can hardly muster up any anger of his own. (And anyway, they don’t fight. They can’t fight; they don’t know how.) “Remind me, you colossal arse: Who here is actually capable of maintaining a long-term fucking relationship?”
“Clearly neither of us.”
Elton’s face twists like he’s been punched. (Elton and Reid have both worn bruises and cuts, hidden by makeup from all but Bernie, and Bernie’s stomach lurches as he remembers the shiner Elton resolutely refused to talk about just two weeks before.) The emotional whiplash is jarring enough to Bernie’s muddled brain that it takes him several moments to process that Elton, furiously red and snarling, chest heaving with rage, is also crying, making no attempt to hide the tears glittering on his cheeks.
“Oh Christ, Reg.” Bernie takes a step forward, halting when Elton throws him a filthy glare. He spews out the first stupid thought lingering in his head. “God, I’m not high enough for this.”
Elton makes a noise, and Bernie frowns before he realizes it’s laughter, Reggie’s hiccuping giggle spilling down from the top bunk in Sheila’s cramped spare bedroom. (That was, Bernie realizes, barely five years ago, though he hasn’t thought much about Reggie Dwight since the Troubadour.)
“You can never be high enough,” Elton whispers, wrecked face stilling as he, wobbling, attempts to stand. His voice is a child’s. “That’s why I need him, Bernie.”
Bernie’s stomach twists. He has no clue what the hell Elton Hercules John needs anymore, but he’s absolutely certain, in a way only coke can make him, that it’s not anything currently outside this room, least of all John Reid.
“Tosh,” Bernie says, offering Elton his arm. Elton leans heavily against him, dropping his head onto Bernie’s shoulder, and Bernie feels his heart somehow expand with whatever the hell emotion they’re onto now. “You can’t, tonight.” He hesitates. “He’s got that boy.”
Elton shudders, buries his face more deeply into Bernie’s shirt. The weight of him is warm against Bernie, almost pleasant in its claustrophobic heat, and Bernie finds himself rubbing Elton’s back.
“I need him.” Muffled, but urgent; Elton looks up, and his wet eyes startle with their intensity, so close to Bernie’s own face. “The coke—I need him.”
“I’m here,” Bernie says, firmly, reassuringly. Elton flushes and looks down. “Shh now. Please.”
Moments pass. When Elton looks up again, it’s with a distant, apologetic smile.
“I need him,” Elton says, taking a tentative step back, as if this is an explanation in and of itself. When Bernie stares, unmoving, Elton begins to babble. “We—someone has to. I can’t—you can just pull random girls, Bernie. When I—it has to be someone who won’t blab, and fuck knows he’s the only other fag around here tonight.” He pulls a camp grimace that quickly dies as he starts for the door. “I’ll try not to make it a habit.”
Bernie reaches for Elton’s arm, an automatic action. When he actually catches hold of Elton’s flesh, stopping him in his tracks, it surprises Bernie so much that he loosens his grip. Elton stands shaking and Bernie’s heart is pounding—with coke, Bernie tells himself; God, everything tonight is too much, must just be pure cocaine—but Elton’s only motion is to reach back, achingly slowly, and put one tentative hand against Bernie’s hip.
It’s impossible to be in Elton John’s inner circle—be Elton’s partner, with all the slippery meanings thereof—and not be chatted up by men. Bernie finds it amusing, if disconcerting, to be on the sexual outside for once in his life, accepts it as part of what it means to share in the Elton experience and turns every man down with as much politeness as he can muster. He meant it, what he said to Elton on Arabella’s rooftop: he isn’t interested in men in the way Elton is.
Elton is half of his soul, a floridly poetic idea that is, as far as Bernie’s concerned, incontrovertibly true even as it does not include sex. Half of his soul is standing before him, trembling, eyes huge with need and with what Bernie realizes, horrifyingly, is a fear that must be so much more potent when it’s possible your need will earn you a beating. (Elton knows Bernie would never—he has to know. He must remember Bernie wouldn’t hurt him. Unlike Reid, Bernie’s never even given him a black eye.)
Elton, muttering an apology, releases Bernie and puts his hand on the doorknob.
“Please don’t go.”
Elton pauses, his back rigid.
“You don’t want it.”
“It’s not—” Bernie can hardly speak around his heart in his throat, picks his way slowly through the words he needs to say to keep this blitzed version of Elton from returning to Reid. Everything that comes to mind is absurd, the worst lyrics imaginable, so he settles on the truth, if not exactly in the way Elton would prefer. “I love you.”
Elton’s smile is soberly bitter, though his stare, as he fixates on Bernie, is anything but. His hand sears Bernie’s leg; Bernie resolutely does not jerk away from his touch. Coke isn’t nearly as much of an aphrodisiac for Bernie as it apparently is for Elton, but it doesn’t matter, nothing matters—none of this is reality, as evidenced by the fact that Bernie’s cock is stirring, however faintly, as Elton drags them both against the wall and moves his hand to Bernie’s zip.
“I’ll—you can pretend, better,” Elton says, his voice wavering, as he gets on his knees, removing his glasses. His hand is remarkably sure as it opens Bernie’s fly, steady as it drags Bernie’s soft cock from his pants, and Bernie closes his eyes.
A hand is a hand, and the grip on Bernie’s cock is so strong that he can easily imagine it’s his own, somehow. He pictures woman after woman—all the fruits of his career in the music industry sliding around under his closed eyelids—just as he would for a wank, and this mental parade, along with the sensation from his cock and the cocaine in his bloodstream, makes him half hard in surprisingly quick time. Probably any idiot could walk in on him, getting off in a studio exec’s office, which is, weirdly, a place he’s sort of been before with a number of women, and it’s amazing how familiar this all is.
The mouth that closes around him is delicious; Bernie leans back against the wall with a quiet moan, and the answering noise from below sends a happy zip up Bernie’s spine. He’s received more than the average number of blowjobs in his life, he’s sure, but never one quite as delicate and yet certain as this one—quite as competent, he realizes, with a thrill, as a tongue brushes the underside of his cock and he loses the ability to abstractly reason.
It’s tight, so warm and secure, and messy in the best way, and one hand massages his balls while another presses bracingly against his thigh, firm fingertips and why has he never asked anyone to hold him just there before? As pressure builds beneath his waist, one of Bernie’s hands drifts downward, brushing a surprisingly thin hatch of hair, and Bernie’s eyes startle open as he realizes—as he remembers—
Elton’s mouth (his lush mouth, Bernie will always know that about him now) looks so mournful, somehow, stretched wide around Bernie’s cock (Jesus) beneath those big desperate eyes, and Bernie’s too far gone to stop even now so he makes himself meet Elton’s gaze as he releases.
When Bernie blinks away the remnants of his orgasm, it’s to find Elton with one hand on his cock and one across his mouth, muzzled and red-faced and working himself. Elton looks down as soon as he notices Bernie watching, and Bernie can’t see—doesn’t know—how to touch Elton’s cock in any way that would help, so he settles for reaching down to lift Elton’s chin and gently pull his fingers away from his mouth.
It isn’t meant to be sultry—it just falls out of his moronic mouth, like half the shit he’s said tonight—but Elton cries out anyway, a muted sob that makes Bernie’s stomach churn for the long moments it takes Elton to come.
At some point Bernie realizes that he and Elton are half naked, Elton covered in his own spunk, where anyone could walk in. He laughs as he does his fly back up, laughs as he rips tissues from the box on a coffee table and offers them to a bewildered but not unhappy-looking Elton.
“Public school boys,” he says when Elton raises an eyebrow, as if that were any sort of answer. Elton smiles, distantly, before reaching for his glasses and turning away, and Bernie lets him clean and settle himself in peace, though Bernie’s own nerves are making themselves known again after the momentary bliss that was….whatever this just was.
“And somehow it didn’t happen to me at the Royal Academy.”
A joke, after a solid minute of silence, at which Bernie laughs extremely loudly. (Too loudly—it’s not all that funny, objectively, but Bernie doesn’t care anymore about anything except Elton’s spaced-out but essentially normal grin as he turns back around.)
Elton’s coming back down, without being an entire bear about it all, without having thrown himself at one of the biggest arseholes Bernie knows.
There are occasional periods of time Elton doesn’t really remember, after that bizarre week of the highest highs and lowest lows in LA—they’re white hot, blistering around the edges, dunked in the sweet relief of cocaine. He does remember every performance he gives, because that’s a high that’s better than coke and only improved with the taste of a line or two. He remembers the meals he eats; they’re mostly unnecessary, serving only to get in the way of a good dose of powdered happiness, but the taste of bacon sandwiches after a solid day of consuming nothing but alcohol and coke is so luxuriant that he doesn’t always bother to bring it back up afterward.
He’s ditched John for a wide range of fun, and it feels good, feels free in a way John hadn’t for the past year, two years, however long it was they spent jostling one another without even the incandescently good sex of old to make up for it. (He misses John the most in the mornings, when he wakes alone in an echoing suite in one of his houses or some hotel, so when he doesn’t wake up in his own bed, it’s often a relief, no matter how awkward it is to pry himself away from a beautiful stranger he has only a hazy memory of.) He’s fairly wild, he knows, way beyond what he used to be, but he’s in control of himself for the first time in years, even if he does still have to deal with John every day when it comes to the logistics of touring or recording.
And he has—there’s Bernie.
He always has Bernie, whether it’s to liven up a rare stay at home or just for company somewhere on the road or, best of all, backstage after a show, both of them still in exhausted wonder at how this is honestly their life. Bernie is everywhere, the air Elton breathes, or close to it, and sometimes it’s a hot and humid air that feels nearly as deadening as John, but all it takes to change that is one line, one drink, one Taupin smile across a room, one comfortable silence shared miles high in the air as they speed around the world. Bernie doesn’t take any time away from the road, after, that Elton remembers, not even to do whatever nonsense ought to be done on the giant ranch he’s finally bought; he stays close, so warm and close, almost everything John couldn’t be in those last months.
They do not discuss Elton’s occasional—breaks—in anything like words. Elton wants to take his pleasure from people who want him unequivocally, people who know what they’re doing, and he almost always does, whenever anyone even halfway discreet shows up. Losing a live-in source of sexual release is more inconvenient than Elton anticipated, but John is efficient at sourcing men, for himself or for Elton, and if John Reid is still going to be his fucking manager, he might as well do something useful. John knows Elton’s taste exactly, of course, sends him stunningly pretty men with skilled mouths and perfect arses, men who take Elton’s gallons of praise and offer him just the right measured amount back and then disappear.
When Elton does enough coke, he slides into blissful oblivion, for the most part, albeit a tremendously itchy, needy one. He doubles his booze consumption to help himself come down from these overbright highs, and after a while it all becomes a mess. A small mess, easily cleaned up after the fact, but a morose one, because if he’s just the right blend of drunk and high he wants John, of all the wankers in the world, and cannot stand another empty stranger, and Bernie—
Bernie has never liked John much, Elton learned that early on, and yet they roll together as an awkward team nonetheless, the three lopsided musketeers of pop. Bernie doesn’t say a thing, but his face tells everything, always, and he’s glad Elton is no longer fucking John. (Elton is glad that Elton is no longer fucking John.) And when Elton is lost in a white-edged blur of too much coke and booze and feeling particularly loathsome, as he’s wont to do periodically because he is only human, he forgets everything except Bernie and Bernie—Bernie lets him.
The moments come in fits and starts, a skipping record with grooves clogged with coke dust, bright perfect memories from otherwise whited-out evenings. The first encounter he remembers with absolutely perfect recall, just like any song, every breath he took from the moment Bernie dragged him into some studio exec’s home office and Elton, for the first time in his queer little life, sucked a straight boy. The rest are scattered: Bernie’s cock, usually, sweaty and yet so sweet in his mouth, a delicious, grounding heft against his jaw, or dripping between Elton’s fingers because Elton brings him there, wringing some little bit of happiness out of his Bernie; Bernie’s voice, gentle as John’s never was, soothing while Elton works himself to fevered completion.
(Once, somewhere on the Continent, there’s Bernie’s hand, wrapped around Elton’s cock in a club toilet. Elton comes in hot, fast bursts, like a schoolboy, and Bernie’s face shows no signs of distress as he unspools the loo roll to clean Elton’s come off his fingers. Once, somewhere in the American Midwest, Elton wakes with an absolutely blinding hangover to find Bernie curled next to him in a king-sized hotel bed, dead to the world and drooling against Elton’s arm, closer than he was even in those days when they shared a bedroom, and Elton does not move for twenty minutes. He does not remember anything that happens afterward.)
They do not discuss it because there’s nothing to say—half the time Elton isn’t sure it’s not a dream, and they don’t discuss much of anything anymore anyway. (They don’t need to. They’re one musical mind in two bodies, and the music is all that matters.) Elton has the occasional memory of crying against Bernie’s shoulder, in those moments when everything that isn’t the stage is too much, and Bernie gently massaging his neck, stroking his back, fatherly more than anything else. But much of these breaks, these blessed slips in reality, are remarkably contained, because Elton and Bernie are adults who have some modicum of self-control, even if they prefer to spend much of their time a little high. Breaks happen, and then in the sober light of day they disappear under Elton-and-Bernie, under catty remarks about other people and discussions of whatever’s cruising up the charts in their wake. Elton teases Bernie about some woman who won’t stop trying to see him backstage; Bernie laughs about whatever absolutely stupid quote Elton just gave a reporter.
Elton’s shit with time—it means nothing when your schedule is the Greenwich to which every bit of the world around you is synced—but it feels like it’s about two tours and an album (nine months? a year?) after Dodger Stadium when Bernie decides to fuck everything up by remembering that he owns a ranch.
Afterward, Elton remembers that Bernie asked him to come along, to do something together, alone. In the moment, however, what Elton knows is just that Bernie wants out, doesn’t like this life—Elton’s life, their life, the life they’d dreamed of night after night in cafes, pubs, neighboring beds. Elton says some truly bitchy things he only half remembers and immediately begins the work of trying to forget what Bernie looks like when he comes.
Bernie dries out in record time, as far as he’s concerned, helped along by the physical labor of caring for the horses he now owns. Ranch life and work is never-ending, and not being constantly drunk enables him to keep a girlfriend for longer than a week. (Not living with Elton as the centerpoint of his day to day life also helps, in that as in so many other things, and sometimes Bernie goes an entire day without thinking about him.) He writes songs (decent, not superb) for all sorts of people, buys things that are practical instead of fuck-you absurd, goes days without extensive socialization, lives in the semi-rural moment.
At some point, months after Bernie leaves the tour, something inside Elton loosens up enough to permit a very camp, drunk phone call to the ranch, and Bernie finds the sound of his voice a relief—some part of him had feared, even as he tried to forget Elton, that he’d managed to cut himself out of Elton’s life permanently. (He can’t forget Ray, even if Elton apparently can.) Elton calls weekly, afterward, anchoring himself as a distant but necessary part of Bernie’s life, and he’s never sober but he’s never—lost .
“You think you got more lyrics in ya?” Elton drawls, American and terrible, one afternoon about a year and a half after Bernie left. Bernie can hear the clinking of ice in a glass down the line, but Elton’s voice, while loose and foolish, is soft in a way that sounds more Reggie than Elton.
“For you?” Bernie hopes his grin is somehow audible in his words. “If you behave, Mr. John.”
Elton behaves exactly as Elton always does, bullheaded and robustly alive no matter how insane his life becomes, exorbitant and insistently fun and always in the public eye, and Bernie, frequently single despite his best efforts, writes maudlin love songs to post, and later fax, off to whatever corner of the world Elton’s partying in. He hears little of what happens after—Elton still shoots off albums like a machine, and when he’s uncharitable Bernie thinks they sound like machines, but Elton’s got other lyricists and Bernie knows he’s a rusting hunk of metal himself at this point.
Elton calls one evening, unexpectedly, as Bernie’s coming in from the evening feed. Drowsy with the contentment that only quiet with the horses brings, he almost doesn’t pick up, and it takes him a solid minute to understand what Elton, wasted out of his mind and offensively cheerful as a result, is saying.
“To a woman?” he finally asks, because the sentence I’m getting fucking married! coming slurred from Elton’s mouth is beyond absurd.
“Twat,” Elton replies, affectionate, and rattles on about arrangements.
Bernie gets drunk himself on the actual day of the wedding—Reid is best man, “was just easier logistically” in Elton’s own words, and in any case Bernie’s only seen Elton about twice in the flesh in the past several years—and has a wonderful time chatting shit with people he barely knows. Renate is beautiful, quiet though determined in a way that reminds him of what Elton was back before the Troubadour, and clearly willing to be drawn into the Elton John circus. Elton is garishly dressed and exuberant, in a good if obviously chemically assisted way, and kisses his bride hesitantly—sweetly—whenever the crowd clinks their glassware. (Reid, falling-down drunk by the time the cake is served and and pink-faced with stress and the general good-natured bemusement that’s filled the entire reception hall, is a frequent instigator.)
The dancing is boisterous, and Bernie excuses himself after an hour to sit, nursing a glass of water, in the blessed quiet outside. He’s not had much time to unwind before clacking footsteps across stone herald Elton’s tipsy, though entirely alone, arrival.
“I want to kiss the bride, I want to kiss the bride, yeah,” Bernie sings, ducking Elton’s swat. He smiles as Elton sinks down next to him, and when Elton removes his omnipresent boater to nestle his head into the crook of Bernie’s neck, Bernie thinks of several sharp and yet hazy memories, bursting like fireworks across his mind while his heart flops, even as he can feel Elton grinning against his skin. (There was never even a hint of a smile before, just Elton stoned and desperately lonely. This is a married man now, who’ll never need to be alone again. This is going to be fine.)
They sit companionably for a long time, Elton singing soul standards under his breath as Bernie rests a hand on the top of his head. Elton is, of course, the first to break the calm.
Bernie looks down into Elton’s eyes, which shimmer with unshed tears. Elton cries at the drop of a hat, and a man is well entitled to emotion on his wedding day, but something stops Bernie’s breath while he waits for Elton to speak.
There’s no direct antecedent for this that Bernie can think of. He presses one hand against Elton’s cheek and swallows as a tear falls, warm against his finger.
Elton’s lips are soft, tasting faintly of wedding cake. (Lush, he has a lush mouth, Bernie reminds himself, stupidly, his back against an office wall while Elton cries at his feet.) It’s a quick touch of lip on lip, but his mouth hovers over Bernie’s for a moment before moving to Bernie’s forehead, and Bernie can feel Elton’s shaky breath on his own closed eyelids. Elton’s voice, when he speaks again, is hoarse, as if he’s been crying for hours.
“I love you too.”
Bernie opens his eyes in time to watch Elton’s wisps of hair disappear beneath the boater while Elton, getting to his feet, uses his second hand to remove a familiar snuffbox from a trouser pocket.
He tries not to make it a question or a demand, though he knows he fails on both accounts. Elton smiles, red-eyed and somehow seemingly unconcerned about that fact, and turns away.
He tells the therapy group that marriage could never have made him happy, and it’s about half true; some part of Elton knows that with the right person—the right man—he could very easily be a proper husband, fantastical though that idea is. Dried out, physically and emotionally, he pushes himself through the sessions, dragging his own ego through the mud because anything is better than focusing on the swings and roundabouts of withdrawal. It hasn’t become easier, exactly, but the dread and fear bursting in his chest dissipate a little more each day.
Talk of marriage makes him think of Bernie, because Bernie is somehow so much safer on those grounds than Renate, or John, or the ten thousand other carcasses he’s left behind. Elton, watched by a stern-eyed intake counselor, rang him the first night here, just to tell someone he was alive and planning on taking actual concrete steps to keep it that way. He earned semi-supervised phone time yesterday and wants to use it on Bernie again, and yet.
He’s talked about the sex addiction, in frank terms, orgies and strings of hapless men who had no chance to ever be his equal. He’s talked about John’s loose temper and easy fist. He has not mentioned the white-edged breaks, those stolen fragments of time where Bernie forced himself to be Elton’s everything, because some things will not come out of his sober mouth in front of a group. The phone, watched as it is from a few feet away by counselors and probably bugged for all he knows, is only slightly more private, but he’s been here long enough now that the omission of this—sin? mistake? repeated near-death experience?—rests uneasily in his stomach.
He rings Bernie just before bed, knowing he’ll be well happy curled up in Santa Barbara alongside his latest woman—his wife, Elton reminds himself, and feels a burst of happiness for Bernie, combined with the sickening realization that missing their wedding was another side effect of his addiction—and hopefully in an okay mood to hear from the prodigal son. Bernie answers on the second ring.
“Bernie, I fucked up.”
“You don’t say.” Bernie’s voice is calm, almost easy, but Elton still holds himself tensely against the hallway phone booth, listening to the fading sound of a television as Bernie presumably moves to another room. “Is this...making amends, or whatever they call it? Which fuck-up is this in reference to?”
“I think I have to do the biggest ones in person, so clearly you don’t count.” The banter slides right out of Elton’s mouth, glib, and he winces at his own deflection. “No, sorry, that’s me avoiding my feelings right there.”
Bernie laughs, and it’s sweetness directly down the back of Elton’s throat, happiness spreading like cocaine. Better than. “Hearing your sober voice on the phone, I—” Earnest, even as he stumbles, and Elton closes damp eyes in relief. “How are you?”
“The craving fucking sucks. Honesty fucking sucks.” Elton bites his lip. “But in a good way? It’s like I’m having poison drawn out of me. Except I am the poison? Whatever counselor’s listening in on this call is probably shaking their head at me, stumbling my way around this shit. I swear I’m committed, ma’am.” He swallows and continues on into the breach. “It means absolutely fuck-all at this point coming from me, I’m well aware, but I’m sorry for a good fifteen years of rubbish, if not more, and if you’ll see me at some point, when you’re ready, I’d like to begin to make amends.”
Bernie is silent for a long moment, though Elton knows he’s there, can hear him sigh—wistfully? hopefully?
“This is supremely unhelpful to your recovery, probably, but in my eyes you don’t owe me anything.”
“I do,” Elton whispers, his throat leaden. “I don’t know if you even remember, but I—I do.”
“I remember a—” Bernie hesitates, and Elton’s crying, silently, and god, what Elton wouldn’t give to be anything other than painfully sober, but isn’t that part of the fucking reason he’s here litigating stoned unspoken encounters in the first place “—I remember everything, Elton.”
Elton groans, the bottom of his stomach dropping out; he’s sure the phone somehow picks it up. Bernie continues slowly.
“I remember being drunk as hell, all the time, and my best—my partner high as a kite and sometimes miserable, and a few times all he wanted—needed—was someone to ground him. And I did that as best as I could, but it wasn’t enough.”
“You were perfect, Bernie—”
“No,” Bernie says, so gently now that Elton feels yet more tears spilling down his face until it aches with the force of his crying. “You deserve someone who loves you in exactly the way you need to be loved. In every way.” He clears his throat. “You are the other me, my—my other half. I love you. I don’t regret one single goddamned second, in any office or loo stall or—” His voice falters, and Elton digs the receiver into his face, as if he could crawl down the line to Bernie. “I only regret that I can’t give you everything. You deserve to be loved by someone else, too. Someone who could be a—your husband, if you—if one day.”
Elton coughs. Opens one eye to look at the plain linoleum floor underfoot until his vision blurs. “I had that same pipe dream a few hours ago.”
“Then it’s guaranteed to come true.” Bernie’s voice softens. “It doesn’t matter if it’s not—if it’s only a thing to you and your friends. Whatever others think, you’ll deserve him.”
“I don’t deserve you.” Bernie tsks; Elton barrels forward, forcing both eyes open now. “Please, let me—I should never have asked you to give something you couldn’t give. Again and fucking again, I should have stopped after Arabella’s, I—” He bites his tongue, shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, Bernie.”
“I forgive you, brother,” Bernie whispers, as Elton sighs into the phone, wipes at his tears. “Can I—when can you have visitors?”
“When I know, you’ll know.”
“One minute remaining!” the observing counselor calls, loud enough for Bernie to hear and snort.
“Sounds like gaol, honestly.”
“Oh, I’ve earned it. And I’ll work to deserve you, too,” Elton says, twisting the phone cord around one finger like he’s a vapid teenager in a movie. “I love you.” He licks his lips, swallows, then releases the cord and watches as it springs free, adding, “Brother.”
“You always have and you always will, Elton. Go to bed. Dream of the man I’ll give you away to.”
Elton laughs, wet and helpless and content, long after the line goes dead.