You told his mum you'd bring him back, and so you do.
Miles tells the police exactly what James had insisted they'd tell them. You let it happen, because there's nothing else you can add, and it's just as well the first thing he does after that is call James's sister and break the news. You're sitting five feet away with his body in your arms, ever since Bill stumbled off to be sick and Miles started answering questions. You can hear Chloe's hysterics plain as day.
You stay with him as long as you can, until the ambulance staff drag you away.
Bill's in bad shape, even worse than you. The return journey is quick, far quicker than it has any right to be, and when you stumble out of the truck into harsh grey morning, no one's there to catch you because Miles is already on James's doorstep with Chloe in his arms and Bill and James's mum are sobbing on each other's shoulders.
You close your eyes and swallow tears bitter as sea-salt until footsteps approach. James's dad offers you a hand, and you take it. He tells you that you've done right by his son. You did everything you could, you were there for James, and he's grateful.
His shoulder isn't offered, but you take that, too.
It's the first time this has happened. The first time James is so cold that he's shivering and shivering and just can't stop, and it's unseasonably hot for July. He's wearing two layers and it's only his second week on morphine and he's sick at least twice a day.
You sit on the edge of the bed and gingerly take his hand.
"Davy," James says, all agonized breath. "Oh God."
You never needed an invitation, but you'd have waited forever.
Stripping James out of those clothes is more trouble than it's worth, but he's shivering so violently you can't think of any other way. He's not so far gone that he doesn't watch you when you strip out of your own, down to nothing but shorts.
He's in a tee shirt, but you're not. You wonder if that makes any difference. You climb under the two heavy duvets and settle beside him, folding him into your arms. He clings weakly at first, but as the morphine kicks in and his stomach settles, the shivering stops.
James pushes his nose into the damp hollow of your throat.
"Why? Why would you—"
"Don't," you chide him, twisting your fingers in his hair. "Rest."
James laughs deep in his chest, intoxicated, one thigh sliding up between your own.
"Don't," you insist. "It's the drugs." Although you really hope it isn't.
"Shut up," says James, and, yes, that's his lips against your neck.
Along with James's father, the three of you are pall-bearers. That's as it should be.
As you tremble beneath the weight of the casket (how could it be; he was never so heavy), you bite your tongue on invectives, hold back terrible things you'd like to say to every one of them. You'd like to tell them about those sun-soaked afternoons in James's bed (all for the sake of keeping him warm), and about the time James tipped the morphine down your throat (and you saw stars). It's why you want to believe so fiercely. It's why you'd like to punch Miles in his stupid sodding face and tell him there's more than rotting to be done. If anybody's going to rot, it'll be him.
You want to tell Chloe to run.
It's sickening, though, how perfect they are. They dance in the garden afterward, after the pot-luck and the condolences. They dance while Bill is sat red-eyed next to you on the sofa and Chloe's girls show you the pictures they've drawn of James's grave, show you the flowers they'll leave for him come spring. They dance while James's mum plays the stoic, gracious hostess and James's dad drinks shot after shot of whisky. You wouldn't mind joining him, but it wouldn't be the same (not the same as morphine kisses or dust-mote galaxies behind your eyes or the way James's eyes had flown wide when you made him come and the way he'd cried your name ever after).
Bill is perusing one of the girls' drawings. It's a tree. He manages a weepy smile.
Outside, Miles and Chloe dance on.
"It'll be difficult," you tell him. "And dangerous."
"Why should that matter? A little more can't possibly hurt me now," James insists. He's wearing that daft hat of his, and you're sat in the garden with Pimm's and hand-rolled fags and the afternoon is perfect. And later, perhaps, there will be more.
"We'll be in the arse-end of nowhere. What if something happens?"
James gives you that infuriating, tilted smile. "I'm sure you'll sort something out."
"Like hell I will," you tell him, but you know that what he's saying is true.
"You'll have to," he says, passing back the fag. "Miles won't even turn up."
"And you're saying he'd be the kind to sort something out if he did?"
James laughs so hard he starts to choke on the sip of Pimm's he's just taken.
"No," he says, finally, once you've stopped slapping him on the back.
"I'm serious, Jim," you tell him. "It's a huge risk, but I'm willing."
James empties the rest of that day's morphine into his drink.
You share it with him, tangled up in blankets there in the shade.
It's Miles who finally breaks down your door three months later. He doesn't bring Bill.
"We're getting married," he says, avoiding the clutter you've accumulated as he takes a seat beside you. "The wedding will be next spring. I'd like you to be my best man."
"Ask Bill," you say. "He's proposed, too." As if that makes some kind of difference.
Miles rests his chin on his hands, staring at the floor.
"They're having a boy," he says. "Bill wants to name him Ethan, after his dad."
Unashamed relief washes over you. The alternative would've been too much to bear.
"Listen, Miles—I really don't think—"
It's only then that you notice Miles has got something under his arm.
"I thought you might say that," he says, and you're not sure why his voice cracks.
He hands you the parcel he's been white-knuckling. It's wrapped in so many Waitrose bags that it feels like a small eternity before you've got it unwrapped, before you're staring at James's medicine bag full of pills and the four bottles of morphine he'd allotted himself for the return journey (the return journey he'd never intended to make, damn him).
It hits you, then. You understand.
"For fuck's sake, don't wait around," Miles says. He's actually crying.
"I won't," you reply. And you mean it.
"You wouldn't," James slurs, rolling so that he's got one arm and one leg thrown over you. "This isn't fucking Shakespeare."
"Fuck you, Jim," you say, trying to throw him off. "Tell your own story."
"I won't be able to write it," he says, simply. "I'll be dead."
"For God's sake. Stop it."
James shoves your mouths together and then pulls back, his eyes morphine-bright. You've had just enough of the stuff not to be thinking straight, enough to say the things you've just said, admit to the thing you know you'd never let yourself do. You're needed. You live for it. For him.
But if the one who needs you passes . . .
"What will you do?" James asks, strangely desperate. "Seriously. Because I can't—"
He never finishes the sentence, because you don't let him.
You spend a lot of time with Bill in the coming weeks. You go out drinking, like in the old days, before everything went to shit. How is it that James was the only thing holding all of you together, keeping the three of you in perfect orbit? Well, not exactly perfect: Miles always had far too much gravity of his own. You don't return his calls. You throw your phone in the river the night before.
The next morning, you rise early. You make tea for your mum and help her hang the bedclothes, mesmerized by the soft billow of them, sails trapped and stayed, bereft of purpose. By evening, the sheets are dry, and your mum has gone to visit your nan and the house is gentle and quiet.
You take down the sheets and remake your bed. You remember dreaming of James as you uncap the bottle, remember imagining you'd take him to your bed. The first taste burns, but the second tastes like a kiss.
By the end of the second bottle, your head's hit the pillow, and all your nerves erupt in flame fanned from the breeze through the window, the blue flap of curtains. The third bottle blurs everything. You remember your hands fisted in his hair.
It's his last night on earth. You remember—
You never make it to the fourth.
You made it, he says, his smile a myriad pinpoints of light. You came.
Loyalty, you say, and the pinpoints contract, pulling you into orbit. Of course I did.
Dance with me. The words shimmer through what's left of you: memory of body and warmth and pain beyond bearing. Gone now, all of it. Gone the way of all things, the way of cindered bones and driftwood stripped bare. The way of that white feather.
You remember your arms, remember his eyes, remember shared breath.
Dance with me, he repeats, with you now, on the same tide.
And so you do.