The traffic isn’t too bad, and the fact Presley lives close to the Princess Alexandra hospital means I make it there in around ten minutes. And less than ten minutes after that, I enter Claudia’s room and breathe a sigh of relief when I find her peacefully asleep. Closing the door softly behind me, I make my way to the armchair and drop into it. I’m exhausted with jet lag catching up and little sleep since arriving back in Australia, but my mind is going a million miles an hour and I know I won’t sleep much tonight.

“Why are you here?” Claudia asks as she shifts in the bed to face me. She coughs as she does this and I reach to pass her the glass of water that’s sitting on the table next to her bed. Taking it from me, she says softly, “Thank you, but seriously, why are you not at home sleeping?”

I lean back in my chair and stretch my tired legs out in front of me. “You can’t tell me you wouldn’t be here if the roles were reversed, Princess.” Memories of our childhood before her cancer struck flood my mind; Claudia always looked out for me, even though I was the older one. She always went to battle on my behalf. I remind her of the first one that comes to mind. “Remember that time when you were about seven, and you took the blame for me putting that hole in my bedroom wall?”

She takes a sip of water and passes the glass back to me as she smiles recalling the memory. “You mean the time you were practicing your rockstar moves on your bed? When you were playing air guitar, jumping around like a dickhead and ended up falling against the wall?”

“I remember Dad being so mad with me for days over that.”

“But you wouldn’t let me fess up and admit it was me… you always had my back, Princess.”

Fear slices through my chest at the thought of losing her.

I don’t want to contemplate it.

I push out of the chair and stand, desperate to force these thoughts out of my mind.

She reaches for my hand and I give it to her. Hell, I’d give her anything she wants. It fucking kills me that I can’t give her the one thing she needs. “Jett.” Her voice is so soft…so kind. Jesus, it’s full of compassion when she shouldn’t be the one giving it. “Look at me, Jett,” she begs, and I give her that, too. It’s dark in her room but there’s a sliver of light falling through the curtain and I can see the sorrow she’s feeling. “I’m sorry.”

Her words threaten to rip my heart out and I struggle for breath. “You have nothing to be sorry for.” My throat dries up and I have to force the words out, but she needs to know the last thing any of us expect is a ‘sorry’.

“I didn’t know… there were no symptoms…” Her chest heaves and her voice cracks as she begins to cry.

I drop my knees to the floor and kneel next to her so our eyes are level. Taking a firm hold of her hand, I say, “You don’t have to explain any of that. This is not your fault and I never want to hear you say that again.”

Tears flow down her cheek as she stares at me, taking in everything I’ve said. “Okay,” she whispers as she tries to wipe the tears away. When she gets herself together, she says, “I like Presley. You did good, big brother.”

I nod. I don’t want to discuss this because I know why she’s bringing it up, and I fight it by changing the subject. “Did you manage to catch up on your studies?”

She frowns. “Why are you asking me that?”

Her voice takes on an angry tone and she lashes out a little. “No, that’s not why you asked me that. You’re avoiding talking to me about Presley.”

“Jett! I’m fucking dying and I want to talk to you about your girlfriend, not about my goddamn studies. I want to talk about the fact you’ve finally found someone to love, and I want to tell you not to screw that up.” Even she seems surprised by her outburst as we lock gazes and process her words. She takes a breath and adds softly, “I need to know you’re going to be okay without me looking out for you. I need to know you’re going to let Presley take my place now.”

I glare at her. I hate those words. “No one can ever take your place,” I force out with distaste.

“I know, but you need to let someone in; you need to show someone that amazing heart of yours, and I’m hoping Presley’s the one.”

I can’t do this without her.

My heart thumps in my chest and my head roars with panic. I gulp back the bile rising up my throat and grip her hand harder. “I’ve let her in.” They’re the only words I can manage, but Claudia knows the tracks of my heart like the tracks of her own heart, and she’ll understand the significance of those four words. She’ll know the thousands of words I have to describe my feelings for Presley that I can’t say out loud.

Silently battling the devastation of this disease. The devastation it hurls at everyone it touches and then leaves behind in its wake as it moves on to break another family. It’s like a fucking bushfire blazing a trail of pain through the lives of everyone it touches. And when it’s done, there’s nothing but ashes of heartache and suffering. And loss.