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Gratitude

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Claire felt pathetic. The situation by itself was ridiculous, and waiting for him to come answer the door only emphasized that.

What the hell was she thinking when she stole his sweatshirt months ago?

And of course, she had to pick that one, the Stanford sweatshirt. Because God forbid her to take the blue dress shirt, even the white one, both that could go unnoticed by Neil, making her life so much easier. Damn it, she shouldn’t have stolen nothing to begin with.

But she did it. Because of his smell. His intoxicating smell that haunted her even in her dreams.

Back then, he was in a coma, which made everything worse. At that time, the uncertainty around his survival made impossible for Claire to just come by his apartment without taking anything with her, something she could hold on onto when the darkest thoughts of her mind made her believe he was not coming back.

And because of it, she took the Stanford sweatshirt. The goddamn sweatshirt he wore so many times with her, when they were on their night running. When they were creating memories and bonding. The sweatshirt which had his smell.

Great. She had no idea how she was going to explain him this. This ridiculous situation. There was no easy way to give it back to him.

But when it comes to Neil Melendez and Claire Browne, there is nothing easy about it right?

That’s when she saw him opening the door, with this gleeful smile she didn’t know exactly what she did to deserve it.

“Hi’’

“Hi” Claire couldn’t help but to smile back at him. It would be criminal not to.

“Come in.’’ He said, clearing the path.

“Actually, I just came by to drop this.’’ She said, offering him the washed and folded sweatshirt.

“That explains why I couldn’t find it for the life in me.’’ Neil looked at it, raising an eyebrow, but being politely enough to no ask more questions about it. He didn’t take the sweatshirt yet, afraid that by doing this the conversation would be over.

“Really, I just passed by real quick before going home to change for a night run’’ She explained herself. Claire usually would invite him to come with her but since he was still recovering, it would have to be postponed.

“I was thinking about going for a walk later too. Come in. Let’s eat dinner together and we can thing about something later.’’ He said with a pleading voice, so she just couldn’t say no.

She finally accepted it, giving him the sweatshirt whilst passing by him. A little voice inside her told her to leave, that by doing that she would find the easy way out she wanted so bad. She ignored it though, cause the easy way just wasn’t appealing enough for Claire Browne.

She left her coat by the door, feeling comfortable, after all, she lived there for a while when Neil was recovering and needing a lot of help, which she gave, without asking nothing in return, without hesitation. Once he no longer needed it, she went back to her old house, that felt unfit for the person she became. She went away, even though they both wanted her to stay.

Now he was independent again, and she could tell that by the way he was dressed that night, with his light blue dress shirt and a perfect haircut.

He was looking like the old, healthy, Melendez. Her heart skipped a beat.

He also had the same smell she remembered, which made her feel like running away and yet, to his arms.

“Claire?’’ He asked, with a presumptuous smile, unbuttoning his sleeve like he used to do when feeling comfortable.

“You look good.’’ She answered, giving him a genuinely smile after seeing how far he’d came.

“So, I didn’t before?’’ Neil asked, faking an outraged expression.

Claire just rolled her eyes and smiled; she was used now to deal with his ego. She also remembered how affected she used to feel by his presence when she first met him, and how she didn’t like him. He had always been a great mentor, but as a person,eshe wasn’t always a fan of him.

Not that it stopped her from having dreams that she certainly shouldn’t be having with her boss. At all.

“Are we really going to eat dinner or you just invited me in so I could massage your ego?’’
whilst she answered Neil, putting a curl behind her ear, she heard him laughing in a way that sent shivers down her spine.

“I’m not buying it’’

Maybe this dinner was a bad idea. “We can do both. Unless you are tired of me.’’ He said following her into the kitchen, pulling himself a small glass of whiskey, the only he drank that night.

“Maybe I am, not enough to not spend another night with you’’ and whilst she answered Neil, putting a curl behind her ear, she heard him laughing in a way that sent shivers down her spine.

“I’m not buying it’’

Maybe this dinner was a bad idea.

 

She drank a small glass of wine when he was leaning the table, because she still planned to go for a run latter. He listened close whilst she told him about her day at the hospital, finishing the conversation with a joke about how unlikely her day, his was tedious. Claire laughed a little bit louder than usual, which made her think that maybe, it was time to go home

As soon as the laugh stopped, an awkward silence filled the room, which was unusual considering they were always comfortable on each other's company, no matter what they were doing.

‘’I think is time to...’’

“Why the sweatshirt?’’ He interrupted her, and even though he was across the table, the intensity of his glance felt like a physical touch.

She could give him so many different answers. But she thought to herself that 2 could play the honesty game. So, she just went with it.

“Because of the smell.’’

Neil did not see the intensity of her answer coming. And that was exactly his problem with Claire Browne. Often, in his past relationships, he would start things he couldn’t finish, which was frightening. With her, it was exactly the opposite. He could finish it. God knew he wanted too.

“What about it?’’

“I like it. Very much.’’

They hold each other’s gaze for some time before she gets up, in order to leave her dishes in the sink. On her way back, he grabs her hand gently, in a way she could easily let go off if she wanted to. She didn’t.

He reclined in his chair, while she leaned back in the table in front of him.

“Do you know what I like?’’ Neil asked, rolling up his sleeves even more. “I like that my doctor cleared me up for physical exercises today.’’

She almost felt apart under his gaze.

“Is that so? That’s great’’

“There is something else that I like too. Very Much.’’

“What is it?’’ She asked playing along with him once again. Actually, she would play along with him a thousand times and she was tired to lie to herself saying she wouldn’t.

“Gratitude. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.’’ That wasn’t exactly the answer she was expecting, which made her feel disappointed at her own self. Nevertheless, she waited for his answer. ‘’I’m grateful for many things. For surviving. For having a full recover. For you.’’ He leans down to kiss her left hand, next to her ring finger, which made her heart race.

In fact, both of their hearts were beating fast. But, as stubborn as Claire Browne was, she just refused to give in and let things on holding. And as for Neil Melendez, his arrogance didn’t allow him to leave something he started unfinished.

“You know I would do it all over again right? I really never wanted anything in return.’’ She said honestly, like she always did with him.

“I know. That doesn’t mean I won’t give it to you. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Retribution. If there is anything I’ve learned in this past months is: your feelings can become worthless if you don’t find a way to express them. Especially gratitude.’’ He said, interwinding their fingers, with a sincere look on his face.

It was too late for them, and Claire finally understood something Neil had realized in the night of the earthquake.

There was no coming back for them. They were endgame.

Claire felt terrified, but also excited about it.

“And how do you plan on expression this gratitude exactly?’’ She gave in, and he pulled her onto his lap, burying his face on the curve of her neck which he was holding firmly, showing her that maybe, just maybe, he missed her smell too.

“Certainly, with more than words.’’ He left a trail of wet kisses that would probably leave a mark in the morning. ‘’Is that okay for you?’’ He asked, pulling back his lips for a moment, asking for consent.

She nodded, deepening the kiss, consciously seeking for his touch now

---

The human mind works in a funny way, so does life. Things never happen in the way we expect them to. If anyone had told Neil Melendez, five years ago that he would be crazy, head-over-heels in love with Claire Browne, he would laugh. First, because he didn’t think he would let things get so personal between him and a resident, like it happened with them. Also, he never really believed he would find someone like her.

The same goes for Claire. If anyone had told her that Neil’s scent was even more addictive once he has closer, more precisely, on top of her, she would never believe it. But again, life is funny and so is the mind, especially their minds, that once dared to believe their fantasies could get close to reality, fantasies that surfaced when they allowed themselves a couple of kisses during his recovery.

They didn’t. Reality was completely different, especially in that moment of intimacy. It was more intense, more intoxicating. Definitely way more unforgettable and definitive than expected.

---

Neil was still laying down, catching his breath when he heard a melodious laugh.

“What is it?’’ He asked, smiling too, unsure of the reason though.

“You really had something in mind for after dinner, right?’’ Claire asked, not minding it at all.

He started to laugh. It wasn’t exactly the plan, but sometimes, life is good.

“Maybe’’ she laid down her head on his chest.

“I love you.’’ He said kissing her head. ‘’Maybe now a little bit more than before.’’ And once again, they were laughing.

“If I knew this is the way you like to show gratitude, I would ask for it sooner. Like on our first day working together that I brought you some water’’

‘’Someone is feeling greedy.’’

“You always felt greedy and I never judge you for that.’’ She said, sitting on his lap now, arms crossed in front of the Stanford sweatshirt she putted on at some point in that night.

“Fair enough.’’ He sat down, hugging her. “You look so pretty on it. Do you know that?’’

“I do.’’ They both laughed. Apparently, someone was learning from his attitude.

“But I’m gonna need it back. Is nothing personal, it’s just that it has your scent now so I just need it.’’ He gave her a peek on the lips, resting his head on her chest, just like he had done multiple times in the past, precisely, when he was in pain, which definitely wasn’t the case now.

“Fear enough’’ She answered him, her arms twining around his neck.

“Just promise me this.’’ he held her face in a gentle but firm way he learned she liked. ‘’Next time, no need to steal my clothes. If you ever miss me, just come to me.’’ He said moving his hand to her neck and his lips to her ear. ‘’I think you know now more than ever there is nothing you ask that I won’t give it to you.’’

“Ok then.’’ she pulled him close for another round of kisses.

She would probably go to him. Again, and again. Because when it comes to Neil Melendez and Claire Browne, whenever they weren’t together, they were missing each other.