chapter twenty-one

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While our New Year's argument was eye-opening—cathartic, even—it seemed to have put Ben and me back at square one. Our tolerance of each other was replaced with mindless bickering and huffs of annoyance.

Some of that was justified, however.

Earlier this morning, when I was getting dressed, I forgot to lock the door between us. Somehow in the mere few seconds of pulling off my T-shirt, clasping on a black lace bra, and hunting around for my favorite white blouse, Ben found his way into my room.

"Oh my god, Ben!" I shrieked, as his eyes landed on my upper body sans a shirt. I wrapped my arms over my bra and upwards, clutching at my shoulders. "Get out!"

His cheeks turning red, he spun around on the heel of his sneaker. "How would I have known you were getting dressed?!"

I yanked my top over my head and winced at how odd it looked paired with my plaid red pajama pants. "Oh wait, am I supposed to have a sign on my door reading, 'Sorry, Ben, Samar is currently missing a shirt, please come back later!'?"

Marching back into his room and grabbing the door handle, he grumbled, "I swear God put you in my life just to test my limits."

"The feeling's mutual!" I dropped to my bedsheets and released a loud huff when he slammed the door shut and clicked the lock. I planted my face in my hands and stared down at the lines in the carpet, wondering after a few moments if I had been too snappy. Then again, he had just admitted my existence annoyed him, which really wasn't that much of a surprise.

I stood up and changed into a pair of flowy striped pants, feeling like a rich white mom in the Hamptons. It was then that I realized I had no idea what we planned to do today, save for spending it by the pool to soak in the last bit of sun before we headed back to Antarctica in a week.

It was when I heard a knock on my door that I knew there were other plans for today.

"Leila," I greeted and smiled at Ella on her hip. She had her small arms wrapped around her mother's neck, appearing comfortable up there. "Something up?"

"Not really up," she began and set her daughter on her feet, who then tugged at Leila's pants in disapproval of having to stand. "I just need something from you. And Ben. Say, where is he?"

"In his room, but I don't exactly think he wants to talk to me right now," I responded. Ella decided to test if I would carry her by wrapping her arms around my leg and gazing up at me. Those big, ocean-blue eyes made it hard to not reach down and pick her up, so I extended my arms.

"Don't you dare," Leila intervened immediately, placing a hand on my shoulder to stop me. "Eric and I are trying to wean her off attention." Ella frowned at her mother and placed her fists on her hips.

"But she's so cute," I whined, ruffling her curly hair. "Anyway, what is this favor you ask of?"

"Well, it involves both you and Ben, so that's why I figured he might as well be here." She arched her head towards the door that separated us and tried her luck. "Hey, Ben, mind coming over here?"

We heard a fumble and then a crash of a body colliding into a piece of furniture. Leila's eyes widened, and she clasped a hand against her mouth, but the only thought that came to my mind was that goddamn laptop charger.

At last, the door opened and out came a shaken Ben, clutching onto his side. Giving my sister a pained smile, he grumbled through his teeth, "Whatever this is, it better be important."

Giving him her sympathies, she continued with, "Eric and I and my parents are going out to look at some properties in the area today, and we figured that house-hunting really isn't something a three year old would be interested in." She eyed Ella, who was dancing in circles around our legs. She stopped dizzily and stared off in the distance, nearly toppling over like Ben just had. "So, could you both please watch her for the rest of the afternoon?"

"Wait, what do you mean by 'house-hunting'?" I asked, furrowing my brow. Surely, they weren't considering moving here.

"No, we don't mean a permanent home or anything," she said, reading my thoughts. "Mom and Dad are interested in finding a condo to be able to come down to during their time off work. You know just how much Mom hates Syracuse winters." Don't we all? I thought, as "lake-effect snow" had become one of my trigger words.

"Oh, yeah, of course," I answered, nodding. Glancing at Ben who was still nursing his side, I continued, "I'm sure Ben and I will be fine with having Ella for the rest of the day."

"Great, thank you," she said, reaching over to give me a hug. She gave one to Ben as well, but it was awkward given the fact he limply wrapped an arm around her through a wince. She knelt down beside Ella, placing her hands onto her shoulders. "You'll be good to Khalto Samar and Amo Ben, right?" Ella nodded vigorously, though the slight twinkle in her blue eyes worried me.

"See you for dinner then," she told us and waved goodbye. There was a slight awkward silence the moment the three of us were left alone, as if we all didn't know what to do. I decided to speak up.

"Ella, could you go watch TV for a little bit while we talk?" I pointed to me and Ben and hoped she would happily comply. To my delight, she smiled and ran off to my bed. She grabbed the remote, and the TV turned on to a random channel playing a romantic movie. I practically dove to her to switch the screen to Disney Channel before the couple ate each other's faces.

Walking back to Ben, I eyed the grimace that still marred his face. "Are you okay?"

"I kind of rammed into my desk like a charging bull, Samar," he replied and then gestured to the area on the right side of his abdomen. "Right here."

I pulled him near the wall adjacent to the door, out of Ella's sight. "Can I see?" I asked, because with the way talking almost sounded like it hurt him, I worried what exactly had happened. He pursed his lips and nodded.

Gingerly, I reached my hand forward and lifted up the hem of his black T-shirt. He looked down at me as my eyes met reddened skin and faint hints of a nasty bruise about to form. I brushed my fingers across the mark, and he sucked in his breath. I dropped my hand, realizing this felt far too intimate.

"I'll get you something cold to put on that," I said and walked to the mini-fridge. I found a nearly frozen bottle of water there and handed it to him. "I don't exactly keep ice packs on me, so I hope it'll do."

"I'll be fine," he said, pressing it to his side. "Thanks." As I began to move towards Ella, his fingers clamped around my wrist and tugged me closer to him.

"Samar..." he said as always, and I wondered if I would ever get tired of hearing him whine my name like that. Even though an obnoxious children's show was blaring in the background, it felt like I could only hear the sounds of our breaths. I supposed Ben read too much into the moment when the distance between us lessened.

I pulled away from his grasp and sauntered to my bed to sit down next to Ella. I could hear him sigh as he followed me to our niece, who was now our responsibility for the rest of the day.

Ella tilted her head back when she saw Ben advancing towards her, who was still clutching his side—a bit exaggeratedly at the point. Her small pink lips turned downwards, and her eyes welled up with tears.

"Oh my god, Benny, are you okay?" she cried, hopping onto her feet and throwing herself at him. "You're not going to die, right?" I had no idea where that morbid thought came from, neither the flowing tears, and clearly Ben was equally as astounded. But understanding she was a three year old surrounded by adults most of the time, he bent over and picked her up, letting her head rest on his shoulder.

"Ella, baby, where did you that idea from?" he asked gently, smoothing down her hair and then brushing away a few stray tears from her face. "I'm not going anywhere."

When a shit-eating grin that only I could see met her face, I realized that her sudden concern for Ben's well being was simply an act to get him to carry her.

When I threatened in Arabic to tell her mother about this—something I knew Ben wouldn't have understood—I was only met by a wider smirk from my cunning niece.

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