Knowing there may never be a better opportunity, Bella went for it—gliding across the narrow aisle between seats and into the back row where she slid in next to Adam.
“Hey,” she said, smiling and hoping she hadn’t scared him.
He hadn’t flinched when she appeared, but Adam wasn’t exactly one to react easily. His neutral affect was one of the reasons they called him the Autist Investor these days. And, while Bella could see why the name worked for him, everything Bella knew about autism didn’t really fit Adam either.
True, she was no doctor and never would be. She was just a girl who hadn’t been allowed to get this close to Adam since they were six.
But she was here now and she couldn’t wait for a better time to catch him alone. They had to talk before things got weird after waiting too long.
“Hey,” Adam replied, watching the aisle like he expected someone else to join them.
Bella glanced toward Chad’s seat and shook her head. “He didn’t see me.”
Plus, the driver had this droning fan she liked to put on so she could talk on her phone without being heard. But the white noise was a two-way street. The driver couldn't hear them either. Things were as private as they were going to get for the next few days and Bella couldn't wait any longer to make her move.
She had to see how Adam was doing.
It seemed to take a few more beats of listening to nothing move around them for Adam to buy into the idea that they were safe. Bella waited.
She may not have seen Adam in forever, but she still felt she knew him better than most. For a short time, they’d grown up together, making them family in an odd way. Bella’s mom had changed their diapers together and dropped them both in the same bathtub after they'd spent afternoons exploring.
Then, in kindergarten, Adam had started seeing specialists.
Within a year, it was determined he should have a caretaker with a Ph.D. after their name, and that definitely wasn’t Bella’s mom. So Adam’s parents had let Bella’s mom go to find a “better fit.”
Bella had only been six at the time, but she still remembered the tears streaming down Adam’s otherwise neutral face as she drove away with her mom. And Bella had seen him do anything but math and logic problems on YouTube channels ever since.
And she worried about him.
So when Bella heard about this Gia chick's theory for helping Adam, and how his parents felt it might lead to a psychotic break that would likely lead to an approved conservatorship over him, Bella had to come with him.
Maybe she was being stupid. Maybe all the things they said about Adam these days were true. But even if they were, the way she heard adults talking about him made her blood boil.
Bella knew what sabotage felt like -- and she ****ing hated it. She'd spent her whole life having rich people look at her like she should be cleaning a bathroom somewhere and knew all the condescending and cold tones used to take people out.
But never once from Adam. Adam was different.
Adam was pure. And kind.
Bella knew because, back when they’d run wild together, Bella had a knack for getting into trouble. And shy little Adam had always found a way to take the heat for her.
Literally. Every time.
Bella had never forgotten that. Especially when she heard that Adam’s parents thought it was a good idea for his school bully to join him on a two-week trip.
No one ever acknowledged Chad as a bully, of course. Chad was a cool kid with influence who could help their son have more friends. Yet everyone who paid even the slightest attention knew Chad and Adam had a history. And Bella was reporting for duty to make sure that history didn’t repeat.
She just didn’t know how to tell Adam that.
So she stuck with giving his shoulder a playful nudge and saying, “Long time, no see. How you doing?”
“Good,” Adam said, eyes staring at the back of the seat in front of him.
“Yeah?” she said, checking his expression to see if he was serious. “You being real with me? It’s okay if you’re uneasy being away from home.”
“I’m okay,” Adam replied, tone neutral. “We’re on schedule and I’m excited to reach the labyrinth. I have read so much about it and can’t wait to see what turns out to be true. So I am doing good.” He looked away from the back of the seat and sent her a smile. “Long time, no see. How are you?”
Bella fought back a groan at the question. “Bro, that is a story to unpack another time. Things on my side are crazy.”
Adam’s smile grew. “I know.”
Bella arched an eyebrow his way in a silent request for him to elaborate.
“I … follow you and Chad on an anon account that I access from a secret iPad my aunt gave me.”
Bella’s jaw dropped down in surprise. “Seriously?”
Adam’s ear tips grew pink as he nodded.
“You have a contraband device?” she teased, unable to hide her smile when she saw Adam blush more deeply. “And you use it to access unauthorized accounts? I’m scandalized!”
He was at a full-blush now. “I have to use the neighbor’s internet to access it. But, yes. I do. Please, don’t tell on me.”
Bella held out her pinky finger to him. “I promise.”
He hooked his finger to hers. “Thanks. I didn’t think you would, but didn’t know any other way to tell you that I’m up-to-date on the whole soap opera you and Chad have going on.”
“Soap opera?” she balked.
He frowned. “Is that not an accurate description?”
“Uh, not even close, Adam. Chad and I haven’t spoken in months. I don’t even see him anymore unless we’re filming something.”
Adam’s brows drew together. “And you don’t think that’s melodramatic?”
Bella fought the urge to rub her temples as she ignored how her heart picked up at the topic. “Dude. I’m just saying, there’s nothing going on with me and Chad. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m in a relationship right now.”
“Yes, with Otto,” he agreed. “After watching you interact with him, my guess is that he is a cross-promotional boyfriend, professionally assigned to you by a consultant. Correct?”
He was. Painfully so. But that didn’t mean Bella was ready to admit it.
She brought her chin up defiantly. “Otto is an amazing street artist who—“
“—cross-promotes you perfectly,” Adam finished for her. “You two make for an excellent Venn diagram, and you have gained over 79,000 followers by dating him. But you don’t love Otto. You love Chad.”
It was a little bit shocking to hear someone say those words so unflinchingly, leaving Bella rocked and wobbling in denial.
She hadn't expected Adam to be up-to-date on her business, and it was throwing her off her game.
She was supposed to be the stable one in this conversation. Adam was the one who was supposed to need long stretches of silence to process things and figure out his responses.
Not the other way around.
But Bella literally had no idea what to say in the face of Adam’s blasé truth bombs. It made her want to yell something insulting at him and storm off.
But this was Adam.
He literally didn’t have a mean bone in his body and would never say something if he thought it would hurt her.
Bella might not have talked to the guy in over a decade, but she still knew he was just being himself and spittin’ truth. And she couldn’t punish him for that. It wasn’t his fault he had the social IQ of Sherlock Holmes.
She just had to roll with it.
“I’m sorry. Was I not supposed to say that?” Adam said after Bella stayed silent for a little too long.
“No,” Bella said quickly. “You are just being honest.”
“Yes,” he agreed firmly. “Always.”
Ugh. She had to work with him on that. “Not always, Adam. You’re allowed some secrets, you know.”
He frowned. “Technically, no. But I have some anyway. For professional reasons.”
“That’s good,” she said, offering him a fist bump. “I’m glad.”
He kept frowning, clearly feeling guilty. “I need to see a full picture of the world to do my calculations properly. That’s why I have a pirate device. It’s not for a secret, double-life. I just can’t work in a silo.”
“Riiight,” Bella said, arching a doubtful brow his way. “Dude, you know it’s okay if you just want to look up things for the fun of it, right?”
He shook his head emphatically. “No, I wouldn’t do that. I promise it’s all research.”
“Oh, man,” Bella groaned loud enough to get Adam to freeze with nervousness that she might have been heard two rows up. But the cabin fan seemed to be droning loud enough, so she wasn’t that worried.
But she lowered her voice for Adam anyway. “I seriously can’t with you, man. You’re so pure. I want to put you in my luggage and sneak you home when this is over.”
“I think Chad heard you,” was all he said.
Bella’s eyes narrowed at the thought of the jerk two rows in front of them. “I’ll handle Chad. That’s what I came over to tell you. I’m not going to let him bother you on this trip. I don't want you to deal with any assholes, okay? So consider me your guardian angel from here on out.”
She could almost hear his brain spinning at what she’d just said before asking, “Why?”
Bella played with the edges of her sleeves as she chose her next words carefully. “I hear Chad gives you a hard time at school.”
“Sometimes,” Adam replied.
This time, it was Bella who couldn’t meet his eyes. “What I hear makes me want to hate him.”
“But you don’t,” Adam said simply.
No. She didn’t.
“You love him.”
Yeah. She did. And she hated it. “He’s such a jerk.”
“He can be,” Adam agreed. “But that’s only because he has a very sensitive heart and a volatile home life.”
Bella let out a bitter laugh. “Says the kid he beats up.”
“Yes,” Adam agreed with a small laugh. “I understand the irony of me defending him, but I do think I’m in a position to understand him more than most people. I see him at his weakest and most vulnerable more often than anyone, I think.”
Yep. Adam was definitely still the selfless little boy she remembered. Endlessly kind. Thoughtful. Observant. Always defending others and never himself. Even if it meant taking a hit.
He had to be protected! And if that meant Bella had to become a one-woman army, well then, so be it.
“Well, sensitive heart or not,” she said. “Chad will not be bullying you on this trip, okay?” She took Adam’s hand, unbothered when he didn’t grip hers in return. “I’m here. And if Chad so much as insults your shoes, I’ll be up in his grill like you wouldn’t believe.”
Adam’s brow furrowed as he processed that, then they popped up excitedly. “So you’re going to kiss him.”
He didn't say it like a question and Bella flushed so fast she wondered if she had a sunburn setting in for a moment. But, nope. No sunburn. Only the visual Adam had placed in her head.
She cleared her throat. “Adam, getting up in one’s grill doesn’t mean—“
“I know what it means,” Adam said. “I’m referring to the fact that I can’t think of any scenario where you handle Chad for two weeks without kissing him. He can’t even remember his own name after you say it, and walks into walls when he’s around you. He loves you back, and I think kissing would be good for you two.”
“What?” she balked—far too loudly this time. Someone definitely heard that. But whatever, she really needed Adam to finish that thought. “Me and Chad?”
“Team Chella,” Adam smiled, making a hashtag symbol with his fingers. “I ship you.”
If she wasn’t certain it would have grabbed Chad’s attention, Bella would have knocked her head on the seat in front of her to un-hear what she'd just heard.
“Stop!” Bella said, holding her hands up in surrender instead. “You’re killing me here, man. I’m here for you! Not for Chad. Anything Chella-related can be put on hold for two weeks until we get back, okay?”
Adam’s eyes narrowed. “No. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure feelings don’t work like that. From what I’ve observed, feelings are more like a gravity that pulls people into orbits with each other until they figure their business out. And I don’t think there is a two-week pause button on that.”
Okay, he seriously needed to stop talking. Immediately. He was starting to freak her out.
“I guess I’m just saying that I won’t be mad if you kiss Chad on this trip,” he finished. “The way I see it, it’s a long-time coming and you deserve the answers you’ll get.”
“Oh, my gosh. Stawp!” Bella said, waving her hands in surrender. “I'm seriously not here to think about that, okay? I’m here because …” What to say? How to say it? “... you’re almost eighteen, and I want you to move out of your parents' place and find some Pepper Potts or Zhu Li so can ship the two of you as you conquer the world and cure everything!”
Okay, maybe Bella had never imagined a scenario like that until that exact moment. But now that she had, she was on board and could easily see it.
“Zhu Li? Do the thing!” Adam said, in a near-perfect impression of Varrick in The Legend of Korra.
“Yes!” Bella laughed, happy he got the reference. “I want that for you.”
He looked thoughtful. “I would need a lot more money than I do now to attract an assistant that good to commit that much time and attention to me.”
“Starting out with a decent assistant would help you attract more money than you’d ever know what to do with,” Bella countered. "Then?" She wiggled her eyebrows. "After we've taught you how to dress, the women will start appearing."
He laughed with a tone that was impossible to read. "Unlikely. Besides, it's already decided that matchmakers will take care of that."
"Okay," Bella said with an eyeroll. "But before you agree to that, you should have some wild, Bruce Wayne romances, too."
Another laugh. "No. I'm too OCD for that. But I like the idea of having an assistant, although I don’t know that I would need to move out of my parents’ home for that.”
“Trust me, dude,” Bella said with a groan. "You do. No way your mom would let another female call shots in her home. You’ve got to get your own place and move! Stop paying your parent’s mortgage. Start paying your own. Get an assistant, and see what you can do! It’s your life and you’re allowed to be an adult, man. If you stay in that house, you’ll be treated like a child until the day you die.”
“True,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I don’t see how moving out with a personal assistant changes that.”
“That’s because you’ve never lived in a world without rings of security around you,” Bella argued. “You just need to get out. Experience new things. Meet some people who treat you like a person, not a diagnosis. Do some living! There are a lot of people out there in the world who would enjoy spending time with you, Adam. You just got to find them.”
He shrugged. “Those are nice thoughts, but inaccurate from what I've observed.”
“Well, you live in an ivory tower surrounded by paid security," Bella shot back. "So I’m just going to put it out there that maybe there’s more evidence than you think and I’m going to spend the next two weeks showing you.”
Adam was staring at the back of the seat again -- no expression on his face when he said, “That would be cool.”
“Good!” she said, feeling a rush that he wasn't fighting her. “So, first things first: let's get through this trip. You have fun. I’ll handle Chad. Then, after the trip is over, we get you out, okay? But only if you ask. If it’s not what you want, I’m not going to force you.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “I’ll think about it.”
“Okay,” she agreed before a weird silence fell between them … like it was too silent. Like the kind of quiet that sounded like someone was listening.
Adam seemed to sense it, too.
“You should probably go back to your seat now,” he said, picking up a book. “I liked this conversation and would like to remember it without Chad coming over.”
The dude had a point. He always did. It was one of the reasons Adam was the exception to almost every rule.
“I enjoyed talking to you, too,” Bella said, giving his arm a goodbye squeeze before sliding back across the narrow aisle to her original seat with a side-view of Chad.
She hated how her heart wobbled a bit when she spotted Chad's square jaw and floppy hair. It made her feel so weak.
Bella's life would be so much better if Chad wasn’t such a beautiful athlete with dashing scars from daring feats, and eyes that seemed lost until they locked on hers for a beat.
Every time Bella saw the asshole, something in her heart swelled and sank so intensely that it felt like she might be physically ill. Which made no sense. Chad was everything she hated, all rolled up in a person Bella wanted to kiss like her life depended on it.
It was so confusing. She never knew what to think.
So she didn't think. She observed just like Adam did and noted that: Chad was awake. His earbuds were out. His body was still and he was staring at nothing.
Oh, yeah. He’d totally been trying to listen. But thanks to the fans in the cabin, Bella was pretty sure he hadn’t heard any words. Only tones and voices.
And that was just fine with her as she pushed in her earbuds and picked out a soundtrack for crossing a desert.