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Ben Gates is sprawled out on the couch fast asleep when Riley looks into the living room. Books are stacked on the coffee table, a pen is hanging loosely in limp fingers, and it looks like Ben's once again chosen to forego a blanket and instead keep himself warm with a layer of papers—mostly notes, Riley assumes.

He's been at it the last few days, ever since he got that mysterious late night phone call that he'd refused to tell anyone about. Abigail had practically dragged Riley over to her and Ben's place the morning after Ben had received it, and waved a frustrated hand at Ben on the couch, pen braced between his teeth.

“What's going on, buddy?” Riley had asked, and Ben had shaken his head.

“Favor for a friend,” he'd said around the pen, his words garbled.

Abigail and Riley have kept an eye on him in the meantime. Ben's notoriously terrible at taking care of himself when he gets wrapped up in work; back before they'd found The Charlotte Riley had already known to carry granola bars along with him and shove them in Ben's mouth when he started looking a little ragged. Abigail's used to it now, of course, but she and Ben have been relentless in keeping Riley in their orbit, and this is no different; she always pulls him in even closer when Ben's intent on burying himself. Literally, in this case, what with that layer of papers.

“He's sleeping,” Riley says as he turns back into the kitchen. Abigail's at the table in jeans and a tee, long-legged and gorgeous without even trying, but he's so used to her that that's more background radiation than anything surprising. It's been eight months since they found the City of Gold, and Ben's been moved back in here for almost all of them. Riley's been over here enough that some days it almost feels like he's moved in, too—they invite him over for dinner and to watch a lot of black and white movies (like maybe a concerning amount, he's not sure but he thinks maybe), and to his utter confusion even started Game Night, something he'd brought up at least a hundred times a couple years ago, but finally dropped in defeat.

Abigail slides a glass of wine over, and he sits down in a chair across from her. She and Ben do like the fancy décor, which is nice and all, but he values comfort over look any day, and these chairs could certainly use some cushion.

“And no luck on tracing that phone call?” she asks. Riley scratches his neck, and Abigail's eyes narrow slightly as she watches him. She's getting as good at reading his tells as Ben is, and yes that's just annoying as it sounds.

“I don't have a direct address, but it originated in D.C.,” he says. He watches the same look of surprise he had when he found out crest on her face, and he nods along with her.

“You don't think—”

“It makes sense,” he says.

“The president?

“Maybe about page 47,” he says. He's more than a little annoyed at how very little Ben's talked about that to him, to either of them in fact. Last time he checked, they're supposed to be a team, Riley's grumpiness and Abigail and Ben's momentary break-up aside. The point is, even if the two of them had stayed broken up, the three of them should still be a team. They work the best when they're all together—note how they didn't actually find the treasure until Abigail was on board. Not that either Abigail or Ben tend to have the wherewithal to actually put those sorts of things together. Robots, both of them.

“You don't think he's going to do something reckless,” she asks, and then leans her head back with a sigh, meeting Riley's deadpan gaze with her own. “What am I saying, it's Ben.”

“I have an emergency bag in the car,” he says. “I've gotten to the point where I'm always expecting him to be reckless.”

“You have an emergency bag?” she laughs.

“Twice. Twice, I have been on the run because of him, and I've had absolutely nothing! Now I have cash, and a change of clothes, and prepaid phones I bought with cash, and everything else my numerous hours of television watching has informed me I need when one shares company with a Ben. You really need to get on that, Abigail, if you haven't already.”

“Well,” she says, her head tilted slightly to the side, “isn't that why I have you?” She's smiling, her eyes so very fond, and he rolls his eyes.

“I mean, yes, there's an extra change of clothes for you and Ben in there, too, but still you should have your own!” he says, raising his voice at the end to hear himself over her delighted laugh. They're loud enough to wake up Ben, it turns out, because a few minutes later he's leaning in the doorway, stretching.

“What's so funny?” he asks, soldiering through the words even as a yawn catches him off-guard.

“Oh nothing,” Abigail says innocently, “we were just talking about you.” Riley grins in mild appreciation, and Ben grunts in what appears to be something decidedly less appreciative.

“What are you researching, Ben?” Riley says, figuring a grumpy Ben can't exactly get that much grumpier.

“I told you, it's nothing, just a favor for a friend,” Ben says. He stalks past them, evidently not realizing the back of his shirt is caught on his jeans.

“And is this friend the president?” Abigail presses. Ben's body stutters to a stop as he opens the fridge, and it's with an effort that he restarts, and pulls out the jug of orange juice.

“Ben,” Riley says. “You know we're here to help you. All you have to do is talk.”

Ben pours the glass of orange juice, his back tight underneath his shirt. When he's done, he slowly turns around.

“Ben?” Abigail presses. He nods.

“There was a...a cipher, on page 47 of the President's Book. I cracked it for him months ago—that's as involved as I could be, he said. National security, and because of what it deals with, the military's taking point on it.”

“The military?” Abigail asks, at the same time Riley says,

“What does it deal with?”

“You aren't going to believe this,” Ben says wryly, looking between the two of them. “Well, Riley will, but you won't, Abigail.”

“Hey!” Riley says, and then shrugs, “I mean, I'm sure you're right, but what is it?”

“Aliens,” Ben says.

 

-

 

“I have so many questions, Ben,” Riley says. “So, so many questions.” He's resisting bouncing in his seat, but only just.

“I know you do,” Ben says, that half-smile he always give Riley creeping onto his face.

“Aliens?” Abigail says, one hundred thousand percent done with this before it even begins. Ben half-shrugs a shoulder with that innocent smile, like he loves to do to Abigail.

“Let me explain,” he says. “Evidently there's been rumors for over a century in government circles that some sort of non-Earth-based society left clues for a way to contact them when we—humanity—were at a developmental stage where we could properly decipher them. According to these rumors, these clues are supposed to be seeded throughout our history. And that cipher that I cracked? According to the President's Book, it was found on the back of the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington—the same copy that was carried from the President's Mansion in 1814 when the British set fire to the capitol. No one knew how the cipher could have been added, and it was written in a strange hand. The cipher itself wasn't invented until World War II—long, long after everyone who knew of what they called the Washington Secret had been sworn into secrecy.

“After I broke the cipher, a general—he didn't leave his name—came and took any information I had about it. That was right before I moved back in here, Abigail, that's why you didn't see them. I hadn't heard anything else from them, until a few days ago, when they asked me to read up on a few things—the Hindenburg, the Alamo, the Tower of Pisa, and so on, a complete hodgepodge of things, and asked me to pack for a small vacation starting tomorrow. Ordered more than asked, but really, who's counting. And no, I couldn't tell you anything, Riley, I was sworn to secrecy, and rather creatively threatened on behalf of my life and everyone I care about, for the record.”

Riley, who's always been a good listener, has about two hundred thousand questions, but this time Abigail beats him to the punch.

“Well, what are you solving now? And can we help?”

Ben smiles crookedly. “It's probably dangerous.”

“Has that ever stopped us before?” she asks.

“I mean, it probably should've, but now we're totally in,” Riley says. Ben laughs, and shakes his head, his eyes suspiciously fond.

 

-

 

The next morning, two men in black escort them to a black car and proceed to blindfold them, and Riley's somewhat second-guessing his volunteering, but also more than a little annoyed that Ben had been about to take this joyride on his own. The men in black take them to some sort of government facility, and stick them in a small room with a table, where Riley proceeds to think about claustrophobia and other anxieties with increasing nervousness.

Finally, three men walk in—two who look like guards, and an older man in uniform who has quite a few medals pinned on his chest.

“General,” Ben nods.

“I thought we agreed to keep your travel arrangements between ourselves,” the general says. Ben shrugs, trying for unconcerned.

“The president did say I'm to be given anything I need. And it turns out, I need them.”

The general keeps looking at Ben, eyes narrowing slightly. “Well then, I suppose you folks better come with me,” he says at last.

He leads them single file to a larger research room, and waves a hand sweepingly around it.

“Give my men your phones, and any other electronics you have on you. Carlie will help you with anything you need,” he says, gesturing towards an attractive, late-twenties woman in uniform coming towards them, “and you'll have dinner with me so we can discuss your progress. If you like, I can fill Mr. Poole in while you and Ms. Chase get started,” the general says. Ben frowns.

“No, I'm sure Carlie can fill us all in,” he says. “Thank you for the offer, General.”

When the general doesn't leave immediately, Ben shifts so that his body is turned towards Riley, almost protectively, and the general finally backs off.

 

-

 

Riley likes Carlie, and he likes it when Ben gives him something specific to solve, but otherwise he's about ready to start climbing the walls. Ben and Abigail are running at the same pace, but Riley, while he's caught up on a lot of history in the last couple years, is nowhere near as well informed as they are. Even worse, every time Carlie offers to show him around the facility, Ben shuts it down, saying he needs Riley there. To do what, Riley has no idea whatsoever.

Dinner is worse, with Ben and Abigail giving curt, one word answers, Riley rambling into the silence with increasing desperation, and the general rude in words as well as facial expressions. When Riley raises the topic of how maybe meeting an alien civilization will finally unite the world governments, the general flat-out says that this is an American discovery, not a global one. All of Riley's worries about this situation perk back up into full force, and he pretty much gives up any more conversational gambits for the rest of the meal.

After dinner, Ben asks to be shown to their room, less than politely refusing to have a drink with the general in the process.

“Early to bed, early to rise,” Ben says when the general looks angry. Ben's voice is a bit too flippant for Riley's liking, but he can also tell that it's covering a fair amount of anger, so he stays silent, hoping neither man can manage to provoke the other enough to actually start a problem.

“Of course, the president said you were to have anything you wanted,” the general says at last, his voice worryingly friendly. Riley wishes Carlie were back—she, he trusted.

They start another traipse through the facility, finally ending in a different section, in a small hotel style room with a single queen bed. Riley's been trying to count corridors, but he really hopes they're not going to have to try to escape, because this place is some sort of underground cross between a fortress and a maze, and as much as Riley doesn't exactly trust that the general has his, the country's, or even the president's best interests in mind, being on the run from the FBI was enough adventure for a lifetime, he really doesn't want to go to war with the US military.

Ben and Abigail and Riley and the general all walk into the room, look around, and nod at each other, which is evidently the etiquette-appropriate thing to do. Riley's pretty exhausted from his uneasy sleep last night and then the slow combination of stress and feeling useless, so he just copies everyone else with the nodding.

“This will be great, thanks,” Ben says at last, and now that Riley looks closer he sees that Ben looks tired, too.

“We'll collect you in the morning," the general says, and he nods at Ben in a stiff, vaguely commanding kind of way. Riley's not sure. He can't exactly remember the last time he saw someone try to order Ben around, so it's kind of difficult to remember what those types of doomed attempts look like. “In the meantime, we can show Mr. Poole to his room,” the general says, and he gestures for Riley to continue on to another room with him, but Ben puts a hand on Riley's arm, stopping him.

“He's staying with us,” Ben says. Riley looks over at him, frowning a little, “No thanks, Ben, I'd like a bed, I'm exhausted remember?” ready to roll off his tongue, but Abigail cuts him off before he can begin.

“Yes, we'll all be fine in here,” she says, setting her own hand on Riley's arm. Riley feels a bit like he's hearing everything from underwater, because none of it's making any sense.

“Please,” the general says, “we have plenty of guest rooms, and I'm sure he'd feel uncomfortable staying in such a small room with a couple.” The words are deliberate, and something suddenly feels—off. More off than it already is.

“Oh, that's kind of the point,” Abigail says, her words laughing and slipping towards something unexpectedly dirty, and Riley's trying to keep from frowning but he's tired and he just wants a bed to sleep in, and is that really so much to ask?

“There's not enough room for an extra cot to be placed in here,” the general says, firm, as if this is the end of the story, and Riley opens his mouth to agree, to say how very much he'd prefer a proper bed to a cot, and then—

And then Ben's hand is cupping the back of Riley's neck, and Ben's leaning into him, his mouth warm and wholly unexpected. Ben nips lightly at Riley's lips, trying to get him to participate, and then Riley's finally kissing him back, and dimly in the background they can hear Abigail, just as firm as the general, saying that one bed will serve their purposes just fine.

As soon as the door closes behind the general, Ben and Riley pull away from each other. Riley lifts his hand and starts to shake his finger, abruptly stops and turns and walks several paces away, and then turns back.

What?” he asks, low and outraged. Ben rakes a hand through his hair.

“They've been trying to get you alone,” he says.

“I don't trust them,” Abigail agrees. Her gaze is flitting between Ben and Riley, and then she turns with purpose. She takes the chair from the desk, carries it across, and jams it underneath the doorknob.

“What are you two talking about?” Riley asks. He thinks he's being very understanding, as he hasn't actually started physically shaking the answers out of them, as much as he'd like to give that a try right about now.

“They've been trying to get you alone all day!” Ben says, his voice louder, his face tense. “Are you—are you that oblivious? Carla—Carlie—whatever her name was, and the general just now, and—”

“Carlie was flirting with me,” Riley says. He's a little offended at the way this conversation is going.

“No, she was pretending to flirt with you so you'd go off with her without raising anybody's suspicions and I want to know why.

“What do you mean, she was—she wasn't pretending to flirt with me!”

“Yes, she was, it was obvious!” Ben says, eyebrows and voice all raised, like he thinks Riley's an idiot.

“What, people hitting on me is so out there?” Riley says, only distantly realizing one of his hands has tightened into a fist, only distantly remembering that his lips still taste like Ben.

“Shut up,” Abigail hisses at both of them, glancing at the door behind her like she thinks the general's about to bust through it. She steps closer to them, until she's standing in the breach between them. “Ben, give me your hand,” she says. Ben glares at her, but she glares right back, and finally he surrenders it to her. “Riley, now yours,” she says. He's more of a pushover when it comes to her (when it comes to everyone, evidently), and gives it without protest.

She puts Ben's hand in Riley's, and Riley startles. Ben's hand is trembling. At Riley's surprised twitch, Ben visibly tries to steady himself. He closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath, but he can't seem to contain it, his fingers flexing in Riley's grasp like he can stop the shaking that way.

“Ben—” Riley says, but cuts himself off, too at a loss to string words together.

Abigail reaches out and cups Riley's cheek, her palm cool against his skin. “He was scared,” she says. Her voice is low but urgent. At her words Ben tries to tug his hand free, but Riley doesn't let him go. “We were both scared,” Abigail says. “They were trying to get you alone.”

Abigail lets the silence stretch between them, until Ben finally looks up and meets Riley's gaze. He clears his throat, his expression hovering somewhere between curt and embarrassed, but now that he's looking for it Riley can see that lingering fear behind his eyes, too.

“Next time, listen to us,” he says, and god that's exactly the sort of thing that ticks Riley off, the way that Ben thinks he can just unilaterally make decisions and command Riley about—not that it's ever stopped Riley from following along, but still. But Ben's jaw is firm, and his hand is still shaking, just a little, in Riley's grasp, and Riley thinks about what would've happened if they'd tried to get Ben alone, tries to think how that would've made him feel.

“Okay,” he says, feeling like he's giving that word like a gift to Ben, and Ben's shoulders lower some, like maybe Ben thinks it might be a gift, too. Abigail is watching them, her eyes soft, and Riley hasn't forgotten that she's the one that braced the door with the chair, that she's been trying to keep him safe just as much as Ben had. “Okay,” he says again, like it'll soothe these troubled beasts of his. He finally lets go of Ben's hand, and Ben pulls his arm back into his body. Ben moves away from the two of them, his body tightly contained, as if he's trying to put his defenses back up. Abigail, though, steps closer to Riley. She puts her hand on his upper arm, and squeezes briefly.

“You'll sleep in the middle,” she says. He opens his mouth to protest—“I can sleep on the floor”—but she's already shaking her head. “That way they can't grab you without us knowing.”

It makes sense, but he's still pretty sure that Abigail and Ben are worrying for absolutely no reason. Still, their fear feels catching, so even though he's sure all of this is only in their heads, he still feels a little bit safer when he nods his assent. Besides, even if it's all imaginary, it still...it's still nice that they're so determined to keep him safe.

 

-

 

Riley takes longer than necessary brushing his teeth. The bathroom door is closed, and he can hear them out there, talking. Now that the moment's passed, he's thinking again about how they expect him to sleep in the same bed as them. He's also remembering that whole quickly overshadowed thing where Ben kissed him, but that was, after all, for the general's benefit, and besides: Ben's kissed him before. Long before The Charlotte, and Riley rarely thinks about that, and even when it's idly crossed his mind it's been more curiosity about whether Ben even remembers it.

They'd been drinking, and Ben had been talking, and Riley had been listening. The thing is, Riley's pretty sure that before they found the treasure, nobody had ever really listened to Ben. Oh, they'd listened in pieces, enough to give him money to fund his expeditions, enough to believe he might be smart enough to find something, but never really as much as a man like Ben needs to be listened to. It keeps him on an even keel, keeps him from going around the bend. And Riley had been sitting there in that hole-in-the-wall bar, and he'd been listening to Ben, and Ben had finally stuttered to a stop, just smiling at him. Riley had smiled back, and finally, laughing, had said What? and Ben had laughed, too; Ben had laughed, and then leaned forward, and kissed him—sloppy and fast and still laughing a little.

Riley hadn't kissed back that time, and Ben had pulled away, still smiling a little but this time shaking his head, apologizing as only someone on their way to drunk can do, and Riley had waved a hand, and it had all been pushed under the rug with a few more drinks. Ben had been drunk, and lonely, and not really into Riley, and Riley wasn't into Ben either, and afterwards it was kind of a funny story, and nothing more than that.

This time isn't anything to write home about, either—Riley standing between Ben (Abigail's boyfriend) and Abigail (Ben's girlfriend), and the kiss only happening at all because the general was for whatever reason putting the fear of god into the two of them. It's not like Riley wanted it to be something to write home about, either. It's just that they're kind of his whole world, and it's not like he wanted or intended for that to happen, and it's not like he's not trying to change that, but there it is. They're his whole world, and he's their—what, their friend? Best friend, even, but it's just—it isn't. No. It's fine.

It's fine, and he's trying to change that, and he's been trying to spend less time with them, trying to meet new people, but that's where the black and white movies and inviting him over for dinner and even, heaven forfend, the game nights. And he knows they're not trying to make this more difficult for him, and it's not like he doesn't love spending time with them, but sometimes he doesn't want to settle for the consolation prize. He wants to have what they have; he wants someone to go home to at the end of the day.

Instead of that, here he is in a military bunker, about to go lie down between the two of them. He's passed third wheel a million miles ago. He doesn't have a single clue what to call where he's at now, besides maybe awkward or uncomfortable.

“Riley?” Abigail asks, tapping softly on the bathroom door. Her voice is as soft as her tapping, and he drags a hand down his face.

“I'm done,” he says, rinsing his toothbrush off. He takes a moment to steel himself before he opens the door, and it almost makes him feel disloyal that he needs to steel himself at all—they're his best friends. She's smiling at him when he steps out, as warm and gorgeous as always—warmer and more gorgeous than she should be, considering he's going to be sleeping next to her. He moves past her, hearing the bathroom door shut behind her as he starts towards the bed. Ben's already under the covers on the left side of the bed, his eyes dark as he looks at Riley. And they've slept side-by-side plenty of times, even zipped their sleeping bags together once or twice on especially cold nights, so this should be no different. No different at all.

He pads over to the bed, and slips in on the right side.

“I'm sorry if I, uh, was rude,” Ben says. He's looking a little shame-faced when Riley glances over at him, which makes Riley a little less tense about scooting over the next few inches. He's still in the middle of where he and Abigail will end up sleeping, but he figures the next half-foot can wait until she's out of the bathroom.

“It's not like I'm not used to it,” Riley jokes, but Ben's face firms up, like he thinks Riley means it. “Ben—” he says, but Ben sinks back into the pillow until he's lying flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling.

“I was just worried about you,” he says. It's quiet for a long, long minute, and then Ben adds, “I am. Am worried about you.”

Something smack in the middle of Riley's chest clenches up tight, almost painfully, at that. Ben's still staring at the ceiling when Riley looks at him, a sort of lost look on his face. Riley flips through a dozen different things to say in his mind, but none of them land anywhere near whatever it is he wants to say. Luckily, the bathroom door opens and Abigail walks through, and whatever that nameless thing is that's inhabiting Riley's chest, it eases a little at the sight of her. She smiles over at them, declares firmly that the bathroom light shall remain on in case of midnight intruders, and comes over to the right side of the bed.

Riley slides over that last half-foot before either Ben or Abigail have to point it out, and then a few inches more when Abigail sits on the edge and it becomes apparent that it's going to be a tighter fit than he was hoping. Ben ends up shifting onto his side so as not to be knocked off, turning his chest towards Riley. Abigail slides underneath the covers, her back to Riley, her hair spilling over Riley's hands, and Riley ends up on his side between the two of them, facing Abigail's back.

(Riley's having an emotional breakdown in under two feet of space.)

And then Ben shifts, like he's finding a pattern that only he can see, like he always does; Ben shifts like he's going to explain it so it all makes sense, so Riley shifts back into him, following his lead, and Riley can tell that Ben's smiling when he says, “Up a little,” can tell Abigail's smiling when she slides back until the back of her knees are against the front of Riley's and she says, “There.”

“I can still sleep on the floor,” Riley says, because he's still tense, his arms feeling large and in the way.

“Please stay,” Abigail says. Her voice is soft, soft soft. Her hand isn't, not completely—it's callused from work, and there's a band-aid from where she scraped her skin earlier, and when she reaches back and covers his hand with her own, it's still the softest thing he's ever felt. She pulls his hand forward, until his arm is draped over her waist and tucked against her stomach.

Ben, never the emotional barometer of the group, still feels how Riley tenses up against him. The covers shift, as if he started to reach for him and then stopped. “Are you okay?” he asks.

Riley isn't sure how to answer that, isn't sure if he is okay. He settles for nodding jerkily, hoping Ben can see him in the low light spilling from the bathroom door. Ben's hand moves again, and this time Riley grabs it and drapes it over his own waist, half knowing there's really nowhere else for Ben to comfortably set his hand, the other half hoping it will let Ben feel where Riley's hand is, and take the dealing with that out of Riley's options entirely.

Ben huffs out a sigh against the back of Riley's neck, though, and lets his draped hand settle lightly against Riley's stomach, and his breath evens out. Abigail's breathing is deepening as well—he can feel it through his hand, as well as hear it.

Riley lies between their two bodies, and tries to relax his own. Ben, his voice sleepy, finally rocks Riley back against him with his hand and says, “Hey, get some rest.” The heat of his skin is bleeding through Riley's thin shirt, and he closes his eyes, forces himself to take a deep breath in and out. These are just his friends. His friends who are worried about him. That's all that's going on.

He takes another deep breath and releases it slowly, and lets the tension finally bleed out of his body.

 

-

 

Abigail wakes them up early in the morning—her internal clock is one of legends, Ben grumbles into Riley's neck—and Riley shifts over onto his back in this extra space, and looks up to see her sitting on the edge of the bed. Her face is sleepy but clear, and she looks so completely—open. She smiles down at him, and ruffles his hair with her hand.

“Hi, sleepy,” she says. Ben groans loudly (Riley assumes at least half his groaning is for effect), and then finally rolls away from Riley, giving him some space. He stretches his back, wipes a hand down his face, and finally sits up—a routine Riley's pretty familiar with from those sleeping bag nights of yore. Abigail, though, is something he's not at all familiar with. She's soft at the edges, but still oh-so-firm underneath, and Riley thinks, vaguely, that he'd like to run a hand through her hair.

Then he sits up, calls first dibs on the shower, and darts into the bathroom.

If Carlie and the general were trying to get him alone—and Riley isn't saying he agrees with that whole ludicrous theory—it's easy to figure out why. Ben and Abigail are together. A couple. If they're trying to get information, Riley's watched enough National Geographic to know that you always try to separate the weakest of the herd, and of the three of them, he's the expendable one. If Ben hadn't needed him—hell, thought he needed him, Riley would've gone off with Carlie as soon as he was asked. Third wheels usually aren't looking to stay that way.

 

-

 

By the time someone knocks on their door, the three of them are presentable. It's Carlie, but this time when she and the guards lead them to the dining room, Ben walks with her, and Abigail walks with Riley, her hand in his. The level of protection they've got going on is frankly absurd, but now that Riley's looked them in the eyes and realized they really are that worried, it's a lot easier for him to play along. The three of them have been close since they met, so it's not necessarily proximity that's bothering him, anyway. It's not the affection, either—the affection he knows is completely real. To be entirely honest, he's not entirely sure what is bothering him.

Whatever it is, he doesn't have long to consider it, because they're only back in the research room for a little while before Ben and Abigail crack the rest of the code.

“They were right,” Ben says, excited, “according to these it's supposed to be some sort of communication device! There's one in Montana, in Glacier National Park, but it looks like there are eight different bunkers around the world. We can be there in a few hours, get the general!"

 

-

 

As alien bunkers go, this one is kind of nice. Like, Riley wouldn't want to live in it, but it's not as bad as he was expecting, all things told. The men in black put a bit of a damper on it, but the bunker itself isn't damp, so. Not the worst thing that could've happened, is what he's saying.

Abigail's the one who triggers the thick, bullet-proof, see-through alien door to close behind them, before the men in black can follow them through it.

“Well, now we're trapped,” Riley says, trying to joke, but his hands are still shaking slightly. In front of them are three huge rock formations, between the rocks a circle. The bunker is wall-to-wall metal, and this—this is finally something Riley can work with.

It takes him over three hours of painstaking work, but he finally has a theory. Meanwhile, Ben and Abigail have been reading the runes on the walls, and connecting them back to their clues and their research.

“Parts of a whole,” Ben says. “We have to put parts of a whole in the circle.”

“What sort of whole?” Riley asks.

“Something broken, and then made whole?” Abigail frowns.

“We could break my watch?” Riley offers.

“No, not broken and then made whole—more like pieces of a larger whole,” Ben says. Riley shakes his head in confusion, but Abigail starts nodding.

“Greater than the sum of its parts,” she says. “Ben, I think if the three of us stand in it—”

“We'd make a whole,” Ben says, smiling with appreciation.

“A whole team?” Riley laughs, only half-catching the look between Ben and Abigail.

The three of them each stand by one of the stones, and on the count of three step inside the circle. The whole room goes a bright, blinding white, and then slowly fades away, and as it does a screen shimmers into being on the last empty wall. Riley runs over and looks at it with glee, realizing his theory was right.

“It's not a communication device,” Riley says. He's getting excited, just like he always does at this stage of their treasure hunts; maybe even more, this time, because it's so much easier for him to follow along. “You guys, this isn't a communication device, it's a storage device. This is a data storage device!”

“These runes imply that their society was dying, but if whatever was happening left them with enough time to change their plans—” Abigail says, catching the thread of the story, enough time spent between the runes and their research to feel it out.

“They'd planned a communication device according to the clues, but when they knew none of them would be left for us to communicate with, they left a storage bank of, of what—their knowledge?” Ben says, turning from the runes and looking back at them, wide-eyed and wondering.

Let us be your guide,” Abigail says, “they can't guide us so they left a repository of their history to do so?”

“This could be—this could be their history! Medicine! Technology! Space travel!” Riley says, about ready to crack it open with his bare hands, he's so excited. “This is huge!”

“More than huge. Do you realize what this is?” Ben asks. He goes quiet suddenly, the shift devastating in the small room. “Do you realize what people would do to have this?”

Riley turns, abruptly, and walks the length of the small room before pacing back. “You mean what people like the general would do for it. And with it,” he says. His voice is hard, harder than he expected it to be, maybe.

“This is too much for one government, let alone one person,” Ben says.

“Tell me you aren't really considering double-crossing our own government,” Abigail says. Her voice is only faintly pleading, like she knows a lost cause when she sees one. (She's dating Ben, after all; she almost certainly does. And besides, when it comes down to it, she's the one that shut the door on their guard dogs.)

“Riley,” Ben says. His voice is still low, which Riley knows can only spell trouble. Ben doesn't disappoint. “If I get the president here, do you think you can steal me the media?”

 

-

 

“You realize this is crazy, right?” Riley asks. “Like, just to clarify that you do realize that.”

There are quite a few news crews outside—and by quite a few, he means about a hundred. On the other side of the door are the men in black, but it's finally safe to open the sealed, see-through door and step through. They can't just shoot them or kidnap them with the news crews out there. And they can't shoot them with the President of the United States standing there, now, just a few feet away.

The president knows Ben's plans—Ben already told him he was going to give the information to the world, that this sort of thing couldn't be kept secret. Riley thought that, for a moment, the president almost looked proud. Either way, he still hasn't given them an answer, so Ben tries one more time.

“I'm doing this with or without you, Mr. President, but it would mean a lot to me—to the world—if you were up there standing next to me when we announced this.”

The president stands there for a long moment, that wry half-smile that Ben's always trusted no matter how many times Riley's thrown his hands up in dismay. Riley looks over at Ben, looks at Ben's eyes, at Ben's steady, steady gaze on the president. Steady, and trusting, and so damn sure it still somehow overwhelms Riley, how certain Ben can be.

And then the president takes a step towards them, and then another, and walks into the light.

 

-

 

One week later, they're sitting in Riley's living room. It's smaller than Ben and Abigail's—a lot smaller—but it's also a lot less of a museum. It's warmer, and cozier; Riley likes to think it is, at least. Maybe it just feels that way because they haven't been charged with treason.

Riley is probably never going to get over the fact that they haven't been charged with treason.

The thing—the beautiful thing—about Ben's terrible, terrible plan is that the only way the government can cry treason is if they admit to the world that they were going to try to contact an alien civilization without any input from the UN, their allies, or even their citizens. Sure, people will suspect, but admitting it just isn't good politics for anybody.

The story now is that Treasure Hunter Extraordinaire (TM) Ben Gates (and team) followed some clues independently hoping to find proof of aliens (here, the news crews point out that one of Ben Gates' friends may have led Ben to start the search by writing a book, and miracle of miracles Riley's book sales are actually going through the roof—all it took were literal aliens), and when they stumbled upon their discovery they contacted the military, who contacted the White House, who generously allowed Treasure Hunter Extraordinaire (TM) Ben Gates (and team) to stand beside the President of the United States of America during the subsequent Presidential Press Conference.

So not any real bearing on the truth, then, but as long as it keeps Riley from treason charges, he is A-Okay with it. (Plus, those book sales.)

The funniest thing about the entire ordeal, it turns out, has actually ended up being the media reports, because wow they love talking about Treasure Hunter Extraordinaire (TM) Ben Gates, and wow do they have zero idea what they're talking about when they get to (and team). So far, various stations and websites have spoken with an incredible amount of authority about: Ben, Ben's sister, and Ben's boyfriend; Ben, Ben's sister, and Ben's sister's boyfriend; Ben, Ben's sister, and Ben's brother; Ben, Ben's brother, and Ben's girlfriend; Ben and Ben's two friends; and finally, Ben and his interns.

“Your interns?” Riley repeats, because he has some pride, thank you very much, and he didn't think there was a step down from being called Ben's assistant, but there you go.

“They've gotten worse, haven't they?” Abigail asks, frowning up at the television. She's hovering between the kitchen and the living room, her empty glass half-forgotten as the muted television puts up a truly unflattering photograph of the three of them. “Have they gotten worse than last time?”

“They just really want all of us to share a last name,” Ben says. Of all of them, he's the only that's finding it funny, probably because he's the only one whose name they're getting right.

“Whatever, Luke and Leia,” Riley scoffs. When they look at him, he rolls his eyes. “Because you two are dating but they're calling you brother and sister? If you don't get the Star Wars reference I'll never speak to either of you again.”

“No, we get it, it's just...” Ben starts.

“Does that make you Han, then?” Abigail asks.

“And which one of us is which?” Ben adds.

“Really? This is what we're going to focus on, instead of how they put up a picture of me from high school? This is the big topic of the day?” Riley asks. “If you're this big on Star Wars, why do you always drag me over for black and white movies?”

“Everyone's big on Star Wars,” Ben says.

“You don't like the black and white movies?” Abigail asks at the same time.

“Wait, drag you over? You don't like coming over and watching movies with us?” Ben asks, turning completely sideways in the recliner he's in so he can see Riley better.

“Why didn't you say anything?” Abigail demands, and she almost...almost looks upset?

“No, you guys I was just joking!” Riley says, looking between them. “I just mean, you know, we watch them a lot? That's all.”

“We do other stuff, too,” Ben says, weirdly kind of defensively. “It's not just movies, you come over for dinner, and game night, and—look, if you don't like the movies, we can do other stuff, as well.”

“Look, it's not the movies, okay?” Riley says, hovering somewhere between annoyed and flabbergasted. “And we don't need to do more stuff.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Ben half-yells, and oh my god, really?

“I'm practically living over there as it is, Ben!” Riley says. “You know I love spending time with you guys, but you're terrible for any slim chance I might actually have for a dating life, and I don't really have tons of other friends, and I just—I just want what you guys have, okay?”

It's silent when he's done, and it's only then that he realizes how loud he'd been.

“What do we have?” Abigail asks at last. He doesn't think she's saying it to be cruel, which makes it even worse.

“Each other,” he says. He shrugs, frustrated at how helpless he feels, how unbelievably raw he feels. He's not at all sure how this conversation got so out of hand.

Ben opens his mouth, outrage written all over his face, but Abigail gets there first.

“What are you talking about? You have both of us!” she says, and if he'd ever imagined having this conversation, he's pretty sure even his wildest dreams couldn't have made it this awful.

“No, I don't,” he says, angry. “We're friends, and that's great, I love being your friend, I really do, but you also have your world of two, and I love you guys so that's great, I'm so happy you're together, but I want my world, too, okay?”

“Riley—” Ben says, trying to cut in, but Riley doesn't let him.

“It's not a bad thing! I just need some space to find it, okay? Because somewhere in the last eight months you guys have kind of become my world, and I just—”

“Riley—” Ben says again, because Ben's never been as good a listener as Riley is, never had the patience that Riley has, never understood other people can be right.

“Can you just shut up for one minute?” Riley says to Ben, “Can you just shut up? I'm trying to tell you something.”

Ben shuts up, but he also stands up, and takes a few feet towards the couch Riley's sitting on. Riley closes his eyes, because it's preferable to looking up at Ben, or turning to see Abigail's upset eyes. The couch dips on his right, though, and a hand settles on the back of his. He can tell it's Abigail's, can recognize it by her calluses.

“We're listening,” she says. Ben grunts an agreement. Riley nods, nods, nods.

“I just don't want being your third wheel to be the closest thing I ever get to falling in love,” he says at last, spitting the words out between his teeth, his eyes still shut. In the ensuing silence, he can hear Abigail suck a breath in next to him, her hand tightening on his. Ben, though, is loud in his silence.

When Riley opens his eyes, he sees Ben looking at Abigail, the two of them having some sort of silent discussion. Whatever it is they decide, some of the tension has eased from Ben shoulders when he finally meets Riley's eyes.

“What part of the last few days has been you being a third wheel?” Ben asks.

“You held our hands, you kissed Ben, you slept in our bed,” Abigail says. Her voice is still soft, but her hand is tight on his.

“I don't—I don't know what you're getting at,” Riley says.

“You do practically live in our home,” Ben says.

“I guess we're asking if the more you want is the more we've been trying to offer you,” Abigail says, and then she leans in and kisses him.

He's taken by surprise, his mouth meeting hers awkwardly at first, but it becomes easier as she turns into him, opening her mouth a little to catch his bottom lip between hers, her free hand coming up to cup his cheek. It's not a long kiss, but she does linger, her fingers tracing patterns on his skin as she finally pulls away.

“What—what's—” he stutters out, his eyes wide behind his glasses, but Abigail's still holding his hand, and Ben's looking at him the way that only Ben can look at something—steady and hopeful and determined all at once.

“Please stay,” Ben says, still standing back like he's worried Riley might be skittish. Riley's a lot of things right now, but he doesn't think skittish is one of them.

So many things are finally clicking into place, though—things he should've figured out earlier, things he barely noticed, things that make so much more sense in context. Movie nights with him sitting in the middle of the couch, Ben's arm along the back of it; Abigail falling asleep on Riley's shoulder, her feet tucked under Ben's thigh to keep warm; the two of them taking him out to dinner, making dinner and inviting him over, always having his favorite snacks in their house; the introduction of game night, such a very long time after he gave up any hope of it. Other things, too—the way Abigail would brush something off of his shirt, the way Ben would fix Riley's hair, the way they'd always stand a little closer than Riley expected them to, the way Ben sometimes let his hand hover behind Riley's back, the way Abigail once, while tipsy, grabbed Riley's butt.

It's a lot to take in at once.

“You don't have to decide anything right now,” Abigail says. He can tell she's trying to hide the way her face is falling, but she's failing miserably. “Please just—we want you to be our friend, no matter what. Whatever you decide, please don't let this change that.”

Ben crouches down in front of him, his face serious. “You're important to us,” he says.

Riley wants to stand, wants to stay sitting, wants to walk away, wants to reach out and touch Ben's face, wants to kiss Abigail again, wants to relive all those times he hadn't realized he was being, what, wooed?, and actually notice them when they're happening this time.

He rubs his free palm down the thigh of his jeans, trying to steady himself.

“You're both important to me, too,” he says, not quite looking at either of them.

“That's a start,” Abigail says. She sounds relieved, but also off-balance. It's reassuring, in a way, that he's not the only one trying to feel this out. He finally meets Ben's eyes, and Ben looks off-balance, too, which is less reassuring—Ben never looks off-balance. Even when nothing is certain, Ben's the one who's always still charging ahead.

“You're very important to me,” Riley says, turning his hand in Abigail's, so he can hold her hand, too.

“Good,” Ben says. Riley's never been one to jump on his own, but he never seems to have a problem with it when he's with them. The things he's ended up doing when he's been with them, it should boggle his mind.

“The stones,” Riley says, half-stumbling over his words in sudden realization, “Three parts of a whole, you meant—when you said all three of us, you meant—”

“Yes,” Ben says. Just that, like he's not still turning Riley's world upside down.

“It worked,” Abigail says. His grip on her hand is so tight it must be hurting her, but she's holding his just as tight, like maybe she thinks she can stop him from slipping away. Maybe she can.

“It did work,” he says meditatively. “I don't—I don't know if this will, though.”

“No one really knows if anything is going to work, Riley,” Abigail says. “Sometimes we just have to try.”

“It'll work,” Ben says, that smug self-assurance in his voice that almost makes Riley want to laugh. “The three of us have always worked before,” he adds, “why should this be any different?”

This time Riley does laugh, and Abigail does too, their grip on each other finally loosening into something more comfortable.

“Well,” Riley says, “I guess we've done the impossible a few times, now, so what's a little love story compared to that?”

“Does this mean I can kiss you?” Ben asks, his voice strangely intent, and Ben can be weird about these things, can be weird and possessive about people, but also so protective, also so loyal.

Riley leans forward and kisses him in answer, just a quick, light kiss, which Ben follows with a swift, light kiss on Abigail's lips, and then he pulls back entirely, giving Riley his space.

“Good,” Ben says briskly, “so if that's settled, lunch? And then we can move Riley's stuff over to ours?”

“What?” Riley asks, slightly outraged, “who says I'm moving in to your stuffy museum? Isn't that a little, I don't know, presumptuous?” When he looks at them closely, though, they're both barely stopping themselves from laughing.

“It's called a joke, Riley,” Ben says, smug at how he's defused the tension.

“Well, what if I wanted to move in, then,” Riley says, “wouldn't have been funny, then!”

“You'd never want to move in that fast,” Ben says dismissively.

“I hate it when you do that,” Riley growls, and Abigail nods.

“Isn't it the worst?”

“Oh no, you two aren't ganging up on me, especially when I'm right,” Ben frowns. Riley chucks one of the couch pillows directly at Ben's forehead in a very mature response.

A few minutes later, when Riley's lying on the ground, exhausted from being tickled, and Ben and Abigail are lying next to him, both similarly recuperating, he smiles to himself.

Even better than a Ferrari.