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by Wes Leigh

Chapter 18

I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don't believe I deserved my friends.

-- Walt Whitman

Daniel was looking forward to third period, not because it was Algebra (which just happened to be one of his best subjects), but because Diego Ruiz would be there.

Why was he so infatuated with the kid?

Diego was certainly cute. Curly dark brown hair. Chocolate brown eyes. Dimples that were even deeper than Connor's. And he was slightly shorter than Daniel, now that Daniel had sprung up four unexpected inches over the summer, so Daniel felt protective toward the smaller lad.

Diego was also intelligent, which explained how a ninth-grader ended up taking Algebra with tenth graders. He was clever and witty, as Daniel had discovered the week before when they were paired up by their teacher to work on exercises during class. The two had spent most of the time chatting and getting to know each other, instead of working on the assignment. Then, with only five minutes left, they'd divided the problems between them and finished with seconds to spare, giggling and smiling at each other. Their teacher had praised them the next day for getting all the answers correct, telling the other students that Daniel and Diego had demonstrated what good teamwork was all about. The two had been teased by the other students after class, but they'd shrugged it off and had headed off to lunch together, where they'd talked more.

Diego's family had moved to Agony so his father could open a medical office, which would make him the second family doctor in town. Agony was considered a medically under-served community, so Dr. Ruiz was offered several low interest loans by the Federal and state governments to open a new office in Agony. With thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Dr. Ruiz was quick to accept the offers, perhaps too quick, because he hadn't considered how the move would affect his family.

Diego, for one, had been looking forward to taking advanced college prep classes at the charter school he had been attending in Houston. Now he found himself in a very small town in North Dakota with only one option for education: the public high school, which offered nothing in the way of advanced coursework. Still, Diego had a good attitude about it all, deciding that he would simply take every class the school offered and then look into on-line courses offered by universities.

Daniel was impressed with Diego's intelligence and determination. Nothing seemed to faze him. He met every challenge with a shy smile and stubborn grit. Even starting over at a new school hadn't bothered Diego. That inspired Daniel, because he recalled how tough his first few days at Agony High School had been.

Yes, Diego was on Daniel's mind a lot lately, and Daniel was struggling to decide why he was so obsessed with the younger boy. Daniel walked into Mr. Aaron's math class just as the bell rang. Daniel slid into his assigned seat next to Diego, waving at Diego as he sat down.

Diego turned and smiled at Daniel, nodding his head in greeting.

Mr. Aaron checked attendance first, then stated, "We'll be pairing up again today to work on factoring polynomials." Groans met this announcement. "Alright. Settle down, young people. I realize this isn't your favorite way to spend the morning, but I promised your parents I'd pound some knowledge into your heads today, and I intend to do just that." This brought scattered chuckles from the students. "Get back in the same groups you were in last week. Susan, you were partnered with Erica, right? Since she's out sick today, work with Marty and Annette. Here is the assignment sheet. The instructions are at the top. Get as many done as you can in the next thirty minutes."

Daniel pushed his desk over next to Diego's. When Mr. Aaron handed them the worksheet, they scanned it together.

"Factoring polynomials," Diego said, grinning. "I can do these in my sleep."

"Me, too," Daniel admitted. "I'll do the odds? You do the evens?"

"Sure," Diego replied. "Race you?"

"What will I get when I beat you?" Daniel asked.

"Who says you're gonna win?" Diego asked, his eyes twinkling.

"Loser buys the winner a soda at lunch?"

Diego stuck out his fist, bumping Daniel's to show he agreed.

They bent over the worksheet, their faces inches away from each other. Daniel started at the top of the page, scribbling out the answers to the odd numbered exercises. Diego started at the bottom, working on the even problems. There was a brief moment of confusion when they both reached the middle of the page at the same time, bumping each other and giggling as they jostled for position. Then they continued on, racing for the end, with Diego putting his pencil down just seconds before Daniel finished his last problem.

Daniel squinted at Diego. "You better hope you got them all correct, otherwise… I win."

Diego raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think you got all yours right?"

They checked each other's work and found that all the exercises had been done correctly.

Diego grinned and said, "Well…?"

Daniel rolled his eyes. "You win. Drinks are on me. You want Mountain Dew, right?"

Diego nodded. "The drink of champions. Math champions, that is." And he giggled.

Daniel bumped shoulders with Diego and they both laughed. "What did you do over the weekend?"

Diego sighed. "Nothing much. Helped my dad clean up his new office. He's paying me to be his janitor on the weekends. What about you?"

"A full day of practice on Saturday. Coach had some new plays he wanted to try."

"You gonna be ready for Friday?"

Daniel nodded. "Yeah. As ready as I'll ever be."

"Are you nervous?"

"Of course, I am. It's my first game. Ever. And I'm starting at quarterback."

Diego grinned broadly, his dimples showing. "You'll be good. I know it."

"And how do you know that?" Daniel asked.

"Come on, Daniel. Look at how smart you are. All the best quarterbacks are incredibly intelligent. Anyone can throw a ball around, but the good quarterbacks know where to throw it. I just know you'll be good. And then everyone will think you're the cutest quarterback the school's ever had."

Daniel stared at Diego until the younger boy looked down, embarrassed. Daniel couldn't be certain, but for just a moment, it seemed that Diego was flirting with him. And now, with Diego's cheeks turning bright red, Daniel was beginning to wonder if perhaps the younger teen was crushing on him.

"With fans like you cheering me on, I'll have to score at least two touchdowns."

Diego looked up, smiled bashfully, and said, "Nah. You'll throw three touchdowns. Maybe four."

Diego was wrong.

Daniel threw six touchdowns and led the Cougars to a 47-0 victory over the Johnsonville Jaguars. On the defensive side, Connor and crew prevented the Jaguars from making a single first down, forced five turnovers, and scored one safety. It was a solid performance all around for the Cougars and left the fans anticipating another undefeated season and a third state championship. It gave Daniel's dad a reason to scream himself silly as he watched his son set new school records for points scored and yards passing in a single game. It drove Daniel's mom crazy every time Daniel was chased around the field, but no matter how fast the pursuit, Daniel easily evaded it.

Coach awarded Daniel MVP for the game, to no one's surprise.

Diego watched from his place in the drum section of the marching band. When Diego wasn't pounding out a snappy beat on his snare drum, he was cheering at the top of his lungs until he lost his voice around the end of the third quarter. Daniel noticed and waved his helmet over his head at Diego. The band members all around Diego cheered, but Diego just knew that Daniel meant that wave for him and him alone.

There were two college football scouts in the stands that night, dressed in the red and black of the UNLV Runnin' Rebels. They kept to themselves the entire game, watching and taking notes. They didn't talk to any of the players. During the fourth quarter, they seemed to have seen everything they wanted to see, and they left, climbing into a black SUV with dark tint on all the windows and U.S. Government license plates on the front and back bumpers.

Saturday night, the three lovers met in the cabin to quietly celebrate Daniel's first game as quarterback. Good food first. Tender loving second. Quiet snuggling last.

With sweat cooling on their skin, they relaxed in a tangled pile on the bed. Xavier stroked Daniel's side, marveling at how muscled his young lover had become. Connor was on the other side, nuzzling Daniel's neck as he held Daniel's limp cock in one hand. Daniel lay on his back between them, eyes closed, breathing slowly and enjoying the gentle touches on his neck, his side, his groin.

Your half-time trumpet solo was beautiful, Xavier, Daniel thought.

Xavier kissed Daniel's shoulder. Thank you, As always, I dedicated it in my heart to the two most special men in my life.

Connor released Daniel's cock and slid his hand across to stroke Xavier's hip. We're not forgetting your terrific performance, m'love. That wouldn't be right.

Don't worry about it, Xavier replied with a smile. It was Daniel's game and his time to shine.

It wasn't MY game, Daniel objected. The rest of the guys deserve credit too.

And they got it during the team meeting this morning, Connor replied, chuckling. Coach singled out Ethan's play on the offensive line, right? And Dillon's great catches. But it's kinda hard to argue with six touchdowns, m'love. You were fuckin' incredible!

Xavier snuggled in closer to Daniel. He's right, Daniel. Don't be ridiculously humble.

Ridiculously humble? What the hell is that? Daniel asked.

You know what I mean, Daniel, Xavier persisted. I don't worry about you being arrogant, but I sometimes worry that you don't give yourself enough credit. You had an amazing game last night.

Yes, Connor agreed, you did. And you need to recognize that and build on it for the next game and the next.

Fine, Daniel conceded, but can we talk about something else now? Something that's bothering me?

Connor sat up, frowning. "Sounds serious."

Daniel shook his head. "Not serious, actually. But it's something I want to ask you guys about before it becomes a problem."

"Ask away," Xavier said.

"So. You guys know the new kid, Diego Ruiz?" Daniel asked.

"Yes," Xavier replied. "He's in Drama with me. I think he'll be a much better actor than you." Xavier poked Daniel's ribs with a finger.

Daniel snickered. "The trees on this mountain are better actors than me." He took a deep breath and said, "Do… ummm… well, do you guys think he's cute?"

Connor looked over at Xavier, raising both his eyebrows. Then Connor looked back down at Daniel. "Sure he's cute. What are you saying, Daniel?"

Daniel blew out his breath in frustration. "I don't want you guys to think I'm not happy with the way things are. I cherish you both so much! And I don't want anything, or anyone, to come between us…" His voice trailed off, because he couldn't admit what he was beginning to feel.

"Are you attracted to him?" Xavier asked, quietly.

Daniel nodded his head, tears beginning to form in his eyes. "I don't understand it, guys. I love YOU TWO, but when I'm with Diego, I feel drawn to him for some reason."

Xavier gently pushed Daniel's hair off his forehead. Then he leaned down and kissed Daniel's lips. Don't you think we know how much you love us? Haven't you made it clear time after time?

Then why am I attracted to Diego? Daniel asked, tears now dripping down his cheeks.

Connor wiped the tears away and said, Big D, you should know that I feel the same attraction for Diego every time I see him in the hallways.

You do?

Connor nodded.

Daniel turned to Xavier and saw Xavier shrug. I feel it too, Xavier thought, whenever we're together in Drama.

"I don't understand," Daniel protested. "What's going on?"

Connor replied, "I don't understand, either, but I've felt this way once before." He touched Daniel's chest. "When I realized I was soulbound to you."

Xavier nodded. "It has that essence about it. The hint of a soulbinding."

"How is that possible?" Daniel asked.

Xavier chuckled and thought, We're not experts on this by any stretch of the imagination. Until you came along, I'd never even heard of three souls binding together. Who knows? If it's possible for three to bind, then why not four?

You worry too much, Big D, Connor added, falling back down next to Daniel and hugging both him and Xavier. It will all sort itself out in the end.

Let your heart lead you, Xavier suggested.

Daniel closed his eyes and drifted to sleep, no longer concerned about Diego and the curious attraction he was feeling for the lad.

And in the air above the cabin, a drone, painted matte black underneath to defy even a vampire's enhanced vision, hovered high up in the sky, far enough away to prevent a werewolf's excellent hearing from detecting it. The drone continued spying on the cabin using telephoto lenses and ultra-sensitive directional microphones to record audio.

Daniel's sixteenth birthday was a wild blowout. Connor and Xavier arranged everything, using the old abandoned mill as the party location. With the help of Agony merchants, the mill had been cleaned up, broken windows replaced, and the leaky roof repaired. A few families had donated ping pong and foosball tables. Now the abandoned mill had become THE place to hang out for the youth of Agony, who would often meet there after school, listening to music as they chatted and played games.

For the night of Daniel's birthday, his friends pulled out all the stops. Red and black streamers hung from the rafters. Tables lined the southern wall, covered in sub sandwiches, chips and dips, and plate after plate of homemade cookies. The punch was delicious and alcohol free, thanks to the watchful presence of Coach Sean. Regina was in charge of music, so with Donny's help, she'd set up an incredible sound system near the back wall, complete with massive speakers that filled the old mill and half the county with booming tunes.

When Daniel walked in, blindfolded, guided by Xavier on one side and Connor on the other, he had no clue what to expect. As they removed the blindfold, the room packed with kids cheered, making Daniel shake his head in amazement. He moved around the room, exchanging hugs and fist bumps with his classmates, receiving slaps on the back from everyone. For the humans present, it was a sweet sixteen celebration with the school's star quarterback. For the vampires and werewolves, it was a chance to honor the young man who was becoming a respected leader of both their clans. Somehow, against all odds, Daniel was uniting the town, and the young people were celebrating more than a birthday, more than a great football game; they were celebrating freedom from the ancient feud that had dominated their lives.

It was strange moving around the room, seeing Wolves, Ravens, and Rabbits mixing together, sipping drinks, laughing and talking. Daniel had to smile. He couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.

One of the last kids he ran into was Diego Ruiz. Diego smiled excitedly, leaning in to shout over the loud music, "I knew you'd be a great quarterback. Anyone who can factor polynomials on the fly has to be exceptional at reading defenses!"

Daniel laughed. "Does that mean I'm also the school's cutest quarterback?" he teased.

Diego smiled even more, showing his dimples now. Then he bashfully handed Daniel a small gift. "Happy Birthday, Daniel."

"Thanks, Diego," Daniel said as he accepted the present.

"It's sort of a special gift, so you might want to open it later, when you get home," Diego added, stumbling a bit over his own words.

Daniel looked up from the gift to Diego's face and saw the young man blushing.

"So I can't open it here?" Daniel asked.

"You can," Diego replied, "but… well, do whatever you want, Daniel."

Daniel smiled. Diego was so cute when he was embarrassed like this. Daniel slid a finger under the flap of paper wrapped around the present and ripped it off. Inside he found a small box. He opened the box and found a bracelet of polished wooden beads, made from several different types of wood, each polished to a golden sheen.

"Wow," Daniel whispered. "It's beautiful."

"I made it myself," Diego said.

Daniel slid the bracelet on his wrist, admiring the way the beads reflected the light. "I don't know what to say. Thanks, Diego."

Diego smiled timidly and shrugged. "You're welcome."

Daniel hesitated a moment, then took Diego into his arms and hugged him gently. Looking over Diego's shoulder, he saw Xavier and Connor watching, smiles on their faces. Connor winked at him, then lifted his cup of punch and saluted Daniel.

Daniel released Diego and said, "Diego, there are two very special friends of mine I want you to talk to. I know you've met them at school, but I think it's time you got to know us all better."

Classification: Secret

Source: Domestic surveillance

Priority: B1

Report: Agony ND situation remains stable but with developing concerns. Vampire and werewolf factions no longer in conflict but now showing indications of cooperation. Analysts are concerned that this cooperation could lead to destabilization of détente currently in place between vampire/werewolf groups nationally. Assets on site report cooperation is due to leadership of subject Daniel Anderson, the vaewolf hybrid. Abilities of subject Anderson are being catalogued for further analysis. Preliminary data suggest subject Anderson is developing historically documented powers of vaewolf cross-breed, making him a person of extreme interest to Operation Snowthorn. Electronic and physical surveillance continuing.

Classification: Secret

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