THE ART OF FRIENDSHIP

Chapter 7- The Games We Play

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Victory was sweet. But revenge was even sweeter.

It didn't matter to Danziger that he'd been awake half the night because of his stint as the camp's sentry. He'd enthusiastically rose hours before the sun was scheduled to make its initial appearance, marching straight to the mess tent to grab two large, metal pans. He then took great pleasure in rousing his fellow compatriots by going tent to tent, loudly banging the cookware together outside each of their doors and yelling various threats that they'd better be up and dressed within the next ten minutes or else.

Now, much later as the morning light was just beginning to sluggishly creep over the eastern hillside, the Edenites (with the exception of John, Devon and the children) were knee deep in the penalty phase of their sentence. Both groups of workers had located to the same area around the vehicles, thus enabling everyone to engage in one big complaint session instead of two smaller bitch-fests.

"I'm never gonna get this ammonia smell out of my hands," Magus grunted as she scrubbed the floor boards of the ATV.

A normally congenial Cameron was in full protest mode as he glared at the mechanic at the other end of camp. "Just look at him standing over there doing nothing while the rest of us slave away," he spat resentfully.

"It's abuse of power, I tell ya'," Mazatl carped from underneath the 'Rail.

True, who had been listening in on their discussion, appeared from behind the Transrover. "Hey, you brought this all on yourselves," she scolded as she sprang onto the rear bed of the vehicle. "Did you actually think that my dad and Devon were gonna let you get away with ambushing them like that?"

Denner's head arched back in surprise. "How did you find out about that?"

"After Uly and I got sent away, we snuck back and heard most of it," she answered nonchalantly, her legs loosely swinging back and forth from the cab. "Boy, you guys really messed up big time," she added with a slight giggle.

"Tell me about it," Baines groaned, rolling his eyes.

Alonzo stopped working when he noticed the girl's confident expression. "Wait a minute, True," he queried. "Do you know something that we don't?"

She folded her arms in front of her. "Well, I know that you didn't ask them the right questions, that's for sure."

Everyone quit what they were doing and gaped at her. "Hold on," Bess exclaimed in amazement. "Are you saying that there really is something going on between Devon and your father?"

Now it was True's turn to roll her eyes. She gave them her best 'I can't believe how dense you all are' look.

"How could there be? You never give them a chance to be alone together."

Realization slowly began to dawn on the crew. After grilling Devon and Danziger about their state of affairs, most of the Edenites had concluded that the couple was not romantically involved, either now or in the past. However, True might very well be on to something. Maybe Devon and John really were interested in each other after all, but had yet to act on their feelings only because the right opportunity hadn't presented itself.

Perhaps a change of strategy was in order.

"So you're suggesting that we should back off and see what happens," Yale proposed, thoughtfully scratching at his beard.

"Yeah, keep watching them but from more of a distance," Mazatl offered.

Julia still firmly held to the belief that Devon and Danziger were together, but somehow had been able to successfully cover their tracks. As such, she was liking this new scheme of theirs more and more. "Maybe if they think they're home free, they'll begin to relax," she remarked slyly.

"And they'll get sloppy," Alonzo declared.

"Ugh, I don't want to see 'sloppy,'" Morgan blurted out, cringing.

There were a few scattered snickers before the next question was posed.

"You know your dad better than anyone, True. If we all laid low for a while, do you think that he and Devon'll start shacking up-"

There was a sudden outpouring of coughs and throat-clearing by the rest of the colonists in an effort to drown out the rest of the sentence.

Magus shook her head and gave the offending crewman a reprimanding leer. "I think that what Walman meant to ask was, if Devon and your father were given the chance, do you think that they might start... seeing each other socially?" she clarified using language that was more appropriate for younger ears.

"You mean like dating?" True asked, cocking her head to the side.

"Exactly."

"Maybe," the girl shrugged. "I dunno if Devon likes my dad." She jumped down from the bed of the 'Rover, casually adding, "But I'm positive that Dad likes her though. I can tell by the way he yells at her."

After the chuckles finally receded over True's strange but undoubtedly reliable interpretation of her father's complicated disposition, Alonzo once again took charge of the festivities.

"Well, it looks to me like we have a new game plan," he told the others. "It's still basically gonna be Follow the Leaders but, as of now, we're gonna have to use more discretion. We can't look like we're tailing them or trying to listen in on their conversations."

Julia advised, "We should make sure that Devon and John spend as much time with each other as possible."

"And, once they get more comfortable, one of them will eventually admit to the other how they feel."

"My money's on Danziger being the one who ends up spilling the beans to Devon," Magus speculated as she gave Cameron a warm smile and a friendly nudge with her elbow. "What do you think, Cam?"

The crewman grinned back at her, leaning in until their shoulders touched. "Yeah, Devon's way too uptight to make the first move," he agreed, furthering, "but I doubt that she'll reject his advances."

"And, once the cat's out of the bag, they'll decide to start a relationship," Magus happily declared, seemingly oblivious to Walman who was staring daggers at her and Cameron's companionable behavior toward one another.

Alonzo added, "But, for some ridiculous, totally unnecessary reason, they'll try to hide it from the rest of us."

"But, knowing Devon and Danz as we do, there's no way that they'll be able to keep it under wraps for very long," Denner chimed in.

"And then we'll move in for the kill and expose them for our enjoyment," Bess gleefully proclaimed.

"Hmm, a chance to humiliate Danziger," mused Morgan whose face displayed a smile that managed to appear both delighted and spiteful at the same time. "Count me in."

"You know, getting the two of them together could have another advantage. If Devon and Danziger start to, um... see each other socially," Mazatl submitted, "maybe they'll go a little easier on us."

"Yeah, I think that every one of us would agree that both of them could certainly use a good f-"

There was another rash of coughing spells and Yale dove forward to cover up True's delicate ears.

"For Pete's sake, Walman, there's a kid here! Could you at least try to think before you speak?" Magus hollered, hurling a wet sponge at his head and missing him by mere inches. Walman answered by throwing up his hands in bewilderment and mouthing the word 'what'.

Magus and Cameron exchanged a glance and wagged their heads in obvious disapproval. Walman glared back and began to picture in his mind what Cameron would look like with two black eyes and missing front teeth.

Bess tried her best to ignore the outburst and, instead, rotated her gaze to the younger Danziger. "Would you like to help us, True?" she asked, her voice coated with sugar.

"Sure. If I see or hear anything good, I'll let you know," the newest conspirator eagerly replied. "Plus, I'll make sure that Uly doesn't rat us out."

The group broke into a collective grin at their good fortune. Having True as an ally would likely be extremely beneficial and provide them with a wealth of information.

"I don't care what any of you say. I still think that Devon and John are already a couple."

"Give it a rest, Baines," Cameron advised.

Baines looked toward Julia and Alonzo who shrugged back. Clearly, the three held the minority opinion regarding the current status of Devon and Danziger's romance. But, when it came down to it, none of that really mattered in the long run.

There was renewed excitement in the air as the colonists began to work out the details of their latest ploy to tamper with the love lives of their two temperamental leaders. Although there was little doubt in anyone's mind that Alonzo and the other scheming Edenites had suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Devon and Danziger, the contest was far from over. And, with their revised plan of attack along with the welcome addition of True to their team, times were about to change.

And round two was about to begin.

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It was highly unusual for Danziger not to be working. But, sure enough, there he was standing alone outside of his quarters with no place in particular to be. Even his weathered toolbelt had been permitted a temporary leave of absence and was resting comfortably among his other few possessions under his cot.

It felt awkward for the mechanic not to have his schedule overflowing with various responsibilities that required his immediate attention. Of course, technically he was still supervising the members of Eden Advance from afar, but that was hardly much of a job. And, besides, he'd noticed that True had shown up and looked as though she was in the midst of giving the group a good talking to. Although he was too far away to hear the actual conversation, he could clearly see his daughter's folded arms and determined expression. He smiled satisfactorily. Give 'em hell, True-girl, he inwardly praised.

John turned to see Devon and Uly duck into the meal tent, presumably for a small snack of fruit. Breakfast was still quite a while off yet, not only because everyone was too busy to eat, but because all of the pots and pans had been removed to be counted and cleaned. Danziger was deep in concentration and continued to stare intently at the lowered tent flap long after the leader had disappeared into the dwelling.

He'd been thinking a great deal about Devon, even more so during the past thirty-six hours. There was a war raging inside of him regarding whether or not there should be some changes made to their strange partnership. Of course, he was in love with her-- that was never a question in his mind nor would it ever be. As far as John was concerned, he was in it for the long haul. In fact, nothing could possibly make him happier than spending the rest of his life in New Pacifica living with Devon and raising their two children together as a real family. It was almost too much to hope for.

But, currently, Danziger was having second thoughts about keeping their relationship on the back-burner until they'd reached the coast. Originally he'd agreed with Devon that mixing business with pleasure would very likely end up distracting them from their critical duties as the co-leaders of Eden Advance. But now, a large part of him wanted to throw caution to the wind and dive headfirst into a full-fledged courtship with her right then and there.

But, unfortunately, based upon Danziger's observations of Devon, she wasn't quite as sure about their future together as he was. Although he was confident that she had feelings for him and was slowly becoming more comfortable with his presence in her life, there was a knot in John's gut telling him that something was preventing her from making an emotional commitment to him. Devon was certainly one of the few people that he'd encountered who had more control issues than he did. John speculated that perhaps Uly's father or some other man from her distant past had hurt her deeply. And, as much as he hated to admit it, the more recent memory of Shepard and his painful exit from her life so soon after she'd found him, again, could also be a factor. Maybe even John's own background, at least what little Devon knew about, might be considered a hurdle in her mind.

Well, apparently, it's just not meant to be-- at least, not yet, Danziger inwardly concluded. Devon had made it pretty clear to him that she wasn't ready for anything beyond the close friendship which they already shared until they'd arrived in New Pacifica. And, although he was slightly hurt that she still harbored reservations about engaging in a more serious relationship with him, he would respect her wishes. If Devon needed some time and a bit of space to sort out -- well, whatever the hell she needed to sort out -- then time and space she shall have, he decided. In fact, he'd even support her stance on the matter. He loved her too much not to.

Danziger steered his attention back toward the group of belabored Edenites as Devon reemerged from the meal tent carrying two cups of coffee. After sending her son back to their quarters to begin packing, she strolled up to the mechanic and slipped one of the steaming mugs into his hand.

"You almost feel sorry for them, don't you?" she commented, gesturing to the overburdened and very unhappy crew as they toiled away at their forced contrition.

John took a healthy gulp of the liquid before firmly shaking his head. "Nope."

Devon grinned mischievously. "Me, neither," she confessed with a laugh, causing a smirk to form on Danziger's face.

Both quietly sipped at their drinks for a few moments until Devon inquired, "So, are you up for that talk?"

John's smile vanished and his eyes plummeted to his boots. "Yeah, I need to tell you some things," he responded, suddenly looking uncomfortable.

"Me, too," she expressed, her own smile remaining. "Why don't you go first."

"Uh, okay," he said, a bit surprised by this new tactic of hers to actually listen to what he had to say. He was used to their old method of conversation in which he had to yell and interrupt her mid-sentence in order to get his point across. "Well, first off, I wanted to apologize for gettin' so angry with you the other night." Even though you deserved it, he added to himself, but didn't say aloud. The last thing he wanted to do was start an argument.

"I'm glad that you did. Both of us said some things that needed to be said. And I think that I understand you a little better than I did before," Devon assured before acknowledging, "although sometimes I have trouble figuring out what's going on in that head of yours. You're still kind of a puzzle to me in a lot of ways."

Danziger began to awkwardly shuffle his feet back and forth in the dirt. "I have the same problem with you. I guess that communication isn't either of our strong suits-- at least when it comes to personal stuff," he softly admitted. He added in a low, earnest voice, "But I'm trying. I really am."

Devon's tone was equally sincere. "I know you are. And I'm trying, too." She shook her head, chuckling, "I suppose that we're both a little rusty when it comes to expressing certain feelings."

His gaze again fell to the ground. "Yeah, well, maybe it's for the best that we're holding off on a relationship until we get to New Pacifica," he said frankly, trying to be supportive of what he believed to be her point of view.

Devon's eyes went wide, completely blindsided by his declaration. "You really believe that?" she asked, attempting to keep her voice calm despite her shock. "I mean, is that what you want?"

John missed her reaction because his eyes were focused downward. He let out a small snort. "Hmm, what I want," he muttered under his breath. There were so many things that he wanted to tell her, but couldn't because he didn't think that she was ready to hear the words. After a few seconds of stillness, he whispered, "What I want is to not screw this up. If we have to wait a few months so we can continue to get to know each other better, I'm willing to do that. This is too important to me." He slowly lifted his head to reinitiate eye-contact and softly relayed, "You're too important to me. I care about you, Devon, and I want you and Uly in my life."

Devon's eyes remained trained on the complexity of emotions which played themselves across John's features. She could also hear the honesty in his voice. And, although he was apparently unable to speak the actual words, Devon understood that John was telling her that he loved her.

She briefly considered how to respond. She had originally planned on professing her own love for him and suggesting that they move up the time table on going forward with a more permanent arrangement between them. But if Danziger was still having difficulty saying those three important words, he might have trouble hearing them as well. Moreover, he had reiterated that it was a good idea that they were waiting to get involved until they'd reached the coast. Evidently, Danziger was unable to take that next important step and needed some additional time, Devon surmised to herself. Therefore, she decided that it would be best if she postponed her proclamation for a while longer.

She chose her words carefully, hoping that he would read between the lines and know what was truly in her heart. "I want things to work out between us, too. And I want you and True in my life," she stated truthfully, holding his gaze. "So, we'll wait. And, until then, you and I can concentrate on our friendship."

John seemed satisfied with her answer. After all, it was what he'd expected to hear from her all along. "All right, then. So it's settled."

Devon took a step closer to him, lightly chortling, "I assume that means that there'll be no more previews, huh?"

Danziger's eyebrows shot skyward. "Hey, two nights ago you were the one reminding me that what we were doing was a one-time exception, remember?" he pointed out in an amused voice.

She gave him a half-smile. "I suppose that I was," she grudgingly admitted before taking another sip of coffee.

"You know, I never did find my underwear," the mechanic grumbled, flashing a brief scowl.

Devon shrugged her shoulders noncommittally in response. At that juncture, she certainly had no plans to reveal to Danziger that the aforementioned article of clothing was now in her possession, confiscated as payback for him dumping her in that puddle a few days before. In fact, maybe she should add that little tidbit of information to the list of things to tell him about when they arrived at New Pacifica, Devon thought with a smirk.

"So, um, what did you want to talk to me about?" John inquired. "Or did we cover it already?"

Devon's congenial demeanor shifted to one of uneasiness and there were a few moments of silence as she contemplated the best way to answer his question. Although, in her mind, it was too much of a risk to tell Danziger that she was in love with him, there was something else that she wanted him to know. "I needed to talk to you a little more about what we discussed prior to our preview."

"There's no point in visiting that, again, Devon," Danziger assured, shaking his head. "That's all water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned."

"Me, too, but just let me say this and then we'll be done with the whole issue."

John sighed deeply and nodded in agreement as Devon began to speak her peace.

"When I realized that I was dying, I did a lot of soul searching. There were so many decisions that had to be made. So many things still hanging in the balance. When it came to who I could trust to see to it that everything would be done, you were the first person that popped into my mind."

She edged a bit closer, telling him in a serious voice, "I don't know if you understand how momentous that realization was for me. Yale has been my friend and confidante since I was four years old. At the time, I'd known you for less than six months, yet you were my first choice when it came to seeing that my plans for New Pacifica were carried through. You were the one who I wanted to raise Uly. And I never questioned for a second that you would take care of him and love him as if he were your own son."

As she finished the sentence, she noticed that Danziger had forcibly bitten down on his lower lip, possibly to keep himself from speaking his own mind.

When Devon was certain that he wasn't going to respond to her declaration, she proceeded, "It's so hard to explain how scary and oddly comforting it was knowing that I could die without worrying about the safety of my child or whether or not my goals would be reached in my absence. I knew in my heart of hearts that you would keep all of your promises to me and that everything would be okay."

Danziger stared at her in amazement. Although a part of him was deeply moved by her words, another part of him wanted to grab her by the shoulders and scream at the top of his lungs. How could Devon possibly think that everything would have turned out fine if she had died? If he had lost her, he knew with absolute certainty that nothing in his life would have ever been okay, again.

He opened his mouth to tell her this, but reconsidered his actions and slowly reshut it, noting to himself that one day in the not too distant future, he would be sure to express his feelings on the subject along with much, much more.

Devon inched further toward him, telling him in a soft, resolute voice, "I guess that what I'm trying to say-- what I need to make sure that you understand-- is that my reasons for hiding my illness from you had nothing to do with not trusting you. I have faith in you, John. Never ever doubt that." She allowed her free hand to briefly brush against his, adding in a whisper, "And, for the record, I would do anything for you, too."

The couple stared at each other for many long moments. Danziger was paralyzed, afraid that if he spoke or moved, he wouldn't be able to resist the urge to throw his arms around Devon and blurt out his love for her in between passionate kisses. And that couldn't happen-- that is, not for a few more months, John inwardly rationalized. He quickly reassured himself that, when the two of them finally made it to the sandy shores of New Pacifica, all bets were off and Devon was going to sit there and listen to what he had to say whether she was ready to hear it or not.

At the same time, Devon attempted to read John's expression as he digested her heartfelt words. Although the look in his eyes was one of devotion, his continued silence reinforced to her that they were making the right decision by keeping their relationship on ice until they'd arrived at New Pacifica. And she could wait. After all, what was three months compared to the rest of their lives, anyway?

Danziger was finally able to regain enough control of his faculties to speak without possibly compromising their agreed upon rules of engagement. He took a deep cleansing breath and held out his half-filled mug to propose a toast. "So," he offered, raising the cup slightly. "To growing friendships."

Devon lightly clinked her silver mug against his. "And to New Pacifica," she beamed before taking a sip.

He returned her heart melting smile with one of his own. "To New Pacifica," he repeated warmly, bringing the brew to his own lips.

Devon and John drank the rest of their coffee in silence, never once taking their eyes off of each other.

The End

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Author's note: Thanks so much for reading my story and I really hope you enjoyed it. For anyone who may be interested, I am planning to write a third (final) installment at some point in the future.