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An intercom bubble activated, and the voice of President Lonewander's administrative assistant announced, "Secretary Illustri is here to see you."

"Send him in, Alice," the President replied.

The door immediately swung open and the dignitary strode in purposefully. "What's this I hear about your leaving for some mysterious sabbatical of unspecified duration?" He had calculated the time it would take for the door to slam shut behind him, expecting it to punctuate his question, and when it didn't, he turned momentarily to see why not. He was barely quick enough to find that Lonewander's assistant had caught the door as it swung back, and closed it quietly. He cursed to himself, Damn her efficiency... and damn my own predictability. Darius is sure to have enjoyed that.... Composing himself and putting on a smile to conceal his annoyance, he turned again to face the President.

The President returned his smile and said, "Benj, a pleasure as always."

"Yes, yes. Of course." And then he remembered he'd already been annoyed before he came in, and intended to display that mood, not that Darius Lonewander would expect to see any other emotion adorning his face, except on the rarest occasions. It was indeed a chore at times, modulating the degree of displeasure he allowed his countenance to display. All in an attempt to ensure the fools he was forced to work with most often might bear some small hope of understanding him. Dropping his specious smile, he demanded of his superior, "Well?" He considered adding something along the lines of 'Are you going to answer my question?' but decided it would be something of an insult to Lonewander's intelligence, and that just at the moment he might as well avoid such a thing... and apply this moment toward his self-imposed monthly quota of magnanimities. Especially if, as the purpose of his visit suggested, he wouldn't likely be seeing Darius again for the remainder of the month.

Lonewander continued smiling and replied, "I'd hardly call it 'mysterious.' Really, Benj, just because I don't feel obliged to discuss the details of my trip, that hardly makes it a matter of intrigue. It's simply a personal matter. I do hope you'll agree that even heads of state should be allowed a little personal time, now and then. And in any event, I made these arrangements months ago. I told Ms. Blynnmaker to see to it my schedule was clear."

"Clear? Are you forgetting the scheduled conference with Chief Baroth at the end of the month? Surely you knew of it when making your plans for this little vacation of yours- and vice versa."

"I don't see any reason why my presence should be necessary at every routine meeting-"

"Routine?" Illustri scoffed. "That's hardly a word I'd use to describe anything involving this particular... person."

"I don't see why not. Besides, you're the Secretary of State. I should think that this is precisely the type of thing which would fall within the purview of your job description."

"If you truly had any intention of allowing me to do my job as I saw fit, you know perfectly well that this alliance wouldn't even exist. I've never approved of it. Anyway, the beast is your friend, not mine. And furthermore-"

The President's smile instantly vanished, and he broke into Illustri's diatribe. "You will not refer to Chief Baroth as a beast. Not in my presence, and not ever, if you perceive the slightest possibility of my hearing about it. Now, if you don't want to take part in the conference, you may leave the matter entirely in the hands of the Vice President." Darius now allowed a wry grin to return to his face. "Anyway, I'm sure the Chief will be as glad of your absence as you yourself will be."

Illustri was silent for a few moments, displayng a thin smile to conceal his irritation while he composed himself, then sighed. "Very well. Can you at least give me the slightest indication as to when we might expect your return, Darius?"

"Alas, all good things must come inevitably and all too quickly to an end, and my little getaway is no exception. I can't say for sure when I'll be back. Perhaps within a couple days after my birthday, and certainly by the end of the month."

"Ah yes, I'd forgotten. It is coming up, isn't it? Well then, is that what this is all about? Your birthday?"

"Not directly. But in a roundabout way I suppose one could call it a factor. Why?"

'I was just thinking it's quite a perk of your position, being able to take your birthday off as if it were some national holiday,' he didn't say. Rather, "I'm afraid I hadn't gotten you a gift, as yet. If you're leaving tomorrow, I suppose I won't have much time for shopping." He sighed again, and added, "Nevertheless, if I don't see you again before you return, I'll take this opportunity to wish you a happy birthday."

"Thanks, Benj, I could tell it was from the heart. Well, you know I've never much cared about gifts, but if you feel compelled anyway, I've also never minded getting them late. Now, was there anything else?"

They both knew perfectly well that the inquiry about the trip was the only reason Illustri had stopped by the President's office today. Still, the Secretary affected an air of momentary consideration before answering, "No, I believe that was all for the time being." With his signature hand flourish and slight inclination of the head, he said, "Have a good trip, Mr. President." After just a moment's studied pause, he turned on his heel and left the room, this time closing the door carefully behind him.

He smiled at Alice Blynnmaker, and she smiled back, both of them knowing neither was genuine. A few seconds later he was out of the antechamber, when he suddenly realized he'd neglected to ask Darius what he meant about his birthday being a 'roundabout factor.' "No doubt his 'why?' was calculated to sidetrack me from such a question," he mumbled under his breath. "No matter, I'm sure he wouldn't have answered if I'd asked." Illustri sighed once more, and headed off toward his own office.

"So, how did the two of you meet? I know you once mentioned it was in the course of your adventure to found the Chaos, but the details were a little... um, nonexistant."

Darius smiled, then gave a little almost-laugh, and said, "She held me up at swordpoint."

Lorelai's eyes widened, then she grinned. "She was a highwayman?"

"Something like that." Darius sighed. "I told you her name was Marian, and her friend's name was John. You know... part of me always hoped I could become her Robin Hood."

Lorelai wasn't quite sure what to say to that. Finally she said, "You've never mentioned anyone else."

"There's never been anyone else."

"Are you still... in love with her?"

"Not as such. But I mean, as short a time as we were actually together... when you're in love, really truly in love, you never want it to end. Which is just another way of saying you want to be together forever. And when you feel that way, even if only subconsciously, that's not something your subconscious can ever completely let go of.

"If she came to me today and said she wanted to get back together, after all these years, I don't think I'd want to. I'd be a bit uncomfortable even reestablishing a long-distance friendship, but I suppose I'd be willing to give it a try, and maybe things would develop from there. Or not. But I don't expect her ever to contact me. And I'll never contact her. It's as it should be. Or as close as possible. What should be would probably be for us never to have been more than friends. If that. I feel like if that's all we were, we still would be. Because we had so much in common, you know? Anyway, I'll always wish her well. She deserves to be happy. She's a good person, and I suppose I'll always love who she is. Or was, I dunno. I have no idea who she is now, or how she is, or anything about her. I don't want to know. 'Am I in love with her?' It's not a simple question. Mostly no. But it would be impossible for anyone who'd ever been in love not to always retain a tiny trace of... yes.

"...But it isn't important. So, how about you? I don't think you've ever really mentioned anyone...?"

"There've... been a few guys, over the years. Nothing too serious. All decent people. But we always drift apart after awhile, and I've never kept in touch with any of them. I don't know what I'd say or do if I ever ran into one of them. But we always parted amicably, so it shouldn't be a big deal. A bit awkward perhaps, but friendly enough, I would imagine."

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Lorelai said, "You know, I've heard that some people on Earth, friends, make arrangements that if neither of them is married in a certain number of years, they'll marry each other. Or something. Sounds like too much of sitcommy concept to me, though it probably went on long before they developed sitcoms. I don't know, though, maybe no one ever did such a silly thing, in reality."

"I know I could never do it. I wouldn't want to be with someone unless we were really in love with each other. Of course, I could love someone dearly, as a friend, and not feel... that way about them."

"And attracted to them...."

"Oh yes, both love them as a friend, and be quite attracted. It's not enough, there'd have to be something... undefinable...."

"Chemistry."

"I don't even know if that's the right word, because friends can have great chemistry, sometimes. Just not... romantic chemistry. I could love someone, and find her attractive, and have friendly chemistry with her, and still not be in love with her. So... I don't know what to say. Love." He sighed again. "I suppose it's different, to a certain extent, for everyone. Some say opposites attract. I've never felt that in the slightest. I wouldn't want someone just like me, of course. But I couldn't love someone with whom I didn't have a great deal in common. Personalities, points of view, interests. Likes, dislikes, and whatnot. For some people, love makes no sense at all, and looking at them, I'd go mad if I tried to figure out how they work, how they can stand each other, let alone love each other. For me, love would have to... make sense. It would have to be something I could examine and find so many reasons why it worked, why I felt as I did. It would be logical. But at the same time... every single reason I found could be applied to any number of my other friends, and I might love them, but it wouldn't be the same. So there's something else, something undefinable. More than chemistry. More than magic. Maybe it has to do with the soul. In which case, even souls can be wrong, because I had that feeling. Goddammit, I loved her more than I thought it was humanly possible for anyone to love anyone. I'm not prone to love, though. I love my family, and my friends, but it's a very mild sort of love, usually, which often makes me feel guilty. I feel like my family surely must love me a great deal more than I love them. And I see no reason for them to. So I never thought I could actually fall in love, I didn't think I was capable of that level of emotion. Not about a person. Perhaps about art, or concepts. But not actual people. And yet I did. For a brief while in my life, I was madly in love, and it made sense, and it made more than sense, because of the undefinable part of love that can't make sense.... It felt like the rightest thing in my life. Which wouldn't be hard, because almost nothing in my life has ever felt particularly right, but that did. Being in love with her felt not only like the rightest thing in my life, but the rightest possible thing in the Universe.

"And it was wrong. It was, while it lasted, the best time in my life, and now, in retrospect, the worst time in my life. In a life made up almost exclusively of regrets, it is my very greatest regret; at once that it ended, and moreover, that it ever happened at all." He paused, then with a wry grin added, "I shudder to think how screwed up my head would be if we'd ever actually made love."

Lorelai laughed. Then she said, "So, I take it you'd never want to make one of those sitcommy pacts with me?"

Darius took her hand in both of his, looked deeply into her eyes, his own eyes welling up, and said, "Oh, Lor, you know you're one of the best friends I've ever had, and when I say I love you, I mean more than just the mild kind to which I've said I'm prone." He swallowed. "We do have a lot in common, and I find you so attractive, and you're definitely one of those people I said I might apply all the logical reasons for it to make sense to fall in love with, and I feel we have wonderful chemistry...."

He sighed, dropped her hand, closed his eyes and turned his head away. "But, you know. Like I said. It takes more than that. Terrans do come up with the most bizarre concepts, don't they?"

Such dramatics being generally not something one would expect from Darius, it took her a moment to catch her breath, before she started grinning and laughing again. "Well, good, then. Glad we're on the same page, old friend."

Darius turned to look at her again, and joined in her laughter, though as usual, his was somewhat more subdued than hers. After a minute he stood, and said, "I'm going to get some more wine. You want some?" She nodded, and he left the tent to fetch a fresh bottle.