Dr. Nicholas Swift, thirty-eight years old, could not pretend to be very fond of company. Rather, if he had to use definite terms to describe himself – not that he was ever tempted to – "socially awkward" would probably be the most accurate. Exceedingly serious, sporadically prickly, with a dry, sarcastic wit that was sharpened by extended bachelorhood, Dr. Swift was painfully aware of his stand-outishness in the social events he had to attend, in the course of his work or otherwise.
Tonight was to be otherwise.
It was a reunion of old school friends, most of whom he hadn't seen for the past twenty years. Has it really been that long? He asked himself incredulously as he was getting ready. Has it? He asked again as he stared at his image in the mirror, at the trim figure in a modest but well-cut dark grey suit, at the thick black hair with no shade of silver, nor any hint of beginning to recede, at the nearly lineless face. He couldn't say he felt young, because he doubted he ever felt that. But he felt no older than he had at seventeen - nor any fonder of the schoolfellows, the subject of whose taunts he had been during his teen years. Well, at least he had to thank fate, or God, or whoever ruled up above, for giving him enough intelligence to shine at every exam. It sparked envy, but it also helped him pull through school without his spirit sinking too low. It helped him keep his head above water.
That, and Andrew.
Andrew, damn the man, was also the one who roped him into going to this reunion tonight. Nicholas tried to wriggle out of it – he had a mountainous pile of work waiting for him at the office, he thought he was beginning to feel the onset of a cold, he promised his mother he would visit and he couldn't foresee another opportunity of doing that this week – but all was in vain, just as he knew it would be. Somehow, Andrew always had his own way… which was often to the good, Nicholas was forced to admit.
Andrew was the only real friend he made in school – why him of all people, nobody could comprehend, as the two boys seemed the perfect opposites. Andrew was blond, boisterous, easy to laugh, the soul of every company; Nicholas long, lanky, black-haired, glum, slinking into the shadows at the first opportunity. What they had in common wasn't easy to understand at first – but there was the goodness of basic nature, the integrity of character, and above all youth, which so often endears two very different people to each other. Andrew became the protector of Nicholas, which caused sneers and jokes about "little Nick hiding behind Mommy's skirts"; but Andrew, without actually declaring it, recognized and admired his friend's superior intellect – although in some matters, as he always claimed, Nicholas remained woefully ignorant.
In the past five years, they have not seen each other quite as often as before. The paths they chose in life were as different as their personalities. Andrew went into car tire manufacturing, and after a decade of steadily rising found himself the owner of a successful company, while Nicholas became a historian specializing in the study of the Middle Ages – and more often than he cared to admit, slipped off the solid land of fact into the murky waters of myth and legend. Still, he and Andrew were bound by mutual affection and met fairly regularly – up until the latter's marriage. The charming Emily, blond and pretty and as well-suited to Andrew as a woman could be, did not have to try very hard to snare him, as he was quite ready to fall into the trap himself. Five years and two children later, Andrew passed his days in vast contentment, master in both his home and his work place, and the only thing he had to complain about was the length of commute – upon marrying, he left the City center and moved into a handsome suburban house of, as he insisted, his choosing (although it was really Emily's). Nicholas, in the meantime, stubbornly remained a bachelor.
He could have married, of course. Perhaps he should have married, as Andrew kept insistently reminding him – himself being a perfect rosy illustration of domestic bliss. While not what one would normally call a charmer, Nicholas was not unattractive, and his salary, though not lucrative, was perfectly fit to live on. He was highly respected in the academy, already had several published works under his belt, the most intriguing of which probably was "A Trail of Blood – Why the Vampire Myths in Bosnia were so difficult to dispel?" It was this book that brought him to the knowledge of the general public, although admittedly, it also caused criticism from some of his colleagues for "perpetuating a myth that should be dead and buried just as the so-called vampires are." But as the ever-cheerful Andrew told him, envy dies hard.
So why didn't Dr. Nicholas Swift, a reasonably successful, potentially pleasant man marry? Admittedly, he did not feel any particular urge to. He did not recall the feeling of burning desire, except perhaps once, when he was very young… half a boy, in fact, and in a co-ed school one could hardly expect not to… but it was over and done with before it even began. The girl was in her senior year and didn't even notice his existence. She left school at the end of term and, as he heard, married early. He never knew what became of her, and her features were hazy in his mind's eye now. He could not even recall her name.
He doubted she would come to this reunion. If it depended on him, he wouldn't be going himself. The only person he wanted to see there was Andrew, and he didn't need to drive two hours to see Andrew. They could meet any old time, like in days gone by. In fact, he was about to pick up the phone, dial his friend's number and suggest just that, when he heard a ring. He heaved a sigh and answered, knowing who it must be before he even heard the familiar voice.
"Nick!" it sounded as though Andrew was in the highest spirits. "I just decided to ring you before I get into the car. You ready?"
"Not quite," Dr. Swift replied evasively.
"Aren't thinking of not going, now, are you?" he could practically see Andrew squinting in suspicion. While not a man of outstanding clairvoyance, Andrew was quick to pick up on anything that concerned people he cared about. And Nicholas knew he couldn't say what was on the tip of his tongue a minute ago.
"Of course I'm coming," he said quickly, "I just… got detained a bit. Choosing a tie."
"Choosing a tie," Andrew repeated sagely. "I see. Now, Nick," his voice was different now, brisk, the kind of tone one doesn't argue with. "If you don't get going now, you'll miss out on the best part of the evening, and I won't have that, do you hear me?"
"I'll be on my way in five minutes," promised Nicholas.
"Emily can't wait to see you," were Andrew's first words after a warm handshake. "She says it won't hurt you to have some fun, and I happen to agree with her completely."
"Emily is always so thoughtful," replied Nicholas with just a tinge of sourness, but his friend didn't miss that. A finger rose into the air like an exclamation mark as the two proceeded towards the open area outside, where tables of refreshments and drinks were laid out.
"You don't know my wife as I do," declared Andrew, shaking his raised finger at Nicholas and mercifully missing the double meaning of his own words. "Emily is always concerned about everyone. And," he paused meaningfully, "there might be… others, who are just as interested in meeting you."
"Oh yes," Nicholas nodded vigorously, "such as Jeremy Logan, for example. Or… what was his name? Robert? Or Rupert? Allen, I mean. I'm sure the fun they derived from sticking my head in the toilet was a peak of amusement life never threw in their way again."
Andrew laughed. "I didn't know you still remember that," he confessed, "although of course, I realize you have less fond memories of school than I do. But it's not just schoolfellows here… there's someone – someone who has read your book about vampires and was highly impressed."
"It was not a book about vampires," Dr. Swift corrected him. "It was a book about how vampires, as lucrative as the myth may seem, never existed. Which point, I believe, I should have done a better job in clarifying."
Andrew waved a dismissive hand. "I think we discussed the matter at least a dozen times. It makes no difference. Emily has a – a niece," under his friend's piercing stare, his voice lost a notch of its cocksureness, "a young lady who came across your book as background reading for a college assignment, and, ah," he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, "expressed a wish to meet you in person, once she knew we were friends."
Nicholas faintly raised his eyebrows. "You didn't bring her with you?"
It must be said to Andrew's credit that he had the grace to look abashed. "I saw no reason not to – "