Chapter 1 - The Reunion

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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.

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