In ‘Under His Skin,’ mage Nathan offers to swap bodies with his best friend and lover Joshua so that Joshua can experience what it feels like to do magic. But how did these best friends become lovers? Here’s a little peek into their lives, a prequel of sorts to ‘Under His Skin.’
That Night at the Bar
With a grunt, Joshua pushed away from his desk and glared at the assortment of triplicate forms and colored sheets covering his work space. He’d been filling out paperwork for hours, and if there was one part of his job he didn’t like, it certainly was this: reports about the vampires he caught red-fanged, their documented history in the Special Enforcer database, what recent crimes they were suspected or convicted of having committed.
The problem wasn’t that he didn’t have enough information to fill out these endless forms. He never was anything other than thorough in his research. In almost eight years of being a Special Enforcer, he’d never had a flicker of a doubt about any of the vampires he had come to stake. If he had a doubt, he researched more until he was certain he had the right person—or certain he didn’t.
No, the problem was simply how long the whole process was. And it didn’t help that his boss hated paperwork just as much as Joshua did and only hounded him about it when the police department was breathing down her neck. When she did want the paperwork done, it had to be done now.
Which was why Joshua had been completing forms all day rather than doing anything even remotely interesting. Why, also, he was still there when Karen and Ben were out on a job.
What it didn’t explain, however, was why Nathan was still there as well. Karen had told him he was free to go home hours ago. He’d been puttering around the office, brewing more coffee, rearranging the seemingly endless array of metal bowls and stirring sticks he used for his spells, emptying the leather bag in which he kept his magic supplies for on the go work and replacing each vial and plastic baggie back inside with what Joshua had always thought was freakishly obsessive care.
Regardless of why Nathan was there, Joshua was glad. Drinking alone was no fun, and after a day of triplicate forms Joshua needed a drink or three to clear his head.
“Come on,” he said, slipping his jacket on. “Let’s get out of here before I set fire to all this.”
Nathan threw him a pleased look, like he’d stayed hoping for this very thing. But then, why hadn’t he just said so?
“Where are we going?”
“Anywhere they have good food and great beer, although I don’t know about you but I sure as hell plan to start with the beer.”
They walked out together and Joshua locked the door behind them while Nathan said, “All you did was fill out paperwork but you make it sound like you were tortured all day.”
“I *was* tortured all day,” Joshua replied deadpan. “On top of that, Karen always drops those forms on me when an interesting case comes up. I swear, she has it in for me.”
Nathan was still snickering when he climbed into the passenger seat of Joshua’s car.
“Did you ever notice,” he said, his grin bursting out of every word, “that those people you are sure ‘have it in for you’ only ever want you to do what you’re supposed to?”
Joshua rolled his eyes. “Whatever, man. Some days I wonder why she hired me. She can barely stand me. Sometimes I think she just doesn’t like me ‘cause I’m gay.”
As casual as the words sounded when they came out, the old bitterness still clung to the back of Joshua’s tongue. He’d learned early on that not everyone would care for who he was, starting with his own family.
“You don’t mean it,” Nathan sad. “She’s not like that.”
“No, I don’t mean it,” Joshua agreed with a sigh. “It’d be easier if she was bigoted. I’d just tell her where she can shove those forms and quit.”
Without warning, Nathan punched him in the arm, startling Joshua enough that the car swerved a little before his reflexes caught on.
“What the hell was that for?” he asked, glaring at Nathan.
The glare was lost on his friend, who was looking out the passenger window.
“It’s not funny, that’s all,” Nathan muttered.
Shaking his head, Joshua turned his attention back to the road. Nathan had been in a weird mood all day. No, it’d been longer than that; he’d been acting strangely for a few days at least. Something was bothering him. After being best friends for almost fifteen years, Joshua knew two things: one, Nathan could think about a problem and obsess over it for ages if nothing forced him to make up his mind, and two, Joshua could get anything out of Nathan if he only tried hard enough.
Grinning to himself, he passed the pub he had intended to go to and took the next right. First step in making Nathan talk: take him to unfamiliar grounds.
Nathan paused just past the door and gulped. He’d passed by the bar dozens of times on his way to and from work, but he’d never realized what kind of clientele it catered to. Coming in behind him, Joshua prodded him onward.
“Come on, I’m starving.”
Joshua led the way to a booth on the side of the room, nodding at the bartender, raising a hand to say hi to a man in the back who waved back, stopping at a table to shake hands with two more guys. Nathan followed, feeling sullen. The last thing he’d expected was for Joshua to take him to a gay bar where he seemed to know half the patrons. An unpleasant feeling rose through him, annoyance mixed with jealousy. He swallowed both back. It wasn’t like he had any right to be jealous.
Still, his voice sounded too high pitched when, having sat across from Joshua, Nathan said, “Good thing I’ve got cab money. I have a feeling you won’t be going home alone.”
Joshua quirked an amused eyebrow at him. “Really. Care to bet on that?”
Nathan didn’t reply. A waiter in a tight white t-shirt and even tighter leather pants was already bringing two large mugs of beer to their table, along with two shots of what Nathan supposed was whiskey. They ordered some wings and fries, which Joshua claimed were excellent. Clearly he was a frequent customer. Somehow, the thought soured Nathan’s mood a little more and he took deep swallows from his beer before daring to ask, “So, how often do you come here anyway for the waiter to bring you your favorites as soon as you sit down?”
A little smile tugged at the corners of Joshua’s mouth before he tossed back the shot of whiskey the waiter had set in front of him, then the one he’d set in front of Nathan as well. He knew Nathan wouldn’t touch his. They’d had their first taste of whiskey together when they were teens, hiding in the back of Nathan’s yard, and Joshua had had the decency not to laugh when Nathan had retched and decided he didn’t like whiskey. Vodka, on the other hand…
“Once in a while,” Joshua said, sliding a little lower in the booth with a lazy grin stretching his gleaming lips. “I’d invite you when I come, but they lack one thing you like in here.”
Nathan had been taking another swig of beer; he practically choked on it.
“Speaking of,” Joshua continued like he hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary, “you haven’t mentioned a girlfriend in a while. Is that why you’re all jittery? Need a fix?”
Before he could stop himself, Nathan was scowling at Joshua. Sometimes, his friend could be completely clueless. And blind. And idiotic. And downright nosy.
Then again, maybe it only meant that Nathan was much too good at hiding things from him.
Without a word, he stood and went to the bar, asking for vodka. When he returned to the table, their food was there and Joshua had already started digging in. He gave Nathan a half shrug.
“So, want to hit a regular bar after this?” he said, and the teasing in his voice was even thicker than before. “I’m sure we could find you a date.”
“God, I don’t want a date,” Nathan said. “And if I did, you’re the last person I’d want next to me, making me look like a pathetic nerd.”
He took a sip of vodka then ate a few fries, all too aware that Joshua was looking at him but refusing to meet his eyes. After a while, Joshua relented.
“Fine. Don’t tell me what’s wrong. See if anyone else cares.”
They continued to eat in silence. Each bite, each gulp of beer sat in Nathan’s stomach like lead, weighing him down. He wasn’t sure what was worst: that he’d had the perfect opening and that he’d let it pass, or that he even thought of it as an opening he could have taken.
They’d both finished their beers along with a second round and there were only a couple wings left in the basket when Joshua, licking barbecue sauce off his fingers, started frowning at Nathan again.
“All right,” he said, his tone quieter than earlier. “Something’s bugging you. Wanna talk about it? It can’t be just the bar. You were already jittery at work.”
“Was not,” Nathan muttered, looking at him through narrowed eyes. He dropped his gaze and grabbed his courage with both hands before he added, “And I don’t care what kind of bar it is. It’s not like I don’t enjoy the…scenery as much as you do.”
He counted up to three before he dared to glance up. Joshua looked mildly surprised, but not overly so.
“Yeah? Glad you approve, then. You sure you don’t want me to set you up with someone?”
But the offer, this time, sounded a lot less genuine than earlier, and there was a tightness at the corner of his eyes that Nathan wasn’t used to seeing there.
“Unless you’ve already got your eyes on someone,” Joshua added before Nathan could reply. “Is that why you’re all—”
“I’m not jittery and I’m not anything else either,” Nathan cut in.
“But you do have your eyes on someone.”
Nathan tore up a wet napkin packet and started to clean his fingers and fingernails, one at a time, taking longer than necessary. It didn’t help: his heart continued to try pounding out of his chest. He felt a little lightheaded, and it had nothing to do with the alcohol. He’d dreamed of an occasion like this one, and now that it was there he didn’t know whether he could do it, whether he could take that risk.
“Do I know him?”
A peek up revealed a thin smile on Joshua’s lips. Back in high school, it’d been the same smile when he asked about Nathan’s girlfriends: like he asked because they were best friends and that was what best friends did, but deep down he didn’t really want to know.
Taking in a deep breath, Nathan held it in. Could he? Should he?
What if he lost his best friend?
What if he gained more than that?
He washed back his fears with the last of his beer, set the bottle down on the table with a light clank, and nodded.
“You do,” he said. “I’m looking at him right now.”
He held Joshua’s gaze as he said it. Joshua looked beyond surprised. The bewildered gleam in his eyes was like nothing Nathan had ever seen there in all the years they had known each other. Even when Nathan had confessed to him that he thought he could do magic Joshua hadn’t looked like this.
The lightheadedness and daring that had urged Nathan toward his confession was fast disappearing, replaced by a terrible, sinking feeling.
He’d wrecked it all, hadn’t he? He’d ruined the best, longest friendship he’d ever had.
Was it too late to take it back? Laugh it off? Pretend he’d only been joking?
Yes, it was too late. Joshua’s expression was already changing, his face smoothing out.
“All right,” he said, drawling. “What are we going to do about it?”
It was Nathan’s turn to be bewildered. A little numb, he repeated, “What are we going to do about it? What do you mean?”
Joshua didn’t even crack a smile. His eyes glittered with a strange light when he said, “It means exactly what you think it means. Now the question is, are you up for it or was it all just talk?
Knowing Joshua, the pun had been completely intentional. Nathan’s cock leapt in his jeans, silently yet loudly answering the ‘up for it’ challenge. His mind, on the other hand, remained frozen. He’d been trying to work up the courage to test the waters for days, and now it wasn’t about testing waters anymore. It was about plunging in, head first, without knowing how deep the water was and whether he’d knock himself out on the bottom or emerge from the best dive in his life.
Joshua was still observing him, still waiting. Nathan’s answer would change everything between them, would transform the most important friendship either of them had ever that.
But hadn’t it changed already? Hadn’t Nathan changed the rules when he’d made that first admission?
Besides, it might change everything for the better.
When he stood, his cheeks felt like they were on fire, but his voice remained perfectly level as he said, “All right, then. Let’s go.”
Joshua grinned, slipped a few bills under his coaster and started toward the exit. Nathan walked right by his side, and when their hands brushed together, it wasn’t entirely an accident. It only happened once; the next second, Joshua’s fingers wrapped around Nathan’s.
A laugh started bubbling up to Nathan’s lips, and it was hard to swallow it back; hard, also, to remember why he’d waited so long.
Other things were hard, too, but they’d have to wait until they arrived at Nathan’s apartment—which thankfully wasn’t far at all. Although… Maybe waiting was overrated.
Right outside, under a street lamp that poured a flickering light over them, Nathan took hold of his courage for the third time that night, tugged on Joshua’s hand to make him stop, and kissed him with hesitant lips and a thundering heart.
It was the first time he’d kissed a man. More importantly, it was the first time he’d kissed Joshua. As Joshua’s free hand wove into Nathan’s hair to cup the back of his head and deepen the kiss, the only thought left in Nathan’s mind was the hope that this first time would lead to many, many more.
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