After a week of pushing my limits, I filled all twelve spell slots on my last custom watch. I expected to spend my week exhausted after working into the night so much. Somehow I woke up each day feeling energized as if challenging myself with these new enchantments strengthened me. At first, I credited the energy boost to my excitement to finish the project. But my enchantments at work didn’t drain me as much as they usually did.
“Headed home, Dimitri?” Lyle asked, ready to repeat our weekly tradition.
“Actually,” I said, hoping he would take the bait.
“Wait! Are you thinking of going out?” he asked.
“If I wouldn’t be imposing,” I said.
“D, I invite you out every weekend. Of course, you’re not an imposition.”
“Did Dimitri just agree to socialize after work?” Virginia asked.
“I thought I’d give it a try,” I said, not wanting to tell them the real reason. I wanted to find a hint of where to sell my watches. But I reminded myself that I enjoyed Lyle and Virginia’s company; even if I failed in my covert goals, I’d still have a fun night with them.
“This I’ve got to see,” she said.
“I thought you were busy tonight?” Lyle asked.
“I need to rearrange some things. I’ll be right back.” She waved off his mock offended look and stepped away, pulling her pocket watch out.
“I’m so excited. First round is on me,” Lyle said, clapping his arm around my shoulder. I looked away to hide my blush. Virginia came to my other side and slipped her arm into mine, so the three of us walked side by side.
Casters from the factory cheered and waved us over as soon as they spotted Lyle. More than just Shaw’s Factory employees filled the bar. The group from work greeted us briefly before continuing to argue about who had the next round of drinks. Virginia pulled us toward seats off to the side. I only recognized two tables’ worth of the patrons, a poultry amount in the packed bar. It overwhelmed me. I reminded myself of my goal to firm up my resolve. If none of my coworkers dropped any hints, at least I had a broader cross-section of the magical community at hand. I didn’t know how to start, though. I’d imagined it being easy, spotting someone looking shifty and approaching them. They’d jump at the chance to bring me to the black market. Looking around the bar, I couldn’t tell who, if any, of these people might have the connections I needed.
“Who’s your friend Lyle?” the waitress asked.
“This is Dimitri,” he answered, patting me on the back.
“I thought they made you up,” the waitress said.
“If anyone were going to have an imaginary friend well into adulthood, it would be Lyle,” Virginia said.
“What’ll you have, D?” Lyle asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I’d never been a big drinker. At the academy, people would sneak in alcohol from time to time, but more often than not, we’d water it down to cut the cheap taste.
“Do you prefer sweet, sour, bitter…” the waitress trailed off, leaving the possibilities open.
“Sweet with a bit of sour?” I said.
“No problem,” she said.
“Gwen won’t let you down,” Lyle said. “She’s the best waitress in this city.”
“I told you before, Lyle, flattery won’t get you a discount,” she said before walking away. Apparently, she didn’t need to take Lyle or Virginia’s orders.
“So, what’s special about tonight?” Virginia asked.
“Hmm?” It took a moment for her question to register as I scanned the crowd. “Oh, nothing really. I just thought it was about time.”
“That’s right, it is,” Lyle said. He smiled at me, and I couldn’t help smiling back. I envied his perfect teeth. I’d chipped my right canine, and a faulty spell smoothed it out instead of growing it back. My asymmetric smile didn’t bother me until I compared it to Lyle’s.
“I thought we wouldn’t get you to come out with us until you’d paid off your contract,” Virginia said. She looked skeptical like she knew I’d held back in my answer, even if she wasn’t sure why.
“That’s not too far off,” I admitted.
“Seriously?” Lyle asked.
“A little over a month left,” I said.
“That’s certainly something worth celebrating,” Virginia said. I could tell I still hadn’t satisfied her curiosity completely.
“First round!” Lyle indicated Gwen returning to our table with a full tray. She handed off drinks to our coworkers, saving us for last.
“Let me know what you think,” she said as she handed me a blue drink with a lemon rind around the rim.
The sweet blue liquid mixed with the lemon zest in a delicious sip that tasted nothing like the burning liquors I’d forced down at the academy. “It’s fantastic.”
“Told you,” Lyle said. He smiled brightly at Gwen.
“I meant what I said. No discounts. You already get most of your drinks free. Go find someone else to flirt with,” she said, not unkindly. Lyle pouted his lips at her as if she’d scolded him.
“Leave her be, Lyle,” Virginia smacked his shoulder.
“Oh wow. He hasn’t been in for a while,” Gwen said, looking at the other end of our section.
“Greg? Isn’t he a regular?” Virginia asked.
“That’s understating it. He’s in here every other night or more, depending on the week.” Our waitress looked worried. Not many people liked Greg, but I got the sense that she disliked him more than most. “Last time I saw him, you were following him out after we cut him off.”
“That was only a week ago,” Lyle said. I tried to think if I’d noticed anything different about Greg at work this week. He’d been working a bit slower, but I hadn’t thought much of it.
“For him, that’s a long absence. I can’t think what kept him away. It’s not the first time we’ve cut him off,” Gwen said. Greg spotted someone at the bar and looked scared. Gwen shrugged and walked away, shaking her head.
“I’m gonna find someone to buy our next round,” Lyle said. He set his empty glass in the middle of our table. I hadn’t seen him finish his drink. He must have downed it like a shot. I’d been looking for whoever scared Greg. A muscular man with his arms crossed stared at Greg disappointedly.
“All right,” Virginia said. She watched Lyle until he was out of earshot before turning to me. “You’re not here for the reason I’m thinking, are you?”
“What?” I asked nervously. Had she caught me considering Greg and the mystery man? Could he be my in? The buff man at the bar could be an enforcer. Even if she’d noticed me staring, Virginia couldn’t possibly know about my custom watches. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not thinking of asking Lyle out, are you? I know he can come across like he’s flirting, but he’s not into guys.”
“I know he’s not. Is my crush that obvious?” I asked, blushing but relieved to have her so far off.
“Not to him,” she said. “I thought that was why you never accepted his invitations, though. You never struck me as the type to obsess and torture yourself.”
“That was definitely a factor,” I said. She’d misread me. I’d absolutely obsess and torture myself over Lyle if I hadn’t already been through that with Everett, a boy at the academy with me. Instead, I’d given my obsessive attention to my after-hours project. The enforcer stood, and Greg headed for the exit. “Will you excuse me?”
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, Dimitri. I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said.
“It’s not that, really. I appreciate you looking out for me,” I said.
I didn’t wait for her to respond before following Greg and his musclebound pursuer. I didn’t know what I’d say to Lyle. He’d come back to find me missing and my drink unfinished. But I couldn’t shake the instinct that I needed to go after these two. I could always come back if I were wrong. Weaving through the crowd made it hard to keep an eye on Greg. Luckily, the enforcer stood out more. I walked out of the bar with no plan but unwilling to let that stop me.