I couldn’t suppress my smile on my last day working for Shaw’s Factory. Everything was going right. Greg kept his distance. I’d finished Daniel’s order. And I’d invited Jim to join my plans for the night. Lyle and Virginia insisted on taking me out to celebrate after work. They’d both pay off their contracts in a few more months. If things went well in the intervening time, I hoped to invite them to come work for me. I didn’t know if they had plans for life after their contracts, but I intended to find out at the Caster Bar. After meeting Virginia’s partner, I knew she and I would stay in touch even if she didn’t come to work in my shop. In fact, she and Mira had invited me for a celebratory dinner over the weekend.
Virginia and Lyle clocked out a few minutes after me and met me in front of the factory. Lyle put his arms around my and Virginia’s shoulders as we walked. I didn’t blush at his touch. As my attraction to Jim surfaced, my interest in Lyle faded. Objectively, I still saw how ridiculously handsome he was. Anyone with eyes would see that. But his touch didn’t thrill me anymore, and I didn’t get nervous talking around him. Virginia would be relieved to know that my crush had well and truly died.
The crowd in the Caster Bar got bigger since my last visit. Our coworkers claimed the same tables again. I wondered if there was some unspoken rule about where people sat. The casters from work cheered Lyle’s arrival just as they had before. And Virginia pulled us to the same table off on the side of the group. I could see this growing familiar if I kept coming out. Maybe if I came regularly, I’d get used to having so many people packed so tight. Virginia guessed right about my preference for dinner with a few friends over the bar. Still, I did my best to enjoy the energy of the place.
“You’re back,” Gwen said with evident surprise in her tone.
“I told you I’d get him back here,” Lyle said.
“He has to make it past the first drink before you can get cocky,” she teased. “Same as last time, or would you like to try something new tonight?”
“I’ll stick with what I know,” I said.
“You got it,” she said and walked away.
“So what’s next for you, D?” Lyle asked.
“I’m going to open my own watch shop that offers custom work,” I said.
“That’s ambitious,” he said, looking impressed. “I’m glad you’re getting out of the factory life. You’re too talented to stay there your whole life.”
“Thanks,” I said. I smiled at the perfect opening he supplied. “What about you? Both of you are almost done. Do you have plans for what you’ll do next?”
“I see myself applying with some smaller boutiques,” Virginia said. “It would be nice to get away from the factory, but I don’t think I’d want the pressure of running my own place.”
“I hadn’t given it that much thought. Shaw’s is a sure thing, and the wages aren’t bad,” Lyle said. “I’m a bit boring, I guess. I like the stability I have.”
“No one would ever accuse you of being boring, Lyle,” Virginia countered.
Virginia’s plan aligned well with my hopes. But if Lyle craved the stability of the factory, he might not want to risk joining such a new venture. If things went well, maybe I’d lure him away with enough time to show that I could make my shop last. I’d wait to bring up the idea of them joining me. After all, I’d need time to get things set up the way I wanted before I brought anyone new on. But I knew I’d miss seeing them so regularly.
“Hear you go,” Gwen said as she handed us our drinks.
“We should toast,” Virginia proposed, lifting her glass. Lyle and I lifted ours too. “To Dimitri and this new phase of his life. May the first realm smile upon him.”
“To Dimitri,” Lyle repeated. We brought our glasses to our lips and drank our entire drinks for luck.
“Another round?” Gwen asked.
“Absolutely,” Lyle answered.
Jim entered after Gwen dropped off our second round. He looked to our side of the bar, and I waved at him. A smile broke across his face, and he held up a finger before pointing at the bar. Gwen would appreciate him saving her an extra trip to our table. But that gave Virginia and Lyle a chance to interrogate me. I’d told them I invited a friend but hadn’t specified anything past that. I didn’t want to get into detail if he didn’t show up. It felt too much like jinxing things.
“Is that the friend you mentioned?” Virginia asked.
“Yeah, his name is Jim.”
“You didn’t mention that Jim was a stud,” Lyle teased.
“Leave him be, Lyle. They could be completely platonic,” Virginia said, but she couldn’t keep a straight face.
“Not with the smile he just gave, D. I’d bet our tab this evening on it,” Lyle said.
“Not a chance,” Virginia said. “We’re both treating Dimitri tonight, and you’re not shrugging it off that easily.”
“You guys don’t have to do that,” I demurred.
“You’re the guest of honor. You’re not paying,” Virginia argued.
“Quick, D, before he comes over, spill,” Lyle persisted.
“I like him. But nothing’s happened yet,” I admitted.
“Quiet, he’s coming,” Virginia warned.
“Congratulations,” Jim said, smiling at me again and holding up a new drink for me.
“Thanks. Jim, these are my friends Virginia and Lyle. Friends, this is Jim.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jim said, nodding to each of them.
“It’s our pleasure,” Lyle said in a teasing tone. I hoped Jim didn’t notice.
“Yes, it is,” Virginia added.
“Come, sit next to D,” Lyle said, indicating the empty space beside me.
“D?” Jim asked, raising his eyebrow as he took his seat. His shoulder pressed against mine, and I blushed.
“Lyle shortens any name that goes past one syllable,” Virginia explained.
“I guess I’m safe then,” Jim said.“Don’t be so sure, J,” Lyle said but immediately contradicted himself. “Okay, no, you’re not a J. I’ll stick with Jim.”
“You missed our toast,” Virginia said.
“I’ll have to make it up to you,” Jim said suggestively, and my face got even hotter.
“How about we play a game,” I proposed before Lyle could say something that would make it worse.
“It’s your big night. We’ll do whatever you want,” Lyle said, with a look at Jim that implied he’d left something off like, ‘Isn’t that right, Jim?’
“The bar has some game watches,” Virginia said.
“How about we play Illusions?” I suggested. Virginia and Lyle smirked.
“What’s that?” Jim asked.
We all looked at him in disbelief. I’d forgotten that he never went to an academy. Of course, he wouldn’t have played Illusions. He wouldn’t need proper training to play. But hopefully, I hadn’t just roped him into a situation that revealed his wild magic. If I could take it back, I would have. It was too late, though. Even if we didn’t play, I’d set Jim up to lie one way or another. Anxiety flushed through me, and I didn’t know what to do.