"Frankly, this project isn't going well, Ms. Anderson," Mr. Perkins sighed. He sat down with a thud, fiddling with his computer until the projector at the front of the room switched slides to a graph of the project's budget, hovering precariously close to the red.
"The client has been rather obstinate, and it's been cutting into our allocated funds, as you can see. They keep telling us that what we've done isn't what they want, but they refuse to elaborate on what they do want. I honestly think, if I may, ma'am, that we should not renew this contract."
Magnolia pursed her lips. True, this client engagement had not been working, but surely it could be salvaged. She did so hate to discard a useful tool, and the prospect of further contracts with that company had been promising.
But if they weren't going to communicate, then what could she do?
"I understand and agree, Perkins. Our team did the best they could, but if they refuse to cooperate, there's nothing to be done. This issue is on the client, not on our board," she said, working to keep her tone even.
But if I'd taken more of a hard negotiating position, they'd have listened. I could have convinced them. But with how I handled it, even poor, incompetent Perkins would have been a better project lead.
She stood up. "That is... unfortunate, but it's what must be done," she hissed. Sighing again, she turned back to the apologetic board member. "Is there anything else, Perkins?"
Perhaps I was too hard on Perkins. None of this was his fault, Magnolia thought. But I'm sure the client would have listened to me if I'd pushed. Idiots, all of them. The client and Perkins both.
She turned the key in the lock, hoping for something to take her mind off it, but Lily wasn't in the main room where they typically were. Well, they were certainly home. Magnolia had made quite sure they didn't keep the lights on when they left; the money was no issue, but it was the principle of the thing.
So where were they? She glanced around the room, her eye catching on a faint glow from the bedroom. Tired? Lily did sleep with the lights on low, after all.
She sighed. That wouldn't be such a bad thing. After a day like today, she would be more than happy just to slide into bed beside them. She set her purse down on a nearby table, then moved to join them.
She stopped, starting as she heard muttering coming from the dimly lit room. Not asleep, then. But why would Lily be talking to themselves?
Right, she chided. They're not alone. It still felt surreal to remember that they had reunited with Kassandra, who was actually getting along with Magnolia. Oh, they still butted heads, of course, but Magnolia was beginning to suspect that was how Kassandra showed affection to everyone. Everyone but Lily, of course.
But why would the two of them be muttering in such worried tones? Had something gone wrong?
The thought brought a sudden, horrifying image to Magnolia's mind. The idea that he was back. The one who'd attacked her.
No. She grimaced. I'm just working myself up. Everything is fine, I'm sure of it.
She reached the doorway, and Lily started, looking up from a shattered disk of porcelain on the floor.
"M-Mistress! I..." they sputtered with a look of horror. "I didn't hear you come back!"
"Well, I did. What exactly is this, plaything?"
Lily froze for a moment, before their posture shifted, drawing back, eyes a little more calculating. Kassandra, then. "The dish from London. It fell. It was our fault," she spat.
"Tell me what happened."
Magnolia blinked, taken aback. Abject defiance was a rarity from Kassandra these days, and it still felt wrong coming from the wonderfully loyal Lily's mouth.
They slumped, their eyes unfocusing. "I broke it."
"I can see that, Lily. Do keep it straight which of us is lacking in brains here. What. Happened?" Magnolia demanded.
"I broke it," they whispered, staring straight ahead. "I broke her gift."
"We'll never be free of that fucking auction, will we. She had to bring it back for us, because you can't bring a person you fucking own on a damn international flight."
Magnolia frowned. "Lily, what makes you think you're allowed to not respond when I ask you a question? And Kassandra, honestly, treating me as if I wasn't right here?"
Kassandra started, as if she'd forgotten where she was, and shot a glare at Magnolia. Is this... Magnolia paused, thinking over the resources Freyja had pointed her to on DID. Are they dissociating?
Hesitantly, she leaned down and put a hand on their shoulder. "Pla- no, Lily. I'm here."
They tensed at her touch, but stayed silent. Or was that Kassandra, seething at the reminder of Magnolia? Both? Neither?
Either way, they were hurting. And she wasn't helping.
"Tell me what you need from me, Lily. Tell me how to help."
"Don't," they whispered.
Magnolia's eyes narrowed. "Are you talking back to me?"
"You deserve better..."
She recoiled as if slapped. She wasn't doing that horrible a job comforting them, was she?
Or am I?
Perkins' words ran through her mind. They refuse to elaborate on what they do want...
It was happening again. This was the second time.
Was she really so inept?
Did everyone just put up with her because she was the one with the authority?
They floated, the world grayed out. They'd broken it. They had no excuse. It was their fault. Magnolia deserved better than a broken, split toy that couldn't even get changed without being a burden on her.
That touch on their shoulder had been a painful reminder of that. Why did their Mistress even tolerate them? Why did she keep trying? It's not like they were worth it.
They turned their head, dully bringing their gaze to rest on Magnolia. At her expression, though, Lily felt a spike of pain. That cleared the fog somewhat, giving them something to hold on to.
I hate this, Kassandra grumbled. All of this. What does she have to be so worried about?
Lily blinked, their vision coming into focus. Magnolia looked... horrible, not like herself at all. Because Magnolia would never look so unsure of herself.
Probably just wondering how to punish you for this. I don't care what she thinks.
That wasn't true, was it? Kassandra respected Magnolia, right?
Lily felt awful, but that was alright. They weren't important. Magnolia was.
"A-are you ok, Mistress?" they whispered, their voice hoarse.
Magnolia met their gaze, her expression pained.
"Lily... tell me the truth," she whispered, in a tone that seemed wrong coming from her mouth. "Is it too much work to put up with me?"
Lily shuffled back in horror. What had happened to their strong, loving Mistress?
Kassandra snorted. When exactly has she been strong, Lily? Girl leans on you like a crutch.
"But, Mistress... that isn't right. How could it be work to be with you? Isn't it... Isn't it work to put up with me?"
Magnolia sighed, composing herself a little more. "I... I screwed up a project, Lily. It could have worked. It should have worked. I just needed to communicate what we needed. Touch base with the client, negotiate better. That... cost us a lot of money, and far more in opportunity."
"How much?" Lily whispered.
Magnolia's face twisted. "More than I spent on you, plaything, if the contract had worked out."
Lily blinked in shock, taking a moment to process that. "Is the company going to be okay?"
Magnolia laughed darkly. "There is a reason that you're not the one in charge, plaything." She frowned. "But maybe... you certainly seem to make allies and friends better than I do. Even managed to get me."
Lily frowned, not knowing how to respond to that.
I have a few ideas.
Those 'ideas', Lily noted with disgust, mostly consisted of slapping some sense into their Mistress.
I'm not exactly a fan of the indirect approach, Kass hissed.
"You're fine, Mistress," they managed to whisper, wincing at the uncertainty in their voice. "Please."
Magnolia turned her eyes to meet theirs, the normally sharp light in them dull. Kass grimaced.
Alright, Lily. This was fun and all, but there's only so much sniveling and emotional bullshit one girl can take.
Lily felt a strong shove as Kassandra pushed them aside, ignoring their mental cry of alarm.
"Will you both stop being such idiots?" Kassandra snarled. Magnolia blinked, her gaze refocusing.
"This playing around is great to watch, Magnolia, but you're just rehashing the same things. I do get bored, you know. Maybe it'd help if you decided to mix up your points, and communicate better? You're hardly proving your success is anything but luck right now."
Lily screamed in their mind, but Kassandra hushed them. Trust me.
"Fuck you, Kassandra," Magnolia growled. "You act like you know me so well, but you know nothing about me."
"Really, now? Then enlighten me, o wise one," Kass laughed. Magnolia's face darkened.
"I built my company from nothing. Do you have the slightest idea how many startups never even turn a profit? I never accepted a penny from anyone that I didn't earn myself. I have become a phenomenally successful businesswoman because I am good at what I do. Luck never was a factor at all."
Kassandra held up her index finger, grinning.
Magnolia glared at her. "Well? You clearly have something to say. Out with it."
"You're certainly all confident in yourself now. Isn't that better? And all you had to do was communicate," Kassandra chuckled.
Magnolia's retort died on her lips as she leaned back, reevaluating Kassandra's wide grin. Her eyes narrowed. "You're... you're right," she sighed. "Much as I hate to admit it. You've given me an effective reminder that I am in charge for a reason. And so, that means I have no hesitation in telling you to fuck off and give me back my property."
Kassandra smiled and stood up, giving Magnolia a mock curtsy. "That's all you had to say."
Lily sank back down to the floor, their eyes wide. "I... Mistress..."
Magnolia shook her head, sighing again. "It's alright, plaything. As infuriating as that girl may make herself, she did end up saying what I needed to hear."
Lily gulped. "Alright... but, the dish? I- I ruined it. I'm not-"
"My precious plaything," Magnolia interrupted. "Who is in charge here?"
"That damned smug girl..." Magnolia muttered, just soft enough Lily couldn't hear. She cleared her throat. "Lily, who here decides if you've done something wrong?"
"Well... I guess, you, Mistress. But-"
"There's no 'but.' I own you, as Kassandra has so helpfully reminded me. You don't get to judge yourself. That right is for me and me alone. Understand?"
Lily took a deep breath, then nodded.
"You broke a dish. A material object. Unlike you, my wonderful slave, it is replaceable. I had bought it for you, after all.
"When I make a mistake, that doesn't make me a bad CEO or a bad owner. When you make a mistake, that doesn't make you a bad slave. You serve me as well as you can. That's what matters. Understand?"
Lily nodded again, more enthusiastic this time, and wiped away their tears with a sniffle. Magnolia put an arm around their shoulders again, pulling them into another embrace.
Kassandra rolled her eyes. Oh, Lily. What would you ever do without me?