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Chapter 7: Annual Review

As always, thanks for your patience with this rather slow-posting serial. I hope you’re all keeping safe and well. I’ve been very busy with work, but I finally managed to find some productive writing time in the small hours of the morning this week.

This chapter involves consensual non-consent play.

“Hey Sarah?”

“Mmm-hmm?” We were cuddled up on my sofa together, idly fooling around while half-watching old episodes of Making Fiends on my TV.

“Next week it’s our one-year anniversary.”

“Already?” I thought about dates. “Huh. Yeah, I guess it is. Time flies.”

“We were going to do a review of things after a year.”

“We were. We could do it now, I guess… actually, I probably should prepare first. Next fortnight?”

Anjali nodded, and I wrapped my arms around her as I considered how to handle it.

I love advice columns. I have a bunch of go-to sites that arm me with social scripts for a wide variety of scenarios ranging from “asking your workmate to turn down their music” to “handling obnoxious relatives at family Christmas”. I’d drawn heavily on them when I was planning John’s birthday party.

But none of them were able to help me on this one. Searching on “how to conduct an annual review for your mistress” turned up nothing useful. Should I treat it formally, like a job interview? Casually, in my lounge room? Naked, in bed? I was out of my depth here.

* * * * *

“Hi Sarah.” I almost jumped. Martin, my boss, had come up behind my desk while I was absorbed in my code. “Can we talk this afternoon?”

“Sure, ah, what’s it about?”

“I’ll tell you when we meet.” And he walked off, leaving me to spend the next few hours wondering what I’d screwed up and how much trouble I was in.

None, as it turned out.

“Sarah, this isn’t public yet, but I’ve got permission to tell you. A couple of things.”

After some dithering, the first: “As you’ve probably guessed, we’re being acquired by P-K…”

I had not suspected any such thing, but then I’m usually oblivious to even the worst-kept secrets. I was familiar with Preussler-Kennedy GmbH. They’d contracted our services for the Schiphol logistics project, and evidently they liked our work enough to make it a more permanent arrangement. My default position on such things is “change is bad” but as Martin discussed it, it sounded like a reasonable arrangement: P-K would take over things like publicity, legal, and HR, leaving us to focus on the crunchy maths and programming work that we did best. All in all, it sounded like something I could live with.

The second: “…given my notice for the end of December. Prija has accepted a senior lecturer position at Chulakongkorn and I have some consulting work lined up with the railways there.”

“What? You’re… you’re leaving us?” Nobody ever accused me of being quick on the uptake.

“All good things must come to an end, eh? Prija’s parents are getting on, and we want the kids to spend more time with them while they’re still around.”

“Well. Uh, I hope it’s good for you! Do you know who’s going to replace you?”

Our company was named OwKeMa because at the start it had just been Owen, Kepler, and Martin. Nobody else had their experience; the rest of us had come in about five years later, as business grew too much for just the three of them to handle. I wondered if P-K would install one of their people.

“No decisions have been made yet, but if you wanted to put up your hand, I’d be happy to write a recommendation.”

“Me?”

“Why not? You’re an excellent mathematician and your people skills have really come along, if the Schiphol trip is anything to go by.”

“But I…” I was about to say I just got lucky with something I’d already prepared, but I remembered something Edgar had told me more than once, back when things were still good between us: it’s not your job to advocate against yourself. So I let it go. “Okay, sure, I’ll think about it.”

* * * * *

Anjali and I met up at the State Library for our review. I’d picked it because it was a nice quiet place and full of books, which fitted both our ideas of a good time. Picking my way past would-be novelists researching eighteenth-century etiquette and high-school students working on assignments, I spotted a flash of red and found my paramour sitting at a desk, nose deep in a book of botanical sketches. She was tapping one hand against the desk rhythmically, one of her occasional habits.

“Afternoon… Lily?”

“Oh! Good afternoon, Miriam.” It gave me a little kick. I didn’t use the pseudonym as often as she used hers, but hearing it like that felt like permission to take charge.

Lily-Anjali made a move to stand to meet me, but I shook my head and slid into the seat opposite her. “When I took you on, we agreed that we’d come back at the end of a year and discuss whether it was working for us. And now a year has passed.”

She nodded, and said nothing, looking at the floor. I wasn’t sure what to say myself, güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri but I channelled my inner Miriam for confidence.

“Well then, Lily.” Glancing around to make sure nobody was watching us, I placed my hand over hers on the table. “I have very much appreciated our arrangement this last year. What do you say we continue it?”

She clasped her other hand over mine. “Ma’am, I’d like that very much.”

“Well, then!” Not so difficult after all.

“Phew. I was worried that you might not want to…”

“Really?” I looked up at her in shock. “It’s been fantastic. You’ve been fantastic.” And with the benefit of hindsight, I remembered that the hand-tapping thing was something she did when she was wound up about something. She was still doing it, though.

She glanced up at my face for a moment, as if to see whether I was joking, and then stared back at the floor. “Well. Thank you. I like it too. Erm, but…”

“But?”

She extricated her hand from mine, retrieved a notepad where she’d marked a few points. “I had a couple of things I wanted to ask about. If that’s okay.”

“Oh? Go ahead.”

“I was wondering if I could…” She trailed off.

“Speak up. What is it?”

“Is it possible to ask for a, for a raise?”

I frowned in thought, which she must have taken as disapproval, for she went on: “I’m sorry to ask, only my rent is going up and it’s costing a bit to visit my parents and—”

I held up my hand. “How much were you thinking?”

“Well, I wasn’t sure… maybe another hundred a fortnight?”

Her voice was very small, and I thought: she’s probably asking for half of what she needs. And I was feeling generous… in a Miriam kind of way.

“Why don’t we say two hundred? But for that, Lily, I may demand a little bit more of you.”

She blinked. “More?”

“You remember we filled out a checklist.”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Oh, to hear that word!)

“I would like you to go through that list again and pick out some of your soft limits. Things that you find scary but interesting. You’ll give me that list, and then during the next year we’ll choose three of those soft limits for us to try out.”

“Oh gosh. I, um…” She sounded ambivalent.

“It doesn’t mean you HAVE to do those things. If we get there and it’s really not working for you, you can still safeword out. And then I’ll figure out something else to try instead. I’m not going to make you do anything that’s going to cause distress… well, not more than our usual recreational levels of distress.”

Silence.

“Does that sound reasonable?”

“Yes, I think… I think I can do that.”

“Deal?”

“Deal.”

We shook on it.

“And what was the other thing you wanted to ask about?”

“Well, how long we’re extending this for.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I didn’t want to… it would be easier for me, if I had some stability and certainty until I finish my doctorate. I need a new fridge and a proper bed, but I’ve been holding off on spending the money because I didn’t know if this was continuing. Uh, if you’re happy extending it that far. That should be about two years, if there are no disasters.”

“Sounds good to me. Just one thing, though, Miss Kapadia.” I scanned left and right for easily-scandalised patrons and librarians.

“Yes?”

“If I’m helping you pay for a new bed, I think it’s only fair that I get to enjoy you in it.”

It wasn’t often that I saw her blush, but it happened then, and very pretty it was too.

* * * * *

After the review we repaired to dinner at the same restaurant where we’d had our first date a year before. We chatted, in a Sarah-and-Anjali kind of way rather than Miriam-and-Lily.

She told me her news first. Mahesh was engaged (“it gets the parents off my back until the wedding…after that, though, there’ll be no living with them”) and her research was going places. I didn’t follow the finer details, but she had figured out something about how irregularities in the spin of neutron stars, caused by cannibalising hapless neighbours, might lead to fluctuations in their magnetic fields.

“…at least, that’s my theory. But I need to test it.”

“What does that involve?”

“Building a very big computer model and running it for a few months. The usual.”

We talked high-performance computing for a while, and then I told her my news.

“…so, Martin said I should apply. But I’m not sure.”

“Why not?”

“Scary new thing. It means… managing people. I’d have three or four juniors to look after. I have no clue how to do that. I’ve never managed anybody.”

“You’ve been managing me.”

“Huh. That is true, yes. Though I don’t think spanking the juniors at work would be a good idea.”

“Everybody has to start somewhere. If you don’t apply, who would get the job?”

I shook my head. “Somebody from outside, I guess.” Hmm. What if we didn’t get along? That would be worse than getting the job myself. “I think maybe güvenilir illegal bahis siteleri I will apply. I’ll ask, at least. Oh fuck, I hope I don’t have to do an interview.”

Under the table, Anjali pressed her foot against mine. “I believe in you. Hey, speaking of promotions, did I ever tell you about my cousin who used to be a security guard at a Samsung store?”

I shook my head. I didn’t catch the glint in her eye until it was too late.

“Now he’s a Guardian of the Galaxy.”

“SOMEBODY’s getting a spanking tonight.”

Some hours later, we lay side by side in my bedroom, catching our breath. Anjali was on her belly, with a collection of red handprints on her backside, and I was now doing my best to soothe the sting by stroking with my finger-tips the area that I had so recently tormented.

“Sarah?” she murmured.

“Mmm?”

“What you said earlier, about my bed… I can’t do that, Sarah. I need to keep my place as my place. It’s so hard to have one place that’s just my own, I need to keep it that way. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Thanks for telling me.” I ruffled her hair and reminded myself that I still had a certain amount of sway over her, that she might find it hard to say no to me and so I should be careful in what I asked.

* * * * *

As promised, Anjali emailed me a few days later with a list of soft boundaries for us to explore, and that was when I realised I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

I’d been turned on by the idea of control, of bringing out Anjali’s delicious vulnerability by testing her boundaries. But I hadn’t given much thought to which boundaries I wanted to test. As I read through the list I realised that most of the options didn’t actually appeal to me.

I’d sworn off handcuff play after the time Edgar and I fucked up and I had to find a twenty-four-hour locksmith. I couldn’t bring myself to slap Anjali’s face, and in any case she’d annotated that one with not sure, willing to give it a try but quite likely I’ll end up safewording. I didn’t own a vacuum bed, I didn’t know how to use a violet wand, and I didn’t know how to do fire play safely.

Obviously, some of those could be addressed with time and money, but it would involve going out and talking private sex stuff with people I didn’t know. That seemed very much like the opposite of fun.

I supposed I should have been proud, at some level, that Anjali had grown so adventurous. But it left me feeling a little inadequate as a domina, to see that there were so many options Anjali was willing to try and so few that worked for me.

Still, there were a couple in there that might be interesting—on the right day, in the right mood, if I psyched myself up—and a year is a long time. So I let it go for the moment. After all, I had more pressing things to worry about, like what the hell I was going to do about this promotion.

* * * * *

After several days of dithering I decided to bite the bullet and go for it. If nothing else, a raise would help me keep my Lily in basic comforts. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford her, even with the extra two hundred a fortnight, but I was certainly noticing the dent in my own budget.

It was anticlimactic, in the end. I tapped on Martin’s door, before I could talk myself out of it.

“Hey Sarah! What’s doing!”

“Hey Martin. I, uh, I’ve thought about what you said, and yes, I’m interested in the manager position. How do I apply?”

When I joined the company as a shiny new PhD I’d started by filling out a written application, and then they’d grilled me over the phone for half an hour to establish whether I was enough of a nerd to join them. This time was much less formal.

“I’ll talk it over with Owen and Kepler”—they were the other two partners who’d founded our little company—”and we’ll let you know.”

And two days later he emailed to let me know the promotion had been confirmed. It was only much later that I realised why things had gone through so quickly and smoothly: Owen and Kepler were eager to fill the gap with somebody they knew and approved of, before the acquisition took effect and they had to deal with all the red tape that came of being a subsidiary of a much larger business.

I had my first official Management Meeting the following week. There was a mountain of administrivia associated with our acquisition. All our contracts needed to be revised, both the staff employment contracts and our arrangements with clients. We were moving out of our old office and into P-K’s. All our personnel data and all of our software management had to be migrated into P-K’s systems. Even the stationery and the website had to be updated. And there was one other thing…

“We’re joining their Christmas party this year,” said Owen.

“Big occasion,” said Kepler. “The merger, Martin’s farewell, and all.”

“Most of it’s booked already, but they asked us to help with some getting-to-know-you activities,” said Owen. “Icebreakers.”

“I was thinking karaoke,” said Kepler, and I winced. güvenilir bahis şirketleri

“…you know what?” I said, as brightly as I could manage. “Would you like me to organise the icebreakers? I feel like you’ve both got a lot on your plates already.”

“Would you?” said Owen, just as Kepler said “Great idea!”

It might sound like a terrible decision, especially since I’d already burned myself out on organising a party that year. But there was method to my madness.

* * * * *

“EEE! You got it! I’m so happy for you!”

I had kept my good news secret from Anjali—and by extension, everybody else on Facebook—until I could tell her in person. It was a cold and rainy afternoon, one of those October days where spring changes its mind and detours back into winter. We’d had plans for a movie date, but I was feeling swamped by all the handover documents Martin had sent me, and couldn’t find the energy to go out in the rain and be surrounded by people. So I’d asked Anjali very apologetically if we could make it a quiet night in, and of course she’d said yes, and I’d blurted out my promotion before she had her coat off, and she’d squealed and kissed me.

(The squeal was new; a month ago she would have said “Gosh!” instead. I think she’d picked it up from her circle of friends, and was trying it out to see whether it would fit her. We do that kind of thing, assembling our faces from borrowed pieces in the hope of blending in.)

I enjoyed the kiss, and then led her into my abode. “I’m afraid I don’t have too much planned tonight, my brain is kinda wiped. Okay if we just hang out and get delivery?”

“Of course it is,” she said, same as she had when I’d asked the same question a couple of hours earlier. “Lots to do?”

“So. Fucking. Much. Martin sent me… nineteen different things I need to read through, and all of them have links to other things, and there’s so much to absorb, and I have to plan this Christmas thing as well.”

She nodded. “Professor Cheng said something to me at my last review.”

“Oh?”

“He said”—the rhythm of her speech abruptly shifted into Professor Cheng’s New England cadences, quite unlike her own—”‘Anjali, do you know what your biggest weakness is? You want everything to be perfect. But there’s no time for that. You need to know when it’s good enough, and then move on.'”

I nodded. “Yeah. I hear that. I know I spend too long polishing things that don’t matter. But how do I know which things do matter?”

She shrugged. “I asked him the same question. He didn’t have an answer.”

“Ha.” And in a rush I kissed her again, hard and fierce, comforted in the company of somebody who came from the same planet I did.

We chatted, and as we chatted I flicked through dozens of emails, until I realised Anjali had stopped talking and was looking at me expectantly.

“Hmm?” I said.

“You didn’t hear what I said, did you?”

“I’m sorry. I just… got distracted. Thinking about all this stuff I have to get on top of.”

She nodded, and gave it some thought. “If it’s really bothering you, why don’t you focus on that for a while? I brought my laptop, I can keep myself busy. You do as much as you need to, and then let me know when you’re done working for the day.”

“Thanks. You’re an angel, Lily.”

I turned back to my laptop, and she got up. I was vaguely aware of her in the kitchen.

“There’s that white in the fridge. Would you like some?”

“I don’t—actually, yes. Why not?” I wasn’t in the habit of drinking alone. I kept a bottle of Moscato in the fridge against my mother and stepfather’s occasional visits; it had been there more than a year (longer than my arrangement with Anjali!) and I’d grown so used to looking past it that I didn’t even think about it now. But I wasn’t alone, and I could always get another one. “That sounds nice. Have a glass yourself if you like.”

“I believe I will.” There was a clinking, and she came by with my glass, and then we both sat in silence—me on the sofa, her at the table—tapping away at our laptops and sipping wine.

Some time later she got up, deposited her glass in the dishwasher, and made for the bathroom. I barely noticed what she was up to until she came back and sat on the floor by my side. She’d brought a small tub of soapy water and a couple of cloths with her.

“And just what are you up to?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. You just go on with your work, don’t mind me.”

I did, as best as I could, until I felt her fingers tugging at my shoelaces, easing my sneakers free, tugging my socks off.

“Anjali…”

“Shh. Stop getting distracted. You have work to do, remember?”

She eased my feet into the water, comfortably warm, and began to wash them with a cloth. I can’t say that it did anything for my concentration, but it was very pleasant indeed.

Once they were thoroughly clean she began to massage them, stretching out my ankle and my calves, squeezing my arches, setting my toes a-curling. A little more pressure would have been painful; as it was, it was blissful. I gave up on trying to understand the implications of breaking our office lease early, closed my laptop, and lay back with my eyes half-closed.

Eventually she lifted my feet back out of the water and towelled them dry. “Thank you,” I murmured. “I needed that.”

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