Chapter Two: Fiery

Gym teachers are scary anyway, and Tamara hates Aguni Steel. Too bad her dad thinks Ms. Steel is wonderful.

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(AN: If the idea of a woman actually finding Koumokuten attractive makes you ill, you might wanna skip this installment. If it makes you snicker, good, because that's what I'm going for here. Of course, there is romance, but I would say a good eighty-five percent of that is humorous. Not to mention we see poor, tortured Walter Deva and Percy Rudra, executive assistants whose time at Tenkai Corporation is measured, and I personally think Rudra's last scene is quite funny.

Oh, a couple warnings: there's a few illegal, immoral activities our male protagonist engages in, and Aguni gives him a rather disturbing pet name. Plus there's completely non-involved/non-explicit naughty business and adult language. And Tamara's a slut.

So prepare for pyromania and exceedingly violent metaphors [and fantasies], as we see how the unholy union of Xavier Koumokuten and Aguni Steel came to be. And a lot of songs, mostly classic rock. The first few scenes actually take place before most of "Let's Play a Lovegame," but soon this installment falls into place after it.)

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(August 1st, 2006)

Tamara "Princess" Koumokuten, ten years old and clad all in black, watched the gravestones flash by as the limo left the cemetery. It was drizzling, appropriately enough, because a gorgeous sunny day for a funeral kind of spoiled the somber mood. And a thunderstorm would have ruined it too, so she approved of this merely rainy, gloomy weather.

"Daddy," she sighed, "I wish Mommy was still here."

Actually, she only wished that because now she only had one parent to spoil her, but her dad didn't need to know that. And hey, all this attention as a half-orphan was intoxicating. It was like her birthday, except everybody was sad and she wasn't getting any loot.

"Sweetie," Xavier Koumokuten sighed back, sounding choked up, "your mom's in Heaven now." Actually, he qualified mentally, I sent Melissa to Hell, but Tamara doesn't have to know that. She never will, and damn it if she doesn't seem almost excited about all of this.

He hugged his daughter around the shoulders, looking solemn, and told her, "You've been so brave through all of this, honey. I'm proud of you."

Tamara started to smile before her acting skills caught up with her, and she sniffled, "I'm still really sad, Daddy." An idea occurred to her then, and she casually asked, "Will I get a new mommy soon? A nice one?"

Koumokuten thought fast, a little surprised, and came up with, "No, sweetheart. No one can ever hope to replace your mom," he said in pathos. "Maybe someday I'll get married again –" like hell I will, after that ordeal, "– but it's too soon now."

Tamara nodded. Oh well, it had been worth a shot…

Half an hour later found Koumokuten serving himself a generous helping of egg salad, the funeral luncheon just getting started. Aaron Zouchouten, who was probably his closest friend, went down to Tamara's level next to him with a concerned expression on his face.

"How are you holding up, Tamara?" he rumbled quietly, down on one knee so she wouldn't have to crane her neck to look him in the eye. "You must be very sad."

She nodded solemnly, holding her plate of brownies, cookies, and Rice Krispy Treats (funeral luncheons rocked), and answered, "Yes. But Daddy says she'll still love me, and watch over me from Heaven," she said piously.

Zouchouten, who was an atheist, nodded quickly and agreed, "Of course she will. Xavier," he asked, getting up, "how are you doing?"

"As well as can be expected," Koumokuten sighed, snagging a brownie of his own. "I mean, God, Aaron, I came downstairs that morning and found my wife dead. Blood everywhere, I had to scream."

"I know," Zouchouten said, putting an apple on his plate. "That must have been awful," he murmured, and patted his buddy gently on the shoulder in an "I feel your pain" manner.

"It was such a shock," Koumokuten murmured back. "I just can't believe she's gone."

This was true, in the same way a man on Death Row can't believe he's been suddenly pardoned. He felt like dancing a jig, just like some Irish "Riverdance" extra, or something. Or a Scottish sword dancer, maybe (he wasn't into folk dancing, so he had no idea who actually jigged). Point was, he was holding himself back from celebrating. Once the coroner had taken his deceased wife away, he had refrained from yelling, "YES! It worked, yeah baby yeah!" He had wanted to grin and find himself three call girls in celebration, but that would make the police exceedingly suspicious.

As it was, they thought it was a tragic accident caused by carelessly spilled soapy dishwater. Koumokuten had made sure to fire the maid, using his best "It's your fault she slipped and hit her head, you're lucky I'm not suing you" act. So, while inside he was pointing and laughing at everyone's "Melissa was a wonderful woman who'll be missed" lies, he was well aware that he had to keep it down.

Possibly for years. Well, he would sigh and act depressed and make sure to set up a scholarship in her name, because prison would be worse than living with his wife (his dead wife, ha ha!). And actually, now that he thought about it, maybe he'd stay away from women. Forever. After all, Melissa had been fun and sweet and sexy at first, and then she'd turned into Bridezilla and never looked back.

But back to playing "bereaved widower," he thought as Zouchouten tried to find something nice to say about the deceased. He would make sure to never, ever date for years (although perhaps something for the night could be surreptitiously arranged on foreign business trips), he would refrain from rubbing his hands together and cackling when he saw the granite counter, and he would tell Tamara he missed her mom ever so very much.

But the thing was, he couldn't act too grief-stricken, or they'd get suspicious. He needed to play the part of henpecked husband suddenly alone, not bowled over by sadness but well aware that society required tears. If he laid it on too thick, they'd all think he was hiding something.

But he could do it. After all, Koumokuten thought proudly, he was a very good actor. He'd gotten rave reviews for his Iago in his college production of "Othello," and even more praise for his Wicked Warlock of the West in his high school's "The Wizard of Oz."

When all this is over, I'll have given Oscar winners a run for their money, he mused, as Tamara accepted yet another "You poor dear" hug as her due.

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(September 27th, 2010)

"Mr. Koumokuten," Walter Deva said in his customary monotone, "I've ordered the cake for your daughter, sir." And paid for it, because if there was one thing Xavier "Evil Marketing Motherfucker" Koumokuten expected from his "henchmen" (aka assistants), it was that they serve him like he was some sort of feudal lord without complaint.

"Good," Koumokuten said absently, aiming a rubber band at the back of Reginald Bishamonten's left ear.

Not "Thank you," oh no. Deva was a stolid man, emotionally reserved, but two years of being Koumokuten's assistant had him punching his walls when he went home. His boss was the bane of his existence, but he did pay well.

Koumokuten was a brilliant Marketing executive, because after all, ads, product pitches, and stupid slogans were, in fact, evil. And he embraced this evil side… so tightly that it was suffocating to death. He thought he was a movie villain, or some equally idiotic but very fitting role, and his employees lived in terror of him. Often a newbie would be discovered bawling by the water cooler, trying to make a deal with God that they could be transferred over to Research and Development (Zouchouten's domain), or at least Expansion (Bishamonten's domain).

Koumokuten sighted down the rubber band as Bishamonten snapped into his phone, verbally executing a traitor, or in non-Koumokuten/Taishakuten terms, chastising a businessperson who'd gone back on an agreement. Deva sighed, watched Koumokuten smirk, and rolled his eyes ceilingwards as the dark terror let the rubber band go.

"And if you think you can – OW!" Bishamonten yelled, whipping around with his eyes blazing.

Koumokuten waved, grinning nastily, as Zouchouten looked up from his laptop, startled. Ha, bullseye! He chalked up a point on the scoreboard of mean games, and handed himself the "Pissing Off the Tightass" trophy.

"Excuse me for a moment," Bishamonten smiled into the phone, then covered the receiver and hissed, "Xavier you idiot, this is not kindergarten! Be mature!"

Koumokuten just put his hands behind his head, whistling "In the Dark of the Night," Rasputin's song from the animated movie "Anastasia." As Bishamonten went back to his chastising, Zouchouten took off his reading glasses and glared, ordering, "Xavier, don't do that. Taishakuten will –"

"I thought it was a very fine shot, sir," Charles Vahyu fawned, folding his hands like a good little suck-up. "Walter, don't you think so?"

"Yes sir," Deva intoned, handing Koumokuten a vanilla frappuccino and thinking, Two more months, Walter. Then you can take your two-week vacation! Your wife booked the "Romantic Rivers" suite in a historic Yellowstone hotel, and you can unwind all the tension from being this lunatic's errand boy. Two months, Walter, that's all. You can do it.

"Mr. Koumokuten sir," Vahyu tittered (Deva was disgusted that a man could titter), "I'm having a little party this weekend. A pool party, and I just thought, if you and your daughter would like to come –"

"Thanks but no thanks," Koumokuten interjected, opening his own laptop. "I've seen you in your European 'swimwear' once before, Charles, and it was more than enough."

The Ad Manager pouted, and Deva had to fight off a horrible mental image of Vahyu and Koumokuten sprawled back on a silk-sheeted bed, toasting each other with blood-red wine. Vahyu would feed his boss expensive chocolates, and simper, "Oh sir, I can be your loyal minion. I'll call you 'Master' and you can order me around all you want."

Fortunately for the world, like most other people Vahyu found Koumokuten unattractive and would never feed him chocolates. However, he was rather evil himself (he was, after all, in advertising), and was impressed by his overlord's image. And his power, don't forget that.

Deva's day got worse. He longingly looked over at Ellen Karura, Zouchouten's assistant, who was thanking her boss for holding the door for her, then back at Koumokuten, who was yelling into his phone as they walked to lunch: "Listen Wimbles, if you and your pasty Brit audience deem the new ad campaign 'too spicy,' I think that says something more about you than us! Here in America seven-year-olds watch R-rated movies, and we say two models bouncing around on the hood of a car is appropriate for afternoon viewing!"

Deva mentally whisked himself away to Yellowstone, where eruptions were more frequent but not devastating to one's soul. Yes, if he concentrated on geological hotspots, he'd be all right.

"So fine, pull the ad," Koumokuten sneered, cutting in front of Nina Souma for the elevator. "Then we're pulling our advertising dollars! You'll be sorry, oh yes you will…"

Deva just managed to get into the elevator, Souma blinking and glaring as the doors closed and Koumokuten pressed the button for the cafeteria floor. Oh well, at least the next one wouldn't have Mr. Meanie in it. Some days, she wanted to push him under an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.

After a lunch spent envisioning Old Faithful as Koumokuten complained about Wimbles to a disgusted Zouchouten, Deva found himself passing the bastard more coffee in a Marketing meeting. He was good with coffee. He got the order right, he practically ran it to his boss, and he obediently threw the used cups away when Koumokuten left them sitting empty on the table.

The subject of this meeting was a device called "Elysian," a smartphone that had been designed for parents to give to their young children. It had parental controls galore, and the prototype was made from recycled plastics and electronic components. Deva considered getting one for his nephew, because this thing looked awesome.

"I think 'Elysian' is a stupid name for this product," Koumokuten thought aloud. "Classical mythology references are above the average customer. We need something modern that the whole world knows."

"Like 'Cloud Nine,' " Vahyu suggested, as Deva dutifully wrote that name down. "Or 'Pure Win.' "

"Or!" Koumokuten said exuberantly. "Or, we ditch the Heaven angle and take it in the other direction, because Hell is more interesting and the public loves edgy darkness. What if we call it… 'Hellfire.' "

Deva gripped his pen hard, but wrote that one down too.

"Yeah… Hellfire," Koumokuten almost sang, his "genius proposal" smile on his face. "We can have them manufacture it in black instead of green! We can have a slogan like 'Feel the burn'! And we can have Brian Johnson from AC/DC – no wait, he's still mad about the Photoshopped pics from the Razorblade ad campaign."

The entire room held its breath as he thought, waiting for the next bit of marketing magic. Save for Deva, who was holding back a scream. Research and Development had begun Elysian as an eco-friendly, parent-assisting service to humanity, and now it was being twisted into a Satan-worshipping reflection of Xavier Koumokuten's soul.

The supposed cultist snapped his fingers, having had another brainwave. He grinned, "We use Angus Young! We write a catchy ditty, have him do a guitar solo, and have computer-animated devils in the ads. Walter," he said offhandedly, "get me Angus's number."

And suddenly it was all too much to take. "No," Deva said firmly, and a sudden, horrified silence fell.

Koumokuten turned his head very, very slowly to look at his assistant. "What do you mean, 'no'?" he asked in that deadly whisper used for bad little minions.

Deva was off the chain, and he stood up abruptly so he could look down at his boss as he answered, "I mean that I'm quitting, Mr. Koumokuten. I have had quite enough of you twisting everything good into something bad because it sells better. I have also had quite enough of dealing with your abuse."

His voice getting louder, he continued, "You treat your underlings like slave labor, you think the world is your playground, and to use that metaphor again you're the bully everybody hates but nobody stands up to!" He picked up his notepad, and smacked Koumokuten upside the head with it. As the room gasped, Deva yelled, "You are evil! And I've had enough!"

Before Koumokuten could strangle him with his tie, he picked up his former boss's untouched coffee, and with a stern, "This is mine," he stalked out of the room.

Everyone stared after him, openmouthed, then as one every other head swiveled to look at Koumokuten. He glared, thought, and closed his mouth, then snapped, "Someone call HR and tell them I need a new assistant. One who's actually got emotions I can see, not hidden beneath the surface waiting to explode under pressure."

Hours later, having had a difficult day of utilizing a temp assistant and having to (gasp!) pay for his own coffee, Koumokuten put his briefcase down in his back hallway, happy to be home. It was a great home, a mansion with a home theater, a pool, a hot tub, a kick-ass gym, and one of those giant trampolines in the back yard because his daughter liked those.

"Tamara?" he called as he entered the living room. "Honey? I'm back!"

"She's sulking, sir," a kindly female voice came from the armchair on the left. "Something about her gym teacher picking on her." The way this was said, the speaker clearly thought Tamara was being dramatic.

"Minnie," Koumokuten sighed, loosening his tie, "next time give her candy and nod sympathetically. It works wonders."

Minnie was the housekeeper… technically. In reality, she was the babysitter when Koumokuten was out of the house, the maid when Tamara wrecked the living room in a tantrum, and the slave when Koumokuten needed errands run. She was on call twenty-four/seven, but she was paid exceptionally well so she could handle it. She'd dealt with a lot, but she'd always managed to sail on through.

She was a sweet woman. She'd taken the job because she felt sorry for poor widowed Koumokuten, who'd practically blown up the house making dinner after Melissa's death, after the casseroles and pre-made meals had stopped coming in. By now the man had become very competent at cooking, but Minnie was still essential.

She stood up to go now, marking her place in a Miss Marple whodunit and pushing her glasses up her face, maternally pointing out, "Sir, that spoils a child, rewarding them for complaining." Then, realizing how useless that would be, she changed the subject with a pleasant, "How was your day?"

"Awful," Koumokuten grumbled. "I got beaten with a notebook for no reason whatsoever."

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Early the next morning, in a house with a Spanish-style orange roof, no gardens, and a doorknocker in the shape of a flaming dragon, one Aguni Steel was singing to herself in her bathtub. She was singing Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" and downright belting it, shampooing her long hair and grinning at the no less than eleven scented candles placed around the room. They were a mixture of scents from pine to watermelon to vanilla, but she didn't care. She didn't light them for the scent, she lit them for the fire.

Aguni was a pyromaniac, one who'd scared all the other Girl Scouts at age seven when she'd ignited a bonfire while they were all struggling to strike the matches. She adored that moment of ignition, had made sure to buy a house with a giant fireplace, and just loved elderly family members' birthday parties, because they had so many candles on the cake. She'd made friends with fire, and it liked her because she let it run around so often. For her part, she thought nothing was as beautiful as a dancing flame.

As she sang the part of the song about, "Mix a special brew, put fire inside of you," she flung her arms out, splashing water onto the tile in exuberant joy. Yes, she was a divine femme fatale, and so what if the handsome neighbor on the right paled and went back inside when she sunbathed? She was much more badass than he was, anyway.

After getting out of the tub, stalking naked through her house because that was what divine femme fatales did, and blow-drying her luxurious mane, she garbed herself in gym shorts and an "OBEY" t-shirt. And giant gold earrings. The earrings were important!

Hmmm, today's the day we start weight training, she thought as she drove to work.

As a gym teacher, it was her duty to transform the soft, weak little whiners of today into strong, healthy soldiers for tomorrow. They could be daycare providers for all she cared, but they would be disciplined, fit daycare providers. In her class, you stepped it up or you got a lecture, and she was good at being scary. They cried, they whined, they begged for mercy, but she never gave it to them because what didn't kill you made you stronger! Principal Dawson thought she was too hard on the students, but ha-ha, the parents often thanked her.

"Bobby used to be fat and cause all sorts of trouble," they'd say, "but now he's lost fifteen pounds and is too tired to hang out with those bad-influence friends! Thanks, Ms. Steel."

"Why you're welcome, Mr. and Ms. Jones," she'd reply. "I'm just doing my job."

With such reinforcement, no wonder Aguni was a drill sergeant. And she was convinced that she was being an angel of fitness mercy, and they'd thank her later in life. Obesity was on the rise, but not in Ms. Steel's class! And if she had her way, every fatty in America would be subjected to a no-frills diet and sessions with her, which would work wonders for their porky selves.

When it was time for the first class, she smiled at the students, half of which cringed. That prissy little Tamara Koumokuten, who'd rolled her gym shorts up extra high, was one of them. Aguni had a "special spot in her heart" for Tamara, as she was the symbol of all that was wrong with teenage girls today.

"Well, everybody," the drill sergeant decreed, "today we go to the weight room. But first, stretches! Then sit-ups, then pushups, then laps."

This was nothing new, and one of the stupider students looked let down, obviously having been hoping that weight training meant no warm-ups. Fool! Neglecting to warm up was a certain recipe for injury, Aguni thought condescendingly. She'd be damned if she got yelled at by a parent who then threatened to sue.

So after warm-ups, and explaining that one needed to work different muscles, not just one or two, she watched with a kind of glee as even the football players failed to meet her level of strength. Oh, it was good to be a divine femme fatale who could bench-press the boys under the table.

After class, one such boy was whining like a little kid. Actually, all of them were, but this one was the whiniest.

"I hate that woman!" the boy, whose name was Johnny, practically wailed. "She's some kind of – of mutant if she doesn't think this is hard!"

"Bitch needs a ass-whuppin'," his friend Milton proclaimed, buckling his belt three sizes too big for that jailing look. "Smack her down, show her her bitch place in the world. Bitches."

Despite living in a gated community, having parents who bought him whatever he wanted, and being named Milton Gunther Finklestein, he was convinced that his soul lay in the 'hood. Specifically the one portrayed in hip-hop videos, where no one was fat or ugly, shawties were cool with being part of a harem, and everyone was a great dancer. Surely that was what the ghetto was really like.

"She's the Devil," Johnny agreed, carefully fixing his hair. "We should get a priest to sprinkle holy water on her and see if she explodes."

Their buddy Wade was silent. An overweight young man who was pleasantly surprised that he could now run around without gasping for breath after ten seconds, he thought Aguni was actually kind of… awesome. No other gym teacher had given him the gift of routine, intense exercise, or explained healthy eating in a way that made sense. He was making life changes, and it was all thanks to her. Indeed, ten years later Wade would be a male model with chiseled abs, an adoring movie star wife, and legions of devoted fans who would follow his inspiring example. But right now he was still a fat kid, one who was beginning to think that Ms. Steel was so beautiful, she would be worth giving up chips and Ho-Hos for.

"Why Wade," she'd smile at the end of senior year, "you've gone from a pudgy boy to a man. And I've noticed your devotion to me. Now that you're graduating, why don't you come over to my house for an intense, cardio workout of nympho sex?"

"Right Wade?"

"Yeah," he agreed, staring off into space before his eyes refocused on Johnny.

Johnny, who had just asked if Wade thought Aguni was a bitch who needed to be crushed under a monster truck, nodded in relief and continued, "Tamara thinks her name should be 'Agony,' not 'Aguni.' "

"Maybe it really is pronounced 'Agony,' " Milton theorized. After all, they'd only seen it written.

Milton swaggered through his morning, made sure to use ghetto slang whenever he could, and was just pondering what his rap star name should be when he got a text from Tamara. In non-text speech, it said, "Meet me under the gym bleachers. Cindia dared me to [engage in outercourse with] you. Five minutes? Love Tamara."

He hastily put his pizza down, texted her back with an answer in the affirmative, and ran out of the lunchroom, because she was hot. Then, inevitably, he tripped on his pants and fell flat on his face.

Unaware of Tamara lurking in the gym, Aguni was happily eating her own lunch in her office. Who cared about socializing with the other faculty? They wanted to talk about spouses, significant others, children, and (gag) gardening. She herself had no man right now, ever since Henry had made a break for it.

She sighed around her bite of apple. What a pathetic little loser; he'd seemed good mate material but kept disagreeing with her over the stupidest things, like whether or not the overweight should be mercilessly mocked. The last few dates had been absolutely awful, and –

And then, with that sixth sense all teachers have, she could tell that something was up. Her eyes narrowed as she put the apple down, swung her feet off her desk and onto the floor, and cracked her knuckles because she could. She moved out of the office on the balls of her feet, silent as a cat who was ready to lay down the law if needed, then opened the gym door in huntress mode. She'd heard a tiny sound where there shouldn't have been a tiny sound, because the rest of the school (even the other gym teachers) avoided her domain whenever they could.

Hmmm… nothing in plain sight. But wait, under the bleachers –

She tiptoed over, peered around them for a better look, and gaped for a split second. Then she bellowed, in the time-honored tradition of authority figures worldwide, "What do you think you're doing?!"

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As Aguni was hauling Tamara and Milton into her office by their ears, Koumokuten was shaking his new assistant's hand and saying, "Congrats, Percy Rudra, you get the job. You start this minute."

Percy Rudra, a slender young man with very spiky hair, smiled and shook back as he replied, "Wow. I mean, wow. And here I thought this was just going to be an interview!" he said cheerfully, unaware of what horrors awaited him.

"I needed an assistant desperately," Koumokuten told him bluntly. "You're the first one HR sent over, you're competent and I can see what you're thinking, so you're hired. Count yourself lucky you were the first. So, we do things differently in Marketing than in Real Estate. Basically, I tell you what I want, and if you don't do it I fire you."

Rudra blinked in surprise. He'd heard stories, but he'd always thought they were exaggerated.

"And right now," Koumokuten continued as he stood up, "I want you to come with me to meet the rest of my loyal office slaves. After that, I'll give you a crash course on what your duties will be. After that, I want you to pick up a cake for my daughter and deliver it to my house."

"That's, um, I mean, I'll be off the clock, sir," Rudra pointed out. "Do I really have to –?"

"Yes you do," Koumokuten informed him, very firmly and very annoyed. "That's part of your job, to do what I say. Now, if you have a problem with that I suggest you tell me so right now, so I can fire you and get a new assistant."

"Uh… no sir!" Rudra said quickly, all thoughts of pointing out the unfairness of this situation fleeing before the onslaught of Koumokuten's scary voice.

Said executive smiled, "Good, good. You see, my last assistant had a problem with his duties and let his discontent fester. After a confrontation, I've decided I won't tolerate dissent like that again." He pinned Rudra with a burning gaze and asked, "You're not going to dissent, are you?"

"No sir! I'm sure we'll – I'm sure we'll get on just fine," Rudra said meekly, smiling a sickly little smile as they walked into a conference room.

Oh great, this one was a stutterer. A couple of Koumokuten's other assistants had had that problem too, and funnily enough, none of them had had it during the interview either. Weird.

"We'll get on fine if you do what I tell you to and don't play around, or talk back," he stressed. "My last assistant backtalked me, and he's on another job now. Remember that, Percy. Now," he indicated the man lounging in his chair like he was a model at a photo shoot, "this is Charles, my Ad Manager. Say 'hi' to him."

"Hello, Mr. Charles," Rudra quavered, waving obediently. "Nice to meet you."

"Technically it's 'Mr. Vahyu,' " the Ad Manager sighed languidly, "but you can call me 'Mr. Charles' if you'd like." He flashed Rudra a radiant smile and added, "It's really cute."

Rudra gulped; he wasn't stupid. "Uh… 'Mr. Vahyu' it is."

Koumokuten introduced his new henchman to all the other henchmen and henchwomen, and luckily no one else hit on him. And then, as Koumokuten was lambasting Rudra for hiding in the bathroom from Vahyu, his phone rang. He thought about answering it, but he was in full rant and couldn't be bothered. He'd just listen to the message the minute he was done with the lambasting.

"Yes Charles is a freak," he snapped, sitting at his desk like a conquering warlord on a throne, "but he's a brilliant creative mind, so I'm telling you right now that you will be nice to him!"

"But – but sir," Rudra almost whined, "sir, he emailed me a note that ended with a heart and the words 'Sit by me at lunch? You have sexy hair'! I think that's more than a little inappropriate!" he said fervently, spreading his palms in an attempt to make Koumokuten understand.

"Percy," Koumokuten snarled, "suck it up! He won't grope you, because he might be a gaylord but he's not a moron. Tell him to leave you alone and eventually he'll get the hint. Why, Walter completely ignored him and that worked too."

Rudra bit his lip, then weakly protested, "I have a girlfriend, sir. It's disturbing."

"It is," Koumokuten commiserated, "but we all have to make sacrifices for the good of Tenkai Corporation." This was extremely hypocritical, because if Vahyu ever hit on Koumokuten, he'd be fired in the time it took him to say, "I'm into men!"

Rudra sighed, nodded, and apologized, which Koumokuten accepted with the dignity that befitted a General of the Boardroom. "You are forgiven, Percy. Don't do it again," he cautioned, waving an index finger.

"No sir."

"Good." Koumokuten then pulled out his phone and ordered, "Now get me another frappuccino, I have a message to listen to." As Rudra beat a hasty retreat, Koumokuten pressed a button to hear a most disturbing thing:

"Mr. Koumokuten? This is Aguni Steel, your daughter Tamara's gym teacher. Don't worry, she's perfectly fine! However, I have the regrettable duty of informing you that she has been, not to put too vulgar a phrase on it, screwing around with a classmate."

As Koumokuten's mouth hung open in horror, the message continued, "One Milton Finklestein, perhaps you know him. I'd like to meet with you and her mother, shall we say tomorrow at four? Please call me back to confirm or reschedule this time. My number is 666-699-6978. Thank you in advance. Have a good day."

He stared at his phone like it had just told him the world was ending. Tamara was – oh God no! No, she was only fourteen! Why, just yesterday she'd been taking her first steps and spitting up onto his best shirt. She was his innocent little girl, the one who used to wear frilly dresses every day and demand actual ponies for her birthday!

So he inhaled, threw his head back, and screamed. "AAAAAAH!"

All around this floor, and on two floors below it, people looked up in confusion. Had some guy just been stabbed with a box cutter?

Koumokuten took a deep, calming breath. Okay. He could handle this awful situation. He'd make damn sure to be at that meeting, and to ask his daughter what the hell had happened. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding! Maybe Milton was practicing his wrestling moves on poor starstruck Tamara.

So he called Aguni back, got an answering machine, and informed her that oh yes, he'd be there. He wasn't going to miss such an important thing, because if it wasn't a misunderstanding, he had to know what he was dealing with. He was praying that it was, but believe it or not, he was a responsible dad and as such wanted to get this taken care of.

When he returned home that day, he knocked on Tamara's door with the firm rap. Usually he used the gentle tap, but not now, oh no.

"Honey?" he called. "I need to talk to you."

Silence for a moment, then an annoyed, "Come in."

He pushed the door open to encounter Tamara sprawled on her bed on her stomach, clicking off instant-messaging on her pink laptop. Her earbuds were in, her feet were bare, and she was wearing her favorite t-shirt, the one that said "I'm the PRINCESS." Of course it was pink too.

"What do you want, Daddy?" she asked sweetly, having decided to act like she was innocent of all wrongdoing. Maybe he didn't know!

"Honey," Koumokuten began, "I got a call from your gym teacher today. It was, shall we say, disturbing."

"Why?" she asked, using the "big, innocent eyes" approach. She took her earbuds out and sat cross-legged on the bed, even going so far as to fold her hands. It was all calculated for pure cute, well, purity, and usually it worked wonders. Hopefully it'd work this time too.

"Tamara," he said levelly, because all the parenting books said you had to swallow your squeamishness and communicate with your teenager, "are you… are you…" He wimped out and asked, "Are you going steady with Milton?"

She gave him a wide-eyed look and replied, "Why no, Daddy, not at all." I took him to third base under the bleachers, but he's not my boyfriend.

Koumokuten was immensely relieved as he sighed, "Good, sweetie. Because you're too young and innocent to go steady with a boy."

He had a horrible vision of being handed a squalling infant at age forty-seven, the nurse giggling, "Meet your grandpa, Milton Jr.!" Oh God, that would drive him to some sort of violent act, not against the kid but against the baby daddy. And then Tamara would have to go live with her crazy aunt Trixie, Melissa's sister, because her dad would be in prison for that one.

Unaware of all that, Tamara beamed, because he was encouraging her to stay a free spirit! "Oh Daddy, I knew you'd understand. Ms. Steel is a dykey cunt who hates me," she whined, like all of this was Aguni's fault, the bitch.

Koumokuten blinked at hearing that particular profane remark on his little girl's lips, and managed a weak, "Uh, honey? Let's not ever say the 'C' word again when Daddy's around, okay?" he asked rather desperately.

Tamara rolled her eyes. God, her dad was a dork. And to think Stacey's father thought Koumokuten was enviable.

"Okay. Sorry Daddy!" she trilled, with just the perfect mix of "I'm so bad" and "Silly me" in her voice.

Koumokuten smiled, glad that this ordeal was over. Ha, what did all those psychologists and counselors and teachers know? You didn't have to explicitly tell your kid not to have sex after all. Just one more reason that Xavier Koumokuten was better than everybody else, and his daughter was the best daughter in the history of the world.

"When I meet with Ms. Steel tomorrow, I'm sure we'll get it all straightened out," he assured her. "Nothing to worry about, I'm sure."

Mentally, Tamara shrieked and swore a blue streak. Physically, she smiled back and agreed, "I'll bet you will, Daddy. When you see her, you'll understand. She's a whackjob who thinks carrots are better than candy bars."

Koumokuten, who kept himself in damn good shape because that was pretty much all he physically had going for him, thought Ms. Steel sounded very smart. He lectured, "Princess, carrots are good for you! I love carrots even more than I love broccoli."

Daddy's hopeless, Tamara sighed. Koumokuten even liked the bland grossness of celery, what a loony. But he hadn't always been a health nut, not at all. She fondly remembered back when Melissa had been alive, and he'd smuggled in donuts and given her one so she wouldn't tattle.

"Tamara," he'd whispered, glancing around, "your mom wants me to lose weight, so if she sees these she'll go bonkers. Here, I got you a chocolate sprinkle one."

But no longer. As "Taps" played in her head for junk food now gone, Koumokuten was suggesting, "Maybe you should give her an apple, Tamara. As a gesture of goodwill."

If I give that woman an apple it'll have a razor blade in it, she thought sullenly.

She decided, as they ate dinner, that the only way out of this one was to act like she'd done nothing wrong. She'd loudly protest that Aguni was lying through her teeth, and hey, Koumokuten would probably believe Tamara. So she'd go to the mall tomorrow, and then put her plan into action when he next talked to her. The thing to do was act totally normal, and maybe… maybe he would tell Ms. Agony Steel that she was a liar, and Tamara was innocent!

Or maybe her dad would terrify that horror, and Aguni wouldn't say a word against his beloved daughter. After all, Koumokuten intimidated everybody. Except for his scary-as-hell boss Mr. Taishakuten, but nothing in the world could intimidate that man.

.

At five to four the next day, Wade dropped his half-eaten carrot stick in shock at the car that had just pulled up in front of the school. It gave new meaning to the term "wicked." It was a sleek black two-seater, long and low, with super-tinted windows and a license plate that said "KOUMKTN." The headlights looked like narrowed demon eyes, and the silver hood ornament was some sort of snake thing.

And the rims… oh my. They were chrome, with scimitar-esque spokes that made the rims resemble some sort of ninja stars. Wade stared in car-fanboy awe at this machine, because it was extravagant even by Rosehedge Academy's standards, where if the parents drove a mere Mustang, they were shunned as peasants.

The driver got out, and Wade blinked in surprise. This guy was scarier than his car.

"You. Kid," the guy said, locking the gorgeous thing by remote. "Where's Ms. Steel's office?"

Aha, Wade could be helpful here! "Up two flights of stairs, to the right, the door across from the gym," he answered, and was unable to help adding, "Your car is awesome. What kind is it?"

The guy grinned, "It is, isn't it? It's a Mitsubishi Hellspawn, Limited Edition. Last I checked, there were only a hundred in existence. Naturally I had to have one, and I got one of the last cars in stock. And let me tell you, it handles like a dream, and can go zero to eighty in like three seconds."

Wade wanted to plead, "Can I touch it?" but the man was already opening the door and going inside. So instead Wade set down his carrot sticks and pulled out his phone. He'd just take pictures from every angle, and drool over them with his friends.

Koumokuten mounted two flights of stairs, turned to the right, moved down the hallway, and stopped in front of the door opposite the gym. He knocked with the "Fear me peon" knock, and it echoed in the halls for that perfect effect.

Hell yeah.

"Come in!" a non-fearful woman's voice called, and he was a little disappointed. Still, he opened the door and strolled on in.

Aguni studied Tamara's father, and realized that that girl obviously resembled her mother's side of the family. He looked, not to put to fine a point on it, mean. His eyes were pinpoints of black with rather creepy lower lashes, his nose was sharp, his cheeks were hollow, and he apparently thought he was still a youngster because he had a triangular soul stripe, a ponytail, and stud earrings. He was wearing all black, and she somehow had the sense that he did that all the time.

"Mr. Koumokuten?" she tried to confirm. Perhaps this was actually a slasher off the street, in which case she would kick his head off. She continued, "I don't see your wife with you."

"Tamara's mother died four years ago," he informed her. "She slipped on soapy dishwater in our kitchen and bashed her head against the counter. And yes, I'm Xavier Koumokuten."

"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. Well," the gym teacher said, getting down to business, "I'm Aguni Steel, Mr. Koumokuten. Nice to meet you."

"And nice to meet you," he smiled, shaking her hand. He meant it. He'd been expecting some sort of androgyne with zero social skills and a mustache, but instead he'd gotten a babe: tall, blond, dark-skinned with exotic orange eyes and glossy red lips. She was probably a lesbian anyway, he sighed in his head, but damn.

"Mr. Koumokuten," Aguni began, "first let me say that although I have no children myself, I'm well aware of how difficult it is to raise them. I spend an awful lot of time trying to correct mistakes made by parents who just don't care: lying, slacking off, girls thinking their role in life is to be sexpots for the sole benefit of the masculine half of humanity. That last one wounds me deeply. Our sisters in the seventies didn't expend all that time and effort just so eight-year-olds could objectify themselves, date at age ten, and get pregnant by age twelve."

"So true," he replied fervently. "I think eighteen is the time to start dating. Good God, I see eleven-year-olds on the street wearing halter tops and Daisy Dukes! Sickening, don't you agree?"

He was, of course, A-okay with eighteen-and-over females wearing skimpy clothes, provided they weren't Tamara. He'd practically cried when she came home with a training bra years ago. Such was the life of a doting father who'd left "The Talk" up to Minnie and had vowed that anything sexual would be kept far, far away from his innocent offspring.

"It is sickening," Aguni smiled, relieved that Tamara's dad wasn't one of those parents who made you wonder if they were their kids' BFFs, not mom or dad. That little tart probably lied to her poor father. Aguni elaborated, "Goodness knows, I'm all for exploring one's basic human urges, but at the right time and in a safe manner after one's been educated on the good and the bad aspects of it."

"Ms. Steel, you are so right I can't believe it," Koumokuten told her. "Where were you when Tamara had her crush on the neighbor boy?" The clueless neighbor boy had been sixteen to Tamara's nine, and had narrowly escaped a gruesome punishment when Koumokuten got wind of his daughter's infatuation.

Aguni smiled, "Oh, I was probably out taking kickboxing classes so no meatheads could hit on me without consequence. We women need to show the world our power!"

He nodded in impressed agreement and proclaimed, "Ms. Steel, I must say as both a Marketing executive and a normal human being: you are something else." He made a frame with his hands, squinting one eye shut, and continued, "I look at you and I think two words."

She waited for the inevitable "psycho bitch," but instead she got, " 'Warrior woman.' You're the total package, Ms. Steel. Have you ever thought about becoming a spokeswoman for a feminist organization?"

She was suddenly more flattered than she'd ever been in her entire life, and practically giggled, "Why no, Mr. Koumokuten, I haven't." It was true, never judge a book by its cover!

He gave her an encouraging smile and told her, "You could rake in the cash. Why, you could be the next Gloria Steinem –" with a figure lesser females would kill for, "– or Hillary Clinton." But younger and with sexier hair.

Aguni gave him a roguish grin in return, and teased, "Just as long as I'm not… Margaret Thatcher!"

They both guffawed at that one, and a passing janitor cocked his head in confusion. Usually parent-teacher meetings with Aguni ended in blubbering, invariably on the parent's part.

"Ha-ha-ha-HAA!"

"BWA-HA-HA-HA!"

The janitor cringed. What was this, auditions for the next Bond nemesis?

"Anyway, Ms. Steel," Koumokuten chuckled, calming down, "Tamara gave me her word that she never fooled around with Milton. Is it possible you were mistaken? I mean, maybe she tripped and fell on top of him," he suggested, honestly believing that could very well be the case.

Aguni gave him an odd look and asked, "Is that what she told you? Mr. Koumokuten, her mouth was –"

"Oh my GAWD," he blurted, feeling sick to his stomach. "Was it really?"

She nodded almost happily and confirmed, "Yes indeed, Mr. Koumokuten. All the way to third base, rounding it and no doubt headed for home," she chatted, putting her feet on the desk. "Your daughter is quite the wild child. Very popular with the boys."

His face darkened like a thundercloud as he growled, "She told me she's never had sex! When I get home, I'm making her go to bed with no dinner and no dessert," he vowed.

"I think a much harsher punishment than that is called for," Aguni suggested, fiddling with her lariat. "A grounding, a moratorium on cellphone use, maybe a suspension of computer privileges?"

"A complete and total ban on boys," he said firmly. "She can't even see one for an entire year."

She reached out and knocked (gently) on his head, reminding him, "This is a coed school. That's impossible. Try the grounding and a lecture instead."

Koumokuten was rather impressed. No one else had the nerve to knock him (gently) on the head. Well, Melissa had banged on it sometimes, but he'd paid her back and then some, oh yes he had.

"Hmm. Maybe I'll take away her phone, put a password on her computer, and revoke mall privileges. Not to mention monitor her social life very, very closely," he decided. "It had to have been an outside influence, as I've made it very clear sex is for marriage."

It was Aguni's turn to smile an encouraging smile, and urge, "I think those are very good ideas, Mr. Koumokuten. The youth today face a host of rapacious forces waiting to tear them apart, such as derogatory messages in their music, drugs, free access to porn, and all those video games that turn them into couch potatoes." She made the last one sound the worst.

Ah, she was speaking Koumokuten's language. "It's up to us," he said grandly, "to negate those enemy hordes and pulverize them into submission. Ms. Steel, thanks so much for letting me know what Tamara's up to when I'm not watching."

Aguni smiled even wider, if that were possible. Finally, someone who didn't object to her metaphors and use of the term "rapacious" in a school setting. She liked this guy, she liked him quite a bit.

"You're very welcome, Mr. Koumokuten," she replied graciously. "I'm sure Tamara will think twice about putting out once you've finished with her."

They shook hands again, grinning rather evilly. Aguni would not want to be Tamara when her dad next saw her, not at all. She hoped the little brat would whine, and Koumokuten would beat her back into line with punishments galore. That would teach her to be a sexpot for the sole benefit of the masculine half of humanity.

"All teachers should be like you," Koumokuten enthused, standing up to leave. "Why, her English teacher thinks I'm too controlling."

Aguni made a "Pssh" noise of disbelief, and told him, "Mrs. Butterkin is one of those pushovers who thinks the little darlings' souls are being stifled by basic parental precautions. I shouldn't be telling you this, but I think she needs a stint in a boot camp for that."

"One with live ammo obstacle courses," he agreed wholeheartedly. "Well, thanks again. Have a great day, Ms. Steel."

With Aguni's cheery, "You too, Mr. Koumokuten!" ringing in the air behind him, the Marketing overlord sailed out to his car, making a group of JV cheerleaders squeak in fear as he passed. Tamara was in trouble. Big trouble, and not just for the sex thing.

She can't get away with lying to me like that, he thought as he buckled his seatbelt. First it's a blowjob under the bleachers, then it's running away from home to become a stripper, then before I know it she's a crack-addicted teen prostitute/mother with a forty-year-old boyfriend named "Weasel."

Conveniently forgetting his own adolescent adventure with his best friend's sister, Koumokuten vowed to stop this train while it could still be stopped. He'd never been so wild! He'd never blown a classmate in a public setting! (The first one was completely incorrect, the second one was Gospel true.)

And so, that evening, when Tamara entered the living room with five bags of expensive clothes, Koumokuten was waiting for her. With a glare, steepled fingers, and narrowed eyes. Her dad had the dubious talent of looking like a cross between Dracula and Emperor Palpatine while wearing a tie and Italian loafers, she thought as she gulped. It was the way he lurked in the shadows, she decided nervously.

She tried the "stupid" act, with a peppy, "Hi Daddy! Do you want to see the super-cute purse I –"

"No."

Uh-oh, scary voice! She thought desperately what act to use next. The "I love you, Daddy, you're the best father ever" approach? The "I have a headache, I'll talk to you tomorrow" approach? Or the distraction one? Or the "I'm sad" one? Or the –

"Tamara." Oh no ,it was "Master and Commander" time. "I've figured out that not only did you indeed fool around with Milton, but you lied to me," Koumokuten intoned, his pupils tiny pinpricks of rage. "Explain yourself."

Tamara's bags fell out of her hands, and she didn't even notice. "Well, um… he made me do it!" she said quickly, throwing Milton to the wolves. In fact, Milton had done nothing of the sort, although of course he hadn't said "no."

Koumokuten's brows lowered even more as he replied, "If he truly did, I will hunt him down and make sure he's never able to do so again. That's a very serious accusation, which could result in jail time for your friend. So tell me honestly, Tamara… did he?"

He was using the stare, the one that made you want to check for burn holes. He hadn't used it on her since she was six and broke his favorite award, then tried to say a burglar did it. It was unnerving, and for a moment she considered perjury, and insisting that Milton had assaulted her. But all her friends would testify in court that he hadn't, and that bitch Steel would simply give the world a detailed account of what she'd seen and heard. And then Tamara's dad would never trust her again, plus she'd probably be slapped with a giant fine.

So she did the right thing: "Um… no, Daddy. I was, um, lying about that," she admitted, looking down at the floor.

Koumokuten nodded slowly and murmured, "Good. But Tamara, now you've not only engaged in underage sexual activities and lied to me earlier, but you just lied again and tried to have Milton take the fall, which would have resulted in a permanent citation on his record. That's not okay, Tamara."

His voice was getting louder, even as he stayed still like some sort of vulture perched on designer furniture, snapping, "Clearly I've given you too much freedom. Clearly you've taken advantage of my trusting nature. Clearly you're becoming that girl, the one who manipulates and puts out for anyone and pulls the wool over her stupidly naïve parents' eyes!"

Now he was yelling, and still motionless save for his face as he told her, "So tomorrow, you have an appointment with a gynecologist to check for STDs! I am very disappointed in you! So I'm taking away your phone, I've put a password on your computer, and if you ever do anything like this again, I'm cutting off your allowance and sending you to a therapist!"

Tamara's eyes widened in horror. Not the allowance! She needed that money! The phone and computer and doctor were bad enough, but what kind of monster would take away a girl's only flow of cash, when the Halloween dance was coming up and she needed a new dress?!

He uncurled from the chair and loomed over her, holding out a hand and demanding, "Phone. Now!" he thundered, in uncanny imitation of James Earl Jones.

She found herself nodding mutely and passing it over, shaking like a leaf. He was pissed.

She rallied a tiny party of resistance against the battalion that was Koumokuten in Parent Mode, pleading, "Daddy, it's not like I'm the only one who does it! Everybody fools around these days! But I promise not to do it again if you'll unlock my computer," she wheedled, waving a little white flag of compromise.

The occupying general demanded unconditional surrender, with an unimpressed, "Uh-uh. You won't do it again, but that password stays on. And this phone will be locked up. It's called 'punishment,' Tamara. Now go to your room."

She tried to resist, she really did, but he was practically hypnotic in Parent Mode. She turned like a puppet on a string, leaving her bags behind, and ran up the stairs to escape. She locked her door, sweating, then flopped down on her bed. Okay, so she'd never try that again…

Down in the living room, Koumokuten grinned proudly. Ha, he'd shown her. Power was awesome, and now he almost wished she'd argued so he could have wielded it some more. With visions of himself striking a conquering pose over a pile of corpses labeled "Disobedience," he strolled into the study, opened the safe, and stuck his daughter's phone inside while humming a triumphant little tune.

Then he smacked his forehead, reopened the safe, and turned the phone off, then spun the lock. Couldn't have that thing ringing incessantly, after all.

.

The very next weekend, Koumokuten put the kickstand down on his expensive mountain bike and took off his helmet, taking in the many colors of autumn on the Gateway to the West bike trail. Soon the trees would be bare and everything would be brown and dead-looking, but for now, the forest looked like it was on fire. He had a lovely little fantasy of the forest actually on fire, as he laughed his best bad guy laugh from the deck of a chopper: "Ha, fear me, Nature! That'll take care of your buckthorn problem!"

He sipped some water from his water bottle, looking around. Squirrels were running around with nuts, birds were flying south, some woman was climbing a tree – Whoa, some woman was climbing a tree. What kind of weirdo climbed a tree after age thirteen?

He noticed a bike even more hardcore than his leaned against said tree, and a helmet with a flaming rose on it hanging off the handlebars. The bike itself was metallic red, with little gold fireballs on the body. And it looked like it was ridden hard, judging by the mud splashed everywhere. And the bits of grass too. And, on the front wheel, what might have been the pulverized remains of a field mouse.

He studied Tree Woman. Was this some sort of environmental protest? Would she chain herself to the branches and sing "We Shall Not Be Moved"? Or was she insane, and reliving her childhood wearing bike shorts, bike gloves, and elbow pads?

She was blond, he could tell that much. Long hair, hanging down to her lower back, and dark-skinned. And fit, with a great – well, never mind that now. So he moved closer, purely to see if she were in need of any help. Really.

"Hey! You okay up there?" he called, shielding his face from the rain of bark and twigs she was dislodging as she scrambled ever higher. She swung herself onto a branch and peered down at him, replying, "Yes, I'm completely… Mr. Koumokuten?"

He blinked up at her and asked, "Ms. Steel?"

Aguni beamed, perched on a branch like a lioness wearing a "Pain Is Weakness Leaving The Body" shirt, and cheerfully greeted, "Fancy meeting you here! Do you come here often? Isn't it just a great trail, definitely not for wimps?"

Koumokuten nodded, reading her shirt. Really. "Yeah, I live pretty close. I see you love biking," he told her, making conversation with the tools he had at hand.

"I do," she enthused, dangling a foot off the branch. "Biking works the quads like nothing else! And it's so beautiful out now. That's why I'm in the tree, you see. To get a panoramic view at the top."

Koumokuten thought that made much more sense than his earlier attempts at a reason, and smiled, "That's great. I bet you can see for miles, huh?" he asked politely.

"Yes." She thought for a moment, and then suggested, "Why don't you come on up too? Climbing trees is good exercise, and it'll work muscles not used in biking. You look like you know all about keeping in shape," she complimented, beaming down at him.

He attempted a nonchalant shrug and a modest, "Oh, you know, you hit forty and you either step it up or turn into a blob. If you think I'm in good shape you should see a friend of mine. He's older than I am and could probably lift a conference table and hurl it out the window."

Aguni was uninterested in Zouchouten. After all, Zouchouten wasn't standing right in front of her wearing bike shorts and a tight-fitting t-shirt. She adored strong, muscular men, and while this one didn't have the handsome face she so often went for, at least he had a nice body.

"C'mon, I'll help you up," she cajoled. "Most of us quit climbing trees when we're kids, but it should come back to you! Like riding a bike or driving a car, you never really forget the basics."

Koumokuten decided that what the hell, it might be fun, and agreed, "Okay. Um, will the branches on top really hold me, though?"

Aguni nodded, "Yes, this is an old oak, very sturdy. And we won't go all the way to the top. You'll be amazed at how beautiful the woods look from on high, just like they're on, well –"

They said it together, grinning: "Fire."

And so Xavier Koumokuten, voted "Most Likely to Start a Third World War" in high school and "Marketing Executive of the Decade" by "Forbes," scrambled up an oak tree with his daughter's gym teacher. As Tamara sulked and tried to hack her computer, Aguni and Koumokuten admired the lovely forest-that-looks-like-it's-on-fire. And once they'd come back to earth, he made a decision that would have far-reaching effects.

"Ms. Steel, I know this great little coffeeshop that has the best cider in town. Want to join me?" he offered, a coaxing tone in his voice.

She lit up, because cider was a lovely drink and she could afford some excess sugars anyway. She grinned, "Well sure. And you can call me Aguni. 'Ms. Steel' sounds so formal, and we're not in school now, after all."

"And I'm Xavier," he smiled, getting onto his bike. "It's not far, just about five miles from the park entrance. I go there all the time, they know me by name."

This was, in a way, true. The staff did know Koumokuten's first name, but mostly they referred to him as, "That creepy guy with the scary eyes. You know, the one who never tips and demands 'warm but not hot' cider."

Indeed, the barista on duty paled ever so slightly at the sight of smirking Koumokuten accompanied by a woman who looked just as scary as he did. Double trouble, he could tell that already. Why oh why had he switched with Barry to have this shift? If he hadn't, he would have worked tomorrow and not today.

"Er, hi there, Cree– Xavier," he greeted nervously. "Your, um, your usual?"

Koumokuten nodded imperiously at the peon and ordered, "Two, actually." He turned to Aguni, who was starting to protest that she'd buy her own cider, and cut her off with, "No no, Aguni, it's on me. In thanks."

She acquiesced gracefully, and Bob the Barista had a horrible premonition of these awful people holding hands and cooing in front of the smoking wreckage of a museum. Or other important public building.

"Ma'am, do you want your cider hot or cold?" he asked meekly.

Aguni imitated her companion's imperiousness and commanded, "Cold. In fact, I want ice."

Bob nodded, mentally muttering that he really shouldn't even bother asking, because it wasn't like Creepy Guy would tip anyway. Bob could have handed Koumokuten his cider in a bejeweled golden cup and he wouldn't see an extra penny. Sigh.

Koumokuten and Aguni spent a lovely half-hour talking about all that was wrong with the world, and how if they were in charge things would be whipped into shape. As the minutes ticked by, she started to realize a couple things. The first was that Koumokuten was a violent, arrogant, cutthroat bastard… and the second was that, partially because of this, she liked him a lot. Really a lot. "Where have you been all my life?" a lot.

As he listed the many faults of Habitat for Humanity, she thought about that. Now, this was a student's dad, a student who was whiny and petty and thought she was exempt from the rules. That really was a big red flag. Maybe she should try to resist this attraction, or it might lead to trouble.

On the other hand…

A vision of her mother popped into her mind, burbling, "Aguni honey, you remember Winston Cummings? From sixth grade? He asked about you the other day, and I said you'd have dinner with him. You know, he's such a nice man, and his acne's loads better now. And dear, get this: he's a teacher too. Kindergarten, and the kiddos just adore him! And I think he volunteers at the homeless shelter on the weekends –"

"…And the shiftless lower classes," Koumokuten was saying, "make me sick. Sitting around getting fat and holding out their hands to the government, like it was set up to help the masses. I swear, if we could throw all the welfare queens and ghetto hoodlums into a meat grinder, we'd be so much better off."

Reba tried, "Aguni? Aguni, Winston really likes you. He's a very sweet man! Aguni? Aguni! You are not to get involved with this psychopath! Never mind that those bike shorts –"

Aguni made Mother Conscience take a jog, in combat gear. With no water. The last point was a compelling push in the right direction, in addition to such deeply held convictions and the guts to say such a controversial thing aloud.

"Xavier, that's so true," she agreed. "They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. All they do is drain society's resources and never give a thing back!"

Koumokuten nodded happily and replied, "Yeah. A hard day's work never hurt anybody."

He looked down at his empty cider cup, and faced a dilemma. He'd finished it long ago, and she'd just finished hers, and if he tried to make her stay she might think he was hitting on her. As most women tried to get away from him as soon as possible, he was really rather loath to relinquish this one's company. Aha, he could order something else!

"Aguni, I'm still thirsty," he informed her, smiling. "I need some coffee. Would you like some too?"

She hastily nodded as well, replying, "Thank you, that would be lovely. I'd like a… a caramel macchiato. That's my favorite."

Unaware that his business life was taking a turn towards something that would forever frustrate an upcoming assistant, Koumokuten decided to throw caution to the winds and try something new. Vanilla frappuccinos were good and all, but she seemed convinced that the other way was good as well.

He agreed, "That sounds great. I'll have one too." He stood up, strolled to the counter, and demanded Bob make two caramel macchiatos, "One iced, one warm, but not hot. I don't want the roof of my mouth burned."

Bob, who had been unable to help hearing the conversation about the evils of charity and compassion, briefly considered giving Koumokuten scalding hot coffee as an act of justice. However, he had the distinct sense Mr. Motherfucker would dump it over his head and yell, "I'll sue you for that!"

So he made the coffee to order, expected no tip or thanks, and was not disappointed. He sighed as Aguni beamed and took her macchiato, like it was tribute to an Amazon queen. Oh well, maybe that museum would collapse on these nutjobs while they were all googly-eyed.

Finally, a further hour having passed, Aguni stood up reluctantly and sighed, "I have to be going, Xavier. I need to mow my lawn before it rains later."

Koumokuten, who had been marveling at the wonder that was a caramel macchiato, felt rather let down. Well, he told himself, she'd probably been waiting for an excuse to leave, and was too polite to just walk out on him. (As Aguni had once walked out on a man who'd bought her roses, chocolates, and a fabulous dinner, this was laughable.)

And then…

"Xavier, I had a wonderful time," she smiled, patting his shoulder. "Let's do it again next weekend."

A blinding vision arose in his mind's eye: the two of them biking down a trail, crushing caterpillars and beetles under their wheels, beaming and having a grand old time before being forced to sit at a tiny table here because all the other ones were taken. And what a shame, their legs would bump and they'd have to stare into each other's eyes. And then he could say something like, "You have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen. So exotic."

He blinked, rather stunned. Wow, this was unexpected. Okay yeah, she was hot and fun, but she was… twenty-something? Early thirties? And his daughter's gym teacher who Tamara hated.

A tiny, withered husk of What Would People Think? pointed out that this was a bad, bad path to go down. Business executives who went gaga over younger women tended to be firmly inside a midlife crisis, and invariably ended up embroiled in a paternity suit, a sexual harassment suit, or so out of it they made mistakes and got themselves fired. But Koumokuten was a risk-taker, one who usually figured, "I want it, I should get it, get out of my way so I can take it." And truly, what was the harm in a bike ride with a woman who thought like he did about so many things? Maybe they'd just be friends, and he could admire her physique surreptitiously.

So he grinned and proclaimed, "I'd love that, Aguni. How does three o'clock by that tree sound?"

.

The next weekend, Tamara peered over her "TeenStyle" magazine as her dad hummed some weird '80s song ("Hot-Blooded" by Foreigner) and fixed his ponytail, wearing black bike pants, a black bike shirt, and tiny hoop earrings instead of the usual studs.

"Daddy," she pouted, "stop humming! I'm trying to read."

Koumokuten rolled his eyes and turned, pointing out, "Now Tamara, when you sing that… that Ke$ha song about the clock I let you do it. Now, I'm going for my bike ride. Stay out of trouble – in fact, do your homework. I'll be back in a couple hours."

She gave him in incredulous look, and pointed to the window. "In that?" she asked, in appalled tones.

Rain lashed the windowpanes, and muted, far-off thunder rumbled in the background. It was most definitely not optimal weather for going for a bike ride, not at all. He might even get electrocuted!

But he nodded firmly, undeterred by a mere thunderstorm, and answered, "Yes honey, in that. I won't let a little water from the sky cheat me of my exercise! I'll have my phone in the waterproof bag, so I'll be just fine."

Tamara considered this. Something was amiss.

She pointed out, "Daddy, you complained when we had to walk through the rain on the way to the car two weeks ago. Remember? After the doctor's appointment."

"Tamara," Koumokuten sighed, like his daughter was a suspicious little ninny, "I was wearing my best work pants then. Now I'm wearing exercise clothes, so it's A-okay. Now put down that schlock and do your math homework."

She obeyed, waved goodbye… and put down the math homework and went right back to "TeenStyle." As she checked off her answers for a "Which heartthrob is right for you?" quiz, she pondered her father's sudden odd behavior. Either all that celery had gone to his brain, or there was something he wasn't telling her. Although celery was the Devil, she was pretty sure that wasn't entirely it. Was he meeting someone?

Hmm, that might be it. Maybe it was an old friend. Maybe it was Zouchouten, who liked to take long hikes and say things like, "Look at that waterfall, Tamara! Aren't you glad we trekked six whole miles to watch water go over rocks?" (Well, he didn't say it exactly like that, but that was how she took it.)

Yeah, maybe that tree-hugging loser had convinced Koumokuten to come with him to watch the salamanders spawn, and Koumokuten was smart enough to realize that his daughter would think he was a loser too if he told her about it. Maybe Zouchouten was even now grinning up at the sky and saying, "Ah, rain… you think you can defeat my Ranger Rick enthusiasm for nature? Guess again, rain, guess again."

At that very moment, however, Zouchouten was comfortably ensconced on his couch wearing fluffy slippers and composing a love letter to his assistant, trying to think up a good following line to "And when you smile at me, I see the azure of the heavens in your eyes, drawing me on to nirvana." Note the complete lack of hiking boots and salamanders, which do not breed in the fall.

When Koumokuten came back four hours later, soaked to the bone and with a dorky expression on his face, Tamara had made sure to pull her math homework out again. Camouflage, that was the key. She waved and chirped, "Hi Daddy! Did you have fun?"

She expected a groan of "Sweetie, that man is a hippie who belongs in a Sierra Club commune. I never want to see a salamander again." Instead, she got a blinding smile and a chuckled, "Why yes I did, honey. Lots of fun."

He mentally elaborated, Wet Spandex on a babe is always fun, especially if said babe is checking you out too, and laughing at all your jokes.

Tamara, poor unsuspecting Tamara, decided that her father was turning into a Zouchouten-clone, one who would drag her out to watch the mosquitoes swarm next summer. Oh dear.

.

The next morning found Koumokuten back at work, and Rudra holding out his Starbucks like a bribe to stop a conquering horde.

"Mr. Koumokuten, here's your coffee. I've also – I've also faxed that new proposal to Mr. Taishakuten, and I put your best suit in your car, like you told me to? You know, the one you had me get dry-cleaned on Friday? I'm on top of it, sir," Rudra meekly assured his boss.

Koumokuten just raised an eyebrow, unimpressed with Rudra's dutiful actions. Surely all executive assistants did the same thing. Why did this fool keep smiling like he was waiting for praise?

"And," Rudra said proudly, "I've worked out an arrangement with Starbucks that for a whole year, they'll have your vanilla frappuccinos ready and waiting to be picked up, at a lower total price."

Koumokuten just shrugged, "That's too bad, because now I've decided I want caramel macchiatos." No more vanilla frappuccinos for him, because caramel macchiatos were where it was at. Not to mention that they reminded him of all the fun he'd had with Aguni.

Rudra gaped, then protested, "But… but Mr. Koumokuten sir, I paid for them already and signed a legally-binding contra–"

"That's your own fault," Koumokuten informed him. "Percy, I want my macchiatos, and if I don't get them I'll be very upset." He handed the coffee back to Rudra, ordering, "Now go and get me one."

Rudra stared at the coffee, stared at Koumokuten, stared into space… and suddenly hurled the frappuccino at the wall as hard as he could. Heads all over the room looked up in interest as it hit the wall, because it looked like the Marketing VP was about to lose another assistant.

"Get your OWN caramel macchiatos!" the assistant screamed, as Vahyu dropped his phone at the sudden spray of liquid feathering onto his face.

"You have the most ridiculous, conceited, idiotic demands EVER!" Rudra ranted, waving his arms around. "'Pick up my dry-cleaning, Percy!' 'Mow my lawn, Percy!' 'Plant that tack on Aaron's chair, Percy!' And how could I forget 'Drive my bratty daughter to the mall, Percy!' Well no more!

"I quit!" he shrieked, shaking a hysterical index finger in Koumokuten's face. "I was never cut out to be an office slave anyway! I'm going into modern art, and my opus will be entitled 'Bastard Boss from the Infernal Realms'! Mr. Koumokuten, fuck you!"

The entire room gaped at this unexpected drama, riveted. Vahyu wiped the side of his face and pushed back a lock of coffee-dewed hair to get a better view of the action. Dear lord… and he'd thought Deva's blowup had been entertaining! It would be hard to top this one. All Deva had done was smack his boss upside the head with a notebook, but Rudra was raging and swearing, vowing to get revenge through modern art, after hurling the guy's coffee too.

Rudra was now breathing hard, looking both crazed and incredibly relieved, and Koumokuten was staring at him like he was faced with a mental patient off his meds. Finally he spoke, with a harsh, "Percy, if you want to throw away your life on performance art –"

"Modern art, you Philistine of a slavedriver!"

"– Be that way," Koumokuten continued, not even acknowledging the interruption. "You can clean out your desk right now and give up the best job you'll ever land, you incompetent lackey."

Rudra nodded quickly and replied, "Bye, fucker. Have fun burning in Hell!" With that, he practically capered over to his desk, whistling "Fly Like an Eagle."

Clearly, here was a man who'd been holding back a lot of vitriol, Vahyu thought clinically. With Koumokuten suddenly powerless over him (even a scathing review on a resúmé call would have little effect on a modern artist), Rudra was giddy with joy. He probably would do a little happy dance while waiting for the elevator.

Koumokuten gave him a poisonous glare and snarled, "Bye, Percy. Have fun starving on the street, you avant-garde idiot."

He stalked into his office, slammed the door, and immediately called HR. He snapped, "Caroline? This is Xavier from Marketing. I need a new assistant, ASAP…"

.

As Koumokuten was demanding another office slave, Aguni was perched on the gym bleachers, having instructed the worms – er, students – to engage in a horrible activity that should have been banned by the Geneva Convention: aerobics. Not the goofy Richard Simmons kind, either. This particular DVD featured a trainer called "Mad Dog Matilda," and was often used in gyms where the women had worked off all feminine fat curves. Aguni followed that DVD at home all the time, and managed to retain the curves that Koumokuten had so appreciated yesterday, if his staring had been any indication. Sometimes life was truly unfair, that such a woman could still be a D-cup.

She smiled at the rafters, completely unaware that Cindia was about to collapse. Why, she'd been afraid Koumokuten wouldn't show up that rainy day, but how wrong she'd been. He'd been there early, wringing water out of that sexy, bad-boy ponytail under the oak.

She was in the infatuation stage, when the recipient of your affections could do no wrong and was the best individual the world had ever known. To think she'd wasted her time with cookie-cutter, blandly good-looking hunks who thought soup kitchens were a good thing. She hugged her knees, still smiling at the ceiling. Who needed Winston? She had Koumokuten, who had gallantly paid for all three of her drinks this time too.

"Ms. Steel?" a student whined, holding up a hand. "Ms. Steel, I'm about to throw up…"

Aguni blinked at this audacity. Couldn't these weaklings see she was thinking?! "You may sit down and put your head between your knees, Tamara. Then have some water," she decreed.

The student gave her a weird look, telling her, "I'm Matthew, Ms. Steel."

A quickly-stifled snigger floated in the air as she blinked again and muttered, "Oh. Yes. Matthew. Well, same thing."

As Matthew took deep, calming, much-needed breaths, Aguni returned to her contemplation of the rafters, forgetting everyone else with ease. Koumokuten was so much more interesting, and she had the sense he could have kept up with the DVD. And he'd asked her to dinner! What should she wear?

The orange dress with the sequins? The orange dress with the wrap skirt? Or maybe the orange dress with the built-in bustier?

She owned very few "va-va-voom" dresses that weren't orange. One was black, because no woman's wardrobe was complete without the little black dress. Then there was… the red one. The red one was a dream in silk, clingy and low-cut, fitting like a glove and used only once before, back when she'd had to show up her sister. Who cared if it had been Pam's engagement celebration? Pam was always getting all the attention anyway.

She's a physicist, so what? I'm the pretty one.

But the red dress was a weapon that must be used sparingly, she cautioned herself. It was too soon. Hopefully someday, but not now. So, the black dress! Koumokuten loved black, and he'd match it too. Yes, they'd be the perfect, well-dressed couple at Le Maison Jeanne-Claudette, and then –

"Ms. Steel? Ms. Steel, the DVD's skipping."

Aguni glared at Wade, who was being glared at by everyone else too, and snapped, "Fine. I'll take it out and clean it." Stupid fat child… next week they'd do long-distance running just to punish him, she decided.

Wade smiled hopefully and went on, "I wanted to tell you earlier, but Tyler threatened to beat me up."

Tyler, a quarterback who was so dumb he was in remedial-remedial English (but he could throw a ball, so he got a scholarship), paled and gulped. "No! No, I didn't!" he pleaded, being completely untruthful.

Aguni leveled a glare at the scum beneath her boot, and barked, "Tyler! We do not threaten fellow students!"

So she cleaned the DVD, made sure Matthew was all right, and gave Tyler detention, all on autopilot. She smiled at Tamara, who shrank back a bit in fear. She watched all the little whiners trudge off to change back into their uniforms when it was time, and wondered what jewelry to wear.

To think, I almost said "yes" to that Winston date.

.

Le Maison Jeanne-Claudette was enjoyable, and yes, Koumokuten had been wearing black too. And he'd made the waitress tear up, no mean feat in a fancy French restaurant, and even gotten the manager out to apologize. Oh, this was one for the books, he'd thought proudly. And Aguni had been impressed by his scathing comments and obstinate nastiness! Why, Melissa had hidden her face behind the menu. But this one had egged him on, and complimented his strength of character in being so mean.

And next week's Italian restaurant date, he grinned to himself, would be just as enjoyable. Maybe later he could help Aguni into her car, or something equally dashing, like… like… hmm. What did dashing studs do? So he consulted an expert at one of the morning briefings.

"Hey Reginald, you're suave and debonair. When you and your wife go out, what do you do?" he asked, as casually as he could so nobody would make fun of his lack of social skills.

Bishamonten deadpanned, "Eat."

Koumokuten frowned at such an unhelpful attitude, grumbling, "Besides eat, and pay ridiculous fees."

Bishamonten put down his coffee and folded his hands on the conference table, looking rather annoyed, and answered, "My wife and I discuss important issues and soak in the ambience. If we're feeling really wild," he said sarcastically, "we agonize over whether we should have dessert or not."

As Zouchouten studied Koumokuten intently, the head of Marketing folded his hands as well. "Yes, I'm sure you do. Sounds thrilling, and I can see why she fell in love with you," he replied, equally sarcastically. "My God man, help me out here, I have a –"

"Gentlemen, I have arrived," Taishakuten informed the world, swooping into the conference room. "Enough idle chitchat."

Once the meeting was over, Bishamonten strolled off to make some calls, leaving Koumokuten high and dry from the waters of dashing romance. He gathered his things into his briefcase, glowering at the table. That redheaded prick… he had those eyelashes women went nuts for, and that whole "I'm a cultured, handsome catch" attitude. Damn it all, he should be hung by his toes and –

"You pull out her chair, hold doors, hold her hand, ask for and value her input in the wine selection, and make sure not to bring up issues you know you'll disagree on," a bass voice said from behind him, sounding amused and intrigued. "And most women like flowers too."

Koumokuten stared at Zouchouten, who was holding his own briefcase and smiling as he paternally added, "And Xavier, try not to insult the waiter."

"She likes when I insult the waiter," Koumokuten protested, a bit stunned. "And… how the hell do you know all that, Aaron? You don't date."

Zouchouten sighed, a rather annoyed look on his face, and told him, "I'm kind of fifty years old. If you think I was an ascetic monk you're stupid." He cocked his head ever so slightly to the side as he asked, "Who is she?"

"My daughter's gym teacher," Koumokuten admitted, picking up his coffee. "She's great."

"Ah." Zouchouten seemed a little perturbed now, and nervously queried, "Isn't that a bit, er… against regulations?"

"Regulations," Koumokuten said pointedly, "are just guidelines, really. Like the one that says, 'Thou shalt not covet thy assistant,' " he smirked, hitting below the belt and mentally sneering, Take that, Aaron! We all know you'd like nothing more than to pull Ellen into a conference room and get naked on the table. Well, all of us except Ellen.

Zouchouten's expression changed from slightly disturbed to very annoyed, with a tinge of anger and a dash of embarrassment. He protested, "That's completely inappropriate, Xavier. I don't – I don't covet my assistant!"

He was lying like a rug. Karura was indeed coveted, but in an "I really shouldn't but I can't help it" way, not an "I think I'll have a fling with my sexy assistant!" way. After all, he wrote her love notes that he'd never send and had an iPod playlist called "Reminds Me of Ellen."

Koumokuten saw right through Zouchouten's lie, and smirked, "Right Aaron. Right. Well, thanks for the tips." And with that he strolled out, off to meet his new assistant.

Edward Varuna, he realized a few days later, wasn't like Rudra. He obeyed without question, seemed completely cowed, and never, ever called his superior the "Bastard Boss from the Infernal Realms," or threw coffee around. Excellent, maybe this one would last a little longer. And he got on well with Vahyu, although Koumokuten had to wonder if Vahyu's motives were pure. After all, the man was gayer than a maypole and occasionally said things like, "Reginald looks yummy today," or, "Mr. Taishakuten can really fill out those slacks, huh?"

These invariably earned him a glare, a lecture on propriety, and a muttered, "Fag," from Koumokuten. Vahyu rolled with it though, because he knew where he stood and the overwhelming scientific evidence that said homosexuality was indeed natural. And if Xavier "Homophobe" Koumokuten couldn't appreciate the Ad Manager's beauty, too bad for him, the ugly fool.

Koumokuten appraised Varuna and Vahyu eating lunch together, Varuna nodding at something Vahyu was saying. Koumokuten thought that was, "Edward, your forelock turns me on. Do you want to join me for a night of deviancy?"

Instead, it was, "Hey, club is my favorite type of sandwich! Is it yours too?"

The head of Marketing made a face and twirled his lo mein on a fork. Sick, sick, sick, just like Victor Kujaku and James Yasha. Those two were queer to the extreme, and either Bishamonten was blind to it or… or secretly joined in? In some sort of pretty-man, Expansion triangle that Kisshouten never knew about?

Koumokuten hastily drank his Powerade as a distraction. He wasn't going there, thank you. Instead, he'd forcibly steer his attention to… Aguni! Yes, gorgeous, wonderful, goddess-like Aguni, who thought he was hot. He wasn't stupid, and while he was still a little surprised by it, he wasn't about to look a gift babe in the mouth. And how long had it been? Four years? No wait, Dublin, so two years.

That's a long time to go without getting laid, Masculinity whined (in a manly way, of course). Not to mention Melissa kept using the headache excuse. Oh God, I don't want to turn into Aaron!

Soon, libido, he soothed in his head. She likes us, after all. But we can't move too fast and scare her away! Not to mention Tamara might hit the roof if we invite Sexy Aguni home. Or stay away for a night.

Well, what about –?

"Hello Xavier. May I sit down?"

He blinked and looked up at Bishamonten, who was holding a tray and smiling his "Notice my perfect teeth!" smile. And dear God, the man's hair was gleaming, how did he get it to do that? No matter what conditioner, shampoo, or serum Koumokuten used, his hair stayed dull black. The curse of being the unattractive one.

The handsome one smiled some more and teased, "Cat got your tongue, Xavier? May I sit down?"

Koumokuten nodded, smiling as well in a "Notice how I'm trying to be nice!" manner, and agreed, "Sure, Reginald. You go right ahead. I was just thinking of a problem I have to overcome."

Bishamonten sat down, placing his tray of lo mein and lemonade on the table and glancing at Vahyu and Varuna. "Is that your new assistant, with the, er… unique hair?" he asked, rather condescendingly.

Koumokuten replied, "Yeah," his eyes glued to Bishamonten's even more unique hair. "Eddie there is still living in the eighties, I think."

At least with a low ponytail you could look rebellious in any era, he congratulated himself. And not risk having Vahyu think you were at least bi with your girly high ponytail and equally girly eyes. So maybe the eyelashes were a burden after all.

Bishamonten frowned, studying Koumokuten's minions, and observed, "Mr. Varuna seems rather flustered about something. Is Charles hitting on him already?"

Koumokuten sighed, picking up more lo mein, and muttered, "He hit on Percy on day one, and that namby-pamby 'artistic soul' hid in the bathroom. If Edward tries that I'm dragging him back out."

Unbeknownst to the Senior Vice Presidents, Vahyu was regaling his new friend with tales of their boss' "bad guy" moments. No wonder Varuna looked scared.

.

When, days later, it was time for the next dinner date, Koumokuten told Tamara a bald-faced lie: "Sweetie? I have another business dinner. Make sure to work on your chemistry homework extra hard, okay?"

"Daddy, since when do business dinners require a boutonniere?" she asked, a bit suspicious.

Koumokuten glanced down at the yellowish-orange rose (Aguni had informed him of her pyromaniacal tendencies by this point), and answered, "Since Taishakuten decreed that they do. Hopefully it's just this once, honey," he smiled, then had a genius idea. Cackling inside, he asked pleasantly, "You know, Tamara, you're old enough to start attending these dinners. Maybe next time you'd like to come with?"

She hated his work life, except, of course, the part about making gobs of money that could be spent on her. So she quickly lost all interest in his outing, and simpered, "No, Daddy. Um, I'll just go do my chemistry homework now."

He sighed, like he was so disappointed, and told her, "Okay then, honey, I'll be back later. Bye."

And he utilized every weapon Zouchouten had handed him. He gave Aguni flowers, which matched his boutonniere. He held doors, then let them slam in the face of an elderly lady after Aguni had passed through. He pulled out her chair, he held her hand, he let her pick the wine and avoided any talk of Tamara. She was flattered, and decided that he had passed the trials of "Potential Boyfriend" with flying colors. So Reba could suck it, because not only did Koumokuten despise people weaker than him, he thought the pyromania was intriguing. Plus he'd held doors!

"Xavier," she told him as they ate dessert, "every time we're together I have so much fun with you. Why, these dinners are even more enjoyable than when my last boyfriend and I went whitewater rafting!"

Koumokuten considered how to reply to this. His gut reaction was to grin, "Why Aguni, this is better than when my bitch wife and I went to see that stupid opera, and our vacation to Guam, and even when we went horseback riding and she got bucked off. I spend so much time looking forwards to them, you have no idea."

However, it might scare her if he told her dinners with her were better than things done with his deceased wife, so he settled for a heartfelt, "I'm glad to hear that, because when I'm with you time flies. Because we're having fun," he qualified rather clumsily.

"Yes we are," she replied fervently, toasting him with her wine. "We think alike on so many topics. And Xavier, I have to tell you, you look good in black."

"And you look good in orange," he returned, toasting her back. "It makes you look so… fiery."

Okay, she told herself as they got up to leave, he has proven himself worthy. So it's time to ramp it up to the next level. And that level is: Level K, for "kiss." Plant one on him! Grab him and mash your lips together! Leave him lipstick-stained and stunned at your divine passion, Aguni!

But wait, a tiny dissenting voice piped up. That's what we did with Henry! Men like to think they initiated such an act. So –

"Can I walk you to your car?" Koumokuten asked gallantly, having put his coat on. "It's dark after all." He was well aware that Aguni would probably step on the heads of any muggers even if she were wearing heels, but shh, he was being dashing!

"That's so sweet," she sighed, taking his arm. "Yes, yes you can walk me to my car. Because like you said, it's dark, and I might get scared."

A passing waiter rolled his eyes. Who wrote the material for these people anyway?

Koumokuten held the door again, fixed his tie, and escorted his date to her red sports car. Being a teacher usually meant secondhand, but being a teacher at Rosehedge Academy meant decent wheels. This one had a personalized license plate too, one that said "IGNITE," with a stylized flame border.

"Aguni," he told her, "I had a wonderful time tonight. I mean, really wonderful."

"So did I," she downright tittered, leaning in ever so slightly and thinking, Take the bait, Xavier. Aren't I just so kissable?

"Say," he murmured, leaning in as well, "I think you owe me something for such a good time, don't you?" His half-lidded eyes and pursed lips left little doubt as to what she owed him, and she was more than happy to pony up.

"Okay then," she whispered, tilting her head up just as he tilted his down. And yes… contact! In her head, she cheered, Houston, we have liplock! Ha-ha, yes!

Smooching in a public place… wasn't it fun? You told the world, "I like this person enough to engage in displays of affection where other people can see us!" Unfortunately, just as Koumokuten's tongue touched Aguni's lips, a sudden honk from behind made them both jump. WTF?!

"Hey!" an irate voice snapped, its owner having rolled the window down. "I'd like to park right where you're standing!"

Koumokuten flipped the driver off, in a move that was both immature and completely in character. How dare this buffoon ruin such a moment? What he would give for some nails to put under Mr. Impatient's tires. Or a rock to heave through his windshield. The spell had regrettably been broken, but then… he had a genius idea.

"Aguni," he told her as they got out of Mr. Impatient's way, "Tamara will be gone the week after next at a slumber party. Would you like to come over, and I can cook you dinner?"

Yeah! He'd show off his culinary skills! He'd make something macho, like steak, or his Alaskan salmon, a nice manly recipe, not as manly as on a grill but oh well, it was November by now. She'd be so impressed with his primal "I am male! I cook my prey!" bit.

She certainly was now, and smiled, "Oh yes, that'd be lovely! I didn't know you were into cooking."

"I'm competent enough at it," he said, using the "Aw shucks, I'm brilliant at it but pretend to be humble" voice and shrug. "Do you like salmon? I have this great recipe I think you'll enjoy, because it's so spicy Tamara's eyes tear up. I love spicy food."

Aguni's mouth was watering already. "I love spicy food too! You obviously noticed that by now," she smirked, nudging him in the ribs.

"I did," he replied proudly. His god-like observational skills had picked up on that fact, and now it would be put to good use.

So he gave her one more kiss, this time without being interrupted, opened her car door for her, and drove home in an enamored daze. He ran three stop signs, a red light, and almost hit a raccoon he was so distracted. He would make damn sure Tamara didn't back out of that slumber party at the last minute.

.

Thus, two weeks later Aguni was standing in front of her closet, wearing a towel because even divine femme fatales got cold sometimes. She'd already worn the orange dress with the built-in bustier, and the little black dress, and while she did have a few other nice outfits, it was time for… the red one.

Yes, things had progressed to the point that she wanted nothing more than to jump Koumokuten's bones, and even if she couldn't get with him tonight, she could make damn sure he wanted her. So she shimmied into the low-cut, skin-tight, crimson dress with two side slits, and added gold jewelry. It suddenly occurred to her that maybe she was overdressing, and perhaps she should have chosen a pantsuit. Or a sweater and skirt.

But no! she told herself firmly. Even if Koumokuten were wearing jeans and a sweater, she would be wearing the red one because it was super sexy. She would knock him dead with her killer bod (an appropriate adjective), and soon he would suggest, "Why don't we find a motel on our next date?"

Too bad she had to wear a coat, she despaired as she started her car. If only it were spring, she could make a first impression that would probably stop his heart for a moment. But alas, it was November instead, and driving in a light dress wouldn't be enjoyable at all.

And then, as she pulled up outside his house, she had a flash of inspired genius. She'd take the coat off on his front steps and then ring the doorbell, so he'd get the full effect of the dress!

Brilliant Aguni, you goddess amongst mortals! You deserve admission into MENSA for this brain wave.

She shut her car door, locked it, and practically skipped up the sidewalk, grinning. Yes it was so cold she could see her breath, but she was tough. She'd handled worse, like the time she'd dived into freezing water in January to show the world how badass she was. The cold would not deter her from her genius plan! So Aguni "Psycho" Steel, whose neighbors had a strange habit of moving away after two years, unbuttoned her coat, shrugged it off, struck a sexy pose with the coat under her arm, and rang Koumokuten's doorbell.

Ding-dong!

He opened the door almost immediately, and his eyes went so wide she thought he might hurt himself. His mouth had dropped open too, and he was staring at her like she was a five-course dinner and he was a starving man.

Yes, Xavier, she purred in her head, I have breasts.

"Xavier," she smiled, shivering (but it was totally worth it!), "are you going to let me in?"

"Uh…"

He was still staring, his mouth still hanging open. She probably could have been wearing a Carmen Miranda hat and he wouldn't have noticed. Or boots shaped like monster feet, because his gaze was torso-level and unlikely to move from there anytime soon. She smugly thought, Thank you, red one. You have fulfilled your duty.

"Come in," he smiled, apparently only now realizing that she was standing on his porch in November sans a coat. "Are you cold?" It was a stupid question, but he had to ask something. According to feminists, drooling and keeping your eyes locked on naughty areas was a no-no. Instead, one had to act cultured and chivalrous, not primitive.

"Oh, just a tad," she replied blithely as she stepped inside. "My, it smells good in here. Is the salmon ready?"

"It'll be ready in about half an hour," he assured her, taking her coat. "Here, c'mon into the living room."

He led her into that chamber, setting her coat on the couch and hoping she'd compliment his taste in furniture. But instead, she gazed at the mantle and the pictures set on it.

"My, you seem to have one for every year of Tamara's life," she said, in that falsely happy tone used when one is rather annoyed but is too polite to show it. "She was a very, er, cute baby."

"Wasn't she?" he enthused. "That's Tamara at age one. Next to that is Tamara at age two. Next to that… you get it." He patted the photo of his daughter at age six, wearing a princess dress and holding her pet rabbit (Mr. Bun-Bun had not survived long).

"I see," Aguni chirped, then frowned at a picture of a woman who looked just like an older Tamara, except with different hair. "Who's the lady?" she asked, pointing.

"That's Melissa, my deceased wife." Koumokuten glanced at the picture, and suddenly reached out and turned it to the wall, muttering, "She'd be upset I'm dating someone else, so she gets to face the wall tonight." She's probably spinning in her grave because I'm having fun, he added to himself, hoping Satan had shown Melissa her husband's reaction to this delectable red dress of Aguni's.

"Anyway Aguni," he said, cheerful as could be now that Melissa wasn't watching, "I've set the table for two, toasted a baguette, and chilled some wine for us. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou… and," he brandished a lighter, "a fire in the fireplace."

"Really?" she breathed, her eyes glowing, and good lord, under her top, were those –?

"Can I light it, Xavier?" she purred, her eyes half-lidded now, and yes, those were –

"Sure, Aguni," he smiled, holding the lighter out like a fabulous gift. "I know you like fire." Judging by what's happening, you really like fire. A lot. That's kinda… scary but sexy.

Aguni accepted the lighter, perched herself on the stone ledge of the fireplace, and ignited the logs, beaming in a manner that most people would have found very disturbing. Koumokuten himself found it, well, adorable. In a sexy way. Hugs and romantic sentiments couldn't compare, because this woman had just set something alight. She turned back to face him, backlit by flames like some sort of conquering Amazon, one who'd just set fire to a village of traitorous peasants (even now, his violent thought patterns were in operation). With her hair reflecting the fire, it almost looked like she was part of it.

"Oh Xavier, did you soak the logs in lighter fluid?" she asked, smiling a broad smile. "They went up in flames so quickly!"

"Yeah," he managed, transfixed. "Well, I mean, I liberally applied it because I thought you'd appreciate a blaze."

They stared at each other, and by all rights there should have been some sort of romantic music playing, or at least "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye, except neither of them were very sensitive people. Their gazes were locked, the lights were low, they were all alone… the perfect setting for some love.

Koumokuten made a decision then. It was time to be manly and forceful, in a respectful way of course. It was time to stop worrying that Tamara might pop in the door and whine, "Daddy, I forgot my hair rollers!" Yes, it was time to show off his physical side, and metaphorically flip off Bishamonten and his good looks. And Zouchouten and his Schwarzenegger build, just for the hell of it.

So he moved forward and touched her neck, murmuring, "Aguni… you're gorgeous." By which he meant, "I want to throw you down and get adult."

She stood up and touched his face, whispering, "Oh, Xavier… I think you're so entrancing." By which she meant, "Me too! Let's forget the dinner."

And, as the salmon started to overcook on the edges, they did. Koumokuten didn't remember the main course until smoke started drifting into the living room an hour later, because who needed food when you could have sex? Not him!

And dear God… it was good. Scratch that, it was great. Scratch that, it was super mind-blowingly awesome. He couldn't help but think, Take that, Melissa! See, I can inspire multiples after all, you frigid bitch.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. Leaving aside the burning salmon, which he'd quickly taken care of, the phone rang just as he was pondering initiating another round. At first he ignored it, but then…

"Daddy!" Tamara's voice wailed on the answering machine, making Aguni wince. "Come pick me up! Rochelle insulted me, and Isabella and Cindia sided with her! I can't stay here!"

For the first time in his life, Koumokuten hated his daughter. She'd interrupted a private moment of pure awesomeness, dammit. Maybe if he pretended he couldn't hear her she'd give up and tough it out. He hoped really, really hard that that would be the case, and she wouldn't just say –

"Daddy!" she wailed again. "Pick the phone up, Daddy! Are you upstairs? I'll just scream until you hear me and –"

"Princess," he gritted into the phone as Aguni pouted in front of the fireplace, "don't scream. Do I really have to come get you? I mean, can't you just tou–"

"NOW, Daddy!" she shrieked, making him wince and hold the phone away from his ringing ear. "I feel a panic attack coming on!" In actuality it was a bitchfit coming on, because she didn't get panic attacks, but it worked.

"Okay honey," he said grumpily, "I'll come get you. Calm down. Take deep breaths. Have some more… popcorn or whatever it is you're eating. I'll be there soon," he promised, not wanting to leave this room at all.

"Thanks Daddy," she sniffled, and he muttered, "You're welcome," then hung up.

He turned back to Aguni, who rolled her eyes and picked up her dress, looking very put out. He couldn't blame her in the least, and for a moment considered grounding Tamara on some trumped-up charge of disobedience. He tended to take his frustrations out on other people, after all, and this was all her fault.

"I'm sorry Aguni," he apologized, reaching for his pants, "but I can't get out of this. I'm so sorry you –"

"No, I understand," she sighed regretfully. "She's your child, after all. I'm just thankful she didn't call earlier, because that was, to borrow an adolescent expression, 'made of win.' It was fantastic."

"It was, wasn't it," he agreed, helping her zip her dress back up. "My God, it was the best I've ever had."

After making sure that all clothes had been put on and all lipstick stains were off his face, he escorted her to the door, feeling somewhat churlish. Geez, this looked bad: she hadn't even gotten any food out of this, just sex, and here he was getting rid of her. He felt like such a cad, to use some of Bishamonten's vocabulary.

"I'm sorry you have to leave so soon," he murmured. "I don't want to kick you out."

"I know."

She took a step, turned back, threw herself into his arms, and gave him yet another passionate kiss. So clearly, his mind deadpanned, she wasn't too upset about the situation, and understood completely. What a perfect woman.

"Xavier," she breathed when they parted, "I love you."

"Same here, Aguni. I mean, I love you," he replied, smiling.

Such sentiments had been expressed while the salmon was burning, often loudly. Still, it was great to hear her say it when not in the throes of passion, because some people would say anything to get off. But nope, this one had been telling the truth, and he'd told the truth back to her, peppered in between naughty and very explicit phrases.

"Oh Xavier… next weekend, you can come to my house," she suggested, "and stay the whole night."

That was a great idea, but how would he explain it to Tamara? Aha…

"Sure Aguni, I'll just tell Tamara I'm on an overnight business trip. In fact," he decided happily, "why not make it a weekend business trip, and I can stay with you the entire time? We can go out to dinner and everything."

"Wonderful!" she laughed, hugging him so tightly something cracked. "Now hurry, go pick up your daughter before she thinks something's amiss."

The idea that maybe Tamara should be alerted to this new direction of their relationship had been briefly touched on earlier, when Koumokuten was spritzing water on the smoldering salmon so the oven didn't catch fire. And, in a nod to bad parents/parents' lovers everywhere, it had been decided that Tamara would be told… eventually. Maybe when Aguni got pregnant, or something, they hadn't really given much thought to when "eventually" would be.

So when Koumokuten showed up at Cindia's house looking almost beatific, Tamara was given no indication of what had happened in front of the fireplace. She just hopped in the passenger seat and gave the stereo a weird look, snapping, "Daddy, turn down that… that 'I'm burnin', I'm burnin', I'm burnin' for you' thing. I hate it."

Indeed, she hated all classic rock, and rock in general. Actually, all she liked was pop, and in particular male singers who were sexy (besides her Classical voice pieces). Give her a choice between Enrique Iglesias and Billie-Joe Armstrong, and Green Day's awesome frontman would lose.

"Tamara," Koumokuten said serenely, "you just haven't been exposed to Blue Oyster Cult enough to appreciate this song."

She sighed and stuck her earbuds in, turning up Justin Bieber. There was no accounting for taste.

.

The next morning, Tamara was awoken by the horrible strains of "Super Freak" floating up from the kitchen. Cringing and resisting the urge to clamp her pillow over her head, she instead put on her robe and stomped downstairs. Once there, she put her hands on her hips and ordered, "Daddy! Stop singing."

Koumokuten paused in the act of pouring cereal into a bowl, and sighed, "And good morning to you too, Princess."

Satisfied that he'd shut up, she grabbed an orange and stuck two pieces of bread in the toaster, as he returned his attention to his cereal, which had overflowed the bowl. Great. As he scooped some back into the box, he thought, Oh well, at least she isn't suspicious.

Five minutes later found Tamara eating toast and Koumokuten staring into space, reliving the glorious experience of premarital sex with the woman his unsuspecting daughter hated. But too bad, because he liked her. It went beyond "like," actually. WAY beyond. He beamed in satisfied reverie, his spoonful of cereal forgotten ("Shitenn-O's: the breakfast of gods"), and thought, You can light my fire whenever you want, Aguni. I'll never look at flames the same way again.

"Daddy…? Daddy? DADDY!"

He blinked and focused on Tamara. "Yes sweetie?" he asked, then belatedly ate his bite of cereal.

"Daddy, you were grinning at the wall." She eyed him suspiciously and snapped, "What's going on? It's weird, and I don't like it. Are you hiding something from me?"

"Tamara," he hedged, putting his spoon back down, "your father's just in a great mood because he's found a lovely new territory to conquer." One that involves copious amounts of physical satisfaction and heartfelt talks.

"Oh." She nodded; no doubt her dad had been given a new assignment at work. "That's nice," she said, losing all interest.

"Yeah," Koumokuten murmured, beaming again, "yeah, that's real nice."

He got himself ready for work on autopilot, almost left wearing a pair of Tamara's giant hoop earrings, and floated into the garage, having double-checked to make sure his appearance was normal. He barely noticed the traffic, or the gripping hostage situation in real-time on the radio, or even the word from our sponsor (Tenkai Corporation, in his best radio ad campaign yet).

I'm in looove! Masculinity sang, throwing its arms out and skipping through a field of – well, a desert wasteland, the flowers having been firebombed.

He smiled as he strode past security, who paled because smiling Koumokuten usually meant trouble. He smiled as he encountered a curious Zouchouten in the elevator. He smiled as Varuna handed him his coffee and cringed in anticipation of a dressing down. He even smiled when Taishakuten decreed, "From now on, gentlemen, anyone who even mentions me tripping on the stairs will be shot, and I don't mean that metaphorically."

Koumokuten was completely useless at the morning briefing, a fact that no one else could miss. Finally, as Taishakuten excused himself to take a call, Bishamonten asked, "What's going on? You're looking happy, and not arrogant-happy either."

Koumokuten just smiled some more. "You ever been in love, Reginald?" he asked dreamily, doodling a little heart with stylized flames on his notepad. "Have you?"

Bishamonten gave him a "You're scaring me" look, and answered, "Yes, of course I have. I'm married," he said, in the tone of voice one uses with the mentally challenged. "And I would assume you have too, as you were married as well."

Melissa yelling at him on their wedding night ("It's raining, Xavier! You promised me a Caribbean paradise, not a hurricane!") flashed into Koumokuten's head, and he floundered, "Uh, yeah, of course. I just meant… uh… y'know what, never mind," he snapped, doodling a stick figure with a high ponytail getting eaten by a shark.

Bishamonten considered him for a moment, shrugged ever so slightly, and let it drop, deciding that soon he'd be watching Koumokuten get embroiled in a sexual harassment suit. Because what kind of wacko would find that man attractive?

As Bishamonten shuddered slightly Zouchouten made a mental note to not pry, just in case such infatuated glee was the result of X-rated business, which he'd really rather not think about. He was in favor of responsible adults doing whatever they wanted within legal limits, but he didn't have to dwell on it. If his pal had indeed banged the gym teacher, that was their private affair, not his. Thankfully.

.

Just as Koumokuten was dorkily happy, so too was Aguni. Life had new meaning, and was it just her or was the world brighter? Her dark lover occupied her thoughts all the time, even during staff meetings where Mrs. Butterkin babbled on about how children were a gift from God above. He popped up in her dreams, and she also had lovely daydreams of the two of them setting Mrs. Butterkin on fire together.

So Aguni wrote him poems (surprisingly, they were normal-person caliber and rarely mentioned violence). She added more black to her wardrobe (and she looked good in it too). She smiled at Principal Dawson in the halls ("Ms. Steel, you're scaring me…").

Koumokuten too did things differently in his glee. He slapped Zouchouten on the back (and winced when Zouchouten heartily returned the favor). He bought Tamara a new parure ("Daddy, I like pink pearls!"). He sang in the shower at the top of his lungs ("I'm just a hunka hunka burnin' love!").

Oh Melissa, he chuckled as he left for yet another "business trip" to Aguni's house, spin in your grave until you get dizzy, because I'm livin' the good life now.

And then, late one night in December when he was frowning over a scary book (Eat, Pray, Love), his cellphone rang. He closed the horrible thing with no qualms whatsoever, because even if this were Bishamonten calling to complain about the Christmas gift he'd been given, it was a welcome distraction. But no, Bishamonten had rolled his eyes and regifted the Monopoly: Deluxe Wall Street Edition board game he'd received, and wouldn't waste valuable time calling the giver. Instead, the caller was none other than Aguni.

"Xavier," she purred, "I haven't seen you since Christmas Eve. I'm lonely. Want to come over and help me with that?" she suggested innocently. Or as much as someone like her could do innocent, anyway.

"Sure I would," he replied quickly, grinning out at the world through his bedroom window. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

"All right, master of my heart," she cooed (they'd progressed to stupid nicknames by this point, most of them involving military metaphors and fire). "Hurry! I'm ever so needy."

"I'll be there," Koumokuten promised, using the manly voice. "In a jiffy."

He hung up and considered how to go about this. Tamara was a light sleeper, and if he walked past her room at a quarter to twelve at night, she'd wonder what was going on. So hmm, if one route was closed, there had to be an alternate, like…

Like his bedroom window! Yes, he'd snuck out that way when he was a teenager, and his parents had never been the wiser. They'd thought he was slumbering peacefully while he'd been fooling bartenders into thinking he was twenty-one. If he'd told them now, they would still be completely shocked.

He crossed to the thing and considered his route. The roof had a fairly gentle angle, and the garage roof was a mere five feet below it. And from there the snow would cushion his landing.

Cool, he grinned as he put on two extra sweatshirts because his coat was downstairs, this'll be easy.

He grabbed his keys (he never let them out of his sight now, what with Tamara hinting that she'd like to learn to drive), opened the window, and paused. Just because there was fluffy, winter-wonderland snow, it didn't mean there wasn't ice under it. If he fell off the roof he'd be acutely embarrassed, not to mention probably severely injured, and Tamara would poke her head out and shriek, "DADDY! Oh my God, what's the number for 911?!"

So he brushed some snow aside, and there was indeed a tiny bit of ice. But damn it all, his woman was in need, so he and his macho self would find a way, braving a broken neck, twisted ankles, and that insomniac neighbor on the left looking up and thinking he was a burglar.

Koumokuten psyched himself up with a mental pep talk, crawled out the window, and simply crawled across the roof as well, because redistributed weight would make it easier. And while it was a tad slippery, he made sure to go slowly to be safe.

As her dad was lowering himself onto the garage roof, Tamara was listening to Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" on her iPod, fantasizing about her ideal boyfriend. He'd of course be handsome, with long hair because long hair was sexy, with gorgeous eyes and a megawatt smile, and polite and caring. And here was the biggest thing: he'd be a pushover, so she could boss him around and make him buy her whatever she wanted! Koumokuten had been slacking off in that duty lately, so Ideal Boyfriend would happily buy his girlfriend those cute shoes and matching purse.

She hummed along under her breath, the sound of a car starting in the garage going right over her head.

Ha, Koumokuten gloated, brushing snow off his sleeve. I'm a ninja. Reginald isn't bold enough to perform my daring escape, Aaron would've slipped and probably broken through the roof, and Taishakuten would've gotten his hair caught on the gutter! Oh yes, Xavier, you win. Aguni will be so impressed by your problem-solving skills!

And indeed, she was.

.

It was now March, and Tamara had finally stopped focusing on herself long enough to realize that something was wrong. Leaving aside the shower-singing, the staring into space, and the pervy grin whenever fire was mentioned, her dad kept leaving the house for no apparent reason.

And staying away for long periods of time. Although he did go on business trips, and Taishakuten did sometimes make his executives come into the office at weird hours, Tamara found it hard to believe that that was all. Something was up, and it had her worried. So as Koumokuten prepared to head out the door yet again, she asked, seriously and sounding a bit nervous, "Daddy, you keep staying out late and running off immediately after dinner. What's going on?"

Koumokuten had been expecting this question, and he had a prepared response: "Princess, I've been single for years, and your mom and I had a difficult relationship by the end. Every man has needs, varied and fundamental ones, like companionship and affection. So I'm going on a date, honey, and while you'll always be my little girl, it's time to realize that there's a new, wonderful person in my life."

He smiled at her confidently, opened his mouth… and wimped out again.

"Princess, I've joined a film club. Today we're viewing 'Schindler's List,' and I'm very excited," he lied, straight-faced and with very little regret. After all, she might get upset, and he'd rather not deal with another bitchfit.

Tamara was incredibly relieved. Unbeknownst to her father, she'd had the horrible suspicion he'd been patronizing hookers. But no, instead he was watching stodgy old movies, the type without heartthrob fanservice or catchy pop soundtracks, blah. What kind of idiot preferred boring old classics?

"Fascinating," she yawned. "Is 'A Walk to Remember' included?"

Koumokuten started to say, "Oh hell no," then caught himself and instead replied, "No honey, it's not. But 'Titanic' is. We viewed that one a week ago. What a great ending, huh?" he asked cheerfully.

She gave him a weirded-out look and corrected, " 'Titanic' has a sad ending, Daddy."

"No it doesn't. Leonardo DiCaprio's dead! That's happy in my book," he proclaimed grandly, having suffered through Tamara's "Leo" infatuation phase with gritted teeth. "Anyway sweetie, I'll be back around eleven. Make sure not to watch obscene TV," he cautioned, giving her a look that said, "Obey me!"

Tamara smiled, nodded, and turned on "When Handsome Men Get Drunk and Strip" when he was gone.

"Xavier," Aguni asked half an hour later, "is she getting suspicious? It's been months. Surely she's noticed the changes in you?"

Principal Dawson, Mrs. Butterkin, and the entire Steel clan had been very intrigued by the gym teacher's scary happiness. And while Reba had nervously met Koumokuten and later had to go lie down, Aguni's father, sister, and brothers thought he was just swell. They were, after all, all related to "Psycho Steel," and as such shared her worldview to some extent.

"Well my fiery angel," Koumokuten thought aloud, "I, er… I'll tell her soon," he said hastily, feeling a bit guilty about the film club lie. "I'll have to ease her into it. You know, so it's not such a shock."

"That's wise," Aguni agreed. "She might flip out and throw a tantrum. If you need any help breaking it to her, you know I'll back you up."

"That's right," he nodded, smiling. "You've got my back, fire goddess."

"Oh yes, master of my heart."

.

A month later, as Koumokuten was working on a spreadsheet in his office, his cellphone rang insistently. Never one to pass up a chance to escape a spreadsheet, he answered it as quickly as he could with, "Hello, you've reached Xavier Koumokuten, Senior Vice President of Marketing."

"Xavier, I have wonderful news!" Aguni's disturbingly cheerful voice rang in his ear. "Mrs. Butterkin had a nervous breakdown! And guess what caused it," she grinned, as in the background the paramedics left.

"Did you, my ardent Amazon?" he guessed, proud as could be. After all, he hated that woman. The English teacher was of the opinion that parents who disciplined their children at all were damping down the little darlings' charming exuberance. She was one of those hippie-dippy people that he thought should be shot on sight.

"No," Aguni replied, rather disappointed. "You see, one of the students backtalked her, and the whole class joined in. There was near anarchy for about five minutes, but then yours truly came to the rescue and made them all sit down, shut up, and stop standing on desks. Alas," she said virtuously, "it was too late for her. She'll spend the next six weeks in a controlled environment."

The way she said it, the virtuousness was clearly sarcastic. She felt like throwing her head back and screaming in triumphant, evil laughter. Mrs. Butterkin had seen the error of her ways, and Ms. Steel had demonstrated her power once again!

"What a terrible shame," Koumokuten snickered. "Babe, I'm so happy you laid down the law where she couldn't. Do you think you'll get a raise?"

"Probably not," she sighed. "Principal Dawson is so stingy with wage increases. Anyway Xavier, I had to tell you this wonderful news because we both think that woman is bonkers. Plus, I wanted to hear your voice."

"That's so sweet," he sighed in pure, infatuated longing. "Fire goddess, I –"

"Xavier! You're on the clock!" Bishamonten hissed, sticking his head into Koumokuten's office. "This is no time for sappy lines and stupid smiles. Hang up and get back to work," he ordered snappishly.

Koumokuten glowered at him, but as Bishamonten was still standing there he sighed, "Aguni darling, I have to go now. I love you, okay?"

"And I love you. See you tonight, dark overlord of desire."

And with that she hung up, leaving Koumokuten to follow her example and try to kill Bishamonten with his gaze. He bitched, "Reginald, you can go to hell. You ruined a perfectly perfect moment, dammit."

Bishamonten just arched an elegant brow in that infuriating way he had, and pointed out, "You said 'fire goddess.' Care to enlighten me as to why this is a term of endearment? Are you dating a firefighter, or something?" he asked witheringly.

"I'm dating a gym teacher," Koumokuten growled, scrolling down his spreadsheet with a violent press of a button. "But she likes fire. Look, I'm working now, okay? So go away. And no," he continued before Bishamonten could say it, "I won't just call her right back when you leave."

Bishamonten nodded, smiled smugly, and left. Koumokuten amused himself by imagining his friend falling down a flight of stairs (a long flight of stairs) before his thoughts returned to Aguni.

Ah, she was so wonderful. She made him feel like a teenager again, minus the pimples and knobby joints and mullet. The raging hormones were still there though, oh yes they were. He'd written her love letters (er, emails), he'd created an iPod playlist called "Aguni Songs," and he'd bought her lingerie that said "Smokin' ."

And then he realized something. Aguni was slightly psycho, a slavedriver, a pyro, and walked all over those she thought were beneath her. And that meant she was… The One. She was evil, he was evil. He was a son of a bitch, she was a bitch. She liked putting down humanitarian acts, he thought humanitarians should be interned in detention camps. He secretly fantasized about setting Taishakuten's hair on fire, she secretly fantasized about blowing up Principal Dawson's house with him in it.

Where else would he find such a soulmate? Well, besides a war zone. He'd been lucky enough to meet Aguni, and wasn't it time the world knew that?

Melissa trapped me with the pregnancy, but Aguni hates kids! Melissa demanded extravagant gifts, but Aguni requests fires in the fireplace! There's a reason Melissa had to die, and –

Oh… yeah. There was that tiny issue of him having gotten rid of his wife.

He stared blankly at his screen for a while. While it might have been wise for him to completely ignore that Melissa-murdering thing, his stunted conscience was lecturing, You can't hide something like that from Aguni, and she deserves to know the truth.

What if she calls the police? he protested. I don't wanna go to prison, hello.

Well, his tiny good side muttered, she does love you an awful lot, so she probably won't. And here's the thing: if you butter her up and pledge to be her sex slave, maybe she'll help you keep it a secret.

I really don't want to tell her, conscience, he whined, thunking his head down on his desk. Can't I just pretend Melissa did die by accident? I mean, it's not like I bashed her head in myself! I could have accidentally spilled soapy dishwater and she might have died anyway!

Nope. You will tell Aguni everything, the conscience commanded, like the voice of God. You will.

"You suck, conscience," Koumokuten groaned against the wood of his desk. "This is why I hardly ever listen to you."

.

Humming a happy little tune, Aguni spritzed "Heat" perfume on and grinned at her reflection in the mirror. She looked damn good, she was wearing the "Smokin' " lingerie under her sundress, and she had her favorite earrings in. They were ethnic: giant orbs of metallic orange and long white tassels with gold trim, and they made her look exotic. They probably would have looked even better with fanservice-y armor that wouldn't afford much actual protection, but oh well.

"I am Fire Goddess Aguni," she sang, in between applying crimson lipstick. "I'm going to screw Xavier Koumokuten into next week, la-la-la-laaa…!"

She was a terrible singer, but she was convinced she was on Sarah Brightman's level. Of course Sarah Brightman was a soprano and Aguni was an alto, but who cared? They were both vocal powerhouses, she assured herself as a squirrel on the roof pawed at its little ears in agony.

Having finished making a joyful and terrible noise, she trotted downstairs and made sure everything was as it should be. Yes, the table was set, the chicken was in the oven, and the sound system was playing "Body Language" by Queen. It was perfect, and Koumokuten would be here in –

Ding-dong!

Ah, he was here now! She strutted over to the door and answered it with one hip cocked out for that sexy effect. And yes, it was her lover, clad in business attire and with a bottle of what looked like pricy alcohol in tow. Today he had the hoop earrings in, as he'd had a meeting with a powerful executive from another company and wanted to look his best, but not even that could make Koumokuten put a suit jacket on.

"Why hello Xavier! What brings you to my door?" she flirted, fluttering her lashes.

"Hi Aguni," he smiled, looking a bit strained. "I brought the wine like you asked me to. Red. I like red, so do you, ha."

"Xavier, you seem tense," she pointed out in a worried coo. "Is something wrong? You look almost scared about something. Can I make it better in any way?" she offered, tugging him gently towards her by his tie.

"Um… well, I – hey," he said rather desperately, "I love those earrings."

She shrugged a bit and went with it. "So do I. Aren't they lovely?"

After fifteen minutes of lovers' little nothings ("You're my gorgeous, red-hot, warrior goddess babe who sets my soul alight," "You're my mystical commander on the battlefields of the heart"), he got up the nerve to say, "Aguni, there's something I have to tell you. A few things, actually."

"Yes?" she asked, suddenly fearful that he was about to break up with her. But why?!

"Aguni," he told her, looking her right in the eye, "I am madly, passionately, and irreversibly in love with you. You leave Melissa in the dust, and I think that if she'd still been alive I would've had to divorce her after we met."

"Xavier," she almost sobbed in relief, "I love you in that same mad, passionate, irreversible way! I don't know what I'd do without you, and I want us to be together forever. And I might have had to kill Melissa after I met you," she said cheerfully, making him pale ever so slightly at "kill Melissa."

"I want us to be together forever too," he replied with complete honesty. "But there's, um, one little thing…" He fiddled with an earring, then admitted, "Melissa kinda, well, slipped on that water because –"

"I suspected as much," Aguni grinned. "I think that was very bold and devious of you."

Koumokuten was pleasantly shocked. He'd rather been expecting an immediate gasp of "Oh my God, I slept with a murderer!" But no, she was impressed by it!

Rock on, Xavier, you manly example of devious boldness! Do not ever let this wonderful fire goddess go. Bind her to you so tightly she'll have trouble breathing, and metaphorically handcuff yourself to her so she can never get away! Go for it, you stud you! his ego encouraged.

"Pele," he grinned, taking one of her hands in his, "why don't you move in with me?"

Aguni thought for a moment, then reluctantly replied, "Your daughter will be incandescent with rage, my dark overlord. She'll resent my intrusion into her sphere of influence."

Koumokuten considered this, and yes, he could picture it now: Tamara replacing Aguni's shampoo with Nair, "accidentally" destroying her sexiest clothes, and mailing her earrings to Rwanda. Then a brilliant idea to outflank his daughter occurred to him.

"Fire of my heart… what if you were my wife?" he suggested happily. No sense beating around the bush any longer!

Aguni beamed, planning the honeymoon in her head already, and cried, "Oh my studly sex sorcerer, yes! Yes, I'll marry you!" she told him at the top of her lungs.

"Great! Really great," he enthused, patting her hand. "Tamara will still whine, of course. But that's okay, because we can tune her out and order her to do her homework. She'll get over it, my –" (wrist kiss) "– gorgeous –" (lower arm kiss) "– inferno –" (elbow kiss) "– of feminine power."

"Oh Xavier…"

"Oh Aguni…"

.

The next morning found Tamara, her makeup and hair perfect as usual, almost skipping out to the limo. It was another school day, which meant a day replete with gossip, making fun of the unworthy, and mooning over cute boys. Oh, and that annoying learning part.

"Tamara," Minnie called after her, "your dad's on the phone, he has something important to tell you."

Tamara shook her head stubbornly and sniffed, "I'll be late already, he can wait." Before Minnie could protest, she'd shut the door and ordered, "School, Becca. And step on it."

As Minnie frantically tried to make Tamara come back, the driver took off like a shot. The housekeeper sighed, rolled her eyes heavenwards, and informed Koumokuten, "She ignored me, sir. Completely."

"Damn," he sighed. "Okay, I'll just call her mobile phone."

Alas, Tamara had already dialed Cindia, and was dishing the dirt on Isabella and Peter, "and the best part is Rochelle still thinks Peter's hers!"

"Hee-hee-hee, will she get a surprise come History!" Cindia sniggered. "How much you wanna bet that –"

Beep!

"– She starts crying?"

Tamara completely ignored the other line, because it was probably just Rochelle anyway and this gossip was too delicious to ignore. That stupid fatty kept calling, though. So Tamara, Queen of Rosehedge Academy, simply turned her phone off. She didn't have to deal with annoying, eight-pounds-overweight losers who would be providing entertainment soon anyway!

As she changed for gym, she steeled herself for badminton. It wouldn't have been so bad if Ms. Psycho had let the girls wear those cute tennis skirts Mr. Wilkins' class got to wear, because then all the boys would be distracted anyway. But nooo… Aguni was under the mistaken impression that gym shorts were more practical.

Tamara decided to fake a leg cramp today. She'd kept that one in reserve, and while "I'm having PMS cramps" had resulted in "Take some painkillers and get back on the soccer field," if her leg "hurt too much to run" she'd be home free. So she limped out, made strained, suffering faces during the stretches, sit-ups, and pushups, and when Aguni ordered them to run five laps she put up her hand, her lower lip trembling.

"Ms. Steel? I don't think I can do that," she said, with a little quaver in her voice.

Aguni barked, "The rest of you, move it!" and came over to where Tamara sat, rubbing her right leg. With her hands on her hips, the blond demon asked, "And why not, Tamara? Are you injured? I don't see a doctor's note, and you know I require those to let someone off the hook for my class."

"I have a terrible leg cramp," Tamara whined, "and all that stretching made it worse! It feels like my leg is being electrocuted, and I'll be limping all day."

Aguni arched a brow and asked, "How long has this been going on?"

"Since yesterday," Tamara lied shamelessly. "My dad thinks I should see a doctor. He meant to write you a note but he left early and forget."

As Koumokuten would surely have mentioned his little girl's pain sometime during the private engagement celebration, not to mention the note lie, Aguni saw right through this ploy. Oh, she'd have to work hard to whip her future stepdaughter into shape, she thought as she smirked, "Nice try. Run laps like everyone else."

"Yeah Tamara," Milton yelled, panting and holding his baggy shorts up with one hand. "We have to do it, so so do you!"

Tamara decided then and there that Milton would no longer be invited to any parties, texted, sexted, or sat next to at lunch. Dickhead!

"But it hurts!" she wailed, in full drama-queen swing. "You're just mean to me because you're jealous of my beauty!" She wanted to clap a hand over her mouth as she realized what she'd just said, but it was too late.

Aguni cocked her head, laughing, "Yes dear, that's exactly it. I want to be a flat-chested teenybopper with enough eyeshadow to cover a window. Tamara, I am attempting to mold you into the best you can be, and you'll thank me later in life, I can guarantee it!"

Tamara had had it. Just because Aguni had bigger boobs and naturally exotic eyes didn't mean she could insult Tamara Koumokuten like that! She had to be made to pay, and who did she think she was, anyway?

"You're such a harpy!" she screeched, pointing at her gym teacher like she was denouncing a witch. "We should call you 'Ms. SHEMALE'!"

As the rest of the class skidded to a halt and gaped, Aguni just gave her a wicked grin and purred, "You'll be able to call me 'Mom' soon, dear. Now stop faking leg cramps."

Tamara stared for a full ten seconds, then finally managed, "What?"

"Your father and I are getting married," Aguni informed her breezily, and Cindia sat down with a thud. "Didn't he tell you? He said he'd call you this morning. Perhaps he was still sleeping in, poor wearied man. He did exert himself an awful lot the night before," she murmured, stroking her chin in thought.

Tamara's eyes were the size of dinner plates as she choked out, "You? And Daddy? Getting… MARRIED?!"

Aguni patted her on the head as Wade snapped his fingers in "She's off the market" teenage angst, and confirmed, "Yes, dear. I'm quite surprised you never noticed anything. Why, one would think his sudden desire to run off during the evenings would have clued you –"

"NOOO!" Tamara screamed, in the tradition of movie villainesses everywhere. "NOOOO!"

It took three school nurses to calm her down… and that was half an hour later.

.

When Koumokuten showed up at school to collect his shell-shocked daughter and take her home, one of the nurses managed a quavered, "Congratulations on your – on your engagement, Mr. Koumokuten."

"Why thank you, Ms…" He looked for a nametag, didn't see one, and finished lamely with, "I'm very excited, yes."

Ms. Kimball pasted a smile on her face and continued, "The staff here is, um, awaiting with great anxiety whether or not Ms. Steel will be a, er, stay-at-home wife." This was hopeful, "Please God please" anxiety, but Koumokuten took it the other way. After all, he liked Aguni so the world should too.

"Don't worry," he smiled as they walked back to the nurse's office, "Aguni wants to stay here, and I think that's the best thing. She'd get so bored in the mansion all day when I'm at work. She loves her job, and I certainly want my precious fire muffin to be as happy as she can!"

Ms. Kimball cringed, yelling some not at all school-appropriate words in her head. Now Aguni would probably regale them all with tales of "My new husband and I think that exercise boosts sexual stamina, and just the other day…"

She mercifully cut that thought off, opening the door to the first of the cot rooms and proclaiming, "Here she is."

Tamara was lying on her back, one hand thrown against her forehead, her face pale and her eyes closed. This was an affected pose, as she'd been pacing earlier. And swearing to beat the band, and kicking the cot. And vowing to run Aguni over with her daddy's car, which she didn't actually know how to drive.

Koumokuten sighed at the sight of her, and pointed out, "Princess? That usually works better if you don't have your phone in your other hand. Just a tip."

Ms. Kimball smirked as Tamara pouted, caught in the act of trying to get sympathy. Ha, the little bitch had been called out on her BS. She'd probably been texting away when she heard footsteps, and forgotten to even close the thing, snicker.

"Daddy," the teenager whined, opening her eyes and belatedly closing her phone, "Daddy, how could you do this to me?! She's evil!"

"No Tamara, you mean 'wonderful,' " Koumokuten corrected, crossing to the cot. "I know the two of you aren't friends, and yes I should have told you earlier, but honey, Aguni and I are in passionate, world-burning, mutually obsessed love."

"How?!" she demanded. "You don't know the real her!"

Her father gave her a quizzical look and replied, "I think you have our knowledge of Aguni reversed there, sweetheart. For example, I know she likes pit bulls and wrestling, and also writing poetry."

Tamara gaped, surprised at that last bit, and weakly tried, "Are the poems about violence?"

"A few," he admitted, "but you'd be surprised how many are about romantic love, life, and musings on the fleeting nature of beauty."

Tamara was still not very mollified, and demanded, "Daddy, when did this start? It had to have been at least five months ago, because that was when you started sneaking out of the house."

"Tamara," Koumokuten snapped, "I'm the homeowner, so I can't sneak. Unlike you and your little trellis adventure, I used the door in broad daylight." Except for the late-night, garage-roof ninja techniques, but she didn't know about those so he wasn't about to bring them up.

"You're not answering my question," she snapped back, crossing her arms. "How did this awful situation come about?"

"Well," he remembered, "when I met her in October, we hit it off at once, so when I saw her on the bike trail we climbed a tree together. We went out for cider, and found out we were a lot alike. So we went to dinner a couple times, and then we –" had sex in the living room, "– fell in love. Yesterday I asked her to marry me, because living apart from her is torture, Princess, and it was high time I had a consort again."

Tamara's mouth dropped open again. So in a way… "Are you saying that if you'd never had that meeting, you wouldn't even know who she is?" she asked, feeling another round of hysteria coming on.

He considered for a moment, then reassured her, "No baby girl, I would have met her eventually anyway, I'm sure. But I'm glad we didn't have to waste any time."

Ms. Kimball, who had been listening to all this with her mouth hanging open and her eyes wide, suddenly saw a problem. She cut in, "Mr. Koumokuten sir, Rosehedge Academy frowns on family members teaching family members. Tamara will have to be transferred to another –"

"School?" said girl asked hopefully. After all, she'd never live this down here. She could hear the taunts now: "Tamara's stepmom is Psycho Steel!" And, "Hey Tamara, did she put a collar on your dad at the wedding?" Or, "I'm sorry I can't go out with you, Tamara… your stepmother's class drained me of all desire for women. I'm becoming a homosexual."

Ms. Kimball had been about to say "gym class," but suddenly a consolation prize was in sight. Tamara was the worst patient ever, and so arrogant the nurse wanted to scream. If Tamara transferred to another school, her life would be much, much easier.

Koumokuten studied his daughter and tried to confirm, "Sweetie, do you really want to change schools? I mean, it's April, and all your friends are –"

"I'll make new ones," she replied rather snappishly. "I make friends wherever I go." Which wasn't exactly true; rather, she bullied people who sucked up to make her stop it wherever she went. Of course, most of them were just as mean as she was, so it worked.

He wavered, and she pressed her advantage with, "I'll be seeing Ms. Steel – Aguni – at home all the time anyway, and I think it'll be awkward to see her during school too, Daddy. I'll need some time to adjust, and it'll be good for me to have a place where it's only me, not her and me."

"Okay honey," he soothed, "I'll transfer you the minute I can."

Tamara beamed at him in extreme relief, and replied, "Thanks, Daddy. Um, I do think I'll need some quiet time in my room, and maybe…" she used the pathetic voice, "maybe some cake?"

"All right Tamara," Koumokuten agreed, "I'll have Edward order you a nice big pink-frosted cake once I drop you off at home. Minnie can pick it up, I called her and she'll be there."

"Thanks, Daddy!" she chirped, having decided that he wouldn't break off his engagement, so all she could do was be bitchy to Aguni and milk this for all it was worth. "Make sure the cake has cherries on top," she ordered as they walked out of the nurse's office.

Ms. Kimball watched them go, closed the door, and did a happy dance.

.

It was a stunningly gorgeous July day. The sun was shining, the sky was a clear, cloudless azure, the church was bedecked with flowers, and Zouchouten was tugging at his tuxedo collar. Being the best man sucked. He'd lost the coin toss between him and Bishamonten (Koumokuten had viewed it as "won," and ordered Zouchouten to trim his sideburns), and he'd had to suffer through planning and rehearsals. And he'd decided that Aguni was Satan in a white dress. Leaving that aside…

"Their vows," he'd lamented to Bishamonten over a pint after the rehearsal. "Oh God, their vows…"

"Simply dreadful," Bishamonten had agreed. As a groomsman he'd had to suffer too, although not to Zouchouten's extent. After all, Zouchouten had to make a toast without yelling, "I want that woman to burn in Hell!"

Now, in the real deal, the minister asked, "Do you, Aguni Catherine, take this man, Xavier Adolf, to be your lawfully wedded husband…"

In one of the pews Kisshouten smiled, catching her own husband's eye, and thought, See Reginald… it's okay. Even Xavier wouldn't mess with the –

"…To carry from the battlefield should he stumble, to ignite the flame of union between you, to protect and be protected in equal measure," the minister intoned, smiling the smile of a woman who's already got the check, "to stay beside in times of peace and in times of conflict… as long as you both shall live?"

As Aguni assured the world that she did, Zouchouten smiled fixedly. Oh God, they were going through with it. He'd really hoped that at the last minute Koumokuten would come to his senses, but he seemed just as insensate as before. Damn. Well, maybe he'd be so wrapped up in his new wife that he'd become a bit nicer to the rest of the world?

While Minister Jones asked Koumokuten if he'd reciprocate Aguni's devotion, Tamara closed her eyes. She couldn't watch.

"I do," he grinned, as Bishamonten sighed in resignation. Taishakuten just smiled proudly; after all, here was a consort for one of his Generals who appreciated the dangerous jungle of the world, and had already told the CEO on numerous occasions that he was wonderful, "but of course I love Xavier, ha-ha-ha!"

When passionate liplock ensued on the altar, Vahyu dabbed at his eyes affectedly and sighed, "It's so perfect, huh Edward?"

Varuna said nothing, his mouth still hanging open. That woman would produce demon children, and then Koumokuten would insist that his assistant had to take care of them! And there would be three, because bad things always came in threes. They'd kick his shins and pull his hair, and say things like, "Daddy thays you're a thtupid lummoxth!" and, "Mommy thays to always go for the ballth!"

Seated far to the back, Karura, oddly enough, smiled and clapped just as hard as Aguni's family. Just because Aguni had sneered at her as a "mere assistant," it didn't mean two people weren't exceedingly happy right now. As a somewhat unhappy person herself, Karura wouldn't begrudge anyone else their joy.

Kujaku, wearing a purple Mickey Mouse tie, gave Karura a run for her money in clapping and smiling. Awesome, newlyweds, right on! He thought this was great, because now Koumokuten could be somewhat less of a bastard with someone. And weddings were always fun anyway.

Yasha clapped mechanically, frowning. Why was Kujaku so pleased about this? Then Bishamonten's assistant realized that for two whole weeks, Koumokuten would be out of the office and in Fiji! So he clapped extra hard and even smiled.

The organ was played, the rice was thrown, the congratulations were congratulated. Tamara fidgeted and picked each petal off her bouquet, thinking to herself that fire-colored roses were just stupid. When she was a bride and not the maid of honor, she'd have pale pink roses like a normal person.

"Well, son-in-law," Reba smiled, making an effort, "when can I expect, um, grandchildren?"

"Never," Koumokuten told her bluntly, snuggling Aguni to his side. "We've decided a kid would cramp our style, right precious?"

"Yes darling," she giggled back, then smirked at her mother. "I have no time for a baby, not to mention that I'd get out of shape! An out-of-shape gym teacher is a pitiable thing, Mom. Besides, we have dear Tamara," she grinned, rather evilly.

Dear Tamara tried to sneak a drink of wine at the reception, but alas, Aguni's gimlet eye was on the alert. She snatched it out of her stepdaughter's hands, but to her credit didn't lecture her in front of all the guests.

Marriage mellows you, she thought proudly as Tamara sighed and drank more sparkling juice.

As her father and new stepmother danced to Cheap Trick's "The Flame," Tamara sighed again. Okay, so she was no longer Koumokuten's number-one, most important female. Okay, she'd have to get used to all those scented candles. And okay, she could no longer go through her dad's bedroom drawers looking for presents, because she might find something she could never unsee.

But she was still getting attention. And she was going to be alone in the mansion for two whole weeks, except for Minnie of course, but she could handle Minnie. And most importantly… Koumokuten was ridiculously happy, and ridiculously happy Koumokuten could be hit up for more extravagant gifts!

Tamara beamed, and plotted what she could guilt him into buying her.

.

.

(AN: As Rudra and Deva literally show up to get killed in the manga, they're blank slates I can run rampant over, save for their appearances of course. Since Deva's the Earth God, I made him stony and slow to react. Rudra was more fun to write though, as he was much more neurotic as Deva's opposite. Ha, Koumokuten's driven him to modern art.

And no, I don't for a minute think actual spousal murder is funny, c'mon now. But since we only saw "Melissa" in an omake and she seemed like an older Tamara, I could make her ridiculously bitchy. I do love Koumokuten's line of "Actually, I sent Melissa to Hell," because he vows to send the rebels to Hell, then repeats it just for Yasha.

Sorry if I scarred your minds with Koumokuten and Aguni's ridiculous pet names for each other. "Studly sex sorcerer"? Eek. Oh, and Pele is the Hawai'ian fire goddess who resides in a volcano. And of course there's no such thing as a Mitsubishi Hellspawn [that hood ornament was totally one of Koumie's little demon summons from Volume Eight]. On a historical note, Aguni's middle name comes from Catherine the Great of Russia, who I always thought was kind of badass. Koumokuten's middle name, of course, should need no explanation. I wasn't trying to offend anyone, really!

Next up: Ryuu and his cousins, in a mash-up of evil dermatology clinic directors, 1337-speech, and dads who bake cupcakes and gun for a domestic TV show. And an Ashura cameo, yay!)