Souzou Tennou narrowed his eyes at me. "Your what now?"
"Yeah, you heard me," I retorted. "My father. Who, given that I was speaking in third-person, is someone other than you."
"We shall see about that..." he intoned darkly, raising his hand. "Here on my mountain, we have ways of deciding these sorts of things..."
With a snap of his fingers, the walls surrounding us fell away, and I was temporarily blinded as spotlights converged on me from all directions. Squinting, trying to see beyond the blinding beams into the darkness beyond, I heard a voice boom from overhead, "Welllcooooome to the first installment of the new reality gameshow... Who's... Your... Daddyyyy?!" Some large crowd from beyond my range of vision eagerly shouted the last three words along with the voice, then broke out into applause. Also, that voice was...
The spotlights scattered away from me and reconverged on Kijin, who was standing atop a tall platform wearing a suit with a bow tie and holding a microphone. "It's the exciting, fast-paced, unpredictable game where our contestants vie for the chance to be the father of our very... own... Miracle Chiiiild!" I was blinded again by another spotlight just as my eyes had started to adjust. Cheers and applause erupted from around me again, but for now I was stuck at wondering just how the heck Kijin had gotten out of the basement.
"And now, let us introduce our contestants! In the red corner, we have..." A spotlight sprang to life, revealing Akagane standing bewildered behind a podium that looked like it was just some old crate with his name haphazardly painted on it, dressed in a red t-shirt and elbow pads. "... Shakkin!" I cocked my head in confusion as Akagane also gave a momentary blink, before looking down at his nametag at the "赤金" written on it and muttering, "That... that is not how that is pronounced..." Well, Kijin was illiterate, after all.
"And in the imperial violet corner, we have... you know him, you love him, our very own Boss, Souzou Tennou-sama!!" Multiple spotlights, blinking LED banners and confetti rained down on Souzou Tennou, standing behind an ornate, gold-trimmed podium bearing his name in a red calligraphy seal, though he was otherwise looking much less imposing by wearing a purple t-shirt and elbow pads similar to Akagane. He was also no longer wearing my mother's pelt. Where...?!
My thoughts were cut off by Kijin continuing, "Let's give a big round of applause for these two. As an introduction, we've prepared some videos illustrating their histories and suitability to take on the role of the Miracle Child's father. Let's watch!"
All the lights went dark and a recording of Akagane's voice played over the loudspeakers: "I beat that dog off with a stick and hurled it into the river." Akagane and I both went rigid as an image of him faded into view on the multiple monitors, but the color and lightness were altered to make him look dark and sinister. It switched to a video of Akagane gripping me by the neck in my dog form with Hisui pleading for him to let me go. An unfamiliar voice-over darkly explained, "This man has a history of animal abuse and gleefully inflicted pain and torture upon this very dog in the past." The image then shifted to me huddled outside in the snow by the furnace with a voice-over of Akagane saying, "You are a dog, you sleep outside."
The unfamiliar voice continued, "Does this seem like a man who treats the Miracle Child as family?" while a slow-motion video of Akagane cutting open my shoulder while possessed by the Shikon no Tama played, the faded to black. "He is wrong for the Miracle Child. Wrong for fatherhood. Wrong for America." ... Wait, what was that last bit? "Paid for by the Souzou Tennou for Sole Custody Action Committee."
I fumed from my seat. "Wh... where did you even GET those clips?! And that all happened years ago! It's not even relevant anymore!" I looked over to Akagane, who had become very small and was rocking back and forth with his arms around his knees while hiding behind his podium. "For crying out loud, he's more traumatized by all that stuff than I am, so it's pretty obvious he regrets it!"
But my complaints fell on deaf ears as a new montage appeared on the screens. "Are you tired of not getting everything you want? Tired of being hampered by other people's rules?" A video of an oni holding a severed human arm appeared, and it said, "Back when I just lived out in the woods, humans would try to kill me if I attacked them. The Boss, though, he lets me attack all the humans I want." Another oni chimed in, "Exactly. If you're strong, you should get certain perks. The Boss makes sure we get 'em." The image faded to a picture of Souzou Tennou grinning and holding what looked like me, except I was the wrong size, lit from an entirely different angle, and had a jagged outline. "Pick the candidate who will give you everything you want and more," the narration concluded.
"But I don't want any of that crap!" I grumbled fruitlessly.
The crowd broke into applause and Souzou Tennou puffed up his chest, beckoning with his hands and nodding to request more enthusiasm.
Kijin allowed the audience to go on for a while before silencing them with, "All right, now that introductions are out of the way, let's move on to the first round: Trivia! Each contestant has five seconds to answer the question they're given, and if they're wrong or don't know the answer, their opponent can steal for double the points! Are the contestants ready?!" Souzou Tennou folded his arms and nodded while Akagane looked around in a daze.
"All right, Question 1 is for Tennou-sama. Who is the rightful father of the Miracle Child?"
Souzou Tennou immediately smacked his buzzer. "That would be me," he answered.
"Correct!" Kijin crowed, a "1" appearing in a display above Souzou Tennou's head. "That's one point for Tennou-sama. Now, next question. Who has absolutely NO claim as the Miracle Child's father? Shakkin, your answer."
Akagane blinked groggily and answered, "It is... Akagane."
Kijin held up his finger. "That is.... actually correct. Huh, we weren't expecting you to get that one right." A "1" started to fade into view above Akagane's head but after a quick glare from Souzou Tennou, it disappeared. Tugging at his bow tie, Kijin admitted, "O... okay, I think that's all the time we have for Trivia. The winner of this round is... Tennou-samaaa!" And the crowd went wild.
It was at this point that Akagane seemed to finally register what was going on. Eyes widening, he realized, "Wait... I am... losing the battle for the bake-inu's parentage?!" He gripped the edges of his rickety podium so hard that it splintered, glaring across the way at Souzou Tennou. "This may be ridiculous, and it may be quite obviously rigged in your favor, but I will not allow myself to lose."
Souzou Tennou turned up his nose with a smirk as Kijin announced the next event. "Now we will move on to... the target range!" Several rows of dummies dressed in various styles of kimonos rose up out of the ground as Kijin explained, "The one who becomes the Miracle Child's father must have the skills necessary to subdue his foes and train the next generation to dominate the heavens. There are one hundred enemies for you to defeat, and whoever is able to do so fastest will be the winner of this round! Naturally, Tennou-sama will go first to set the standard we all must strive for."
The crowd broke into more applause as Souzou Tennou stepped forward, motioning with his arms and turning in a circle. He cracked his neck back and forth, then laced his fingers and stretched his arms forward, cracking his joints. Holding his hand in front of him, he concentrated his youki to the point that the air began to waver under the pressure. With a thrust forward, the wall of concentrated youki flew forward, passing over all the dummies and causing them to spontaneously melt or burst into flames. In less than ten seconds, the entire field had been rendered a charred, smoldering mess.
"Amazing! Simply amazing! You saw it here first how our master truly dominates everything in his path!" Kijin exclaimed over the cheers of the audience.
Akagane stepped forward, Sansazume in hand, as the dummies reset for his go. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, squaring his shoulders. "I may not have such massive energy-based powers... and I do not fight to subdue or to rule, but to protect." Gripping his spear tightly and twisting his hips to draw it back, he proclaimed, "And to protect the bake-inu, I shall rend the very air itself!" He pivoted his legs and hips, swinging around and snapping the blade of his spear in an arc ahead of him. A shockwave echoed through the air, rattling the seats and causing the light fixtures to sway.
Kijin leaned forward and adjusted his glasses, peering at Akagane's set of dummies. "However... you do not appear to have hit anything..."
Akagane snorted and tapped the pommel of Sansazume on the ground. Every dummy cracked horizontally down the middle, the top half sliding off the bottom half until it toppled onto the ground. There was a shocked gasp from the audience, while I broke into a solitary applause.
Kijin coughed into his microphone. "Ah, yes, that was quite impressive, however the delay between him striking the targets and the targets actually breaking caused him to exceed Tennou-sama's time by five tenths of a second."
Akagane went pale, a shadow hanging over his eyes. He then raised his fist in the air and lamented, "CURSE YOU, DRAMATIC TENSION!"
The spotlight returned to Kijin as he announced, "And now for the final round!" With Souzou Tennou already leading 2-0, what was the point? "The final round is winner-take-all, so anything could still happen!" ... Then in that case, what was the point of the first two rounds?
Akagane clenched his fist resolutely. "For the bake-inu's sake, then, in this round I absolutely must not fail."
Kijin swept his hand to the side and declared, "The final round is... the swimsuit competition!"
The crowd went wild as Akagane looked like he'd had an internal blue screen of death. After waiting a moment for his internal processor to reboot, he clenched his fingers and exclaimed, "B... by what metric does such an exhibition demonstrate suitable fatherhood?!"
"Naturally, the Miracle Child's father must be a perfect specimen of masculinity," Kijin explained.
Akagane looked desperately between me, the stage, and the crowd of rowdy, jeering oni. "B... but...!"
Souzou Tennou strutted onto the stage and tore off his clothes in a single motion, leaving him in nothing but a purple speedo that looked like it had been stuffed with an entire box of tissues. The oni hooted and clapped as he turned around and assumed various dramatic poses, declaring, "THIS is what a real man looks like."
I rolled my eyes as Souzou Tennou continued to pose and flex. Yeah, not really that impressed. But then I noticed that Akagane had disappeared off to somewhere. I understood that something like this was way out of his comfort zone, but I would be a bit disappointed in him if he went so far to run and hide. On the other hand, was he actually getting ready to...
Souzou Tennou descended from the stage as the oni threw flowers at his feet. The spotlight then returned to the curtain, where Akagane hesitantly stepped out, wearing a pair of plain red swim trunks. Awwwhhh, he was really going through with it! And all for me. Even just getting up there on that stage dressed in such a way was the most I could possibly ask of him.
The oni started to snicker and point at him milling about aimlessly, and I was about to call to him to get down since he'd already done enough, but he turned and... winked at me?
Akagane suddenly struck a pose, pointing above his head, which somehow caused the spotlights to dim and be replaced with flashing colored lights. A jazzy rap beat started playing and he slowly brought down his hand as it crescendoed. When it hit its peak, he thrust his hips to the side to the beat, a shower of sparks flying out of the floor on each side. He strutted forward, then spun to the side and flexed his significantly larger biceps than Souzou Tennou's. And he didn't even need padding.
The oni's jaws all dropped in stunned silence as he glided back, picking up Sansazume and spinning it a few times before thrusting it into the stage. He held the upright pole with his right hand and hooked his right ankle around it, then held his left arm out and spun, bending backwards. His left hand brushed along the stage floor and he plucked up one of the thrown flowers, then pulled himself back upright with the flower delicately clenched between his teeth. He spun away from the spear and threw back his head, ending the routine in a full front splits as the lights and music cut out.
There was dead silence for a moment, then the crowd erupted into frenzied cheers, a few of the oni fainting, and others throwing panties at the stage. I was similarly stupefied, wondering if I should really be feeling this way about a guy who was supposed to be my dad.
Kijin cleared his throat, fanning himself off a little before declaring, "W... well then, that was certainly an unexpected comeback! Tennou-sama may actually have some competition after all!"
Akagane suddenly appeared behind me, already back in his t-shirt and pads. I blushed a little and stammered, "W... wow. I honestly never expected you to be able to pull off something like that!"
"About that..." he replied a little guiltily, looking away and scratching his cheek.
Suddenly another Akagane appeared behind him, this one wearing the swim trunks. That Akagane plucked the flower out of his mouth and tossed it to me, then disappeared in a poof of smoke. In his place stood Wakage, shaking her head and sighing. "Yeah, and you were right to think that, because he didn't," she explained. "Still, there's no way in hell I'd let that sister-murderer win anything, so as usual, it was up to me to save your ass." She gave a little wave and strode off. "You can thank me later."
Akagane and I sat in silence while I wrestled with an odd mix of relief and disappointment that it hadn't actually been him on that stage.
Kijin pointed at us and exclaimed, "Ah! It appears there has been some foul play afoot! Certainly the imposter must have artificially augmented your features!" I don't want to hear that coming from you.
Akagane looked at him blandly, then casually flexed his arm, his elbow pad popping off and his shirt ripping at the sleeve to expose his very real, very large and well-toned bicep. Kijin swooned again and stuttered, "Oh.... oh my... nothing compares to the real thing!"
Souzou Tennou stormed in with a bloodied scrap of tissue plugging his nose. ... Speaking of "augmentation", I didn't want to know where he got that tissue from... Pointing angrily, he declared, "A perfect male specimen would not titillate other men as you have done! Only one who has forsaken what it means to be a man would do such a thing!"
I crossed my arms and smirked. "Oh, now you pay attention to him. No one forced you to watch."
He choked, "I will not allow such a perverse creature to have any influence on my son!"
"You know what? I don't care," I said in exasperation, throwing up my arms. "You've been 'competing' for me in this stupid contest like I have no say in the matter and will just happily go with whoever wins. I don't care how badly he used to treat me, how inept he is at trivia, how many enemies he can kill, or how uncomfortably sexy he is. I would still choose him over you any day. And if that makes me less of a man, then I'm fine with not being a man."
I took Akagane's hand firmly and nodded up at him, while Akagane blushed and gave me a small smile back. Souzou Tennou fumed silently as Kijin walked up behind him and gave him a bag. "Well, as a consolation prize, here is a fresh melon from the northern lands."
Akagane stiffened slightly and glanced between me and the bagged melon indecisively. I tugged on his arm and shook my head, and he sighed and nodded and we turned to leave.
Souzou Tennou growled and threw the melon bag at the crowd of oni. Oniuma and Onishika caught it and excitedly exclaimed, "Boss, is this our birthday present?!"
He pointed at us and declared, "Don't think this will be so easy in the real chapter! I have worked too hard to just hand him over to the likes of you in such a farcical way! He will submit to me!"
"Over my dead body," said Akagane with a snort.
Souzou Tennou gave a malicious smirk. "I expect so." Well, that didn't sound foreboding or anything.
So, to end the chapter on a lighter note, Wakage turned back on the flashing colored lights and music on the stage and we all had a dance party, because happy endings always end with dance parties.