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The Empty Swimming Pool

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My name is Tenjou. Tenjou Utena. Once upon a time, I was a prince. Now, it seems, I am an agent in His Imperial Majesty's secret service.

I'm still in the profession of saving damsels in distress.

My boss, Shinohara Wakaba, is a tough cookie herself. I should know; I helped her get the job.

"Utena-kun," she said to me one day at the office, "we have a problem."

"Don't we always?" I asked, standing up from a couple of hours of paperwork and picking up my cold, still-half-full coffee mug. It's got a rose with a red circle and slash through it. Wakaba gave it to me.

"A hit's just been put out on this woman," she told me, handing me a sheet of paper. "Recognize her?"

The picture was fuzzy, but the face was clear enough. Despite the intervening twenty years, I'd recognize that blonde hair and those hideous, stylish clothes anywhere: Kiryuu Nanami.

I eyed it like I'd watch a cranky waitress who had rat poison close to hand. "So, we know there're probably thousands of people who'd want to see her dead. What do we have to do with it?"

"Her ex, Saionji Kyouichi, is a bigwig these days," Wakaba explained, sitting on my desk, opening the top right drawer, and pulling out my box of cheroots. "I'd guess you haven't exactly been following his career."

"I thought he'd've gotten taken down when Kiryuu Touga's big scandal broke."

"You'd think, but the Saionji family has always had a great deal of influence in politics." Wakaba removed the last cheroot and tucked it between her teeth. "He got disentangled from Kiryuu, divorced her--" she nodded at the paper "-- and got on with his life."

"Huh," I said, peering at the picture again. "So why --?"

"He doesn't need any more scandal in his life," she said with a sigh. "And if Nanami got aced, the papers would have all that Kiryuu scandal back up in the public eye. In an election year."

"Gotcha."

She sighed again. "What's worse is that the word is that Umbra has taken the job."

"Oh..." I sorted through various levels of obscenity to pick just the right word. "Shit."

Wakaba pointed at me with the cheroot. "Exactly. Umbra, the deadliest assassin team in the country. Take two dozen men and keep Kiryuu Nanami alive until the contract expires next week." She hopped off my desk and ferociously bit the end off the chocolate cheroot before strolling back to her own office.

I can see a hint when it's bodyslammed onto my skull. I went out at lunch to buy Wakaba some more chocolates.


 

As I normally do in situations like this, I went to consult my own personal oracle.

She knelt at the table and poured out the tea. "And what makes you think I'll tell you anything?"

I sighed. "Oh, come on, Anthy, you know I have to leave when I get calls."

Himemiya set the teapot down and turned a glower on me. "You didn't wake me, and THEN you didn't CALL me for two weeks."

I took up my teacup and sipped. "I figured you were mad."

Anthy rolled her eyes. "Of course I was. But it doesn't help to put off calling me. It only makes me angrier." She reached across the table and touched my cheek. "Haven't you learned anything about me in the last ten years?"

I had to admit to myself that I knew next to nothing about Himemiya Anthy, even now. She'd found me ten years ago, working my dead-end office job and playing basketball and baseball nights and weekends. And everything had changed. But I could never really find out anything about her, no matter how hard I looked. "I'm sorry."

She sighed and smiled. "Just promise that the next time it happens, you'll wake me?"

I looked at her for a moment, then nodded.

"Okay." She sat back and sipped her tea thoughtfully. "Let me see your hand."

I reached my left hand, palm up, over to her. She took hold of it and stared briefly at it.

"You will have some interesting revelations," she said, releasing my hand.

I waited for a moment, then said, "That's it?"

Anthy smiled. "My impatient prince." She finished her tea and stood up. "I also see that you have several hours before you have to be on duty."

Her blouse landed on my head. When I escaped it, she was standing in the bedroom doorway, limned in the late afternoon sun. I followed the trail of clothes, leaving one of my own.


 

"The building is secure, Tenjou-san," my latest second-in-command informed me, doing his best to loom over me in his dark suit and dark glasses.

"Excellent," I said, brushing a piece of lint off the black suit I usually wore for these things. "I'll go speak to Kiryuu-san. And take off the dark glasses. It's night."

Turning away before he could answer, I ascended the stairs to Kiryuu Nanami's study.

"Come in," she said in response to my knock. I slid the white fedora off my head and opened the door.

She looked surprised. "Utena," she said with a distant memory of dislike.

I bowed appropriately, presenting my business card. "Tenjou Utena. You're looking well, Kiryuu-san."

Nanami was, in fact, looking very well. She'd grown a figure and lost her incredibly bad hairstyle. Her taste in clothes hadn't changed much, although she wasn't, thank heaven, wearing a bow bigger than her head. The dress was, however, extremely curve-hugging and slit to mid-thigh.

She accepted the business card, glanced at it, and returned it, all with a bland, bored expression. "So, are you the assassin, or the person in charge of keeping the assassin away?"

I smiled tightly. "The latter, of course."

"Of course." She rose and drifted around the sparsely decorated room, trailing her fresh manicure lovingly over the finely-made furniture. "So what do you think of this life I've made for myself?"

I glanced around, then shrugged very slightly. "Expensive."

She ho-ho-ho-ed for a moment, covering her mouth politely as she did so. "Of course it is." Pausing to examine a bright yellow chrysanthemum in a nearby vase, she added, "In more ways than one. So how long do I keep it?"

I blinked, confused. "Keep... what?"

"My life," Nanami explained, crushing the blossom and grinding it in her palm.

"We're here to protect you," I replied automatically.

"Ah," she said, and dropped the petals on the floor. "You can go. I'll be here."

I bowed and left for my post outside. I sat in the dark sedan with tinted windows and listened to the reports of the men patrolling inside on my earpiece.

A few hours later, one of my men failed to report in.

"Pair up!" I snapped into the communications link. "Number 23 is down! I'm coming in!"

I hopped out the window of the car and sprinted across the street, vaulting a passing car as I did so. My second-in-command wasn't there to open the front door for me. I enjoyed the fact that I was destroying Kiryuu Nanami's expensive front door as I blew the lock with my silenced gun and kicked it in.

I leapt over the body of Number 18 and bounded up the stairs.

The lights flickered out in the house as I reached the top landing. It felt like a bad American thriller movie. I immediately pressed my back to the wall and moved along as silently as I could.

Outlined in the dim light from a window, I saw the last of my squad standing back to back, guns drawn. Then there was a brief flash of movement, and one of them grunted and fell forward. The last one stood for a moment, and then someone dropped on him from the ceiling. He didn't make a noise, just collapsed like a house of cards.

A bright spotlight flicked onto me. "There she is," said a female voice from beyond the light.

"Good," said another female voice, somewhat muffled. "You didn't kill her by accident."

"And neither did you," said the first, "you enthusiastic little thing."

At a loss for anything else to do, I hauled out the old authority ploy. "Identify yourselves!" I bellowed, waving my gun for good measure.

"So cute," said the muffled voice.

"Come on, just drop the gun," said the first voice.

"We do have an awful advantage over you," said the second.

With a sigh, I let the gun drop to the floor.

"Good girl," said the second voice.

"Now we don't have to kill you," said the first.

"Toodles!" said the second voice.

"See you around," I said. "...Nanami."

There was a frozen silence. The first voice then said, "I told you not to say anything. You made it too easy for her."

"She had no idea I'd be able to recognize her voice through that mask she's wearing," I said amiably. "Just like you didn't think I'd remember your voice, Juri."

Nanami laughed. "She's good."

"So, um, would you like to explain how two Ohtori graduates become... Umbra?" I said, hoping that they'd feel more like talking than killing me.

The spotlight was rearranged to a more acceptable angle, where I could see Nanami, dressed in a black leotard, a close-fitting mask over the lower part of her face, a hood covering her bright hair, and a surprising random scattering of strips of fabric, making her look a tatterdemalion sort of assassin as she crouched on the window ledge. Juri was less dramatically dressed, wearing black jeans, boots, dark shirt, and black leather vest, under which I could see the slight bulges of at least two small handguns. She leaned casually against a wall.

Juri shrugged. "Oh, you know. This and that."

Nanami tugged her mask down and smiled. "Boredom. Irritation. Annoying ex-husbands."

Juri glided over and slid an arm around Nanami's waist, smiling wickedly down at her. "Most assuredly, annoying ex-husbands."

Nanami's smile up at Juri was surprisingly wicked in return, and then she rested her head against Juri's shoulder.

My head began to hurt. "So... you became assassins because of Saionji?"

"Not me," Juri said. "I was just good at it."

"You've always been an assassin?" I asked, rubbing the bridge of my nose.

"Oh, good grief, no," Juri said. "I started out of college as a carefree heiress and sometime model. Then I got bored. Then I got pissed off."

"At?" I asked.

"You know," Nanami said confidentially. "The deputy chairman."

"Ah," I said, bewildered.

"We're going to go take care of him," Juri said casually.

"That's one reason we're faking my death," Nanami added.

I blinked. "One reason...?"

Nanami shrugged and smiled sweetly. "The other is to lose Saionji the election, of course."

"Of... course."

"As if it matters," Juri said, tossing her hair to the side and pulling Nanami a little closer. "So, you in or out?"

I stared at her. Words were coming out of her mouth, but they didn't seem to mean anything.

Nanami frowned. She could be cute when she frowned; I'd never realized that, really. "Utena, have you taken too many blows to the head lately?"

"Uhm."

Juri cocked her head to the side. "We're going after him, Utena. It'd be nice to have you along."

My jaw fell open. It took me a moment to close it. "So, here we stand in the midst of the bodies of two dozen of my men, and you ask me to come along to help you kill Ohtori Akio?"

"Oh, come on, Utena," Nanami said. "It's not like you didn't toss them in here expecting carnage anyway. They're faceless goons in dark suits, and far too many of them were still wearing dark glasses at night. Are they really people? They're little pieces of his world. Pawns."

I opened my mouth to object, but Juri pointed at the one at her feet and said, "What's his name?"

I looked down, then shrugged and shook my head mutely.

"Right," Juri said. "We're all still stuck in the illusion, Utena. All of us. We have to work to take back what's left of our lives."

Nanami rubbed her head against Juri's shoulder like a kitten. "It's been years, but we've slowly been changing his world to our advantage."

"Using the local color to slide under his radar," Juri added, grinning fiercely. "Changing a bored heiress into a top assassin. Likewise a rich divorcee."

"And now it's down to us to finish all this," Nanami finished.

I looked into their eyes, their ferocious eyes, and realized... of course they were right. I couldn't remember anything before Anthy found me ten years ago. It was all a haze of depression and despair and ugly, boring days and nights. And then it became ten years of bright color and swashbuckling and weird spy gimmicks in my shoes. "Oh, my god," I said slowly, enunciating carefully.

Nanami smiled. "She's got it."

Juri kissed her head. "Of course she's got it."

I took off the black suit coat and draped it over what's-his-name's face. "Right. You're right. We're still here, wherever 'here' is." My chest hurt. "Didn't I revolutionize anything?"

"You started it," Juri said, moving over to lay a hand on my shoulder. "We didn't know we had to finish it, or he'd take the momentum and turn it to his own ends."

"He's good at that," Nanami added. "He's been doing it for a long time."

"It's just us?" I asked, picking up my gun and tucking it into the shoulder holster.

"Just the women," Nanami said. "None of the boys can see it. It's their world too, after all. Why would they have to change it? They know the rules."

"They have the 'qualifications,'" Juri added. "The bits that he so loves about himself."

"Oh, geez, so is Wakaba in on this too?" I asked, one hand on my forehead, feeling pretty slow and stupid.

Nanami shrugged. "Not that we know of. Probably not consciously."

"The best women's revolution," Juri said thoughtfully, "is one we don't have to think about or process to death."

The three of us walked out of Nanami's expensive mansion arm-in-arm. When I'd driven the van a block away, Nanami pulled a small device out of her pocket and pressed a button. The mansion went up like the Hindenberg.

"A blow against... everything!" Nanami declared, humming a merry tune.

"Vive la resistance!" Juri said, leaning back in her seat.

I floored the van. "Where to?"

Nanami curled up in Juri's lap. "Stop by and pick up Anthy first thing."

Juri grinned. "She's waiting for us. She's been waiting for us for a long, long time."