Long Distance
Post-series, spoilers, Anthy & Akio

Stepping out of the Academy should have been the hardest part. It should have been, and isn't.

When Anthy crossed the boundaries of Ohtori -- silver gates winking in the distance, towers looming impassively -- she did so with nothing to stop her. Suitcase in her hand, jacket laced up tight to her chin, Chu-Chu brave on her shoulder; it was the last opportunity Akio had to change her mind. As her shoes clicked on the sidewalk pavement, she half-expected the ground to swallow her, or burst into spontaneous flames. She didn't know what she expected, really, only that she was surprised Akio wasn't there to force her to stay.

She turned and looked behind her once as she walked, checking if he was leaning against the gate, trying to coax her with his eyes alone.


Getting on the bus that trundled along to the transit stop was an anticlimactic event. The driver didn't look over when she climbed carefully up the stairs and fumbled with the change. There were rows of seats half-free and half-taken; as she passed a scruffy looking student, he jolted to his feet and offered her his place instead. When she voiced a polite no, she was mildly surprised that her hands didn't bleed as punishment.

The school vanished behind her, smoke-mirage and haze. Like a true castle in the sky, its outlines blurred away into clouds, which then broke up into rain.

As Anthy rested her head against the round plastic windowsill, she remembered one of the oldest rules she and Akio had come up with, back at the start of it all: only those who are invited to Ohtori can find it again.

- - - - -

The hardest part about being outside the Academy isn't life itself, but getting used to a world that ticks along to its own impenetrable rhythm. It's harder to make ends meet without enchantment to grease the way. When people brush past Anthy now, it's not because she's encouraging them to dismiss her -- she really is this unimportant, this negligible in their lives. No one will make an exception if she needs a store to stay open late, or if she's short on train fare. She is no longer the Chairman's sister. She is not the Rose Bride.

Originally, Anthy packed enough clothes to last her a year, from the worst of summer to the coldest parts of winter. But once she crossed the boundary of Ohtori's campus grounds, the suitcase became bounded by mortal constraints. There are a few skirts, socks, pants, and precious little else. As much as she might wish they could last forever, time is on the march.

She uses a small magic to secure her lodgings, lowering the rental fees with a touch of persuasion on the stiff-faced, pitiless landlord. It would be simple to twist the charm further, to have him decide that he doesn't really need the room anyway and can afford to let her use it in exchange for basic maintenance -- but she stops before she takes that course. She gave up being a witch. The Thousand Swords let her go in peace.

Even as she signs her name to the lease, she can hear the slick clatter of metal blades, and understands.

She has traded eternal pain for eternal temptation.

In the outside world, Anthy is never without a phone. Pagers scare her -- fat beetles that buzz and chirr on her hip -- but phones are familiar. Phones are safe. They have been her allies in the past, providing much-needed insulation between her and the individual holding the other end. She allocates part of her dwindling funds to a land-line, and part to a mobile phone. They are worth the expense.

She receives no calls for the first six months, not even wrong numbers, until one day -- as she is turning up the stove for dinner, basic pasta and some salt -- the slender phone in her pocket rings.

The first words she hears on the light, tinny speakers are:

"I wanted to regain the power I had as a prince."

Anthy's stomach flips. Her legs feel weak, as if the nerves have been struck by one fatal blow while her attention lay elsewhere, distracted by the pots and pans. All the resolve that she thought she had seems to have hidden itself. By not keeping determination constantly in her mind, Anthy might have become complacent, and this treacherous dread is enough to forward her answer: "It's too late."

"Anthy." Her brother's voice is as smooth as ever, hot silk rippling in the static between transmissions. "I want us both to be restored to the strength we once had."

There is something in his words that sounds very young. Anthy leans against the counter. She tells herself she needs physical support, rather than reassurance. "We can't win, brother."

"Then the world wants me to be like this. It prefers its princes all used up. And that's the way life should be! But I can't do it without you." The brief flash of anger on his tongue eases, shifting into something gentler, coaxing. "There's no point to these games if you're not here, Anthy. There's nothing to win. There's no reason to win it."

If Anthy had a mirror nearby, she imagines she would look bleak; instead, she reaches inside herself to find the patience that has served her so well through countless engagements. "You don't even know what you want to be anymore, brother. Both of us lost our way from the pain. The only way to endure it was to love what we'd become, but that sealed our fates." Her words are very simple. They taste like dust. "So long as we found satisfaction in what we were, we'd never be able to return to what we used to be. But there was no other choice."

"Anthy," he says, and his voice is very soft over the phone.

Methodically, Anthy picks up the spoon and begins to stir the pasta. "Miss Utena reminded me that I wasn't always the creature that the Thousand Swords made me into. And the Academy hurt more because of that, for a little while. I wish you had someone there as a reminder that you, too, once fought against cruelty."

"That person was you, Anthy," he replies, surprisingly without rancor. "I wanted you to be safe as a princess again."

The water of the pasta is beginning to turn milky. She turns off the stove. "I know. It's what you did, as a prince. You helped people. But I couldn't be saved, because people cried out favoritism whenever you did, that it was selfish to choose me. You could never be my prince, because that's not what the world wanted. And I learned that the world is stronger than us both. It always will be. So I stopped playing." Here is the explanation she did not give when she last faced him in person, that she could not and keep her willpower strong. She does not know if she's saying what she needs to as clearly as she should; the logic tangles itself inside disaster. "I stopped trying to fight the world, and moved on. There's a third path, where I'm not a princess or a witch, and I'm not hurt all the time anymore. It's what the world wants, brother. I stopped playing," she repeats, harder. "You should too."

"Anthy -- "

"Better this than trying to force a revolution that will never come," she tells him, and hangs up shivering.

- - - - -

Anthy moves apartments. She requests an unlisted number. Her brother finds her anyway. It's a morbid game, how many days he will give her before he next picks up the phone: three, five, a week before his own restlessness gets the better of him and compels him to speak to her.

In the summer, it rains in torrents. The ceiling in Anthy's apartment drips. Akio's voice haunts her answering machine.

"Children want to believe in magic." Akio does not deliver an official hello this time; some messages are whimsical, but normally he continues his agenda. "That's the distinguishing line -- the one Mikage understood, how the infinite potential of belief makes castles in the sky."

Anthy rolls her eyes at the lecture and peels off her shoes.

"Children still want to believe that adults have this power. They don't realize that we're all simply pretending to have control. They want to believe we have magic -- that we know it, will show it to them, will share it. They don't realize we have nothing. We've never been able to find it."

The edges of her socks are damp from the rain that seeped through. Anthy wonders if it's too soon to do laundry, and also if anything will dry in the humidity anyway. Maybe she can warm up with some tea.

"And that's why -- "

Once she finishes exposing bare toes to the carpet, Anthy leans over and hits the Erase button before her brother can finish speaking.

Anthy takes small jobs. She does not have the same identification numbers and educational references that other girls who appear her age might, but at least she can manage basic work. Serving customers their food and pocket change is not terribly different than performing obedience for a duelist, and it is a routine both effortless and boring; her mind wanders more than she'd like it to, and her eyes continue to search the crowds for a flash of tomboy strut.

Her apartment is full of animals, all of them strays that she's saved from one fate or another. She befriends them without meaning to; each one seems drawn towards her proximity, squeaking and crying with need. She doesn't understand them as well as she used to without magic, and this language barrier is both upsetting and a balm: she does not need to explain herself to them, and the solitude can be some comfort.

Chu-Chu is just a grey-furred mouse now, running in his cage. Sometimes he gnaws on the wires and on the water bottle itself, squirming into the crevice between the nozzle and the cap. She feeds him out of nostalgia, and past affection for what he once was. He always perks up for a banana chip.

She thinks, maybe, Chu-chu wouldn't fault her for any of what's occurred.

She's not as good with her phone as she'd like to be. There are too many regional codes in the outside world, too many lines and restrictions. Anthy keeps dialing different numbers, only to be interrupted by the mechanical voice blaring that she needs to add a +1 first, that she doesn't need to add a +1, that her local area uses a different extension.

It seems that everywhere Anthy tries, she's in the wrong zone.

There is one number that weighs in heavily on her call statements. She receives all the charges; they're always made collect, and she accepts the bills meekly, without complaint.

When she dials it once, the heavy chill of fear settling in her chest, the automated voice of the operator pronounces a No Longer in Service.

- - - - - -

Work becomes more relaxed over time. Anthy half-expected to only trade on charm and subservience, but her other hobbies are refreshingly valuable on the market. Half of the week, she works on staff at a bakery. The rest, she spends at the greenhouses of a prestigious flower company, tending the boxes with a stern eye as orders come in for bushels of blue irises in winter. The other employees have a grudging respect for her and her alacrity in correcting their mistakes; it feels good to be able to communicate without worrying if it will jeopardize her role as a meek Bride, with sharper wit rather than a sweet malice.

Someone at work asks if she has a boyfriend and Anthy suddenly realizes that she hasn't had time to look for Utena in months.

"Well, I'm not surprised." Akio's voice is a cross between smug and petulant when she shares this revelation with him. "The outside world doesn't care about personal quests. It just wants you to meet your bills on time. You're simply another girl out there, Anthy -- another warm body with no dreams to speak of."

"Brother," Anthy says, leaning against the wall and pressing the heel of one hand against her temple. She doesn't know why she's telling him, except that the phone had rung at seven o'clock right when she'd been looking over her work schedules for the next week and seeing a scheduling conflict. "Please."

He quiets down. The pettiness of it all hangs on the air, suddenly absurd. She could hang up on him; she could, she should, but Akio's voice on the line after a long day preparing strawberry tarts isn't entirely unwelcome, with his familiar slyness and mockery and listening ear.

For the first time during the conversation, Anthy is struck by the feeling that they're siblings again. As soon as she realizes this, she also realizes that she can't remember the last time it happened, either -- and she opens her eyes and looks, really looks, at the young woman she is and her older brother on the telephone line and how blissfully normal it could be if they just let it.

Eventually, coming to the awareness that Akio has taken her seriously and fell silent by her request, she sighs. "I haven't stopped looking."

"You might find her. You might not. What will you do, if you can't?"

"I don't know. At least I'll be free."

"Free. Yes, free to see the world as it is, instead of how you wish the world could be."

She hisses air between her teeth, a bitter laugh already on her lips; they have argued enough about this, it seems, and the endless cycle makes her want to cry and laugh all at once. "I waited in Ohtori, brother. I waited in my coffin, hoping for a prince to come, and knowing that no one would. I wanted -- I wanted for someone to be able to save me. Someone I could believe would be capable of saving me." She's more verbose than usual tonight; his obedience to her is a heady thing, warming her blood and making her giddy. "Then, when I realized that no one could, not even Utena Tenjou -- because I wouldn't let her, I didn't let her -- I took myself out of that coffin. And now I can't go back in it. Because I can save myself, I can't allow myself to be a princess anymore. Do you see, brother?" Her own tone is wistful now, and Anthy forgives herself use of with him, just this once. "Do you understand?"

"That's what the world would call 'growing up,' Anthy." Akio sounds more reasonable than he has in years, and she wonders if he is only repeating back what part of her wants to hear, as she has done to so many Grooms in her history. "When we start letting go of illusions that anyone will come for us, and give up on our dreams. Is that really what you want, Anthy?"

Her breath comes out in a restless huff, exhaled and ungracious. "You're not letting anyone save you from your own coffin either, brother."

"Ohtori is still here for you, Anthy," he reminds her, and she feels sick at her own desire.

She fumbles with the phone, trying not to think about how easy it would be to run back. To run home. To go somewhere that hurts, but where she could become passive again, waiting for white knights and red cars, and the belief that someone will want to protect her, whether or not she needs it anymore.

"Call me back, Anthy. Call me."

Anthy makes a small shake of her head, though her brother is not there to see it. "I can't."