I don't own these characters; Sunrise does.

This is the sequel to the story Dents in Her Armor. You should probably read that story before this one to know what's going on.

Reinforced Steel

1: Wonderful Time of the Year

Natsuki sighed as she walked the streets of the city with a purpose. It was a slightly confused purpose, but it was a purpose nonetheless. Her stride was powerful, full of meaning, and she would not have anyone stop her, even if she was not sure what she was doing. What the hell do I think I'm doing anyway? I dunno. The question and lack of answer did not make her turn around. She was determined and she would keep going forward like the mighty soldier she was.

"Even though I'm probably just going to make an ass out of myself as usual," Natsuki muttered with another sigh as she continued on her march. She shook her head a little bit, but she just kept on going.

At least I'll be making an ass out of myself for a good cause. Really, the best cause, as far as she was concerned. Still, she was pretty sure that most people would think she was out of her mind for what she had planned anyway, especially considering what happened a couple of months ago. But, really, the incident was the thing driving her, the thing that was forcing her to go and make an ass of herself.

She hurried her pace, almost as if she was trying to avoid being seen on the street and it had nothing to do with crazed Otome fans. She was not a very high profile Otome, even considering her position, so she was not very popular amongst the fans. She did not want to be spotted by someone that might know her personally. That would be a million times worse than running into some faceless fan.

Natsuki pulled down the fedora-style black hat that she wore, masking her eyes. She had on a matching black pea coat with the collar up, trying her best to hide in case someone did see her. She suspected she looked ridiculous, but it was worth it if it kept anyone from noticing her face. She breathed a sigh of relief when she made it through the busy streets to her destination.

"Damn people and their early holiday shopping," she grumbled as she entered the building. Of course, any shopping done the day before a holiday was early in her opinion.

"Can I help you?" a voice and its petite female owner inquired, seeming to come out of nowhere.

Natsuki, focusing more on her anger outside, did not notice the young woman come up to her, so when she heard the voice and the owner stood before her, the great Second Column practically jumped out of her skin. Once she took notice that a saleswoman was eyeing her, her heart calmed down and she took a soothing breath. She straightened herself out, standing the dignity one would expect of the principal of Garderobe and a princess.

"May I help you?" the saleswoman asked again with amusement dancing in her eyes. She was trying her best to not laugh at Natsuki's shaken reaction to her. It would not be professional for her to giggle, especially at a customer. After all, she worked in the most high-class jewelry store in Windbloom and she was practically required to maintain a certain poise.

Natsuki was about to dismiss the woman before her, but a simple factor made her change her mind — the woman before her reminded her of Mai. She had a soft face like Mai with the same color hair, only longer. It was a sign, she figured; thank the Shinso! She did need all the help that she could get, after all.

"You can help me. I need to find a ring," Natsuki vaguely explained. She did not want to just come right out and say she thought she was too stupid to find the ring on her own and was scared she might screw it up. Even with that fear, she did not think to ask a friend to help out of embarrassment. Childish behavior, but her friends were just as childish and would tease her the whole time. She did not need that type of stress right now.

"Oh, well, I'm sure you know we have plenty of those," the young woman replied, motioning around the large shop. They were in a well-renowned jewelry store, after all.

"Yeah, but it's a special ring," Natsuki replied, still being vague. She could not figure out why she was so embarrassed about what she was doing. Maybe it was just the fact that she felt too incompetent to do it on her own. She dared to consider abandoning her mission, but that only lasted for a second. Come on. Get it together, Natsuki. She needed to go through with at least this part of the plan considering she might never get such an opportunity again.

"Special? Hmm…" The saleswoman made the noise while regarding Natsuki and the faint blush coating her cheeks. She could tell the blush was not due to the uncharacteristic cold outside, but rather what was going on inside.

Natsuki's eyes went on the floor. Hey, tile could be very interesting if given enough attention. "Yes, very special," she murmured. It felt like there was a million butterflies in her stomach now.

"I'm sure I can help. Do you have any idea what you're looking for?" the saleswoman inquired with a polite smile on her face, hoping the expression calmed Natsuki down.

Natsuki turned up her mouth a bit and dropped her head. "I don't really have an idea," she grumbled. She should have at least had a clue what she wanted, but she felt like it would speak to her when she saw it.

"That's fine, that's fine," the saleswoman assured her in a gentle tone. "We can look around in the display cases and you can describe the person you want to buy the ring for."

"Person?" Emerald eyes shot up and she scowled. "Who said I wanted to buy a ring for a person?" Natsuki reeled back as if the woman pulled a weapon on her. The saleswoman was close to laughing from the reaction of the Second Column.

"All right, all right. You're not buying the ring for anyone. You're just here to purchase a ring with no idea in particular what you want," the saleswoman said to keep Natsuki from bolting out of the door as the principal looked like she wanted to do. If what she just said was the case, it was going to be quite difficult to be of any help to Natsuki.

Natsuki was quiet for a moment and then she started fidgeting with her fingers. Ah, I'm no good at these sorts of things. "Umm… well… she's… very kind…" she mumbled.

"Okay, a kindhearted person. Anything else?"

"Um… she has very pretty eyes. I've never seen eyes quite like these. They shine like… not rubies. I guess I want to say they shine like diamonds, red diamonds if that makes any sense," Natsuki answered, hoping she did not sound like some sort of idiot. Romance isn't my area, she thought with a mental frown. Never has been.

The saleslady gave her a gentle smile as if she completely understood that and then she nodded. "It made perfect sense," she promised. She thought the words and the look on Natsuki's face helped greatly.

"That's good. Is that enough?" the principal asked, doing her best not to stammer. She did not want to say more sappy things because she knew eventually, she would come off like an idiot.

"For now, it should be fine. Let's start looking first and if you feel the need to add more, then just say so. I think it would be best to start over here." She led the Second Column over to a display case on the left wall of the large jewelry store.

Natsuki peered into the case to see all sorts of rings with red gemstones. She shook her head while looking them all over. None of those compared to the eyes she spoke on, so she did not see the point in even bothering.

"You said red diamonds, right?" the saleswoman inquired.

"Yes, her eyes look like red diamonds," Natsuki repeated with a nod.

"How do you think she would describe you?" the saleswoman asked with a slight tilt of her head as she regarded the pale woman. "Something distant and mysterious?" she guessed.

"Hmm…" Natsuki thought on it. She was pretty sure the first thing Shizuru would say to describe her would be the word "cute." But, what would follow that hideous, evil word? "…Bashful… Cool…" she muttered, speaking more to herself than the saleswoman.

"I'm sure beautiful would come up, too. Might I ask the occasion for the ring just to help me figure out exactly what we should look at?" the saleswoman inquired.

"Um…" Natsuki then grumbled her answer completely under her breath. It sounded like she had rocks in her mouth.

"I didn't quite catch that, ma'am. Could you please repeat it? I'm only here to help, after all."

Natsuki took a deep breath, hoping to calm herself down. Her heart raced and her palms were so sweaty she had to wipe them on her coat. She had never felt this much anxiety when going into battle or when facing down heads of state. Right now, though, she felt like she could whither and die. It was always like that with romance.

"Okay, look, I'll level with you. As you can probably tell, I suck at stuff like this. It's not really something I cared about growing up and even though I've had ten years to get better at it, I'm still pretty crappy at it. Now, I've got this woman… damn it, she's a great woman. I almost lost her not too long ago and it wasn't a good feeling. I don't ever want to feel that way again and I don't want her to ever be scared that we could end like she was. So, I'm trying to find the perfect ring to hopefully make the perfect proposal that'll lead to the perfect wedding," Natsuki explained with a close to pleading look in her eyes and some defeat in her posture.

The saleswoman was speechless for a moment. Her large hazel eyes got even wider and she appeared ready to burst into tears. In her mind, she screamed, "So cool and adorable!" She managed to compose herself quickly and straightened herself out.

"Ma'am, it sounds like this woman's very special to you. I'm sure you'll be able to find the perfect ring and make the perfect proposal. If you'd like, you can even design a ring for her. It would make it much more personal and endearing."

Natsuki's mouth almost dropped open as she had a revelation at that moment. "Make a ring? That'd be great!" She could just imagine the look in Shizuru's eyes if she had a custom made ring. It's brilliant! Beyond brilliant really. She grinned and almost glowed with approval.

"I'm sure it would. I can help you with this process or you could get a friend to help and then come back. A friend might be better. A friend who knows you and your lady, both."

Natsuki thought on that. Did she really want anyone to know what she had planned? They would all make such a fuss and bug her until she did not even feel like doing it anymore. She did not want them to ruin things for her. She really did want to make it through the process.

"Um… could you help… please?" Natsuki gave an awkward, shy smile. Things had to be perfect and she believed for that to happen, she would need help, but help that would not pressure her or pester her.

"Sure. I just need you to be a little more open and we'll be able to come up with something. I really like your red diamond idea." A bright smile stayed on the redheaded saleswoman's face.

"My idea?" Natsuki echoed in confusion. Well, maybe it was her idea, but the point was she was getting the ring made.

"Just to be sure, would you like to know the cost of this?" the saleswoman asked. She realized she got caught up in Natsuki's rather cute nervousness and forgot to make sure the hopeful customer could pay. Nothing in the store was cheap and management was not interested in people just window-shopping.

Natsuki rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Trust me, money is the least of my worries here." In fact, Natsuki wished she could just give Shizuru the money for everything, sit back, and call it a day. Too bad Shizuru would never go with that.

"All right. I will need your information to verify everything. I'm sorry, but it's standard procedure when we get new customers."

Natsuki nodded. "It's fine. As long as you help me get this ring done sometime today before six."

"She'll be looking for you by then?" the saleswoman guessed.

"Yes, she will and knowing her, she'll hunt me down and find me. She's got like a sixth sense for where I am. So, let's make this quick," Natsuki implored.

The saleswoman chuckled a bit, but they went about conducting business. With the ring settled and out of the way, Natsuki practically had to run back to Garderobe to avoid being caught. By the time she was in her chair and trying to straighten herself out, the sun of her world entered the room.

"Natsuki!" Shizuru greeted her with quite the bright grin. She seemed to shine so brilliantly to her lover.

"Hey," Natsuki said nonchalantly while turning her best to kick her pea coat to the far corner underneath her desk. She hoped she could shove the hat in the bottom drawer before Shizuru made it over to her.

"How was my dearest Natsuki's day?" Shizuru inquired slowly walking over to the principal.

"Uh… just doing boring paperwork as usual! It's pretty slow around here because of the holiday!" Natsuki replied, trying to bite back her anxiety, but she really could not help her nervousness. She already felt like Shizuru knew how she spent her day and was just waiting to spring a trap of some kind.

"I know it's slow. I wish we could just go on holiday, too, but you always take the time to catch up on your paperwork," Shizuru sighed as if she were drenched in deep sorrow. She made her way over to the desk and planted herself on the edge, which gave Natsuki a chance to hide her hat.

"It's easier to do since you go out to do holiday shopping. I don't have someone bugging me all day," the principal pointed out, face tensing slightly to make it seem as if she was annoyed.

Shizuru chuckled, throwing her head just a little. "Shouldn't you be doing holiday shopping, too? After all, there is more than the holiday to worry about this month."

"Oh?" the younger woman said, even though she knew what her lover hinted at. She would rather pretend like she did not know, though.

"I hope Natsuki gets her shopping done. Is Natsuki ready to leave yet? I would like to at least have dinner with her," Shizuru commented.

"Then let's go now. I can finish this up tomorrow while you go do some more shopping," Natsuki proposed. Well, she was actually finished, but hopefully Shizuru had not noticed, so she could keep using work as an excuse for why she needed to be left alone.

The taller Otome smiled at that and helped Natsuki out of her chair for them to go home together. She spied the edge of what appeared to be a coat under the desk. She wondered what her Natsuki was really up to. She thought she might make an effort to find out because Natsuki had been acting strangely lately. She hoped it was nothing serious.

"Natsuki, if something was wrong with you, you would tell me, correct?" Shizuru asked as they walked to their apartment. She had her arms wrapped tightly around her precious one. In the empty hallway, their soft footsteps echoed and just outside the wind blew loud enough for the pretense of others around.

"Everything's fine! Nothing's wrong!" Natsuki squealed. She wanted to slap herself as soon as those words left her mouth. Why the hell am I acting so suspiciously? She had to calm down, she ordered herself.

The ruby-eyed woman craned an elegant eyebrow. "Ara, ara. Natsuki, we are supposed to be communicating more now. So, tell me if something is the matter."

"It's nothing, nothing at all," Natsuki insisted, speaking in a much too rapid a tone. Making it worse, she was starting to sweat. She knew she could not quell the nervousness inside of her because she was scared Shizuru would somehow find out and her effort would be for nothing. She was going to continue to feel this way until she could get her plan over with.

Shizuru gave her a long look. "Are you sure?"


Shizuru sighed and let the matter drop, or so Natsuki thought. The night was normal and the day that followed seemed to be the same. Natsuki was left with a day to herself because Shizuru was out doing holiday shopping; thank the Founder for holidays! So, now Natsuki could do something other than work.

"Okay, let's see about how these things work," Natsuki muttered to herself as she pulled out a stack of disks from her desk.

The principal popped in a disk from the stack and watched on a screen that was built into her desk. About ten minutes into the disk, emerald eyes were half open and drifting closed with every passing second. She was out like a light until a voice behind her woke her up.

"Natsuki, what the hell are you doing?" a familiar voice inquired in a baffled tone.

"Huh!" Natsuki leaped in her chair with a start. She looked around to see what was going on and noticed a puzzled redhead by her side. "Yes, Nao?" she inquired with a deep sigh. She really did not want to see Nao at the moment.

"What the hell is this garbage you're watching?" the younger Column countered, motioning to the screen.

"None of your business," the principal replied in a gruff tone, reaching out to turn the disk off. I'm never going to hear the end of this!

Nao smirked. "Looks like you're watching cheesy romance movies. What, are you looking for ideas or something? You're such a lowly dog." She shook her head as if she disapproved of Natsuki's actions.

"Get the hell out of here! I don't need to take this shit from you and I have work to do anyway!" Natsuki pointed an angry finger at the door.

"Okay, so I'll tell Shizuru you're watching cheesy romance movies when you lie to her and say you're doing work around here. Fine," Nao said in a sort of singsong tone as she turned to the door. She dared to shrug nonchalantly as she started to leave.

Natsuki tore herself away from her desk like a lion breaking its chains. She reached out and grabbed Nao with a crushing grip. She pulled the younger woman back to her and glared down at her with fire in her emerald eyes.

"You had better not say anything about this to Shizuru!" Natsuki roared. A vein bulged out of her neck from the volume of her voice.

Nao was stunned by the reaction and her throat clenched from the clear anger in the principal. She wondered what Natsuki had planned. She hoped it was not something stupid. She really could not deal with Natsuki doing something stupid involving Shizuru again.

Nao's eyes narrowed as she stared at Natsuki. "You're planning something, aren't you?"

"If I am, it's none of your business," Natsuki sneered.

"If not mine, I will tell your precious Shizuru you're planning something, that you sit in here when she's gone and watch crappy romance movies," Nao said daringly. She knew she had the upper hand no matter. Natsuki could threaten to strip her of all of her Otome status and she would still have the better hand because her threat involved Shizuru.

Natsuki frowned, knowing she was caught and Nao was well aware of it. "You will not speak of this ever," she growled.

"Just tell me what you're doing." Nao yanked herself away from the principal's tight grip. Damn it, she was going to have bruises on her wrist, she noted from the pink already forming on her limb. "Why the hell are you watching stupid movies like that for?"

"Research…" Natsuki admitted, turning her nose up.

"Research?" Nao's face twisted up.

"Yes, research."

"On what, Natsuki?" Nao tossed up her hands. "Shinso, I don't read minds, not that I'd want to read yours! Just spill it already!"

"Look, I'm watching this crap to figure out how to propose to Shizuru, okay! That's why you can't go blabbing about it! So, just let it go!"

For the second time in about a minute, Natsuki had managed to shock Nao. The principal was planning to propose? Nao could not even picture it; and she did try hard. She started laughing, more on instinct than anything else. She knew she was supposed to laugh whenever Natsuki did something weird, but underneath it all, she hated to admit she was starting to see why Shizuru thought Natsuki was so sweet.

Natsuki glared at her with fire in her eyes. "Why the hell are you laughing? You're one of the people who swear I always screw up when it comes to Shizuru, so I'm trying to do something right!"

"You do screw up a lot. After all, didn't you almost end up married to a complete and total jackass not too long ago while breaking Shizuru's heart?" the redhead countered with a smug look on her face.

"I didn't mean for that to get so out of hand!" Natsuki made two tight fists.

"Well, it did and you got the whole school caught up in it!"

"Well, I'm trying to do better!" Natsuki retorted, as if that was an insult. She even folded her arms across her chest, as if that helped hammer the point home.

"Well, you need to! What she sees in a moron like you, I'll never know. Now, if you're going to propose, I'll help you figure out how to go about it, so you can do it sometime this century. By the Founder, most women wouldn't wait ten years for such an idiot to propose, you know?"

Natsuki glanced away and resisted the urge to rub the back of her neck. She felt like Nao was right. She was pretty sure Shizuru was waiting for her and she put it off. Even now, she wondered if proposing was too late or too early? Should they wait until they retired to get married or should she have asked five years ago? Was she even doing this for the right reason?

Yes, she wanted to be linked to Shizuru always and forever, but part of why she was doing it now was to make Shizuru feel better. She wanted Shizuru to get over the fear that came with their short breakup and her engagement to a man that her father forced her into. She did not want to go through that again and she did not want Shizuru to go through that again. Her plan would allow them to not have to worry about such nonsense again. Was that a good reason? She was not sure it was.

She was sure she loved Shizuru more than anything else in the world, and the breakup was what allowed her to learn that. The breakup told her just how special that teasing woman was to her. She never wanted to let Shizuru go. Now, that was a good reason; she was sure of it.

"I don't need your help," Natsuki declared with a confident tilt of her chin.

Nao scoffed and rolled her eyes. "You're watching romance movies to figure out what you should do. Do you have any idea how pathetic that is?"

"I don't care if it's pathetic! I'm going to make things perfect and I don't give a damn about your opinion of things!" Natsuki then she actually stormed out of her office. She got to her receptionist desk when she realized what she had done. "Oh, goddamn it!" she screamed, throwing up her hands. She was ready to tear her hair out.

Thankfully, her receptionist, like most of the other students, had gone home for the vacation, so no one got to hear the always-professional Headmaster swearing. Natsuki decided she did not care she was the one who left the office and she decided to just get away. Damn Nao and being an annoying bitch, Natsuki silently cursed.

Nao chuckled a bit as she walked out of the office right after the principal left. She had never bothered Natsuki so much the idiot walked out of her own office. She was obviously going out of her mind trying to figure out the perfect way to ask Shizuru to marry her. That Natsuki's something else, she thought.

Nao wondered if it was the right time for Natsuki to be planning something so drastic, though. After all, Natsuki and Shizuru had almost completely thrown each other away not too long ago. Had their relationship picked up easily in a just a few months? She was not sure of the answer, especially considering the person that she needed to see now.

"So, is Natsuki fine? She is not in any trouble, is she?" Shizuru asked as Nao exited the administrative building from the side door. There was that chill in the air; the crispness whispered of the holidays.

"She's fine. What're you so worried about, anyway? Aren't you guys back to being all lovey-dovey and sickeningly sweet with each other?" Nao made a face like she was going to vomit.

"We are. I am worried because Natsuki has been acting so nervous and fidgety lately, but she refuses to talk about it. She always tells me things are fine when they are clearly not. I do not want her to suffer alone," Shizuru explained.

Shinso, they are sickening. "Well, if you don't want her to suffer, you should shoot her and put her out of our misery. I don't know why the hell you bother with her. She's such an idiot," Nao sneered.

Shizuru smirked and shook her head. "An idiot that is your very good friend. Thank you for this, Nao. I do appreciate it."

"Like I give a damn about your thanks. Pay me to thank me next time," Nao huffed as she started to storm away. She then suddenly stopped and turned. "You have to trust her, you know? She's a dumb dog, yes, but she's also a wolf and last I heard, they mate for life."

Shizuru smiled a little bit and clasped her hands together in a rather dramatic fashion. "Nao is so supportive and helpful."

"The hell I am! I just want you to leave me alone with stupid stuff like this!" Nao marched off before the couple drove her nuts.

Shizuru sighed while shaking her head, yet her smile remained. Nao and Natsuki, the strangest pair of friends she had ever met, she thought. It was good to know nothing was wrong with Natsuki, but she still wondered why Natsuki had been acting so bizarrely the past couple of days. She considered Natsuki might be trying to plan a surprise, as it was quite an important time of the year.

"Well, I will wait to see what Natsuki has up her sleeve." Shizuru shrugged and then figured she would go back to holiday shopping. I wouldn't want Natsuki to outdo me in gifts and then think I no longer appreciate her.


Next time: Natsuki works up the nerve to propose. Does Shizuru accept?