I don't own these characters; Sunrise does.

This is the sequel to the story "Dents in Her Armor." The rating may or may not go up...I'm not too sure right now. I would bank on it going up eventually, though.

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 none the less. Her stride was powerful, full of meaning, and she was not going to have anyone stop her, even if she was not sure what she was doing. She kept asking herself what she thought she was doing, but the question did not make her turn around. She was determined and she was going to 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 to herself with another sigh as she continued on her march. She did shake her head a little bit, but she kept on going.

At least she was making an ass out of herself for a good cause, she thought. Still, she was pretty sure that most people would think that 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 was wearing, masking her eyes. She had a matching black pea-coat with the collar up, trying her best to hide in case someone did see her. She suspected that she looked ridiculous, but she really did not want to chance anyone seeing her face. She breathed a sigh of relief when she made it through the busy streets and to her destination.

"Damn people and their early holiday shopping," she grumbled to herself 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 coming 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 she was being eyed by just a saleswoman, 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. 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 that she thought that she was too stupid to find the ring on her own and was scared that she might screw it up. Even with that fear, she did not think to ask a friend to help out of embarrassment. Childish behavior, she knew, but knowing did not stop her.

"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. 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 that the blush was not due to the uncharacteristic cold that was outside, but rather what was going on inside.

"Yes, very special." Natsuki's eyes were now on the floor. Hey, tile could be very interesting if given enough attention.

"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 that the expression calmed Natsuki down.

Natsuki turned up her mouth a bit and dropped her head. "I don't really have an idea," she admitted.

"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? Who said I wanted to buy a ring for a person?" Natsuki replied, suddenly on the defensive. She even reeled back as if the woman pulled a weapon on her. The saleswoman was close to laughing by the reaction that the Second Column had.

"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, she was 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 that she did not sound like some sort of idiot. Romance was not her area, she thought with a mental frown.

The saleslady gave her a gentle smile and nod to show that she understood. "It made perfect sense," she promised. She thought that the words and the look on Natsuki's face helped greatly.

"That's good. Is that enough?" the principal asked. She did not want to say more sappy things because she knew that 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 that she was talking about, 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 curiously while tilting her head to regard the pale woman before her. "Something distant and mysterious?" she guessed.

"Hmm…" Natsuki thought on it. She was pretty sure that the first thing that 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 was talking with 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 was racing and she could not figure out why. She had never felt such anxiety when going into battle or when facing down heads of state. Right now, though, she felt like she could wither 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 was not 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 was screaming, "So cool and adorable!" She managed to compose herself quickly and straightened herself out.

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

Natsuki seemed like she had a revelation at that moment. "Make a ring? That would be great!" She could just imagine the expression that she would get if she had a custom made ring. It was brilliant! 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 that 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 begged in a very shy manner. Things had to be perfect and she believed for that to happen, she would need help.

"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 that she was getting the ring made.

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

"Trust me, money is the least of my worries here." In fact, Natsuki wished that 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. So, let's make this quick," Natsuki pled.

The saleswoman chuckled a bit, but they went about conducting business. With the ring business 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 that 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 a bit. "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 was hinting 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.

The taller Otome smiled at that and helped Natsuki out of her chair for them to go home together. She did spy the edge of what appeared to be a coat under the desk. She wondered what her Natsuki was really up to. She thought that she might make an effort to find out because Natsuki had been acting strangely lately. She hoped that 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.

"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," the raven-haired woman insisted, speaking in a much too rapid a tone. She knew that she could not quell the nervousness inside of her because she was scared that Shizuru would somehow find out and her effort would be for nothing. She was going to continue to feel the way she did until she could get her plan over with.

"Are you sure?"

"Positive!"

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, Natsuki was falling asleep. 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 while 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 said while shaking her head as if she disapproved of the older woman'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 out while pointing an angry finger at the door.

"Okay, so I'll tell Shizuru that you're watching cheesy romance movies when you lie to her and say you're doing work around here. Fine," Nao replied in a teasing tone while turning to go 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 that it was not something stupid. She really could not deal with Natsuki doing something stupid involving Shizuru again.

"You're planning something, aren't you?" Nao asked suspiciously.

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

"If not mine, I will tell your precious Shizuru that you're planning something, that you sit in here when she's gone and watch crappy romance movies," Nao said daringly. She knew that 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 that 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 said while pulling 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 while turning her nose up.

"Research?" Nao echoed with a puzzled expression in her eyes.

"Yes, research."

"On what, Natsuki? Shinso, I don't read minds! 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 that she was supposed to laugh whenever Natsuki did something weird, but underneath it all, she hated to admit that she was starting to see why Shizuru thought Natsuki was so sweet.

"Why the hell are you laughing?! You're one of the people that swear I always screw up when it comes to Shizuru, so I'm trying to do something right!" Natsuki pointed out.

"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!" the raven-haired woman snarled.

"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; she felt like Nao was right. She was pretty sure that Shizuru was waiting for her and she was putting it off. Even now, she wondered if proposing was too late or too early? Should they wait until they retire 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 that 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.

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 declared and 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 in frustration.

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 that she did not care that she was the one that 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. That Natsuki was something else, she thought. She 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.

"She's fine. What're you so worried about anyway? Aren't you guys back to being all lovey-dovey?" Nao countered with a bit of an attitude.

"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.

"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 declared with a huff.

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 declared before continuing on her march off.

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 that nothing was wrong with Natsuki, but she did continue to wonder 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 said to herself and then figured that she would go back to holiday shopping.

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