I don't own these characters; Sunrise does.

A/N: this is the sequel to Playing with Mercury. This story is different from the others in the series as there is not a lot of romance, but tons of drama. Still, I hope you all enjoy. You can keep up with this story (and lil ol' me) on my FB page, for which there is a link on my profile.

1: New

Natsuki Kruger, principal of Garderobe and Second Column of the Otome, was supposed to be working; a running theme of her adult life. She had a stack of paper in front of her, but had her nose buried in a book; a new development in her life. Her emerald eyes would not, could not leave the pages of the tome. Lately, books had a power over the pale woman, beckoning that she consume and digest every word. Work had taken a backseat to leisurely reading. I'm going to get fired for this eventually. Of course, she would not mind being fired since she had one foot out the door for almost two years now.

Emerald eyes glanced up as she heard the door open. Only two people would just barge into her office, but she only wanted to see one. Her wife, Shizuru Kruger, gracefully glided into the office, as she did every time she entered any area. A small smile adorned the Third Column's beautiful face, putting a shine in her wine-colored eyes. Shizuru shook her head when she noticed the book, but she continued smiling.

"My dear, sweet Natsuki, eventually you will have to do some work. You can't just sit here, reading philosophy for the rest of your life," Shizuru gently reprimanded the younger woman.

Natsuki chuckled. "I can try."

"Well, while you are neglecting your duties as headmistress, I do hope your duties as a mother have not been thrown to the wayside as well. Where is our precious child?"

The principal smiled and pushed her chair away from her desk. She pointed down to her lap and there their small two-year-old daughter rested. The child was curled up in a little ball, her long black hair with tawny streaks cascaded over Natsuki's thighs. Shizuru reached down and brushed the hair from their daughter's face, which was a shade lighter than Shizuru's own features.

"You have not been reading Shinobu your radical philosophy books as nap time stories, have you?" There was a small level of accusation in those red eyes that Natsuki was not surprised by.

The principal gave her spouse an innocent smile. "Of course not! I picked this up after Spooky fell out."

Shizuru smiled at the sound of the nickname. It had taken the Third Column a while to adjust to Natsuki referring to their daughter as "Spooky." The moniker had evolved naturally from Natsuki, who had started calling Shinobu the shortened "Bu" only weeks after she was born. Once she realized it sounded like she was trying scare the baby by saying "Bu" about every ten seconds, she wondered if the infant thought she was spooky. For some reason, she voiced aloud that Shinobu was the spooky one and she was "Spooky" ever since.

"Well, I'm happy you at least did that. Shinobu doesn't need her head filled with all of these crazy political ideas," Shizuru pointed out. She had thankfully stopped pointing out that her wife did not need her head filled with those crazy political ideas.

Natsuki shook her head. "I think Spooky would do well to know this stuff. She's from a culture that believes women are beneath men, after all. I'm not raising her on Saxas beliefs, of course, but she'll hear about it and I want her to be able to argue anyone into the ground about how untrue that is."

Shizuru sighed. "I will not let you politicize our toddler. If you even try, I promise I will tell Nao to stop bringing you these troublesome books."

Natsuki smiled. "I'm sorry. If you asked me ten years ago that I'd be this interested in philosophy, I'd have laughed in your face. But, so much of it makes sense to me. It reminds me of when I used to grumble about being treated differently from my brothers all because I was a girl. As I got older, I realized how women were treated in Saxas, I really hated it. We're not worth less than men and should not be treated as such. People of lower classes shouldn't be treated differently just because of their class or birth because they're still people."

Shizuru smiled, too, and caressed her wife's cheek. "I really can't believe how political you've become beyond your job."

"I'm sorry for ranting again. I know you don't care for the politics or new social philosophies."

"It's not that I don't care, beloved. My thinking on the matter is much simpler than yours and I know it has to do with growing up as a noble and equal to any male at my status. I've never been made to feel different because of my gender. I've also never been made to feel lesser because of my gender. I've always been made to believe I can do anything if I put my mind to it while you have always been told you can't do something for whatever reason. I'm sure that can make one miserable."

Natsuki nodded. "But, this is why I like this New Philosophy. The idea that people aren't born into these unmovable stations in life and aren't born into these inferior roles all rings true. If I had been as mentally and physically inferior and only capable of motherhood as Saxas culture dictates, I never would have made a good Otome or principal or diplomat. Hell, I'd have never opened up to the idea of loving you, not just because you're a woman, but also the daughter of a mere viscount. Clearly, people are capable of so much more than most societies want to acknowledge and people deserve the chance to be able to shine."

"I know, beloved. Please, just be careful. I know you speak your mind, but many of the Otome and their Masters aren't happy to know you support these new ideas. I don't want them to trouble you because of your thoughts."

Emerald eyes rolled and Natsuki snorted. "They're scared of upsetting the status quo."

"Well, some of this New Philosophy is very hostile toward Otome."

"Of course, it is. Otome are a mark of the upper class, the Privileged. They're the very people that want everyone else to believe you're born into the station you're in and you need to accept that, so people won't strive for more in their lives and the Privileged get to stay in power. They want everyone to think this is the way things were made and this is why the way things will stay. That's just bullshit."

"Natsuki!" the reprimand was hissed. Crimson eyes glanced down at their sleeping daughter.

Natsuki winced. "Sorry. I didn't mean to say that." She was not supposed to curse in front of Shinobu. Technically, she was not supposed to curse in front of Shizuru either. Sometimes, her passions got away from her and swear words went flying when that happened.

Shizuru patted her beloved on the head and leaned down to kiss her. Natsuki accepted the sweet gesture of forgiveness and finally put her book down. Careful to not wake Shinobu, Natsuki reached for Shizuru and pulled her into a light hug. She pressed her cheek into Shizuru's stomach while the tawny-haired woman wrapped her arms around Natsuki's head.

"This is my philosophy in life, Natsuki. It's very simple and I know you're not surprised to find it devoid of politics. I am happiest in your arms with our daughter within reach and I need nothing more. I'm simple like that. Wanting beyond this to me is the very first ingredient for disaster. But, again, I have not been subjected to the same treatments as you and many others."

The younger woman chuckled. "I think your philosophy is fine. I would be happy with that, too, but I would think about what others were going through for a time."

Shizuru smiled and caress Natsuki's head."Your job has made you far more political than you'd care to admit. It's rather ironic considering your job is now suffering because of your interest in these New Politics. You really should get to work."

The ebony-haired Otome frowned. "How about we take Spooky to her appointment together?"

"My love, you really can't continue to neglect your work like this. You'll end up stripped of your duties as headmistress."

Natsuki sighed and gave a short snort. "I honestly don't care. They've been hounding me since I came back, knowing I'm on borrowed time anyway. Now, they're getting scared because I read up on the New Politics and they think I'm going to stop the Otome program, even though there's no evidence of that. It's all just a headache in the making and they'd really be sparing me of if they did fire me."

"Some of our peers just remember how much you didn't want to be an Otome when you were younger and now they hear about your interest in these things that are somewhat against Otome, making them get the wrong idea. Put it out of your head. Now, if we both take Shinobu to the doctor, you have to promise you'll come back here and do some work."

Natsuki groaned as if that was a punishment worse than death. The sound did not move her wife, who seemed hell bent on making sure she remained the responsible one. Just for a while, she would like to live what she mentally referred to as the "Shizuru-lifestyle," but for that to happen, she would need to love everything that she did and her cards just were not dealt that way.

"Fine! But, only if we get lunch after," the headmistress conceded.

Shizuru smiled. "Of course, beloved. Now, let's go. We don't want to keep Sensei waiting."

Natsuki nodded and stood up, gathering the dozing child in her arms. Shizuru took hold of the little girl as soon as Natsuki was on her feet. Natsuki did not protest.

"Ara ara, what did you do to our rambunctious little girl for her to sleep so hard?" Shizuru inquired as she shifted their daughter in her arms. Shinobu did not move at all.

"I can't give away my trade secrets. You have your boring ways and I have my awesome, super fun ways," the younger woman chuckled.

Shizuru only rolled her eyes. The family exited the office and Natsuki let her assistant, a Pearl that Miss Maria assigned to her to spy as for as Natsuki was concerned, know that she was stepping out for a couple of hours. She missed her old assistant, who had graduated last year and who had been an ally for her. Her new assistant reported her reading material and rapidly declining work ethic to Miss Maria almost hourly at this point. The ancient Otome now made it a point to remind Natsuki of her place, responsibility, and duty at least once a day. It was in one ear and out the other at this point, though. Maybe the New Politics and New Philosophy are screwing me up. Still, she did not care.

-8-8-8-8-

The Chief Medical Officer of Garderobe, Yohko Helene, was seating at her desk, with her blue eyes fixed on her glowing computer screen. It was the position the Kruger family typically found her in when they came in for Shinobu's monthly checkups. Shinobu, having woken up on the short trip to the infirmary, charged the doctor.

"Sensei!" the child hooted as her little, sandaled feet patted on the hard floor.

Yohko turned and smiled as the toddler hit her knees. Chuckling, she bent down to pick the rather small girl up. She had expressed to the parents that Shinobu's size was probably linked to her premature birth, but Shizuru liked to tease Natsuki and just point out that Shinobu was from a small family. The girl's size did not matter, anyway; they loved her no matter what and just wanted to make sure that she was healthy.

"I wish your mom was always so happy to see me when she was carrying you," Yohko remarked as she tapped Shinobu on the nose, earning a giggle from the child.

Natsuki glared at the doctor. She had not had a good pregnancy and was not a good patient in general. She doubted that she would ever be happy to see Doctor Helene ever again thanks to the experience. Of course, she supposed that some of that was due to Tomoe Marguerite, who had made her pregnancy exponentially worse by kidnapping, beating, and drugging her. Yohko had actually saved her life and saved Shinobu's life, which Natsuki was eternally grateful for. But, her body always remembered the pain she had gone through when she saw Yohko.

"Didya give Momma the jelly beans when you saw her?" Shinobu inquired with wide-eyed innocence shining in her emerald and ruby eyes.

The doctor laughed. "No, but maybe I should have."

Natsuki rolled her eyes. "Jelly beans aren't my favorite like yours, Spooky."

"But, we always eat the jelly beans together, Mom, even when Kaa-san tells us not to," Shinobu pointed out.

"Oh, really?" Crimson eyes were now burning a hole in Natsuki.

The principal winced. "Spooky, what's the point of us having a secret if you're going to tell your Okaasan what I told you not to tell her?"

Shinobu had the decency to look sheepish and she covered her mouth with both hands. Shizuru gave Natsuki one of those "we'll discuss this later" looks that made the pale woman gulp. The conversation thankfully died a quiet death as Yohko walked with Shinobu to the examination room. She lifted the toddler up and turned away to gather what she needed while Shizuru divested the child of her elaborate, high-collared, small-buttoned shirt.

Shinobu watched in awe as her mother's fingers made short work of the tiny buttons. In public, the mothers had learned it was best to dress their daughter in clothing that she could not manipulate lest they discover her streaking down a hallway. Natsuki insisted that Shinobu got her nudist and exhibitionist qualities from Shizuru and that was pretty much confirmed by Shizuru's parents. Of course, Natsuki was eventually mortified by finding out that she used to try to strip at that age, too, when her parents saw Shinobu's embarrassing hobby. Thankfully, their regular family doctor assured them that Shinobu's behavior was a normal part of child development and she would eventually grow out of it.

"All right, Shinobu, let's see if everything is still as it should be and going the way it should," Yohko said with a smile as she pressed the cold stethoscope to the little girl's bare chest.

Shlnobu hissed from the feel and clutched her Kaa-san's hand briefly. Shizuru held the girl for the whole general check up. Natsuki then had to hold Shizuru as Yohko drew blood from the girl. The first time Yohko and their family doctor stuck needles into Shinobu with her parents present, she had barely been a month old and Shizuru very nearly fainted as the baby cried out. Natsuki was certain that the needles bothered Shizuru more than they did Shinobu.

Natsuki doubted that Shizuru would ever get used to seeing their daughter stuck because drawing blood from Shinobu was a monthly affair and Shizuru trembled every time. Shinobu got blood drawn so often because she had very small traces of nanomachines in her body. Yohko, even though she had never seen anything like it, assured the parents that the machines would go away. She had been telling them that for two years now. Sometimes, the levels were lower, but they mostly stayed the same. On a few rare occasions, they were higher, which seemed to utterly baffle the Chief medical officer.

So far, the nanomachines did not seem to be doing anything. They were not active and they did not bother Shinobu's development. For now, they were perfectly harmless and everyone hoped that they would stay that way.

Yohko could only assume the nanomachines entered Shinobu's body during Natsuki's pregnancy when she had a spike in her nanomachine levels. The spike had saved her life after Tomoe had kidnapped, drugged, and tortured her. They also endangered the baby, threatening to destroy the fetus because it was viewed as a foreign entity. An emergency c-section brought Shinobu into the world over two months too soon, but saved her life.

"Such a brave little girl," Yohko smiled as she pulled the needle from Shinobu's arm.

"I'm brave like Kaa-san," the child declared, not noticing that her Kaa-san looked paler than her Momma.

Natsuki chuckled and patted the toddler's head. "You sure are." Yohko arched an eyebrow to that, which the principal noticed. "She thinks I'm boring because I sit at a desk, but her Kaa-san is a Meister Otome, who fights bad guys."

Shizuru still went out on missions, especially when Nao began to decline going for her because of dates with Kenta Kruger, Natsuki's older brother. Shizuru often told Shinobu watered down versions of her adventures. Shinobu thought that her "Kaa-san" was a superhero.

The doctor nodded. "You know your momma fights bad guys, too," she informed Shinobu.

The child twisted her face, as if she did not comprehend what Yohko was going on about. "Momma only reads. She reads the bestest, though!"

Natsuki smiled, even though she had hopes that she would somehow be the "cool parent." But, it was hard to be cool from behind a desk with a stack of paperwork. She did not begrudge Shizuru's status as the cool parent, though.

"Best," Shizuru corrected the child.

"Right. Momma reads the best stories," Shinobu proclaimed.

Yohko chuckled and glanced at the principal. "I hope it's nothing too advanced."

Natsuki groaned while emerald eyes rolled. "Why does everyone seem to think I'm reading egalitarian philosophy to Spooky?"

A frown settled on the doctor's face. "The fact that you refer to it as 'egalitarian' while most others call it radical, extremist, anarchy, and plenty of other less friendly terms could mean trouble for you."

Natsuki shrugged. "Says the woman that borrowed my John Paine books. Garderobe doesn't own my mind. I'm entitled to my thoughts."

Yohko snickered and shook her head. "There's that radicalism already. The New Politics have corrupted you," she teased the younger woman.

Natsuki snorted. "Just give Spooky her jelly beans. Her Kaa-san owes me some ice cream."

"Jelly beans!" Shinobu cheered, throwing her arms up and twisting around to see where she knew Yohko kept her candy.

With her bare back to her parents, Natsuki decided to play with her daughter and poke her strange birthmark – a circle with a sharp tail at the top and a dot in the center. Strangely enough, Mai told them that Mikoto had the same mark, but in a different place. Shinobu was very ticklish in the spot and practically jumped out of skin when Natsuki touched it.

"Momma!" Shinobu shouted with a giggle.

"Natsuki," Shizuru scolded her spouse.

Natsuki offered them both an innocent smile. "What?"

Shinobu was able to let it go as the doctor handed her a small pouch of candy. "Thank you, Yohko-sensei!"

"You're welcome," Yohko replied. "I'll call you with the results as soon as I'm done analyzing everything."

Natsuki nodded while Shizuru redressed Shinobu. The Kruger family then bid the doctor farewell. Shizuru led them outside with Shinobu bouncing around their legs and enjoying her candy. Typically, Shizuru would not allow Shinobu sweets if she already had her jelly beans, but the ice cream was really a treat for Natsuki to get her out of the office.

"So, Natsuki only reads," Shizuru said with a smile as she took hold of her wife's hand. "If only Shinobu knew."

Natsuki chuckled. "I can tell her if you like."

Shizuru balked. "Please don't. I don't want her trying anything."

"I'll let her think you're the cool parent for a little while longer. Besides, you're retiring in a couple of years, anyway."

Her grip on Natsuki's hand tightened. "I feel like they're trying to hold onto me longer."

"They can only hold you if you let them and I know you won't. For some strange reason, you want to have a baby and I know you don't want to be on Otome when you do it."

"No, I can't. Not after we almost lost Junior," Shizuru remarked with a smile, nodding toward their daughter.

Natsuki laughed. "You know you just encourage my brothers' collective stupidity when you call her that."

"I think it's cute. I always wanted a mini-Natsuki, too."

"Until her first motorcycle accident or until her cousins convince her to do backflips from high places. Then you'll be cursing the fact that she's like me at all."

Shizuru smiled anyway. "As long as she's healthy and happy, I'm always happy."

As soon as they came to the front gate, Shizuru called Shinobu to them. She picked the toddler up, even though Shinobu prefered walking on her own. Windbloom was not a safe place for a child to walk alone anymore. Crime rates were on the rise, as were unemployment rates. A mine that had employed thousands had gone dry over a year ago and now tempers ran hot while the city decayed, rotting in on itself.

"This place looks more depressing than the last time I was out here," Natsuki noted. The buildings in even "nice" parts of town looked grim.

"Deeper into downtown, buildings are literally crumbling," Shizuru told her spouse. She ventured into town more often than Natsuki to see what was happening in person. Natsuki had to rely on television and newspapers to stay informed.

"They don't show that on TV. They show the charity lines to show how people are helping the less fortunate. I never thought Mashiro would figure out propaganda," Natsuki said with an unamused chuckle.

"What's poop-a-gana?" Shinobu asked curiously.

"It's when something doesn't tell the whole truth," Shizuru explained.

Mismatched eyes went wide and the toddler gasped. "Telling lies? But, telling lies is bad!"

"Yes, it is," Natsuki assured the child, feeling just a bit like a hypocrite. Being involved in politics meant lying, but she did not want Shinobu to know that. So, hopefully she would be retired and out of politics by the time Shinobu figured that out.

"I don't lie," Shinobu boasted proudly, causing her parents to smile.

"How can downtown be crumbling? It's only been a year since the mine dried up," Natsuki pointed out.

"Downtown has been hurting for almost five years. The mine has been producing less and the people that live in that area were the first let go. Unemployment has been high for almost eight years. It's tragic," Shizuru sighed.

Natsuki frowned. "That one single mine can't be the only piece of industry in the country. There has to be other enterprises, other industries, jobs, something."

"You could ask my father about it. Our county still seems to going strong, but that's compared to the rest of the country."

Natsuki did not doubt that. While Shizuru's father was annoying, Dante Viola was a wise and shrewd man, which his daughters inherited. She hoped that Queen Mashiro was getting help from him or some other intelligent nobleman to try to bring the country out of the depression that it seemed to be sinking into.

"I'm not talking to your father. You know what he did the last time we saw him," Natsuki grumbled, folding her arms across her chest, even though she was still holding her wife's hand.

Shizuru laughed and leaned over to kiss a pale cheek. "He was only playing. He didn't mean any harm."

Natsuki only frowned, which deepened as she came to their destination. "Aw, man! C'mon!" Her favorite ice cream shop, an oasis in the desert as far as she was concerned, was closed. Worse yet, there was an "out of business" sign on the door. "How could this place get closed down? They make the best ice cream in the whole city!"

"It's closed?" Shinobu pouted along with her momma.

Shizuru smiled and patted Natsuki's hand before caressing Shinobu's head. "Come. I know of another place with ice cream."

"Yay!" the child cheered, but her momma kept pouting.

"It's not the same. This was the spot," Natsuki sighed, motioning to the closed shop. "It was our spot," she moaned with her head down.

Shizuru pulled her spouse closer. "Beloved, we have many spots. Some will stand the test of time and some will not. We'll go on, though."

The shorter woman shrugged, but deep down she was torn apart that a place she used to drag Shizuru to on dates was gone. They had a lot of innocent good times in the little ice cream parlor, which had always intrigued her because her home county did not have individual ice cream shops. She would definitely miss their ice cream parlor.

As the family continued on, Natsuki studied the area, seeing people in rags crouched in the dark corners of the neighborhood. Minutes later, though, the scenery changed and seemed to get brighter. It was not nearly as nice as Natsuki recalled, but it definitely was doing better than where they just left. She could be halfway certain that they would not be mugged at least.

"Wait, what the hell is this thing?" Natsuki asked as they walked by a fenced off area.

"Natsuki!" Shizuru hissed because of her spouse's casual swearing.

Natsuki did not respond as an electronic bulletin answered her question. Queen Mashiro's face appeared. She had grown only slightly as she entered adulthood. Natsuki could already guess that she was still impulsive and immature as a monarch. She doubted Arika was much help to Mashiro considering how immature she knew Arika was.

"People of Windbloom, I know that times have been hard and depressing and for that I'm truly sorry. I hope that everything will be better when Fantasy Land amusement park opens in a couple of months. We can all have fun!" the image of Mashiro announced with a bright, innocent grin and then images of what would be in the park floated across the screen.

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me," Natsuki said and her jaw was practically on the floor. Shizuru was so stunned that she did not even chide her wife for swearing.

-8-8-8-8-

Next time: Natsuki is forced to do some work while Shizuru and Shinobu visit Shizuru's family.

A/N: this story could use a beta, which I don't have, but would like. If you want to beta for this story, show me your work using this chapter and email the beta'ed version to me ... well, PM me for my email address since FF seems to have a problem with me putting my email address here. Thank you for your time.