Itsuki and Mikuru were best friends because they didn’t trust each other. No, that wasn’t right. They did trust each other, now. It took the utmost trust to take off their masks when they walked into a café or a restaurant or one of their apartments together, to hang their disguises at the door with their coats and face each other across the table as the people they really were, not the personalities they had to put on every morning in order to do their jobs. Tthe friendship they shared owed its strength, and its trust, to the fact that in the beginning, they hadn’t trusted each other at all.
She’s too sweet, Itsuki thought, watching Mikuru tremble helplessly as Haruhi tried to grope her through her blouse. She’s too weak, too. It has to be an act. A time traveller must know that she isn’t that helpless. But why would she want to pretend to?
He’s too nice, thought Mikuru, when Haruhi announced that the SOS Brigade would search for aliens, time travellers and espers, and Itsuki simply nodded and smiled. Anyone can see that he’s a fake. Who could really be that polite all the time? And accept what Suzumiya says without any surprise? What’s he covering up?
Neither of them let their own masks slip for a moment during that first encounter, nor for many of the days that followed. But as times changed, as they got to know the unguarded Kyon and Haruhi a bit better, and as they started to get attached to them, both of them let their defences slip a little. Until one day, in the club room, when by sheer coincidence, they both chose the same moment to sneak a glance at Kyon. Their eyes met over the top of his head, and for a brief moment, both their masks slipped, and they were two school kids with the same crush.
Then they both looked away and the walls came up again, for now.
Itsuki was the first one to break the silence. He walked a different way home from school that day, catching Mikuru on her evening commute.
“Hello there, Asahina-san,” he said, smiling. He felt a flicker of irritation when she jumped in surprise and looked at him fearfully. “Oh, come on, you don’t need to play at being a scared little girl with me. I know you’re not that helpless.”
“How can I trust you?” She kept a quaver in her voice, unwilling to give ground to this smiling boy. “You’re not yourself, either.”
“It’s all part of my job,” he said, smiling like his face was stuck that way.
“And this is part of mine.” Mikuru’s innocent guise flicked away in an instant. There was no dramatic motion as she threw away her disguise, just a slight straightening of her spine, a squaring of her shoulders, but suddenly there was a fire in her eyes and steel in her voice. “What does it matter?”
Itsuki was speechless for a moment, and then he laughed. Not the laugh that he would laugh in front of Haruhi and Kyon, bright and sparkling, but the worn and yet bubbling laugh of a man who only occasionally remembers that he’s still a boy.
Mikuru raised an imperious eyebrow and kept her determined stance, but there was a smirk pulling at her lips. “I didn’t mean for that to be a joke.”
“I’m sorry,” Itsuki said. He leaned against a wall, feeling suddenly tired as well as relieved. “Even though I knew you were acting, I guess I really wasn’t prepared for the real you! Wow, Mikuru, I’m really glad I’m on your side.”
“You’re calling me Mikuru already?” She punched his arm and he laughed helplessly again. “That’s a bit familiar, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry!” he said again, smiling in a way that made his eyes crinkle up.
“You’re not what I expected either, you know,” she said, cocking her head to one side. “I thought you’d be more serious than this.”
“Hey, I can be serious.”
Like Mikuru, it only took him a moment to transform, and she almost missed it. The tiniest movements, instantaneous like he’d flicked on a switch, and suddenly he was standing there with the other smile, the one that was like a shining but impenetrable fortress. Mikuru did the same, her eyes widening, her shoulders hunching a little to make her seem smaller. They watched each other curiously, just for a moment, until Mikuru let her smile morph the fraction of a space it took to go from sweet to devious, and Itsuki started laughing again.
“You might be some fun after all,” she said, smirking, as Itsuki clutched at his stomach. “Let’s go get a coffee.”
“I’m going to have to keep an eye on you,” said Itsuki, once they were safely ensconced in a cafe well away from the school. “Or the opposite, really. I won’t be able to look at you in the club room in case you make me crack up.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” she said, confidently. “If you start laughing like that in front of everyone, I might forget how to act, too.”
They stayed there for hours, and when the cafe finally closed up, Itsuki walked with Mikuru all the way back to her apartment in the dark, even though she said she was perfectly capable of defending herself.
“I know you are,” Itsuki said. “You’re tougher than I am. I’m just following you for the conversation.”
“It’s not a lot of fun, is it?”
Itsuki thought about the way they’d both tried to sneak a look at Kyon at the same time, just for a moment, when Haruhi had turned away. Was it really only a few hours ago that their eyes had met over Kyon?
“No,” he agreed. “It isn’t.”
“We’re both awfully good at it, though.” She whacked his arm in what he supposed was affection. “I’m glad we’re on the same side.”
Mikuru shrugged. “Oh, sure, we won’t always see things the same way, and sometimes my people will want a different result to your people.”
“Your people?” Itsuki snorted. “You’re a nobody in your agency and you know it.”
“And you aren’t?”
“I’ll have you know I’m quite well respected in the Organization.”
“I will be well respected amongst the time travellers once they learn that I’m a personal friend of Haruhi Suzumiya.”
Mikuru might be a low-ranked member of her faction, but the strength behind the statements she made was such that Itsuki had a hard time believing that she was going to stay that way for long. The girl weighing him up with a shrewd stare was a completely different person to the cute, naive girl she played at school.
“We should talk like this again,” she said, at last. “I know that the act is supposed to make my job easier, but to be honest, I like it so much better when I can just say what I think.”
“I agree,” Itsuki said, with the slightest sigh of relief. “But only when there’s nobody else around.”