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Cardboard Bridges 2/?
Uta no Prince-sama, Jinguji Ren/Hijirikawa Masato, PG-13

MASTER POST



As they are leaving the safety confines of the temple, Ren says, "I've always wanted to go to Inuyama Castle," with eager delight similar to a child on his first field trip.

Masato finds it endearing, reminds him of the nine-year-old Ren who approached him at a party and asked if he was bored then later dragged him to a pond where they played in the water and that was the first time Masato learned that life could be fun, that it wasn't all rules and proper etiquette and strict obligations.

Maybe going on this trip with Ren isn't so bad after all. It was because of his father's keen reminder of his role as a Hijirikawa heir that he lost Ren some years ago and he doesn't want the same thing to happen now that he has Ren back in his life.

"How far is it?" He asks once they're in the car.

"About an hour drive." Ren eases the vehicle out of the parking area and into the street. "Probably a little longer since I plan to take the back roads instead of the expressway."

Confused, Masato asks, "Why take the longer route?" because he knows there are options to cut down the travel time.

"That's the beauty of a road trip, Hijirikawa," Ren recites as if it's something out of a sacred rule book.

Masato can only shrug. "That's fine I guess. You're the one driving not me."

The downside of taking back roads is that the streets are narrow and gives off a claustrophobic effect. What's good about it though is it that the scenery is a bit more relaxing, as if time slows down in this part of the city far removed from the busy urban life. He's glad Ren's the one driving though because he will surely get lost in this maze they call rural areas.

When Ren chooses to make an impetuous stop over at a coffee shop along the suburban street they're passing through, Masato acknowledges in bitter silence that it will no doubt take them more than an hour to get to their – or specifically Ren's – target destination. He can't blame Ren though. The aroma of the coffee is so irresistible that Masato can't complain. It's a small place with only about eight tables inside but it provides a cozy and serene atmosphere that is perfect for anyone who seeks a break away from a hectic lifestyle.

Ren is nursing a steaming cup of espresso, eyes fixed out the window when he blurts out, "Do you remember that gelato shop we went to in Naples?" as if they've been having a smooth conversation instead of telepathically communicating with their respective warm beverages for the past five minutes.

The only reaction Masato can manage while he takes a sip of his matcha tea is an indifferent "mhmm."

"I missed that, you know," Ren says, gaze sliding to meet Masato's and he almost drops his tea cup at the poignant tenderness shown on his friend's eyes. "I missed discovering new things with you."

A sudden wave of nostalgia crashed over Masato and a clear recollection of That Day – though he can't remember where exactly it was – flashed in his mind. That Day, when his father had brought him along to a banquet and Ren was there, waving at him frantically as if he had another quest in mind but his father's hand heavy on his shoulder served as a vivid reminder of their conversation a few nights prior (though he'd hardly considered that a conversation because only his father spoke then) with his father telling him that he shouldn't be associating himself with Ren because he was a Jinguji and his family had been a long time rival of the Hijirikawa. He didn't understand it back then. But he'd been brainwashed by his father about the disadvantages of befriending a Jinguji and kept reminding him of it while he was growing up, so he accepted his father's words without question.

Masato would be lying if he says he doesn't regret a single thing. Ren was the closest thing he had to a brother back then, a friend he could be himself with and wouldn't be judged (only teased). Cutting ties with Ren was probably the most painful thing Masato ever did in his rather underwhelming past.

So lost in self-reproach, Masato doesn't realize he has reached out across the table for Ren's hand until Ren entwines his fingers with Masato's and it's too late to pull his hand back. "I missed that, too," he says, though deep inside, what he means to tell Ren is I missed you.


***


It's close to noon when they reach Inuyama and Ren practically hops off the car as soon as they're parked. The excitement bubbling in his chest isn't because they're at Inuyama castle – he doesn't particularly care about the historical place – but because he's with Masato.

"Remember France?" Ren starts, unable to contain the smile that's been threatening to break out of his face. "When we braved to hop on a bus and went to Château de Loches?"

There's a gleam in Masato's eyes, barely hidden beneath his mask of indifference, when he says, "You mean when you kidnapped me from under my father's nose during that luncheon with some French politicians and dragged me to that creepy place that was practically twenty kilometers away from the hotel?"

"I did what?" Ren feints bewilderment and offense. "You practically begged me to get you out of there. Or did your father torture that particular memory out of your pretty little head?"

Ren is seized with guilt when he sees the slight but visible wince on Masato's face. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said—"

"That reminds me," Masato interjects, regarding him with a sidelong glance. "You owe me for the entrance fee to that castle. I paid for it, remember?"

"Yeah." Ren shakes his head, snickering. "I'll pay for the admission this time if it makes you happy."

They saunter towards the main entrance, this time donned in disguises that they've picked up along the way – with a fedora crowning Ren's head (his hair gathered in a pony tail barely peeking underneath) and a pair of dark-rimmed reading glasses. Masato chooses a more subtle approach, simply tucking an Ascot cap over his head, which is pointless when it comes to decreasing chances of drawing attention because Masato looks… well, if Ren is to use Natsuki's vocabulary… cute and there are women – and men, to Ren's chagrin – already glancing their way.

Ren leads Masato out to the balcony overlooking the river. "Let's take a selfie here," he says, throwing an arm around Masato who flinches at the sudden touch but relaxes soon enough. Ren holds his camera at arms length then snaps a few shots of them. He debates internally whether to post it at his Instagram account but realizes it may ruin the idea of this trip being in secret so he just sends their picture to the other guys in STARISH instead with the caption: 'Hijirikawa is with me and we're fine, just taking an impromptu road trip.'

Tokiya is the first to respond with 'I'm glad to hear that. You both enjoy yourselves. Drive safely, okay?' and the rest of the guys have similar reactions but the one who takes first prize is Syo whose message reads, 'I hope you don't come back here with Masato pregnant' that makes Ren practically burst with laughter.

"What's so funny?" Masato is watching him with furrowed brows and when Ren shows him what Syo has sent, his eyes comically widens. His cheeks immediately turn scarlet and he sputters incoherently, so unlike the usually cool and collected Masato that Ren knows and when Ren laughs some more, Masato smacks him on the arm and stomps back inside the castle.


***


The remark that Syo has thrown at them so casually has left an unequivocal tension in the air. It shouldn't have such discomfiting effect since it was meant as a joke but it perturbs Masato somehow. He doesn't realize he has moseyed out of the castle and has been walking incessantly until the strong grip on his arm stops him on his tracks.

"Hey." The tenderness of Ren's voice wraps around him like a comforting blanket. "Are you okay? Sorry I laughed. But I wasn't actually laughing at you. It was more on Ochibi's—"

"I know." Really, Masato doesn't need Ren to apologize. Walking away with asinine irritation sizzling inside him is a display of downright immaturity so he should be the one apologizing. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't… I…."

The lack of appropriate words that can best describe what he's feeling leaves a quiet drone between them until Ren says, "Tell you what," his grip loosening but his hand remains curled around Masato's arm. "Why don't we grab some take-outs and have lunch at the nearest park?"

With no fight left in him, Masato accedes and follows Ren back to the car. The park isn't far; barely five minutes drive. There's a deli across the street where Ren picks up a couple of sandwiches and canned cold tea for them and a melon pan just for Masato.

They find a really good spot with park benches close to the edge of the hill overlooking the river. The area is near empty save for the elderly couple sitting at the far end and seems to be lost in their own little world.

Ren still isn't speaking but Masato doesn't mind at all. He's fine with the muted companionship and placid ambiance. The cool spring breeze dances adagio around them in a lackadaisical swoop and slow twirls.

His earlier anxiety slowly seeps out of him and Masato feels calm enough to start nibbling on his food. He isn't really hungry but he finds the whole eating process calming. And Ren's amiable presence somehow keeps him sane.

"Thank you," falls from his mouth, his filters clearly not working, but there's no turning back now, especially when Ren's mutters "hmm?" So Masato chances a glance at Ren and says, "Thank you. For being here."

One corner of Ren's mouth curls up. "And thank you for not pushing me away." His eyes then stray down on the hand he has resting on his lap, fingers closing around the sandwich wrapper he's been clutching. "You know what? We both may have been forced to believe that we're enemies while growing up, Hijirikawa, but I never actually listened to my father. I still considered you a friend. So I was hurt when you ignored me or turned me away every time I tried to make contact." Ren raises his arm and tosses the wrapper on the nearby trash can then he stares at the river with a faraway gaze. "But that's all in the past. I'm… I'm just glad we crossed paths again, even when we bicker half the time and always get under each other's skin. I’ll have that any other day that not have you in my life."

Ren's confession feels like a grip around his heart and strikes Masato right through the core of his conscience. This throws him into a steaming pool of guilt. His fear of his father has led him to become such an apathetic fiend and Masato has always hated that part of him.

"I feel the same." Masato focuses on his own hands as he starts tearing on the edges of his sandwich wrapper. "Apologizing is probably inconsequential now but I do like to make amends." It's true, he does so he throws caution to the wind and decides to unlock a layer of his soul. He braves to look at Ren when he asks, "Would sharing a secret suffice?"

This seems to bring the life back into Ren, his light blue eyes shining with interest. "I'm listening."

Masato's throat feels dry all of a sudden so he takes a swig of his not-so-cold tea first. "The reason why Syo's text message rubbed me the wrong way earlier is because…," he peers at Ren through the corner of his eye, "well, it may have been a joke but Syo has hit the mark. I'm a carrier and it's one the things my father and I debated about. He thinks it's a disgrace for a first born son of the Hijirikawa family to be cursed with the ability to bear a child."

"You're father is an idiot," Ren blurts out seemingly uncaring that he's speaking out of disrespect. "Doesn't he realize that it's a gift? I wish I was a carrier, but unfortunately, it doesn't run in our family. I have distant uncles and cousins who I've heard are carriers, but they didn't get that from the Jinguji side, so it's probably not in our genes."

Hearing that from Ren is highly reassuring so Masato shrugs off his remaining reservations. "I have several male cousins who I've heard have gotten pregnant already, but my father thinks they're insignificant and my case is entirely different."

"What do you think?" Ren locks gazes with him and Masato recognizes it as a dare – a challenge for him to be honest.

"I think it's a gift."

A sly smile forms on Ren's lips when he says, "Then you're father's opinion on the matter is insignificant."

Masato will be lying if he says it doesn't make him feel better because it does, like a ton of load has been lifted off his chest. "Thanks, Jinguji."

Ren hops up on his feet, grabs their empty cans and ambles toward the recycle bin to drop them. "I was thinking," he says, returning to the bench but he remains on his feet. "Maybe I'll let you choose our next destination. I was hoping to go to an onsen that probably has an inn or with an inn close by where we can stay for the night. Would you like to go to Minokamo that is less than half an hour away or wouldn't you mind driving a couple of hours or so to Takayama?"

Not ready to call it a day yet, Masato says, "I think another long drive will do us good, so Takayama I guess."

"Your wish is my command," Ren says, lowering his head and upper body, his right hand resting on top of where his heart is.

"One condition though," Masato says as he leaves the bench. "I'm driving this time."


***


The firm grip on the curve of his shoulder is the first thing that registers and the voice that sounds so distant slowly pulls him out of slumber.

"Ren. Ren! We're here." It takes great effort but Ren manages to lift one eyelid open. "Man, you sleep like the dead," Masato says, his face still a blur.

"Did I hear you call me by my first name?" He may have been half asleep but Ren is pretty sure of what he heard.

A derisive sound escapes Masato. "It's because you wouldn't respond to Jinguji, you dope."

"I'm flattered." Ren knows pushing Masato's buttons isn't advisable right now. His friend has practically laid his soul bare just hours ago, so his level of sensitivity may still be a bit high. But it's hard to resist teasing Masato because he finds his roommate more gorgeous when miffed.

Shit. Ren's thoughts skid to a halt. Did I just think of Hijirikawa as gorgeous?

"Are you seriously going to just sit in the car for the rest of the day?" Masato is standing up front, one hand on his hip, glaring at Ren with a promise of merciless pain burning in his eyes.

"I'm coming, love," Ren says in jest and as he climbs out of the vehicle, he spies Masato's face dusted with a shade of crimson. Twice in a day, he thinks and wonders what else can leave Hijirikawa Masato flustered.

Once outside, Ren realizes that there is an inn right beside the onsen, so he asks, "Would you like to check for a room and get settled in first? Or would you rather hit the onsen now?"

Lines form between Masato's eyebrows. "Hmm. I guess getting a room first would be a smarter choice."

"Couldn't agree more." Ren heads to the back of the car with Masato to retrieve their luggage then they march towards the main lobby of the inn. "We'd like to get a couple of rooms, please," Ren tells the middle-aged woman behind the reception counter who regards him with a frown.

"We're fully booked," she barks, leaning on her folded arms over the counter as if to get a closer look and Ren wonders if they should've kept their disguises on. "We only have three unoccupied rooms but two of which are already reserved so that leaves only one room available. You can try the two other inns in the area, but I can't guarantee that they aren't full."

Ren tilts his head to glance at Masato, who merely nods so Ren takes that as an affirmation and tells the attendant, "That's fine. We'll take that one."

"I'm so exhausted I don't think I have enough energy left to hop around the town and look for a place to stay," Masato says while treading down the hallway of the second landing, looking for their designated room.

"That makes two of us," Ren says, internally celebrating his luck because he did wish to share a room with Masato now that they're reconnecting.

"At least there are two futons." Masato drags his luggage over to the mattress laid out farther from the window, asking, "Do you mind if I take this one?"

"Not at all." Ren doesn't bother unpacking, neither does Masato. It's pointless since they're only staying for a night.

It's roughly an hour to sundown when they enter the onsen and Ren is relieved to see that most people are already on their way out. Hoping that there are only a few patrons left inside, Ren requests for a more private section but the man behind the counter explains that it isn't possible.

"It's okay, Jinguji." Masato claims that he isn't fazed at the idea of sharing a bath with strangers, so Ren just asks the man to point them to the least occupied area.

That's how they end up outdoors, where the bath is divided into three sections and only one of them is occupied by three business-age men.

Satisfied, they proceed to the shower cubicles to wash down and Ren's the first to make it back to the bath. The warm water crawls up his body as Ren lowers himself, feeling the heat penetrating his skin and soothing his muscles.

Once seated, Ren closes his eyes and rests his head against the stony edge. He fails to sense Masato approaching until he speaks, says, "Don't fall asleep, Jinguji," prompting Ren's eyes to spring open and his breath catches at the sight before him.

The shaft of soft yellow-orange light peeking through the trees surrounding the area bathes Masato's naked form in an ethereal glow, so beautiful that Ren couldn't tear his eyes away.

tbc...


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