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Cardboard Bridges 3/?
Uta no Prince-sama, Jinguji Ren/Hijirikawa Masato, PG-13

MASTER POST


The sun has pushed its way through the clouds that are drifting like pale brocade above them by the time they leave Takayama. It's approximately a two-and-a-half-hour drive to their next destination, three including quick stops along the way.

When they reach Ena, Ren parks the car in the business district closest to the dock. "The first boat ride is at nine," he says, leading Masato down the street. They're back wearing disguises, just in case. "We have enough time to grab some breakfast."

There's a quaint tea house just a few walks ahead where the sweet smell of fresh blend wafting from inside lures Masato like a moth to a fire. It's close to nine when they finish their meal and they spend the rest of the time leisure-walking towards the dock.

Most of the people boarding the boat seem to be in the mid-twenties to mid-forties age bracket, some with children, so Masato isn't at all surprised that no one spares them a second glance. Maybe the disguises help somehow. Or maybe they don’t need it.

Ren takes his hat off once they're seated, laying it on his lap and leans back in a languid manner. He's gracious enough to let Masato sit by the window so he can watch the scenic view of Ena Valley unfold before them in a majestic landscape of lush green, sprinkled with assorted colors of spring.

For a moment, Masato pretends he's in another world far from his reality – a reality filled with family obligations and worries and tribulations.

"Look there, Hijirikawa," Ren says, breathing against his ear. He props his chin on Masato's shoulder so he can look out the window and gesture at the odd rock formations that glide past them. "Let's take a picture." Ren holds out his phone and rests his head against Masato's so they can fit on the screen with (what Ren has referred to as) the lion rock and the valley stretched out behind them providing a perfect background.

Of course, every photo they take gets sent to the other guys with Ren adding a caption, usually of the place. Otoya is the first to respond this time, with a message that reads: "No fair! I want to go there with you guys!" Masato can almost hear him bellowing with a childlike whine.

It would have been wonderful indeed to have their other friends here, but Masato can just imagine how chaotic it will be with an overly eager Natsuki, an awestruck Cecil, an energetic Syo and a hyperactive Otoya with Tokiya constantly berating the redhead.

Perhaps at another given time. This trip is meant for him and Ren alone.

His thought process is disrupted when Ren says, "Do you remember when we planned to go on a boat ride in Venice?"

"Yeah." It's one of the promises they made to each other that never came to pass because Masato had to fly back to Japan with his parents the day after the dinner party.

A sigh passes through Ren's lips, breath warm against Masato's neck. "You said it would be too chilly so I told you I'd hold you and keep you warm and it would be romantic." The memory causes heat to bloom on his cheeks, just like it did at the time Ren had whispered those exact words in his ear.

Masato stumbles around his head, unable to respond, so he just watches the scenery with Ren leaning on him while taking pictures until the boat ride is over.

Just as they're ambling down the dock, Masato's phone beeps several times and the screen indicates four messages waiting in his inbox. The first is from his father, practically demanding to let him know where he is. The next is from Shining, which is a short and simple, 'You're father is a pain in the ass.' The last two are from Tokiya, which reads: 'I hope there's wifi wherever you are because I'm sending you a link that you must check out.' And perhaps as an afterthought, he adds, 'Better yet, let Ren read it for you.'

His insides twist with a disquieting inkling that he debates internally whether to completely ignore Tokiya's message or yield in to the curiosity that keeps clawing at the back of his mind. Curiosity wins so he asks Ren, "Do you know any wifi hotspot around?"

Ren's eyebrow arches up inquisitively but he doesn't raise any question, just says, "I have a portable device in the car."

So ten minutes later, Masato's thumb trembles over the link that Tokiya has sent, and he jerks when Ren says, "Just get it done and over with, Hijirikawa," in that hollow commanding voice he rarely uses.

An article spreads across the screen and Masato nearly hurls the phone when he sees the headline: 'Hijirikawa Masato Announces Engagement, Could Rumors of Quitting STARISH Be True?'

Masato only realizes that his hand is shaking when Ren places his own on top of his, covering the phone in the process. "Relax, Hijirikawa. I'm sure the president's people are already working on some damage control."

"I know but still…." Masato can't find the right words to express the anger broiling inside him at the moment.

Ren gets the car started. "Why don't we make a little detour? I know a place where you can let off some steam."

There doesn't seem to be any other choice left than to acquiesce so Masato nods, placing his full trust on Ren.

After checking his phone, Ren says, "It's not too far, just about forty minutes away," and they're back on the road soon enough with Ren humming to the tune of 'Welcome to UtaPri World.' He is so contagious that Masato finds himself humming along.

Just as promised, the drive is quick. As soon they pass through a sign that says 'Welcome to Fujimidai Highland,' Ren announces, "We're almost there," and he's soon pulling up in front of a cottage with a sign 'Ropeway Heavens' at the main entrance.

Masato simply trails after Ren and keeps his distance while Ren talks to an attendant. The man leads them out through a back door and when Masato's eyes fall on the rows of aerial lifts, his leg seizes to move. Ren looks back over his shoulder and says, "You're not afraid of heights, are you, Hijirikawa?" with a teasing smirk on his lips.

"Of course not," he throws back and climbs inside a car ahead of Ren. Masato can feel his stomach descending when the lift starts to move and as soon as it's gliding along a rope with miles of empty space below them, Masato grabs Ren's arm on impulse.

Ren doesn't laugh though, doesn't even make a sound, just shifts his arm until Masato's hand slides into his and they stay like that for a while, fingers entwined, and Masato has a sudden flash of all those instances some ages ago wherein Ren had held his hand whenever he felt just a tad scared or ill at ease.

The ride seems to take forever that Masato keeps wishing they're back on solid ground. He twitches at the slightest tremble but the feeling of Ren's thumb stroking the back of his hand is enough to placate him.

When they reach the opposite side, Ren doesn't release his hand. Instead, he drags him along, leading him through rows of cottages and souvenir shops and into a narrow trail.

"My brother brought me here once," Ren says, while they trudge along the stony path. "I was deeply upset at my father after he confiscated my mother's possessions, the only connection I had with her, and discarded them. I… I wanted to run away, but Seiichirou caught me and brought me here." They stop in a small clearing that has a breathtaking view of the valley. It feels like they're on top of the world. "He told me to gather all my frustrations right at the center of my chest then release it in a scream." Ren finally releases him, says, "Why don't you give it a try," with a jerk of his head, gesturing at the open space that seems to extend endlessly.

"I don't know, Jinguji." The idea itself is ridiculous and Masato doesn't see how this can potentially help but Ren gives him The Look that is both reassuring and challenging at the same time. So Masato steps forward, thinks of his father – of how his father dictates everything and strips him off of his freedom, leaving him with no absolute control of his life, of his future – until he feels the weight of aggravation building up in his chest, and it stings like a heartburn that he finds it hard to breathe. He struggles to draw air into his lungs, holds it for as long as he can, and exhales, releasing his anger, yelling, "I hate you father!"

His voice bounces back, repeating his words until it evanesces into a void. And it somehow purges the heavy burden that has taken up residence inside him. All that's left are these tiny prickling sensations in his heart but the feeling of Ren's hand on his shoulder eases it slowly out of his system. This doesn't solve his predicament, that he knows, but at least he's calm enough to enjoy the rest of their trip.

They're back in the aerial lift when Ren asks, "How are you feeling?"

Considering that he no longer feels like he's being ripped off from the inside, Masato manages a smile. "Better." The hum of quietude that follows puts him at ease and Masato watches the trees and everything below as the lift glides along without him feeling queasy anymore. "Thank you, Ren."

Ren's lips stretch into a smile wide enough to split his face in two, blue eyes sparkling. "You called me by my first name again."

Masato shrugs, says, "Seems appropriate at this moment," as nonchalant as he can manage, hoping Ren won't hear how loud his heart is beating. A gasp is forced out of him when Ren pulls him close, their chest slamming together as Ren wraps his arms around him, nose pressed against the side of his face.

When the initial shock dissipates, Masato likewise wraps his arms around Ren's waist and relaxes in Ren's embrace. They stay like that until the lift reaches the end of the rope.


***


Once they're able to refuel – literally the car and figuratively themselves – they head straight to Magome without making quick stops. Though Ren has originally intended to make Shiojiri their last stop for the day, he asks Masato, "Would you like to stay here for the night? I didn't make any reservations, but I can try pulling some strings."

"Nah." Masato pauses for a while to regard the row of old houses that seems to have been taken right out of a history textbook about the Edo period with evident admiration. "It's still early. We have time for another couple of hours or so drive. You did say you made reservations at a ryokan in Shiojiri, right?"

"More like a hotel, but yes." Ren thinks they need a break from traditional inns with hot springs for a day, not after having spent the entire night tossing and turning because he can't get Masato's naked form out of his damn mind. It wasn't even the first time he'd seen Masato naked, but that night was… well, different. He can't even pinpoint a rational reason why it is… well, different… only that he's very aware of the presence of a knot in his chest.

"We should get some souvenirs for the guys," Masato says after a while and Ren belatedly realizes they've been promenading along the cobblestone streets wordlessly.

After asking a couple of locals for directions, Ren leads Masato up a slope that leads to a few souvenir shops where they pick up some stuffs the other guys won't probably need, except for the hand-woven hat they've picked up for Syo and a small hand-crafted wooden toy for Natsuki which he will no doubt find cute.

A shop that sells freshly made rice crackers attracts Masato who stares at the delicacy with explicit interest, mouth undoubtedly salivating. Ren doesn't even bother asking Masato if he wants to try it, just buys a pack which they share. There's a slight twitch in his chest at the sight of Masato's eyes practically twinkling after having a bite, reminding him of the pretty little boy that looked at the gelato Ren had bought for him like it was a rare piece of treasure, so Ren decides to buy more for the road, and then some to bring home to the other guys.

They pass a house with an incredibly beautiful landscape despite the limited space and the elderly couple who owns it is kind enough to allow them to have their pictures taken in their garden. They have quite a collection of photos – one beside an old watermill at the foot of the long flight of stairs they eventually climb; some in front of the old Edo-style houses; near Eishoji Temple with the astounding view of the mountains behind them; by one of the many bear bells along the path which Ren eventually rings to Masato's horror (only because Ren lies about the purpose of the bell is to lure bears); and at the tea house where they come to rest for a while, to have some tea and to try out the kurikinton and dango that the town serves as their specialty.

Ren pretends to sip on his tea while he sneaks a peek on Masato's phone. The latter is busy saving their pictures in a folder which he names 'road trip with my best friend.' He almost spits the tea back into his cup after reading it, feeling his heart swelling with something he can't name. Masato has always been indifferent, or at least that's what Ren sees him as, never acknowledging him as a friend in a special way – apart from how Masato recognizes all members of STARISH as friends collectively – but being referred to as his best friend unravels an unidentified emotion inside Ren.

"What?" Masato asks with a frown, regarding Ren as if Ren has just been caught with his hand inside the forbidden cookie jar.

"Nothing," Ren says, finishing his tea and popping the last piece of his kurikinton in his mouth. "You ready to go? We have a long drive ahead of us, if you still want to go sightseeing before we reach Shiojiri."

"Yeah, sure." Masato pushes himself off the floor to get on his feet, follows Ren out the door and into the streets all the way back to where they left the car earlier.

Masato's eyes glow with delight as soon as they reach Nagiso. He practically jumps off the car before Ren can properly park and when Ren catches up to him, Masato already has his phone out and he starts taking pictures of the historical houses along the asphalt-covered streets. "I could live here," he says with a wistful smile he rarely displays – one that makes Ren's heart ache.

"I could, too." Ren wonders though if he can survive in such a place far removed from the modern era, but being here seems to make Masato happy and that's what's important.

When they get to Okuwa, Ren asks, "Can you still handle at least half an hour walk?" to which Masato snorts and claims he isn't tired yet. So Ren hires someone to take them on a nature trail in Atera Valley where they cross wooden bridges over streams and take a hike near waterfalls. "I've always wanted to take you camping," Ren confesses when the guide shows them a perfect spot for such activity.

The eager and hopeful look Masato gives him when he says, "I'd like that. Maybe we can do that later?" drives away the exhaustion that's creeping slowly up his back.

"I'll consult my ever so reliable map and see if I can find a good camping ground along the way," Ren promises, unable to stop his hand from reaching out and tucking a lock of hair behind Masato's ear, which earns him a lovely sight of Masato blushing and he's struck with déjà vu of him doing the exact same thing – when he made the same promise as they looked at the stars while on the deck of a cruise ship. And his heartbeat ceases. Figuratively.

His original plan stops at Shiojiri and Ren thinks he'll decide where to go next when they get there. Fate is probably working with him when he checks the map and he sees that Lake Kawaguchi is barely two hours away, odd enough, it's where one of their family vacation houses is located.

"Maybe we can go camping there," he says after telling Masato about it. "I know we have some camping gears at the cottage and we can camp out near the lake then maybe stay out for the night, or if it gets too chilly, we can just head back indoors."

Masato agrees and says, "That sounds like a plan."

They practically just drive through Agematsu and stops at Fukushima only because Masato claims he needs to use a restroom. They find one at a ryokan and the lady who runs it is kind enough to allow them to use the public toilet.

While waiting for Masato, Ren calls his brother to ask about the vacation home.

"I'll call the caretaker so he can wait for you on the day you expect to arrive," Seiichirou states in his usual business-like tone, but then his voice becomes softer and is laced with worry when he says, "Are you sure about this, Ren? I mean whatever you're doing right now can bite you in the ass. He can turn his back on you and leave you again at a snap of his father's fingers, you know."

Ren understands his brother's concern. After all, Seiichirou had been there for him when Ren went through a downward spiral as a consequence to his bitter realization that he and Masato had fallen apart.

"I know, Nii-san. It's just… he needs me right now."

"I understand," Seiichirou says with a sigh. "Just, don't hope too much and give all of you like you did back then, okay? I don't want to see you get hurt again."

Ren doesn't like the way Seiichirou speaks to him like he's twelve again, but he can see where his brother is coming from. "Don't worry, I won't."

The trip through the post towns along Kisoji route stretches on that it's almost sunset by the time they reach Narai. Masato doesn't seem to get tired of seeing historical houses, even though they've gone through the past nine towns with similar sceneries to offer.

After a quick stop at the museum and Shizume Shrine and Daihoji Temple, Ren brings Masato to Kiso Bridge that leads to Mizube Park.

It's when they stop at the middle of the arched bridge when Masato asks, "You know, I've been wondering. Why do you seem to know so much about the post towns we've visited?"

Ren leans on the railing with his elbows and gazes far ahead as if his eyes are seeing the distant past. "After that trip to Fujimidai Highland, my brother and I drove through this route and all along, I was hoping I could have the chance to bring you here someday thinking that you'd probably love to see these places but…." He debates whether to be honest, to lay his soul bare.

"But what?" Masato prompts when the wordless minutes tiptoes around them.

Heaving a sigh, Ren shifts to face his friend. "But we had a falling out. So everything I planned and wished to do with you became nothing but a hopeless dream."

Another stretch of silence falls upon them with only the whistling of the wind blowing past can be heard. Ren leans on his crossed arms over the railing, watching the branches of the sakura trees at the park sway languidly, pink leaves fluttering in the air.

Then Masato speaks, voice shaky when he says, "I'm sorry, Jinguji. For throwing away our friendship."

Ren shifts to face his friend and his heart seizes at the sight of Masato's teary eyes.

"Hey." Ren reaches out and cups Masato's cheek, catching the lone drop of tear that rolls down with his thumb. "It's okay. I knew back then it couldn't be helped. Even my father insisted that I stay away from you and stubborn as I was, I couldn't do a damn thing either. But that was then. We're here now, back together and we can have all the adventures we've missed to make up for it, right?"

Something breaks through the surface of Masato's eyes, a vulnerability Ren hasn't seen before. He is so caught in the moment that all rationality leaves his brain, his self-control shatters, and he leans in to press his lips against Masato's.

Ren snaps out of his daze when Masato shoves him, his eyes wide, cheeks tinged with the darkest shade of red. "I…" Masato says, averting his gaze, "I'm sorry, I'm just… I'm tired," then he marches off, tracing their steps back to where they came from.


tbc...


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