An ominous atmosphere oscillates at the main entrance of the Hijirikawa Mansion and slithers around him like an invisible serpent the moment he steps through the front door. Masato dismisses it as the humidity clinging to his skin and fights the temptation to turn back and leave. If it weren't for his father's entrusted assistant and the burly bodyguard standing behind him, he would've done so already.
With no other choice, Masato treads across the rouka with leaden steps. The air around him grows thinner the farther he goes, making it hard for him to breathe.
One of the servants – Hanae, he recognizes – walks up to him, lowers her upper body in a respectful bow, and says, "Masato-sama," before straightening up. She keeps her eyes on the floor though even as she utters, "Your father is waiting for you at the tea room," as if in warning that something dreadful awaits him.
“Thank you,” he says, bracing himself while he proceeds to the room further down the hall.
His father's assistant is the one who announces, "Hijirikawa-sama, the young master is here," when they reach the designated room and only when he hears his father's voice telling them to come in does Matsuyama slide the shoji door open.
There's a man sitting beside his father, someone he recalls seeing at several parties where his father has dragged him along when he was younger. His mind is unable to supply the man's name though, but he finds no need to dwell on it since his father beckons him inside and says, "Ah Masato. Come in," then gestures at the man beside him. "This is Sakamoto Tadashi." It all suddenly clicks in his head, like a light bulb that's been switched on.
Sakamoto Tadashi is one of his father's top client, the owner of one of the, if not the, leading manufacturers of electronics in east of Japan. But those details are unimportant because what Masato remembers most about this man is—
"And do you remember his daughter," his father says, interrupting his thoughts, hand already poised toward the young woman sitting at Sakamoto's left side, "Sakamoto Kyoko?"
Of course he remembers. He remembers the girl he met when he was twelve, the one he's been arranged to marry.
The girl – Kyoko – gets on her feet gracefully and lowers her head, says, "It is a pleasure to meet you again, Hijirikawa-san," like some pre-programmed dialogue she has rehearsed a hundred times.
Masato now realizes why he's been summoned here, understands his father's urgency and knows his future with Shining Agency and the entertainment business in general will be nothing but a blur. This can't be real, he thinks but seeing his father's threatening glare reminds him that it is and Masato feels his whole world collapse over his head.
Ren has just stepped out of the bathroom when he hears his cell phone go off. Thinking that it's probably Shining or anyone from the agency calling about work, he takes his sweet time to answer it. He's supposed to be on a break – they all are – and his body craves the respite after several grueling months of recording, TV appearances, interviews, photo shoots, concerts and everything that comes in the package of being an idol. Not that he has any complaints but he sure can use at least a day's rest.
When he catches a glimpse of the name on the screen, he quickly snatches the gadget off the table.
"Hijirikawa," he says into the mouthpiece, so caught up in that split-second vulnerability that he's not even able to hide the worry in his voice. Last time they spoke, Masato has informed him that he's been called back home by his father and that was 3 days ago. He hasn't heard from his friend since.
"Jinguji." It's so hard to decipher Masato's tone, much as it is hard to read him because of that damnable stoic mask he often wears. Ren can't tell if something is wrong, even when Masato says, "I might not be able to go back. To Starish," because he's speaking in his usual monotonous—
"What did you say?" Ren thinks it might be a good idea to sit down so he does, at the edge of his bed.
"I…" Silence follows. Hearing the faint scuffling and Masato's breathing is an indication that Ren hasn't lost connection so he waits… he waits until Masato speaks again, says, "My father reminded me of my duties and he wants me to get married by the time I turn twenty-one," like some rehearsed speech.
"So you have more than a year and a half to figure out how to get out of it."
Masato releases a defeated sigh, says, "I doubt I'd be able to," with a notable change in his inflection, like he has given up and has already surrendered his soul to his father.
Ren can't blame him though. The great Hijirikawa is some piece of work. Ren has met the man many times so he knows that Masato's submissive tendency towards his father isn't because he's weak-willed. It's because his father is obstinate and stubborn and manipulative in the worst way possible.
"We'll think of something." If he were to be honest, Ren prefers Masato to deal with this on his own, to grow a backbone and learn to stand up against that man. But this isn't something he expects to happen overnight. So for now, he'll help Masato in any way and give him the push he needs. "Come back to the dorm. It's pretty lonely here without you."
"I'm sorry, Jinguji. I need to be alone," Masato says and before Ren can utter a word, the line goes dead.
What the hell does he mean? Ren taps on his phone's screen to retrieve Masato's number but when he finally establishes connection, he's greeted with his roommate's pre-recorded voice asking him to leave a message.
Thinking it's best to give Masato some space, Ren fights the urge to call his friend again later that day. He doesn’t call him the next day either. And the next, despite his fingers itching to dial Masato's number.
Three days have gone by and still no word from Masato. Otoya and Cecil have started voicing their worries. Ren decides he's given his friend enough space as it is and tries calling him, not really expecting Masato to answer, so he's caught unprepared when he hears the Hijirikawa heir's voice.
Ren foregoes pleasantries and straightforwardly asks, "Where are you?"
"Nagoya," is all Masato says in return.
Well that's something Ren doesn't expect either. "Where exactly in Nagoya?"
The eerie silence he gets in response irks Ren to no end. He's about to reiterate when Masato says, "The Marriot."
Good. He knows where that is. "Wait for me. I'm heading there today." Ren ends the call before Masato can say anything more then he dials his brother's number. As soon as Seiichirou picks up, Ren says, "I'm taking the bullet train to Nagoya but I need a car when I get there. Can you arrange one to be sent to the Marriott? Nothing fancy, preferably something that can endure a long, winding trip."
"Why do I have a feeling I'm not allowed to ask questions?" Seiichirou says with a dash of amusement in his tone.
"Oh, no, no," Ren says, almost stumbling in his haste to get to his room. "You are allowed to ask questions, but I'm a bit in a hurry so can I do the explaining later?"
"Alright. I get it. I'll have someone call you. Just let me know when you get there."
"Thanks, Niisan." Ren grabs one of his large carry-on bags and started filling it with clothes and just about anything he deems he will need.
There's a small part of him that wants to pack up and leave, head to the next city or prefecture. But a larger part of him wants to stay and wait for Ren.
Masato isn't even sure if Ren's purpose for coming to Nagoya is business-related. Or if he is, by chance, the sole reason for his roommate's sudden trip. The latter somehow makes his heart flutter for some reason.
It's no use trying to escape now. He has wasted almost three hours pacing around his hotel room mulling over the situation. If Ren is serious about coming, then he may have taken the bullet train and he should be here any—
The rhythmic tapping on the door startled him out of his musing. Masato takes his time to answer it, hoping it's just one of the hotel staff, but he knows that's highly improbable. The door is barely open when Ren pushes his way inside, large bag slung on one shoulder, then makes his way straight to the bed, dropped his bag at the foot and practically collapses on top of the mattress.
"What are you doing here?" Masato eyes his friend as if Ren has just magically appeared.
Ren lifts his head, a quizzical look on his face. "I told you I was coming, didn't I?"
"You did. But you never explained why and what I meant exactly was what are you doing here in my room? Didn't you get your own?"
"No." Ren's head drops back and he covers his eyes with his arm as if he's comfortable already. "No point in getting my own room when we can share yours. Besides. We're only staying for a day."
"Excuse me?" Masato raises an eyebrow and ambles closer to the bed. "Who do you think you are? My handler? Who died and gave you the right to tell me how long I will be staying here?"
Ren lifts his arm and glances at Masato, blue eyes shining with what Masato can deduce as mischief. "Touchy," he says, sounding like he finds Masato amusing. He props himself on the bed with his elbows. "I may be wrong in assuming that you are running away from your troubles again, Hijirikawa. But I do believe that what you need right now is some soul-searching break, and guess what, that's exactly what I need as well."
Close enough, though the thought that Ren seems to have a clear grasp of how he feels is a little disconcerting. "Don't act like you know me so well, Jinguji."
"Oh but I do know you so well." Ren is now sitting upright, regarding him with a serious expression. "You may think you're so closed off that no one can tell what's going through your mind. But I'm your friend, Hijirikawa, and I know you."
The impact of those words punches a hole on his proverbial wall and all Masato can utter is an astonished, "Jinguji."
"Now, how 'bout we go out for dinner?" Ren springs up on his feet and leads Masato to the door, hand splayed on Masato's back. "I am craving for some hitsumabushi and I know a perfect place where we can have it."
Masato is still uncertain about Ren's purpose for coming, but he's famished and dinner sounds like a good idea at the moment so he allows his friend to escort him out of the room. The restaurant isn't far, just a few minutes walk from the hotel. They spend the entire trek in silence, with Ren occasionally bringing up their adventures in STARISH since they've won the Uta Pri awards.
"I wonder what challenge Shining would throw right in front of us next," Ren says wistfully as if his mind is drifting off to the near future.
Masato stomps down the impulse to remind Ren that he is not going back to STARISH, instead, he utters a curt, "Yeah," allowing Ren to indulge in his thoughts.
The restaurant is quaint on the outside, not something he'd expect Jinguji Ren to dine in. When they get inside though, Masato immediately appreciates the cozy atmosphere and understands whey Ren has chosen this place.
"They have the best hitsumabushi in my opinion." Ren pretty much insists that Masato should try it and doesn't seem to leave any room for arguments.
When their dinner is served, Masato is baffled to discover that there is actually a proper way to eat the grilled eel dish and he does as Ren instructs, dividing the food into four sections, scooping the first quarter of it from the large bowl into a smaller one.
It's when they're both digging into the last section of their meal that Ren blurts out, "So I think we should go on a road trip," like it's part of a normal dinner conversation.
Masato gapes at his roommate, says, "Road trip?" not sure if he heard right and when Ren nods, he can't help but ask, "And where, pray tell, do you suggest we go?"
"Wherever the wind takes us," is what Ren says while throwing his arm out with a flourish. The idea, for him, is ridiculous at best. But it may be just what Masato needs. "It will be like old times," Ren adds. "Remember how we'd like to go off on our own adventures when we were kids?"
Any fragment of hesitation evanesces upon seeing the eagerness in Ren's eyes while he speaks of their childhood escapades. Truth to tell, Masato prefers to be alone, to deal with all these crap that he's going through on his own. But Ren's suggestion seems better than the idea of him wandering aimlessly by himself, not that Ren has a meticulously planned itinerary in mind. Besides, Ren is quite difficult to resist, so Masato decides to throw caution to the wind and says, "Okay."
Ren doesn't get the call from the driver until they're on their way back to the hotel after dinner and when he checks the car to make sure it's nothing fancy, he's hit with the reality that he's actually doing this. With Masato. And the elated twist in his chest makes him want to jump out of his own skin.
They're lying in bed – large enough to keep a considerable space between them – when Masato says, "By the way, did you tell the president about this – the trip, I mean?"
"Yeah." Ren cringes internally for lying because he has actually forgotten to inform Shining. But he's pretty sure Shining wouldn't mind. Besides, the president himself has suggested that they all take time off for a month while he works on a deal for Quartet Night so.
Long silence passes between them and Ren thinks Masato has drifted off to sleep. The Hijirikawa heir has his back on him so Ren can't really tell. He shuts his eyes, creating an itinerary for the next day in his head when Masato speaks again, starting with a carefully enunciated, "Hey Jinguji?" as if he's testing whether Ren is still awake and when Ren mumbles a soft and raspy "yeah" to let his friend know he's still with him, Masato then says, "Thank you. For coming."
Ren is overwhelmed with a shitload of sentiments that his chest smarts and fuck, it actually makes him giddy hearing that from Masato. Unable to muster any words that would fall under the category of calm and cool, he says, "Go to sleep, Hijirikawa. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
It doesn't take long before Masato's breathing becomes steady and deep and Ren hopes the relaxing sound will lull him to sleep. But instead, he lies awake with his chaotic thoughts and barely catches a few winks when he feels the bed losing weight hours later.
Ren opens his eyes in time to see Masato stepping into the bathroom. It must be daybreak, judging from the sliver of pale orange light piercing through the curtains. He forces himself out of bed, feeling surprisingly revitalized despite having only a few hours – or maybe just an hour – nap. He's probably way more excited about this than he realizes.
"Can you call room service and order some breakfast for us so I can pack up while waiting?" Masato says when he steps back into the room. "The menu is on the coffee table."
"Sure." Ren peruses through the ten-page booklet, asks, "Is continental breakfast fine with you?" and when Masato agrees, he picks up the phone and presses the corresponding number for room service.
Breakfast comes fifteen minutes later just as Masato is done packing and they ate in silence with Ren fumbling on his phone, setting up his planned destinations for the day in his GPS app.
They check out at nine, hauls their luggage at the back of the sedan and as soon as Masato buckles up on the passenger seat, he asks, "So where are we going?" then throws Ren a skeptical glare as he adds, "You do have something in mind, don't you? Or do you just plan to drive around until you find a place?"
Ren allows a smile to slide on his lips. "You worry too much, Hijirikawa. Of course, I have something in mind. We head first to Banshoji Temple, pray for our journey or whatever."
It was a little more than a ten-minute drive and luck seems to be on their side since there isn't a traffic jam on the shortest route.
The temple isn't crowded with only a few patrons probably stopping by on their way to work or school. Some people turn heads their way, mostly school girls who whisper among themselves. "You think we should've worn disguises?" Ren asks, reaching out to curl his hand around Masato's forearm before increasing his pace, practically dragging his companion along with him. He's vaguely aware of the sounds of cameras going off around them.
"On our next stop, we wear disguises," Masato declares as soon as they make it inside. A guide leads them to where they can ask for divine favors and Ren prays for safety and guidance and strength, the last two isn't exactly for him but rather for Masato.