On days where summer breezes whistled through the trees and birds saw low, lulling songs, Nezumi and Shion would walk to the river. The tradition started years ago. One day, when their relationship first began to bloom, Shion took Nezumi's hand and dragged him down to the water's edge. Reluctant at first, Nezumi sat with him beneath the hanging branches of an old willow tree. They watched ducks drift on the current and dragonflies dart through the reeds. They listened to the hum of cicadas and the warble of young birds. They felt the cool night air brush by as the sun sank low. Hours passed and they held hands, lying still in the soft grass.
Years later, the willow's branches had grown longer and small yellow flowers flourished on the neighboring slope. A bench stood nearby the water, but few people came by to use it. Old trees echoed the songs of young birds, and an entire new generation of ducks swam the same river their parents and their parents before them once had. Nature thrived, passing through season after arduous season without rest. But it seemed that, at the end of spring and the start of summer, when everything was new and refreshed, the flora and fauna sat back, took a deep breath, and sighed contently.
Shion inhaled deeply, reveling in the warm air of early summer. He sat beneath the willow tree, gazing through the hanging branches at the cloud-swept sky. Overhead, a bird whistled. It hopped from branch to branch, shaking the thin vines to their tip. The bird was a small white-eye with a bright yellow chin. It stretched its wings, uttered a trill, and bounced back into the sky.
Another trill answered the bird, two seconds too late. Shion rolled over on his side and grinned at Nezumi. He had his hands cupped around his mouth, whistling upward into the trees as he mimicked the birds. Nezumi had a special knack for mimicking birds; his voice was flexible enough to match most calls. Shion mused that, in another lifetime, Nezumi would have made a fantastic parrot—although a rat seemed the obvious choice.
"Make a duck sound!" a small voice piped up.
Though Shion and Nezumi lay soundly in the grass, their daughter, Safu, did not. She bounced up and down beside Nezumi, plucking up bits of grass and the occasional flower bud. Every time Nezumi whistled or hooted or cheeped, she giggled softly in that way that made Shion's heart melt like butter.
"You mean like this?" Nezumi asked before mimicking the long hoot of an owl.
"No!" she exclaimed loudly, falling into fits of giggles.
"My deepest apologies, Your Royal Highness."
"A duck!" she insisted.
Nezumi replied, this time with a loud rooster call that scattered several wrens.
"That's not a duck!" She fell onto his chest, still snickering. "Daddy, Dad doesn't know what sound a duck makes," she told Shion in a whisper.
"I'm sorry, I don't; I forgot! Care to teach me?" Nezumi asked slyly.
Safu was more than happy to help. She wordily instructed him, talking more about ducks than the actual sounds that they made. She told Nezumi that he had to pucker his lips like a bill before making the sound. He tried just that and Shion cracked a wide grin—to which Nezumi shot him the faintest, most vexed expression he could manage.
When he finally made the sound correctly, Safu was thrilled. She jumped to her feet and ran around the willow tree's trunk, shrieking enthusiastically. Nezumi got up and chased after her. They spun around the tree trunk several times before she broke off, running towards the park bench. She ducked behind it near the river's edge, laughing all the while. Nezumi followed slowly, creeping around the other side.
He sprang and grabbed the bench, making a loud quacking sound. While the sight of Nezumi quacking with the ferocity of a tiger's roar might have made Shion laugh for several long minutes on any other occasion, shock drew away all sense of humor.
The sound startled Safu and she tipped back, falling into the river with a plop. The river wasn't deep and she seemed unharmed, but quickly began to cry.
Shion leapt up from where he lay and hurried to the water. By the time he got there, Nezumi had already picked Safu up. He held the soggy little girl against his shoulder, trying to sooth her, apologizing for scaring her. But whatever Nezumi whispered in her ear, Safu would not calm. She began to bawl loudly, burying her teary face into his scarf.
"You need to be more careful with her!" Shion scolded Nezumi. "Here, hand her to me." He grabbed the child from Nezumi and held her gently in his arms, rocking back and forth slowly.
Nezumi rolled his eyes. "It was an accident," he said.
"That doesn't mean she can't get hurt," Shion argued. Safu had started to calm down, but was still upset and made sniffling sounds into his shoulder. If there was one thing Shion prided himself on, it was an innate ability to calm Safu when she was at her worst. Nezumi was a great parent—he could entertain kids for hours and, a brilliant actor, he was the best candidate for a fake tea party or a game of house. Children loved him and, although he put up a front, Shion knew that Nezumi also enjoyed their presence.
But Nezumi was never as patient or relaxed as Shion, making dealing with sudden tantrums and tears difficult, if not impossible. That didn't mean he didn't try, however. Something about Safu crying truly upset Nezumi and it showed in his furrowed brow. Shion thought that it reminded him of his lonesome childhood. Perhaps he wished to make Safu's experience far better than his own.
"Safu- look," Nezumi suddenly said in an enticing voice. She looked at him through bleary eyes and, with a swift kick, Nezumi sent a spray of water across Shion's pants—namely, on his crotch.
Shion looked down at his wet pants with a sigh while Safu giggled loudly, waving her hands. Nezumi waggled his brows at Shion.
Shion carefully put Safu down in the grass and stooped to scoop river water into his hands. Before he could straighten up to toss the water at Nezumi, a second wave doused his white locks.
Shion spat water from his mouth and wiped his bangs aside. "You're gonna get it now," Shion told him.
Nezumi picked up a water lily and twirled it in his fingers. "I'd like to see you try," he said, blowing him a kiss. He tossed the flower to Shion and it landed right on top of his head. Safu giggled louder and Nezumi bowed towards her flamboyantly.
Shion dropped the flower by Safu and splashed a wave of water in Nezumi's direction, catching him mid-bow.
Nezumi straightened up slowly, dripping from his long, raven hair to the hem of his black jacket. "You're the one who's going to get it," he said, flashing a mischievous grin.
An awkward, somewhat regretful smile crept across Shion's face. Nezumi ran forward and tackled him.
The pair played in the river for some time, splashing each other until they were soaked through to the bone. At first Safu cheered them on—first rooting for Nezumi, and then for Shion when he started to make a comeback in their play fight. After a while, however, Safu grew bored of cheering and wanted to join in on the action. She hopped into the river and started to splash them both without any clear target. Shion and Nezumi allowed her to win for the most part, but splashed back gently when they were not pretending to cower in fear and defeat.
As the sun began to set, Nezumi pulled Safu out of the river. He put the stray water lily in her hair and they started to walk home. A breeze stirred the trees, making her shiver in her wet clothes. Nezumi scooped her up and pecked a kiss on her cheek. "I'm all wet too, but this will have to do," he said, hugging her tightly.
"That rhymed," Safu mumbled. She nuzzled into Nezumi's shoulder, growing sleepy. The flower drooped out of her hair and Shion took it, holding it carefully.
Nezumi chuckled. He began to whisper a soft song that rhymed every couple of verses. He rocked Safu back and forth to the tune, dancing around Shion in tight circles. He accented the song with random quacks that made Safu giggle, slowly softening his voice as her giggles dissipated and she slipped into sleep.
"Seems you have the duck sound down pat," Shion said.
Nezumi rolled his eyes. "Oh please, I mastered that one years ago. What do you take me for, an amateur?"
"Amateur? You define the word amateur."
Nezumi leaned in close to Shion's ear. "That's not what you said last night," he whispered, kissing him on the cheek.