"Oh, come on," Aelita begged. She was on the verge of tears but bravely held them back, as she had done for most of the afternoon. "Please, Nathalie. We have to go home now."
"NOOOOOO!" came the scream again, louder, and the tiny red-faced girl clung, monkey-like, to the bars of the swing-set. "DON'T WANNA."
Aelita bent down, looped her arms lightly around the child's waist, and tugged. In response, Nathalie only clung more tightly, her face screwed up in stubborn defiance. Petulant tears streamed down her face and even though she shouted, her words were barely coherent between sobs.
"I W-WANNA STAY. I'VE ONLY B-BEEN ON THE SWINGS T-T-TEN TIMES."
Jérémie bit his lip, watching the scene unfold with increasing trepidation. Aelita turned to him despairingly, her hair looking more haphazard than usual and her face stricken, all too aware that around them, parents were watching out of the corners of their eyes, their faces at once embarrassed and sympathetic.
"Jérémie, help me," Aelita hissed pleadingly between clenched teeth. "We have to be back before five."
"Noooooo," Nathalie said again. Aelita grimaced. Her arms were still wrapped around the child, and soft blonde hair tickled her nose.
Jérémie's face took on an extremely panicked look. "Aelita, I don't know how to... what do you want me to do?"
"Anything! Just... get her to let go!"
Jérémie stared at her as though she had just grown two heads. He had a vision of himself behind Aelita, both of them jointly pulling the child in some surreal tug-of-war. He coughed awkwardly, staring wildly around the park as though a solution to avoiding this scenario would drop suddenly from the sky.
As a matter of fact, the solution drove into their midst, ringing a merry jingle and bearing a huge plastic ice-cream motif on its roof. An ice-cream truck, driving towards them...
...And straight past.
"Wait!" Jérémie hesitated for only a moment before he took off at a sprint, painfully aware of the looks thrown his way. Loose change clinked in his pocket. He held onto his glasses with one hand, the other flailing wildly at its side, unsure of what to do with itself in this strange, alien act of... running.
Thankfully the truck was moving slowly along the side road, and Jérémie flagged it down, out of breath and sweating. The ice-cream vendor peered out at him, lip curled in wry amusement.
"You sure seem desperate for some ice-cream, kid."
"It's not- It's my- She's- Little girl, swings..." Jérémie attempted between deep breaths. Finally he shook his head in resignation, pointed breathlessly to a picture of a chocolate ice and handed over the change.
Ten minutes later, Nathalie still clung to the swing set and Aelita was seated resignedly beside her, anxiously checking her mobile for the time. She looked up as Jérémie slumped wearily into view, two chocolate ices in his hands.
"What was that-" she asked, but Jérémie shook his head and bent down next to the little girl.
"Hey," he said awkwardly. "Uh... want some ice-cream?"
Nathalie stared up at him, her eyes wide and still wet with tears. Silently, petulantly, she grasped for one of the frozen desserts, but Jérémie held it just out of reach.
"You can't swing and eat at the same time," he pointed out.
"Can too," she mumbled, but already he saw her grip on the bar begin to loosen.
"Betcha can't. Come on." Still feeling awkward, and like an animal-tamer coaxing a small yet fierce lion from a cage, he led her from the swing-set. Within minutes, Nathalie was happily eating ice-cream, and Aelita was staring at Jérémie with her mouth wide open.
"Jérémie, how on Earth did you..."
Suddenly embarrassed again, he shrugged.
"I just... uh... say, shouldn't we be getting her home?"
Aelita snapped back into action, leaping to her feet and taking one of the child's hands. "Right, right," she said brusquely. "Come on honey, let's go."
"Right." Jérémie smiled, and humbly handed her the other chocolate ice. "Here, I got you something. I figured you needed something to help you not stress out so much."
Aelita beamed at him, and took it gratefully. "Thank you, Jérémie."
They walked, the three of them together, Nathalie inbetween them with all thoughts of swing-sets flown from her mind, and Jérémie and Aelita quietly in thought.
When they were within a block of the child's house, Aelita spoke up again.
"We're never having children, right?" she asked.
Jérémie flushed crimson and let out a strangled gasp.
"W-w-we... what? Aelita-"
"Oh come on. This babysitting thing is bad enough. Who knew children were so difficult? We'll get married, of course, but no children. None. Zilch."
"M-m-married?" Jérémie said hoarsely. After releasing a few more garbled, incoherent sounds, he decided to simply stop talking. He was glad he didn't have an ice-cream himself; the heat from his face in that moment would surely have melted it on the spot.
Nathalie was oblivious and chocolate-smeared, and Aelita mumbled to herself, about money and part-time jobs and how this had better be worth it.