Rick flips through pages of his chemistry journal, splayed out on the grass with Yolanda and Courtney.
They were meeting at the town park today to spend the first Saturday with nice Spring weather. Rick had been here for a while as the girls trickled in one by one, and they were now waiting for Beth.
She shows up a few minutes later, waving at her friends. Yolanda nudges Rick’s ribs, prompting him to look up from his journal.
“What?” he grumbles.
Rick finally tears his gaze from the equations on the page and immediately drops his pencil half-hanging out his mouth as it falls open.
Beth makes her way up the grassy hill in a denim overall dress with a white strawberry-patterned long sleeve top underneath, matched with tights and running shoes.
Courtney jumps up to meet Beth halfway, flinging herself at her for a tight hug. Beth grins, wrapping her arms back around Courtney as if they hadn’t just seen each other yesterday.
“You look so good! I love that outfit!”
“Thanks!” Beth turns to say hi to Yolanda, who tugs herself up and brushes off a speck of dirt.
All three girls spin on their heels to look expectantly at Rick, whose ass is still firmly planted onto the ground with eyes wide and mouth open, shamelessly staring at Beth.
Yolanda waves a hand over his unresponsive face. “Hello?”
His eyes meet Beth’s above Yolanda’s frantic hand. She crouches low, creases at the toes of her clean white shoes, hands resting over the denim valley wedged between her thighs.
“Hey!” she says with a sunshiny smile. She picks up Rick’s lost pencil. “Lost in thought?”
Rick recovers, taking his pencil back and sticking it into the journal at a random page and getting up hastily. He drops his journal again and swears under his breath, going back down for it before it tumbles down the hill.
“Uh, yeah,” he says distantly as Courtney and Yolanda gawk at his fumbling. “But we were waiting for you, so let’s go.”
Courtney links her arm with Yolanda’s. “Where?”
“Ice cream,” Yolanda states decisively, despite it barely being 10:30 AM. “Rick drives.”
Rick pretends to roll his eyes, knowing he would become the chauffeur today all along.
They walk to his car. Beth and Yolanda five paces ahead of Courtney and Rick on the sidewalk.
Courtney talks about her staff in the code they’ve pretty much perfected over winter break for discussing JSA affairs in public. Rick can’t keep his eyes off Beth. The overall dress isn’t short or tight by any means, but something about the way the little patterned strawberries stretch over the expanse of her shoulders and arms is breaking his brain.
And she seems so happy today, excited and bubbly with a spring in her step, obviously glad to be rid of her heavy coat and boots.
As if Beth could sense his hyper-focused attention, she turns her head over her shoulder, sparing him a quick glance.
Rick collides straight into a power line pole.
“Woah!” Courtney juts her hands out to veer him back in line as Rick reels. She tilts her head at him. “Are you okay?”
He blinks at the blue sky, stunned and unable to articulate an answer, hand to his bashed head. “...Ow.”
Since he got to know them, Rick never thought of any of the girls in a way that wasn’t strictly friendship. Nor did he ever think he could. They’re all pretty and wonderful, but also chaotic and a bit ridiculously optimistic in a way that simultaneously endeared him as well as got on his very last nerves. They’re like sisters, a family for Rick to replace his lost one with. And they look up to him with an enormous amount of undeserving trust and expect that he'll be there to protect them when needed. It's almost like a responsibility, being friends and team member with these three, a stressful responsibility that Rick weirdly enjoys. There wasn’t ever room or time or even energy for imagining these girls as anything more.
But Rick can’t seem to turn his damn brain off thinking about Beth’s face. Or tell his eyes to stop looking at her.
So obviously that’s not the case anymore, is it?
“Rick?” Courtney questions. They’re standing in the middle of the sidewalk, Beth and Yolanda already waiting by his car. He tenses his jaw and rubs at his forehead, hoping it doesn’t bruise.
Even a yard away he can make out the crinkling lines between Beth’s own forehead, the adorable pout-like frown of confused concern. She’s leaning against the passenger side door of the Mustang, her brown skin glinting from the sun shining down on her tights.
Rick takes a shaky breath, awfully aware of his heart pounding up in his ears.
It hits him, then. The weight of it feels like a whole new mental power line slam.
Beth isn’t just wearing something pretty.
Rick thinks she’s hot.
“...Rick?” Courtney shakes his arm. “It’s that bad? Do we need to visit Beth’s mom?”
Rick wrestles out of Courtney’s touch. “I’m fine,” he says unconvincingly, marching over to his car and unlocks the doors, letting everyone get in. He manages to persuade Courtney that he’s perfectly capable to drive with a single silencing glare. He drives off and parks at the nearby Dairy Queen.
“You guys go, I don’t feel like coming in.”
The girls protest a bit but eventually leave him be, heading single file into the shop.
Rick rolls down the windows and closes his eyes, needing the time alone to decompress and hopefully recollect whatever is left from his sanity.
“For you," says her sweet voice, a couple of minutes later.
Beth leans over his window and offers him a chocolate-dipped ice cream sundae and a spoon.
He takes it carefully. Beth juggles her own cup, water bottled wedged under her arm as she climbs in beside him, settling into the shotgun seat. “Court and Yolanda are eating inside. They insisted that I go check up on you though.” She takes a bite. “Don’t know why.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Rick replies, although it did. “I don't mind spending time with you,” he admits, forgetting his chill completely to openly admire the particular way she eats. Close up, he can see her increasingly smudged lip gloss and tiny gold earrings dangling from her ears.
Beth catches him staring and rolls her eyes at herself. “I like to eat the chocolate shell first entirely and leave the vanilla until the end. It usually ends up melty and soup-like which is weird, I know.”
He laughs, grateful she seems to be missing why he’s really looking.
True to her word, Beth even licks the spoon clean of any traces of chocolate before she tackles the soft serve.
“Wait...Is that a bruise?” She pulls the spoon out of her mouth and drops the cup onto her lap to scoot forward, gently pressing at the throb between his eyebrows. Rick makes a pained face but doesn’t move away. “What happened?”
“...I wasn’t looking where I was going and smacked into a power line.”
“What! When did that happen?”
“On the way to the car..?” Great, now his face is heating up because she’s still touching his face. She pulls her hand away suddenly when the bell from the Dairy Queen door jingles and Court and Yolanda come out.
“You should be more careful next time.”
Yolanda overhears the last sentence with a horrible smirk. Clearly, Courtney clued her in on the accident inside. She threw a napkin into the trash and slides into the back. “Yeah, Richard. Be more careful next time.”
Courtney giggles into the seatbelt she buckles in.
“I’m sure he’s just distracted by that journal of his,” Beth jokes. “When he cracks that last problem he’ll be back to normal.”
She crosses a leg over the other and shoots him a reassuring smile, picking up her ice cream soup again.
He spends another half minute watching before Yolanda kicks his back seat hard. He startles and remembers he’s supposed to be starting his car.
Honestly, Rick seriously doubts he’ll be “back to normal” ever again.