Penny’s days settle into a quieter routine after Halloween. She works, she studies, she spends more and more time on the phone with Bernadette, and she feels a little less like she’s going out of her mind because Sheldon’s helped her out with her schedule.
She has a diary now, one with more in it than just homework dates that stopped getting conscientiously updated about three weeks into semester.
Halo night’s in it as well as work shifts and class times. Sheldon insisted.
It’s on a mid-November Halo night when Amy stops referring to Raj as “Subject #1” and uses the word “boyfriend” instead. And it’s not qualified with “boy who is my friend but not my”. Penny and Sheldon beat Amy and Raj that night, but it’s not much of a victory, because the other two are clearly distracted.
After Amy and Raj have gone home Sheldon’s wiping soda can rings off the coffee table and Penny’s packing away the Xbox controllers. Sheldon’s mind is elsewhere; he’s wiped down the same section of table three times.
“You’re not jealous of Raj, are you?”
“Of course not. Amy and I didn’t have that level of compatibility.”
“But you don’t mind?”
Sheldon seems to realize he’s about to wear a hole in the table and stops rubbing. “No. I’m not interested in Amy that way. Or in Rajesh, for that matter.”
Penny laughs, and Sheldon does the half-smile he’s managed to figure out without Joker-facing at people, and they take their turns in the bathroom, and it’s not until Penny’s been lying awake for over an hour that she realizes she didn’t get the whole Homo-novus-doesn’t-have-feelings vibe off him this time. She resolves to ask him about that in the morning, and then falls asleep and promptly forgets all about it.
In her dreams she wakes up beside him and, instead of screaming, curls her arm across him, and he rolls to face her, and they kiss. A couple of his posters have been taken down to make way for a couple of her paintings. In her dreams there’s safety in his arms, and a depth of warmth she’d never considered might reside within him.
When she wakes up she doesn’t remember her dreams, but she hugs him spontaneously because he has her coffee waiting when she stumbles into the kitchen, and Sheldon doesn’t pull away.
Then comes the morning when Penny gets to class and the smokers are rolling cars one by one out of the neat line to push them out of range of the cameras aimed at the garage. Her car isn’t going anywhere, just the real junkers that won’t even make it as extras. Matt’s directing them with resigned sweeps of his arm. Near the cameras, the little cluster of director-actress-cameraman waits for the set to be arranged.
“What the hell,” Penny says to Matt by way of greeting.
“I may’ve forgotten to warn you these folks were comin’ in. They want their new ad to be all authentic and stuff. Somethin’ about the cars bein’ high-tech enough to, I dunno, parallel park themselves, but still easy maintenance.” He jerks a thumb towards the trio at the cameras. There’s a certain amount of squabbling going on. “Only problem is, now that she’s seen what we do, she’s gone all high maintenance and won’t even put her coveralls on.”
“Huh,” Penny says, and goes to her car. She’s not going to let some actress’s histrionics keep her from learning; last week she figured out how to turn the odometer backward and, although she’s not planning on using the trick again, she wants to see what else happens if she pokes around with a few more wires.
“Hey, Pen,” Ky says from the bay beside her. “Check out this body.”
“I already told you, I don’t swing that way.”
“I mean the car, dumbass.”
Penny turns around and registers that Ky’s usual lesson machine has been replaced by a sleek, shiny, blue, highly polished brand-new piece of pretty. She sucks in a quick breath and Ky gives her an I-told-you-so look.
“Sucks that they’re wasting it on her.” Ky looks over toward the blonde woman who’s now holding her hands out to the director in an accusing way. Penny remembers going on auditions for commercials where she had to pretend to be enthused about, amongst other things, pills made out of cow placenta, a new kind of dairy-free gluten-free fat-free (taste-free) snack cake, and Stephenie Meyer’s latest book. She has no sympathy for this woman who, if she breaks a nail, will probably just get a new one glued on at her next manicure appointment.
“Let’s pop the hood,” she says.
Ky doesn’t even waste breath asking her if she’s sure. It’s the work of seconds and then they’re peering in at an engine so pristine it doesn’t look as though it was even driven here from the studio, but perhaps airlifted in, or carried on the backs of several strong young men.
“Hey, you two! You can’t poke around in there.” It’s the director, looking simultaneously angry at them and relieved at the break from his pretty pink princess. Pink overalls, what the fuck. She’s holding them up in front of herself, nose wrinkled. “Come on, back off.”
“We’re not going to hurt her,” Ky says absently, touching the battery. “Look at this, Pen – it’s brand new.”
Penny looks at the director. “Sorry. She really likes cars.”
The director’s eyes linger on her face a little longer than Penny likes, then drop to her hands; she’s got them resting on the top of the engine itself, feeling the slight warmth that indicates it did get driven here. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”
“Please. I grew up on a farm. I’ve been doing this forever.”
“You ever act?”
Ky throws a very unsubtly excited elbow into her side; it makes it hard for Penny to sound calm when she says, “Not recently, but yeah.”
“Good. Got your equity card?”
She knew she was right not to throw it out in a fit of pique last time she cleaned out her purse. “Yeah, I do.”
“Good. I’m Rafe. The cameraman’s Leo. You’re...”
“Right,” Rafe says, trotting back across the tarmac to Leo and Nameless Diva. He says something and gestures towards Penny. Nameless Diva’s jaw drops and she shakes her head. Rafe shakes his harder. Nameless Diva’s high heels click toward Penny, but Ky interposes herself between them.
“Uh-uh, sweetie. You had your chance and you blew it.”
Penny just puts on her best aw-shucks-who’da-thunk-it? face and shrugs innocently. Nameless Diva storms off, Leo gets the cameras rolling, and Rafe comes back to give Penny her (very minimalistic) script. He makes her take her Mystery Train cap off but Ky puts it on and scores the role of Extra #1, handing Penny a dipping stick to check her oil, and just like that Penny switches from student to actress.
Matt watches her from behind the cameras, eyebrow quirked, and if Penny’s smile still seems genuine even after the twelfth take (not her fault; the shiny blue car is just a little too shiny, and Leo’s struggling with the lighting, and Rafe’s a little less than sympathetic about it), it’s because it is.
“Daddy. It’s not ‘just a car ad’. It’s nationwide!”
“Sure, sweetie,” Wyatt says from hundreds of miles away. “Let me know when they’re gonna start airing it and I’ll be sure to tape it.”
“Well, it’s supposed to be on at seven on Thursdays because the actress is from a TV show that’s on at the same time, but they might change it because it’s just me.”
“Come on, now, you deserve a prime-time appearance more than she does. If she’s too scared to break a nail or get a little dirty she should hand over her job to someone who’s not afraid.”
Penny laughs. “Dream on, Dad.”
“Well, she should.”
“I’ll let you know when it’s going to be on.”
“Will it be on YouTube? I’m not exactly going to see it on television over here.” Leonard looks a little rueful, as if anyone could actually miss commercials.
“Please. It’ll be up. You know Howard. He put up video of his mother trying to get out of a beanbag; he’ll put anything up.”
“That was kind of funny. Anyway, congratulations. Is college going well?”
“Well, some of the guys started teasing me because of the whole ad thing, but I’m pretty confident, plus Sheldon makes me study for half an hour every night.”
“Only half an hour? Wow.”
“Yeah, well, it’s in the roommate agreement. It goes up at exam time.”
“He put a study clause in the roommate agreement?”
“More like I put a clause in that says if Sheldon gets too annoying, Missy’s going to teach me exactly what she used to do to his testicles.”
The car ad gives her a real boost. Customers at the Cheesecake Factory recognize her; the men usually just leer (damn overalls. Damn Howard for being right about them). Some people seem to be genuinely pleased to see someone who knows what she’s doing rather than some ad of a car being driven through all kinds of terrain that the average car owner won’t even look at on Google Maps, let alone ever drive through personally. But changing tires and topping up oil and checking the battery, those are things that people can identify with.
Plus it means she has enough money to put together a real Thanksgiving dinner. She invites Howard and Bernadette, Raj and Amy, and Ky. Ky declines on the grounds that she’s heading back east for the holiday weekend to spend the time with her parents, and also because she doesn’t want to be a seventh wheel. Penny hits her with her baseball cap.
When the big day finally rolls around, the coffee table looks properly grown-up. The checkered tablecloth and the real plates and flatware have changed it a lot. Even the small army of Warhammer figurines launching an assault on the bread rolls don’t change that. Being paired off the way they are, Penny realizes Ky was right; anyone looking at them from the outside would assume they were three couples dining together.
Although she and Sheldon aren’t holding hands like Amy and Raj or practically sitting on each other like Howard and Bernadette.
She is sitting close enough to him that her thigh brushes against his from time to time, though, and each touch almost makes her recall that dream she can never quite remember in the mornings.
“Next year we should have turducken,” Howard says through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“You two can host it, then. It was hard enough just doing the turkey,” Penny says.
“We can all take turns.” Amy’s carefully pulling the crisp brown skin off her turkey leg because she thinks it’s too fatty. “I have an amazing recipe for cranberry sauce that my mother gave me.”
“So, we’re set until 2013 then,” Howard cracks.
“Assuming the world doesn’t end in 2012 like it’s supposed to.” Raj steals Amy’s turkey leg and takes a bite out of it before giving it back. Amy smacks his hand to no avail.
“That’s highly improbable.” Sheldon looks set to give them all his lecture on the historical significance of the Mayan Long Count. Penny slides her fork into his potatoes and he interrupts himself with an outraged squawk as she steals a mouthful. Good. Half the words in that lecture sound like Klingon.
“I thought the world was meant to end earlier this year,” Bernadette says, absently joining the food-mooching bandwagon by scooping Howard’s disdained honeyed carrots from his plate to hers.
“If the world ended as many times as people say it’s supposed to, we’d run out of worlds.” Penny breaks open her bread roll, butters it, and starts stuffing it with bits of turkey and potato. Sheldon looks torn between some sort of doubtless scientific response and outright horror at her food-mangling ways. She idly wonders how he can eat hotdogs in pasta sauce or in split-pea soup and still have the gall to turn his nose up at other people’s food choices, then reminds herself: it’s Sheldon.
“We’d never run out of worlds.” Oh good, he’s decided to go with the science instead of the scolding. “Assuming an infinite number of dimensions, there would also be an infinite number of Earths, upon which the many prophesized apocalypses could all take place. Which, of course, is the entire point of having a multiverse in the first place; the endless possibilities that stem from every single decision every single person ever makes.”
“Do you ever decide to shut up in any of them?” Raj inquires, and Penny throws one of her carrots at him.
“At least someone cares about my theories.” Sheldon doesn’t quite look like he approves of Penny’s method of defense.
“I don’t know if I’d put it that way... okay, sure, whatever, the caring thing,” Penny hastily adds as Sheldon’s uncertain smile starts to waver into a puppy-dog look. Apart from anything else he’s just plain bad at puppy-dog looks. Leonard, now, Leonard was the master of them, and Raj is good at them if he tries, but on Sheldon it’s more confused shih-tzu than winsome Labradoodle. “Does anyone know what time it is in Mumbai? We should Skype Leonard and wish him happy Thanksgiving.”
Unsurprisingly, Raj is the one who knows. “It’s tomorrow morning over there. If I know my sister, they’ve probably already left for work.”
Sheldon tries on his laptop anyway, but there’s no answer. Later, when everyone’s gone home and Penny’s playing fridge Tetris with the leftovers, cursing her decision to roast a whole turkey instead of a convenient breast roll (oh, and wouldn’t Howard have had a field day with that?), he tries again, but wherever Leonard is, half the world away, he’s not near his laptop.
“Do you think he’ll ever come home?”
The question surprises Penny and she bumps her head on the fridge door, rattling the condiment jars. “Who, Leonard? I don’t think he’ll stay overseas forever. You know he misses us.”
“I miss him.” Sheldon looks surprised at the words coming out of his own mouth.
“Well, sweetie, that’s because you occasionally have human emotions.”
She feels bad as soon as the words leave her mouth and moves to hug him. He’s really not the hugging type, but he does sort of lean against her for a second before she lets him go.
“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“What you said, or the hug?”
“What I said.”
“Even though you’re aware of my aversion to germs and you’ve just been up to your wrists in cold poultry and didn’t wash your hands before hugging me?”
“Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Sheldon.”
Despite her newfound source of income, the thought of moving back to a single-bedroom place doesn’t even cross her mind, really. This is much more financially beneficial for both her and Sheldon, and it’s not like she’s getting that much more money, and anyway, she doesn’t feel like moving again.
It has nothing to do with being too used to waking up in the morning and doing the dance of breakfast-shower-dressing-driving with Sheldon to even think of going back to mornings alone. Really.
“—don’t know what to do!” Sheldon’s voice is an almost petulant whine. Penny, about to open their apartment door, pauses with her keys dangling from one hand and the pizza boxes propped on her hip. Did she really just hear Sheldon Cooper admit to not knowing what he was doing, or has her roommate been replaced by an alien pod person?
The smart money is on the latter.
Whatever response he gets is inaudible, so he’s on the phone.
“Hold hands? Without sanitizer?”
Penny bites her lip, trying to hold back laughter.
“I just don’t see why I have to do all the compromising!”
The pause this time is considerably longer. Sheldon attempts to break into it at least three times and finally manages, “All right, Mom, I believe you, you can stop. Although I don’t see what Jesus has to do with letting women get their own way.”
“I can’t tell her that! Leonard said that to a lady once and she slapped him!”
What she wouldn’t give to be able to hear Mrs Cooper’s half of the conversation.
“I have to go, Mom, Penny’s going to be home soon with dinner. I love you.”
Penny retreats down to the third floor landing and, after a little juggling, extracts her phone from her pocket. She still has Mrs Cooper’s number in her phone; between the ball pit incident and, well, Sheldon being Sheldon, all of them do. Seconds later she’s connected to Texas.
“Lord’s sake, Shelly, what now?”
“Um, it’s not Sheldon, Mrs Cooper. It’s Penny. I just got home and Sheldon seems a little wound up. I was wondering if he’d, I don’t know, called you today and said anything about it?”
Mary’s tone is guarded. “He may have done.”
“I just get worried about him. I wouldn’t want you to have to come all the way up here if he’s really not doing well.”
“He’s all right. Just tryin’ to work some things out in his head, that’s all, and needed a little help from his mother.”
Penny thinks of and rejects a few responses to this. “I’m glad he asked you and didn’t just stew over it,” she says in the end.
“I’m glad you’re there with him. He really wasn’t doin’ so well after his friend Leonard went overseas.”
“I know.” Penny remembers days of Sheldon being late to work or skipping it altogether, times when his whiteboard equations degenerated into scribble, and the unforgettable incident when Stuart called her, thoroughly confused because Sheldon hadn’t shown up for New Comics Day.
“Well, I’ll let you go, if you two’re havin’ dinner. Pizza night, right?”
“Take care, hon.”
Penny hangs up and goes back up to 4A, where Sheldon pokes dubiously at his pizza and then goes to microwave it.
“Was this sitting on the oven when you went to pick it up?”
“No, it just came out.”
“The cheese is cold.”
“We live on the fourth floor. Maybe the stairwell created a wind tunnel with mozzarella-chilling powers.”
“That’s just ridiculous.”
Penny joins him in the kitchen, waiting for her turn at the microwave. “Are you sure? I mean, it seems like it should be physically possible.”
“Two words, Penny: rooftop door.”
“Two other words, Sheldon: it broke.”
Sheldon looks surprised as the microwave beeps and he retrieves his food. “When?”
“Halloween. Didn’t you notice?”
“No.” He doesn’t look like he’s paying much attention now either, busily poking at the steaming slices with his fork. “Now it’s melted right off the top.”
“Gee, Sheldon, you just can’t catch a break, can you?” Penny puts her own meal in the microwave. “For your information, the door broke because Raj bet Howard it wouldn’t stay open if they propped it open with a brick.”
“Well, he’s right. The hydraulic force of the door closer should have been vastly superior to the minimal opposing force provided by the brick.”
“It was. The problem was when one of the guys walked into it while it was open and broke the hinges.”
“Broke the hinges?”
“He’s six foot four and weighs three hundred pounds.”
“I assume you called the super about this.” Sheldon’s blowing on his pizza, trying to cool it enough to eat.
Penny shrugs. “I did. I’m sure it’ll get fixed when the elevator does.”
“But having a broken access door is a security risk!” He’s gone all wide-eyed now. “What if someone breaks in?”
“Sweetie, nobody’s going to break in from the rooftop unless they’re Batman.”
“You don’t know that. They might climb up the fire escape and enter that way. Or they might jump from the roof next door. Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier? We need to make sure that door gets fixed right away?”
“Will you relax? It’s been broken for weeks. If I were you I’d be worrying about the cold, not robbers.”
Sheldon abandons his pizza and goes to get his phone, punching in the super’s number from memory. “If we get frozen in our centrally heated apartment I’m blaming you,” he informs Penny.
Penny just rolls her eyes and eats her dinner.
“Damn it, voicemail,” Sheldon mutters. Raising his voice a little, he leaves a message for the super about the door. He doesn’t mention the cold, and when he sits back down he eats his pizza without complaining about the temperature of the cheese. Penny lets him pick an episode of Star Trek and they sit on their respective couches, Sheldon upright in his spot, Penny stretched out with her feet up on one end of her couch and her head resting on a cushion. She can only just see Sheldon out of her peripheral vision, which is probably why it looks sort of like he keeps glancing at her instead of staying fixated on the television like usual.
“Penny...” he says when the credits are rolling.
“Now that it’s December, you should really start studying more for your end of semester exam.”
“Thanks, teacher. I’ll get right on that,” Penny says, not moving.
“You did say you’d study extra around exam time.”
“I’ve got time. And the roommate agreement never specified what ‘around exam time’ meant.”
“I’ll have to fix that. Non-specificity can lead to arguments.” Sheldon gets up to turn the television off. Penny knows what he means by arguments: housemates bringing in wise-ass lawyers who decide they know everything and therefore can run people’s lives through loopholes.
God. It’s been months. She really needs to get over this.
Sheldon unexpectedly offers her a hand up from the couch, which she takes. His palm stays clasped against hers for a moment and she thinks he’s going to say something, possibly something about the acceptable time frame preceding an exam in which to study, but instead he just drops her hand after a moment and says, “Goodnight, Penny,” and goes off to have his shower.
Her conscious mind doesn’t put the pieces together. Her dreaming mind has them holding hands and walking through the grounds of Caltech, Penny visiting Sheldon at work after a lunch shift, still in her uniform, the yellow matching the last faded leaves still clinging tenaciously to the trees.
Her waking mind only remembers the leaves so determined not to succumb to winter’s chill.