“You know, Sheldon, if you had any sense of chivalry you'd let me have your bed.”
The five of them were standing in the middle of a roomy hotel suite, played up in beiges and greens. Leonard watched as Penny popped her gum at Sheldon for emphasis, leaning on the handle of her rolling suitcase. He couldn't help but feel a little a little hopeful that Sheldon would surprise them all and agree, since he was sharing a room with Sheldon, but Sheldon's only response was one of his stoney, uncomprehending looks.
“One-twenty-five a night for a couch,” she muttered, picking up her suitcase and throwing it on the solitary couch, whose cushions were bursting at the seems.
“You can have my bed,” Leonard offered.
He thought that maybe Penny was going to decline anyway, but Sheldon beat her too it: “Unacceptable.” And, at Penny's hard look: “You snore.”
“Do not!” Her voice rose a few affronted octaves.
Howard opened his mouth, no doubt to offer his bed (with him still in it). Sheldon interrupted. “I would find it markedly unfair if Penny took any of the beds,” he sniffed. “She is—”
“We know, Sheldon,” everyone chorused wearily. He gave this speech as he was typing up the itinerary and after they arrived at the Embassy Suites in Philadelphia, that since the four boys were paying two hundred dollars a night and Penny wasn't, all unnecessary arguments over bed-possession were a waste of precious moments. Leonard knew that Penny just kept bringing it up to get Sheldon pissed off about having to repeat himself.
As Howard and Raj meandered over to their room, Leonard took the chance to look around the suite.
At less than one thousand dollars per night (split between five people), it was pretty great. There was a kitchenette by the door (Sheldon at present meticulously loading and organizing the refrigerator), an okay-sized television opposite a beige three-seater couch with a few of those little useless pillows in green (and, now, Penny's spare comforter, a plaid pink design with light green and blue and white). There were two bedrooms, each equipped with two double beds and a private bathroom. On the opposite wall of the entrance were a few wide windows with curtains but no patio (which Sheldon had deemed an unnecessary expense but everyone knew it was because he was afraid of heights).
And, the place had Sheldon's stamp of approval, so that should say something.
It was a Thursday night, and according to Sheldon's itinerary they were to watch the Feynman lecture on nanotechnology followed by NPPI in order to 'set the mood' for the conference at UPenn they were attending that Saturday. Leonard helped Howard with the mini subwoofer he somehow managed to fit in his carry-on, and Raj emerged from the bedroom with an armful of small Rocket speakers. Sheldon, still organizing the kitchen, would poke his head around the divider every now and again to bark orders at everyone else, as if they didn't know how to set up a Dolby 5.1 surround sound by themselves.
“Penny, untangle the wires,” he ordered.
Penny, situated on the couch, knees drawn up to her chest with cotton stuffed between her toes and the handle of a nail polish brush sticking out of the corner of her mouth, sent a look in the direction of the kitchen that would have had Leonard backtracking as fast as possible, both physically and verbally.
After a minute of her not acknowledging his order, Sheldon glared around the divider to see Penny with her right leg extended in the air in front of her, squinting her eyes at her wriggling toes, blantantly ignoring him.
With one of his short sighs, Sheldon picked up the tangled ball of speaker wires, set himself on the arm of the couch a safe distance away from Penny's foot, and began to carefully unravel it.
Leonard exchanged a wary glance with Howard and Raj, the latter of whom shrugged.
There were several minutes with everyone just listening to the beautiful sound of Sheldon being whipped into place, finally ending with Sheldon pointedly setting the perfect loop of wires on the couch in front of Penny and stalking back to the kitchenette.
As Raj and Howard were bickering over wire terminology (“No, they're actually called 'male' and 'female' parts—no, I'm not making this up—!”) Leonard wandered over to Sheldon, where he was considering Raj's jar of chocolate peanut butter as if it had turned into Mr. Potato Head and predicted his future.
Leonard let this to go on for a few moments, allowing Sheldon to process the sudden existence of peanut butter with chocolate in his life, before he finally spoke.
Sheldon looked like he was about to ask Leonard about the absurdity in the form of a jar of peanut butter, before he seemingly thought better of it and put the jar in one of the cupboards behind everything else.
“Listen, I know the, the schedule says we're gonna be watching Tiny Machines, but maybe instead we can watch something maybe Penny would enjoy?” He began to twist his hands a little as Sheldon stared down at him with wide eyes and high eyebrows. At this point Leonard hoped that Sheldon would accede, because he didn't want Penny to see that something so boring to her was so interesting to them and he wanted her to have fun too, but it seemed that after the chocolate peanut butter Sheldon couldn't conceive of anything else in his life taking him by surprise.
“But we all signed the itinerary, including Penny, so obviously she didn't have any objections!” Sheldon blustered, the pitch of his voice rising in indignation.
They were interrupted by the sound of muffled yelling on the other side of the wall. Leonard wasn't able make out the words, but whoever it was (a woman, by the voice) clearly wasn't happy. She was responded to by an equally loud, slightly more male-ish voice.
Sheldon let out a piteous moan.
“Makes me wonder if he asked to cover her with his mother's brisket so he could lick it off,” Howard remarked sagely from the living room.
“Ew,” replied Penny, speaking for basically everyone.
Sheldon's obvious dawning horror of such neighbors made Leonard give in once more, for the sake of the guy. “Fine, we'll watch the lectures,” he muttered, wandering back to his bedroom to retrieve the DVD.
Around fifteen minutes later everything was set up and Sheldon finally left the kitchenette, with everyone's choice plate of frozen dinner balanced on his hands and arms.
“You're in my spot, Penny.”
Leonard turned on the DVD player. Penny and Sheldon sniping at each other was starting to get really old.
Penny didn't look up from the strokes of blue on her tonenails as she said, “Nuh-uh. You said it yourself, I'm paying a hundred twenty-five dollars a night for this couch. You don't get to choose spots. Howard, don't you get within an inch of my suitcase or I'll break you.”
He glanced over and saw Howard, sulking a little, edge away from Penny's open suitcase where a few delicates were poking out. Leonard shook his head, then settled cross-legged on the floor and tugged over his ankles one of those little pillows on which to rest his plate.
Sheldon could apparently find no direction to argue that would lead to victory, and made Raj scoot to the middle cushion, as he were punishing Penny by denying her his proximity.
And as he accepted his food, Leonard idly wondered where Sheldon came up with the logic for that.
He hit 'play.'
“The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed—a development which I think cannot be avoided...”
The next hour was spent in silence, occasionally punctuated by more voices on the other side of the wall and the clacking of Penny's keyboard. Leonard got up to refill his soda, saw there was no ice, and asked Sheldon to pause the DVD so he could go get some.
He made sure Sheldon actually paused it before he left with the ice container, and in the hallway the yelling was either amplified or the people in the room were getting more annoyed with each other. Leonard stopped, perplexed and staring at the door, which suddenly opened. A young woman stormed out, yelling over her shoulder, “And you know what, maybe when you're sleeping alone for the rest of your pathetic life you'll realize I was the best girlfriend you ever had!”
And then she stormed back to the door, apparently for the express purpose of being able to slam it, because that's what she did. Without a glance to Leonard, who was trying sort of to sink into himself, she marched to the elevator and smacked the down button a few times.
“Yeeeaaah,” came a voice to his left and up, and Leonard jumped a little. “I'm sorry in advance for your neighbors,” he continued, the both of them watching as the young woman swished into the elevator.
“They're always like that?” he looked up at the guy, sort of envying the way the ends of his hair curled in that casual way that Leonard's did only with a curling iron.
Not that Leonard owned a curling iron, or anything.
“Well, no, sometimes—” The other man paused a moment. “Okay, yeah.”
All that Leonard knew for certain that he was not going to relay this information to Sheldon.
Leonard stood there a moment, a little giddy because he talked to a cool guy without his head ending up in the toilet, and casually said, “Well, see ya,” and tried to enter his room again without even remembering why he had left in the first place.
He'd forgotten his card key, and ended up having to sheepishly knock on the door, shrugging at the other guy who gave him an awkward look and continued down the hallway.
Penny spent a lot more time than usual picking out her clothes. Normally she just threw stuff on and trusted her instincts, but today was 'Penny Day' (according to Sheldon's schedule) and they were going to the Avenue of the Arts on Broad Street. She wanted to look like she belonged. She wanted to look like a serious actress, which seriously barred most of the skirts she owned.
She didn't want people to look at her and realize she spent a good ten minutes picking out the perfect casual outfit in which to walk down a street. Which she totally didn't. Spend ten minutes, that is. (More like eight or nine.)
She ended up actually using the white top from her Cheesecake Factory uniform, with a light blue tanktop under it that matched her nail polish, sleek black pants, vibrant yellow sandles with two-inch heels that went with her necklace and charm bracelet.
And she actually debated wearing the black beret she brought until with a jolt she realized that definitely landed her in the 'trying too hard' category.
Sheldon rattled off of the itinerary while they were waiting for the elevator. “...and after arrival, we will start with a precursory walking tour of the Avenue, which should take anywhere between thirty minutes and one hour (what with window-shopping, bladder-voiding, etcetera), after which we will arrive at Merriam Theatre with time to spare for the production of—”
Penny half-listened to him as she got into the elevator. Two people got on after them: a very large man, bald on his crown, and a slim tallish girl with straight brown hair. Sheldon was wondering to himself if they would have enough time to pick out a restaurant according to his standards as the man remarked to the other girl, “I wonder if they have breakfast Philly cheesesteaks.” His voice was deep and slow.
“Well, I'm sure you can ask for them to make one with eggs or something. Or bacon,” she added enthusiastically.
Sheldon interrupted their conversation. “Excuse me. Do you mean the original Philly cheesesteak or the more famous version?” He crossed his arms, tilting his head in the way he did when he was about to be a know-it-all.
The man looked at Sheldon for a long, unsure moment before saying, “The kind with steak. And cheese.” He paused. “And bread.”
“Oh. So the nonoriginal.”
Penny glanced at Raj, and they rolled their eyes at each other.
“It originally was made without cheese,” Sheldon continued, his voice gaining that arrogant edge to it.
“Then why did they call it a cheesesteak?” asked the girl, frowning.
“They didn't, at the time.”
“Oh.” Then she turned to the large man. “You should ask for an original breakfast Philly cheesesteak.”
“An 'original' Philly cheesesteak is really just a bun with strips of steak on it,” Leonard clarified, reluctantly. “Or, in the breakfast version, I guess... bacon.”
“A cheesesteak with bacon instead of steak is no longer a cheesesteak!” objected Sheldon. “It is a cheesepig.”
“Or a cheesebacon,” said Penny at the same time as the girl, and they grinned at each other.
The elevator chimed and opened, and they continued into the dining hall which was surprisingly already full of people.
One table had enough space at the end for the five to squeeze into, and they left Sheldon to man the seats (he could be trusted to not let anyone sit in them) while the four of them went to the buffet and grabbed breakfast. When Penny sat back down at the table, she noticed that the larger group on the other end was surrounded by a few cameras. There was a man giving a speech at the head, and his voice carried.
“...and we must concentrate on togetherness,” he brought his hands together, interlocking his fingers, “and working together,” he brought his hands together again, interlocking his fingers, “and teamwork,” for a third time, he brought his hands together, interlocking his fingers.
Penny frowned, watching him between bites.
“Those are synonyms, Michael,” piped up a heavyset woman with glasses.
“There are—nuances—Phyllis, can you just—try to keep up okay?”
“There aren't really any nuances,” said someone else.
“Yes there are—listen, what I'm saying is,” (Penny caught him glancing at a camera,) “is that this has to be like the Red Scare. In the 1950s. Except,” he grinned, bouncing on his heels, now staring blatantly at the nearest camera, “I call it the Scranton Scare.”
“The Scranton Scare,” declared a man hovering behind the speaker.
“Lost a lot of good people in the Red Scare,” mused an older man as he dipped a strip of bacon into his coffee.
“And we're going to lose a lot of good people in the... Scranton Scare!” (“The Scranton Scare,” the second man declared again.)
Penny watched, a little fascinated, as the other group at large glanced around at each other.
“I mean,” the speaker started again. His eyes tilted upwards, and he sort of waved his hands in the air in front of him as he apparently figured out how to restate himself. “We're the good people. We're going to lose the bad people. The commies. The people different from us.” He paused. “And I don't mean Stanley.” And Penny covered her mouth when he gestured to a black man sitting about halfway down the table.
The speaker chose to ignore him. “So I declare it declared! The Scranton Scare—”
“The Scranton Scare,” declared the odd man once again.
“Dwight,” He turned around, staring upwards, “you need to stop that.”
“But you said—”
“No. No. I didn't say—”
“You told me to help you sell the Scranton Scare point.”
“No, I said—”
“You said for me to 'repeat it in a loud declarative manner' every time you said it.”
“Just. Okay. Just shut up,” he muttered, and turned back around. “Trust nobody, suspect everybody,” he spread his hands in the air, as if encompassing the whole table, “and welcome—” He swept his eyes over the audience. His glance landed on Penny, and he stopped. “...all new people, regardless of affiliation!”
Penny finally glanced around at her friends. Leonard, Howard, and Raj apparently had been enraptured as she was (Sheldon, from the way he was digging into his breakfast, hadn't noticed a thing), and they stared at Penny in surprise and a little awkwardness.
“And welcome no one, regardless of affiliation!” repeated the man behind him. Then he paused, and looked, confused, down at the speaker. “...Wait, what?”
“It's love at first sight.”
Pam glanced to Jim at her side, who just shook his head. Ever since his speech ended (like five minutes ago), all Michael could do was talk to Dwight about the beautiful blonde girl sitting at the end of the table.
Dwight tore a piece of his bun off with his teeth as he considered the blonde. “Could be a spy.”
“How dare you. How dare you. She is—she is like my imprint.”
“Like a duckling?” interrupted Jim.
“No, Jim. Like a werewolf. Don't you read contemporary literature?”
“Oh, you mean like in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”
“Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” corrected Pam, finding Jim's foot with her own.
Michael regarded the two of them stonily for a moment before apparently deciding it was a lost cause.
“Michael, she's sitting next to four other men,” whispered Angela on Pam's other side. The blonde edged her eyes over to the other end of the table.
“You're right. You're absolutely right, Angela. I should go rescue her.”
“That's not what she meant,” grunted Stanley on Jim's side without looking up from the crossword book he was holding close to his chest.
Michael just looked at him for a moment, sighed dramatically, stood, then sent his body into a really weird shudder that Pam guessed was his way of loosening himself up.
“Wah-wah-wah.” He stretched his jaw. “Okay. Dwight. Behind me.”
Dwight abandoned his breakfast with an air of heroism, and shadowed Michael in the few steps it took to the other end of the table.
“It would be wrong to eavesdrop, wouldn't it,” Pam said to Jim.
They stared at each other for a moment before moving closer to what was sure to turn into a good story.
They got close enough to hear Michael exclaim, “You're an actress?!,” look incredulously at Dwight who took the cue and laughed, incredulously. “I'm in business! 'Show-biz', as us old hacks like to call it.”
“Reeeally,” said the girl, sounding a little unconvinced. She glanced around at the four boys sitting around her. “What have you done?”
“Well—” Pam watched Michael do some very quick thinking. “Well, for example, see these cameras? I'm making an auto...bio...document-biography of my life. And times. And, and works.”
Pam shook her head.
The blonde didn't answer, just stared up at Michael with one side of her lip hiked.
“And,” Michael continued, “and, I've filmed commercials, and information... videos, and—”
“—homemade pornography,” Dwight interjected helpfully.
Pam stifled horrified laughter.
“Dwight can you just... not... talk.”
“I thought we were listing the different types of movies you've made. Should we talk about the movie for your unborn son?”
“I don't know—” Michael tried to laugh and wave Dwight off.
“You made me wear a bra, Michael.”
“Rah-dee-rah rah, woo!” Michael said, then slapped his thigh.
“What...?” Pam wondered to Jim.
“I think it's his subtle cue to tell Dwight to shut up,” Jim explained in her ear, and she leaned back into him.
Most of the strangers were looking at Michael with identical flabbergasted expressions, except for the darker one who nodded thoughtfully.
“Actually,” continued Michael. “I'm getting into the theatre arts now, and I'm helping out a friend—”
“Smart move,” commented Jim. “He doesn't actually have to produce any hard evidence for live performances.”
“—and I've worked on, on Rent, and Fiddler, and—”
“Do you work on Broad Street?”
“I—I work on a wide-ish street—around fifteen...? I think fifteen feet wide—”
“I'd put it at twenty.”
“Dwight, how about you—”
“No I meant as in the street called... Broad Street.”
Michael barked a laugh. “Oh! You're talking the Broad Street? I have my familiar beat on ol' Broady, if-you-know-what-I'm-sayin'.”
The girl opened her mouth, looking perplexed, but the guy at the end wearing a pretty blinding blue T-shirt who looked this whole time like he was ignoring the world at large spoke up without glancing away from his eggs.
“Penny, I am beginning to doubt this man's sincerity.”
“Yeah, he's not pulling the I'm-a-director schtick very well,” agreed a tiny man wearing a bright red turtleneck.
“Yeah, well, you're not pulling the I-don't-live-with-my-mother schtick very well,” Michael said in a surprisingly quick comeback. Indeed, he seemed very proud of himself, and sent a smile in the camera's direction.
The small guy jumped up. “Hey! I can insult you in six different languages.” He paused. “Not counting Elvish. Ty poshol na khui. That's flawless Russian for—”
“Flah-la-gaga hacchlooloo!” cried Michael. “Yeah. That's 'yo mama.' In—Klingon.”
“No it isn't,” said Dwight and one of the strangers at the same time. It was the one at the end of the table focused on buttering his toast. He and Dwight fixed a suspicious eye on each other.
“Well, we're all going to the Avenue right now, if you'd like to show us your 'beat'— ” The way she said the word, Pam knew she was calling bullshit. The question was whether or not Michael knew. (And the answer was: no, he didn't.) “—you should join us.” She perked her eyebrows, and that was the insert-coin-pull-lever moment for Michael to let out his pleased/embarrassed laugh.
“Well,” Michael waffled, no doubt realizing that he wouldn't be able to keep up his image without more preparation. “Actually, uh, right now I have to—but—I will have my personal assistant—” He whipped out his phone, fumbling it. Dwight tried to show him how to do it the cool way so his phone would open with a single flick, but Michael slapped him away; there were a few awkward moments in which Michael waited for the other line to ring, then two seats down from Angela, Erin dove for her purse.
Pam was able to hear the both of them. Apparently, neither Erin nor Michael were.
Erin looked up, then around, then spotted the back of his head. “Michael, turn around!”
Michael looked really worried for a moment, and he ducked his head and lowered his voice when he said, “... Have you been talking to Jan.”
“No, I'm behind you.”
The two of them shared a good laugh over that, and Pam watched as the blonde, Penny as her friend had called her, flashed a wry smile at her group. The guy next to her with glasses was doing a fantastic job at raising his eyebrows at the whole situation.
“Oh, I met that girl on the elevator!” Erin moved the mouthpiece of her cell under her jaw and waved at Penny, who waved back, and called,
“How're the breakfast cheesesteaks?”
“They don't exist!”
“Erin!” Michael barked.
She instantly moved the mouthpiece back to her lips. “Yup, I'm here.”
“You know that special address I told you to write down, that address I told you I might be using on this date... remember...”
Erin stared at Michael blankly for a moment, before she dove for her purse again and whipped out a scrap of paper.
“That's the one.” Michael flipped his phone off smartly, but Pam could still hear Erin in the background: “...North Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsyl—hello? Michael?”
Michael, who was listening to the rest of the address apparently due to not actually knowing it before he hung up, adopted his eloquent (fake British) voice.
“I would like to treat you to dinner, milady,” he said, bowing a little. “And your—yeah—” He waved his hand at her friends. “—can come too. It's a really classy place.”
Eight hours later, the five of them stood in front of the building. Penny squinted at the sign.
“You sure this is the right place?”
Leonard looked down at his iPhone. “It says seven-five-one-three North Washington Avenue.”
Then Sheldon stated the obvious: “Penny, this is a Chili's.” He sounded like he was both informing the world at large and verifying it for himself.
“Yeah,” she replied. “It's also a free dinner.”
“I don't eat at Chili's.”
“Well, you've never tried this one.”
“It's a chain. One expects conformity from chains.”
Raj leaned over and whispered in Howard's ear, and after a moment Howard spoke up. “The McDonalds in India don't serve burgers.”
“It'll be fine, Sheldon,” Leonard interrupted. It had been a while—okay a few years—since the group had gone out with any new people, so Leonard was looking forward to this.
“And if you don't like it, I'll cook you dinner or something,” added Penny.
“I would prefer if you wouldn't.” Then, with a face that indicated he felt he was little different from a sacrificial lamb in this instance, he took an acceding step toward the restaurant.
Jumpy, he hovered behind Penny presumably for protection as they entered the restaurant and almost immediately found the correct table. They found it mostly because once Penny was in sight, Michael put her entrance to music that he was blurting out himself. It sounded like a weird cross between the wedding march and 'Joy To The World.'
At Penny's look, he sort of stopped, except for half-heartedly honking three or four more notes.
Leonard noted how none of Michael's party reacted except for looking somewhat resigned if mildly embarrassed.
“Well! Welcome to my par-tay, and I see you brought—well, never mind. The seat next to me is—oh, you're already sitting—okay.”
Penny, thinking that maybe Sheldon was right about not eating here, maybe, had made a beeline for an empty seat on the other side of the table, and sat next to a woman who was stirring her iced tee with a plastic straw. Apparently since Penny was his bodyguard now, Sheldon perched himself in the seat beside her, folding his arms tightly as if that would protect him from anything new, horrifying, and substandard. Michael leaned to one side, then the other, then took a step toward his old seat before deciding to take the seat across from Penny instead.
Leonard and Howard quickly snagged the remaining seats, leaving Raj sort of standing awkwardly at one corner of the table.
“...to eat, or not to eat, zat is ze... question...” Michael was saying. Then he seemed to realize that people were not paying attention to him and looked around for the source. “We're out of seats?” He seemed genuinely shocked at this, that not only was his table at full-capacity—it was past full capacity. And this was one of those twelve-seater tables, not a wimpy four- or six-seater one.
He quickly recovered. “I look at myself as a people person,” he informed Penny. “'Hey, Michael, will you fill out these reports', 'hey, Michael, let me come to dinner with you', 'hey, Michael, is your refrigerator running.' People are always coming to me.” Then he waited, his face depicting a great struggle.
“That's what she said,” quietly prompted Dwight, who knew how to interpret this particular expression.
“I don't know,” said an Indian girl sitting across from Howard, “You told me I had to go to this dinner tonight.” She sounded sulky.
“Kelly, no, I requested your—your presence—”
“No, you said that you needed 'another one'—” At this, Michael shot a furtive glance at Raj, who was still standing at the end of the table, his hands buried in his pockets and his eyes surveying the plastic chandeliers. “—and then you said if I didn't you'd withhold my paycheck.” There was a general silence after this, and she glanced up from a hangnail and defended, “I need my paycheck.”
Michael, who was craning his neck to see all who were sitting at the table, opened his mouth to respond to her. Then an image he had seen presumably finally registered itself in his brain.
His face stony and blank, he rotated his head toward the other end of the table, and said, “Toby, why are you here.”
“I was invited.”
“No, Toby—God why do you, always, just ruin—no, no, no, you know what. Just get out. Just leave... and, don't come back. Forever. Preferably.” Toby didn't even seem particularly offended; he just glanced around a little awkwardly before sliding his chair back. “Let the door hit you on the way out,” Michael called after him.
There was a beat of shocked silence in which Michael rolled his eyes, then wiggled his hand at Raj. “Now you may sit, uh...”
“Wow,” said Penny, her eyebrows nearly disappearing into her hairline. “That was awkward.”
“Yeah, you get like... desensitized to it after a while,” said the woman on her left; Penny angled herself to face her.
“So you're telling me I haven't seen the worst of it yet? I thought he was just acting like this because...” Penny trailed off, not wanting to seem vain.
“No, he pretty much acts like this a lot.” She laughed, then paused. “You know he's really not in show business.”
“Figured as much. But hey, couldn't hurt to get a little screentime on something. Speaking of which, where are the cameras?”
“And Michael wanted this to be a private dinner.”
Penny looked around at the ten other people all engaged in various conversations around the table. “Private dinner at a classy place; I see how that worked out.” She quirked a grin to show she was joking.
“It gets worse.” Her voice got quieter and she leaned toward Penny conspiratorially. “A year ago, back when I was the receptionist, Michael made me make a reservation for twelve here. At this exact restaurant. And a dozen others in Pennsylvania.”
Penny didn't have anything to say to this for a while, until she settled for, “...why?”
“He had just seen The Lake House. Everything Keanu Reeves did he decided he had to do too.”
And then she could do little than throw her head back and laugh. “But—but chains don't even let you do that!”
“I know, I had to lie!”
They were still laughing when the server arrived.
“Yes,” Sheldon said, not even letting the man greet them. “Before I order, I have a few questions about the menu.”
“Prepare to starve, everybody,” said Howard.
Sheldon reserved for him a hard stare before continuing to the server, “How is this a barbeque burger if it has no bacon?”
The server seemed nonplussed for a moment before replying, “Because ours has onions. ...It's still really good,” he added, his voice flat.
“Hm, yes, it's amusing that you assume I'm taking your opinion into account. A further question: from which part of the country do you obtain your beef?”
“Sheldon,” Penny hissed.
“Penny, if you insist on subjecting me to eating at a Chili's then I am going to verify that my health isn't in jeopardy.”
Usually Penny would let this slide because it was Sheldon-neurosis, but it would take forever with twelve people, so she said, “No. I already promised to treat you if you don't like it—”
“You promised to cook for me, which, might I add, is hardly better.”
“—so he'll have whatever that barbeque burger is, with everything on the side. Well-done,” she added to the server.
“Why are you already commending his work? I would hardly say anything he did was well-done until—”
“I was talking about your burger, Sheldon.”
But the waiter had already moved on and was doing a very good job at pretending he didn't hear Sheldon. Penny wondered if maybe he was an actor a well.
He worked away around the table until he got to Raj, who gestured for him to lean down so he could whisper his order. As the server walked away, Dwight angled around a petite blonde woman and remarked, “Interesting. Where you come from it's normally the women who can't speak around men.”
“Don't be ridiculous Dwight. Men and women sing... and dance together all the time. I saw it on the Discovery channel.” Everyone was surprised by this remark coming from Michael until he continued, “They build—entire communities around these big trees, without leaves, that they carve pictures of their favorite animals on. And then they build a big bonfire. And dance. As friends. And a community. With feathers in their hair.”
“I think you're talking about Native Americans,” said Jim, sitting across from Raj.
“No, Jim, I'm talking about Indians. Don't be racist.”
Kelly and Raj managed to catch each other's eye from opposite ends of the table and shake their heads.
“So, Penny,” asked Michael. “Did ol' Broady treat ya good today?”
Penny ignored everything about the way he phrased that question and just answered it. “Yeah, we had a lot of fun. Even this one.” She nudged Sheldon and he winced. “The Importance of Being Earnest was playing at the Merriam. I'd love to play Cecily. Or Gwen. Or even like, an extra.” Hell, she'd take anything to get on that stage. Too bad she didn't have an agent that could have gotten her a few auditions while she was here.
“I can see you becoming an actress. You have an interesting facial structure. And even if you're terrible, your breasts will still attract a young male audience.”
“Uh,” said Penny.
Michael looked infuriated, although if it was on Penny's behalf or about the fact that Dwight had stolen what he'd seen as a good compliment, no one could tell.
Kelly, no doubt noticing the way Ryan's eyes kept sliding over to Penny, finally looked up from her nail and leaned forward on the table, crossing her hands under her chest. “Penny, your outfit is so cute.”
“The only thing that would have made it better would be if you had, like, a black beret.”
“Yes. It's very cute. And fitting for a woman who sleeps in the same room as four other men,” said Angela politely.
This was something that made Penny pause. She stared at the other blonde, her lips pressed together and eyes narrow. “What exactly are you saying?”
“I believe she's referring to the fact that you're sharing a suite with the four of us, Penny.” Then Sheldon glanced up, saw a staring contest beginning between Angela and Penny, and realized that Penny was giving Angela the look she usually gave him when he offended her. Then something clicked. “Oh, do you mean what is she implying? Then I can't help you.”
“I say 'fight it out,'” suggested Howard.
“Here's a crazy idea,” spoke up Jim from one corner of the table, half-raising his hand. “How about there's no fighting, aaand Angela apologizes for offending—?”
“Thank you, Jim, for stealing that idea. From my brain. I was just about to say that.”
“Then why didn't you?” asked Leonard on Michael's right.
“Because... you know what? What's with the third degree? Are you a wannabe lawyer?”
“No, I'm an experimental physicist.”
“Well, I'll experimentally give you a physical.” Leonard's eyebrows shot up. “No—not—I meant that I can physically take you.”
“While experimenting,” added Dwight.
Angela forgotten, due to the sheer ridiculousness of the conversation in front of them, Pam and Penny were watching with their heads tilted. “See, this is one reason I'm glad I'm an actress. ...Slash waitress.”
“How long have you been an actress?” Pam began running her fingers, almost shyly, against the edge of the table.
Penny wrinkled her lip. “Since high school. I was in all the productions and everything. Carted off to LA once I hit eighteen. But since then... nothing's really panned out for me. I don't know if I've stopped trying or I've just never been cut out for it or what.” She shrugged, then played with a corner of her napkin.
“Um, I realize I'm being all sage here—in a Chili's—but. Okay. I'm an artist, since high school too, but after college I sort of stopped because, well, I wasn't getting much encouragement. And I wasn't encouraging myself.” She took a deep breath, then glanced up as she thought about what to say next. Penny watched her closely, sticking her thumbnail in her mouth and chewing on it. “But I sorted out my life a little, took some classes and entered some contests and still, I mean, things weren't that great. I was drawing to prove to myself I was still drawing, not because I actually wanted to draw.”
Pam broke off for a moment, and Penny turned her head to see what Pam was gazing at. It was a a guy with shaggy hair who was trying to wheedle some conversation out of Raj.
“And I realize this sounds like a Lifetime movie, and I've thought about this a lot so don't think I came up with this on the fly, but this worked for me, so—when you, when you act, remember why you like it, and don't think only about the things you want to come out of it. I went to art school, and I really enjoyed it, but it wasn't really... the way I liked doing art, if you know what I mean.”
Penny just stared for a few moments, then blinked a little, and said, “Well, thank you I do, Master Yoda.”
Pam laughed. “Sorry for the unsolicited advice. It's a side effect of age.”
“No. Don't be.”
“Oh Pam. Pam Pam. Are you getting 'emo' all over over our guest?” demanded Michael.
“No, we were just—” started Penny.
“Pam is the resident artist... slash salesperson... slash former receptionist... slash office hottie. Well, after Karen left. And before we got Erin.”
“Thanks,” said Pam.
“Ha! Hahaha!” laughed Dwight. “That's the funniest thing I've heard since the Han-shot-first lash-back.”
And this, of all things, was what got Sheldon interested in something other than disinfecting his table space with hand sanitizer.
His head shot up. “Excuse me. Are you referring to the disappointment as a result of George Lucas altering that classic scene as... humorous?”
“Uh-oh, nerd battle alert! Nerd battle alert! Everyone protect themselves from the phasers! Ahhh!” And Michael made a ridiculous show out of hiding under the table.
“Lightsabers,” Howard corrected Michael absentmindedly, as he watched Sheldon and Dwight with a concerned expression.
He wasn't the only one. Leonard had his eyebrows raised high at Dwight, and Raj made a worried squeak over in his corner. Penny, next to Sheldon and diagonal from Dwight, saw Sheldon's knuckles whiten over the edge of the table, as if he were ready to stand and defend his cause. She knew when shit was about to get real, and shit was about to get real.
Dwight seemed the only one unaware. He slung against his chair, a casual arm draped over the back. “Uh, duh. Greedo-shot-first is an improvement on the scene. I know, because George Lucas made the decision.”
“Because George Lucas made the dec—?! Will you listen to yourself? He single-handedly destroyed the character arc of Han Solo—”
“Well as someone who knows a lot about film, I—”
Penny was deprived from watching Sheldon react to this by a hand placed over her left shoulder. She looked around in mild surprise to see the shaggy-haired guy from the end of the table squatting between herself and Pam, his other hand on Pam's shoulder. “I think,” he said, “that your friend over here needs to be pranked.”
“Oh, I don't know, he's already going through enough pain—”
Sheldon chose that moment to gesticulate toward Penny as he shouted, “—and this is a concept even Penny can grasp—!”
She stared at Sheldon for a moment before turning back to them. “Okay. I'm in.”
“Jim.” And at Penny's nod, he added, “Pam's fiancee.”
“Oh! She didn't mention she was engaged.” Then her hand flew over her mouth. Seriously, Penny, way to make things awkward, she thought.
But he took it in stride. “Oh don't worry. I got over the fact that Pam's ashamed of me long ago.”
Pam laughed and nudged him.
“All right. Now. How are we going to go about this?” he asked Penny.
Penny stole a furtive look over her shoulder, but Sheldon was caught up in his argument and probably wouldn't hear them. “Okay. He's embarrassingly easy to get. You just have to know what scares him...”
Meanwhile, Sheldon found out yet another disturbing fact about his nemesis. “You... enjoyed The Phantom Menace? Oh Dear Lord.” And with a moan, he sank into his chair and hid his face in his arms.
“What's up with him?” asked Ryan, who was sitting on his other side.
“He just broke his contract with himself,” explained Leonard, wincing sympathetically. “'Never argue with a person who likes, either by accident or design, the purported 'first' Episode of the Star Wars franchise: The Phantom Menace.”
Howard took advantage of Sheldon's distraction to lean across the table and focus on Kelly. “I'm sure you get this all the time, but you look exactly like the fabled Princess Punchali.”
The next morning the five of them joined the table as a matter of fact. It was a Saturday morning and thus the day of the conference at UPenn, and Sheldon was taking the chance to freak out at Leonard and re-interrogate him about everything he'd interrogated him right before they left.
“And you brought my special water bottle.”
“The one with the bendy straw.”
“And the sliced turkey I bought specifically for this occasion.”
“You put it in the refrigerator yourself, Sheldon.” Sheldon looked up, annoyed, from his checklist. “Yes,” Leonard sighed.
“And the blue Igloo cooler with the sealed top.”
“The blue Igloo cooler with the sealed top.”
“You told me before we left that you had it! See, right here, I even checked 'yes'.” Sheldon pushed his clipboard in front of Leonard's face, jabbing his finger against the box in question.
Leonard shoved the clipboard away. “Well, I was going to grab it!” he defended.
“Having is not the same as going to have. Dear Lord, Leonard, I realize there are holes in your education but not knowing your tenses is embarrassing.”
“I know my tenses,” he muttered. “And I'll run to Target and pick up a brand new one before the conference. We still have three hours.”
“Do you see the problem with this?”
Leonard didn't. He also didn't care.
“When you purchase a new one, we'll have two identical coolers when we get home. Tell me, Leonard, why would we need two identical coolers?”
“So we each can have our own?”
“But that defeats the point of a shared apartment cooler!”
“Then. I'll. Bring. The. Cooler. Back,” Leonard ground out.
This was when Leonard gave up.
Groaning, wistful for his bed, he laid his forehead down against the table.
“Wow, Sheldon, you're extra annoying today,” commented Penny airily. Leonard heard the sound of her pouring coffee. “Still pissed about breaking your contract with yourself?”
The long answer: whatever Sheldon was saying that Leonard was trying to drone out.
The short answer: yeah.
To stem off the headache, Leonard stood and told them all he was going to Target. He was sure of his escape until Michael suddenly showed up at their end of the table with a crowd of people behind him.
“Oh, good, now we can all sit down,” Michael said, as he saw that Leonard was about to leave.
Leonard would be the first to admit that he wasn't very smooth in social situations, but he thought that maybe Michael could have pretended to be less happy about Leonard leaving. Then he remembered that guy from last night that Michael had kicked away from the table and thought that, no, maybe he couldn't have.
“Don't get lost, Leonard,” said Sheldon. “It'll mess up my schedule.”
“I'll go with him,” offered a man from behind Michael. “I know this city like the back. of. my. hand. I'm an alumni of the city of a fellow I-vy-League-schoooool.”
Leonard wrung his hands a little as he debated with himself whether to ask the question. Then he did. “Uh, how will that help me?”
“Come on!” He stepped forward ahead of Michael, who was looking icy. “They're similar. They have to be if they're both in the leagues of the highest education the country has to offer. Us Ivy-Leaguers have a saying: 'Always know everything about everything, especially other... Ivy Leagues.' You would know if you went to one.”
“Actually, I went to—”
Michael interrupted. “No, Andy, if you go, you'll screw up the dynamic of my posse—okay. You know what, fine, I don't care. I don't need you. I don't need anyone.”
“Does that mean I can go back to my breakfast?” asked one of the group.
“No, Oscar, just—errrrg.”
Leonard sighed. “All right, let's just go,” he told Andy, and they made their way out..
Michael stole the seat next to Penny, but he didn't even get to say anything as Pam rushed up, gripped Penny's upper arm, whispered in her ear, and they went dashing off together without a good-bye. Sheldon was still perusing his list. Howard was staring after Penny and Pam: “That's hot.”
An older man sat next to Raj and said, “Aap kaisey hain?”
“Accha,” Raj responded, automatically, surprised. The older man nodded and then started to spread jam across a few strips of bacon. The man who just wanted to eat his breakfast considered Raj for a moment, then sat on his other side.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” replied Raj, wondering why so many people were talking to him suddenly. Not that he minded; he was getting a little exhausted now that he was hanging with more women than usual.
“So what're your plans for the day?” he asked, as if he was genuinely interested about what Raj had planned for the afternoon.
“We're actually going to a nanotechnology conference at noon.”
He was very friendly. Maybe it was because they were both brown.
Dwight refused to sit, and glared off in the distance where Pam and Penny were now hurriedly and excitedly talking to Jim. “I sense a disturbance in the Force.”
(No one saw this, but Sheldon, still evidently immersed in his schedule, scoffed and rolled his eyes.)
“What, Dwight. What do you want,” said Michael, sulky, stabbing at his eggs.
“Michael.” Dwight sat in Penny's old seat, leaning toward Michael so their faces were four inches away. “I believe they're plotting against me. Permission to set up surveillance.”
“Dwight, what, why are you always talking about things that no one understands.”
“Surveillance: a close study of e-mails sent and received, hidden cameras in their rooms and microphones set among their personal effects, transcripts of phone conversations—”
“Ugh. Dwight, don't do that. You're—that's creepy. Permission denied. With a capital 'd'. Top-secret... mission... aborted. Not aborted. That's offensive. 'Taken care of.' Get off your high horse.”
“Why are the whores high?” inquired Raj.
“Most likely heroin,” replied the older man without missing a beat.
“No, Creed, and—Abu, 'horse.'”
“Okay. Then why is the horse high?”
“Most likely Rompun. Or Acepromazine.” The man finally looked up from his bacon, and leaned toward Raj, and said in a clear but hushed voice, “We call it 'ace.'” Then he teared off a large piece of his bacon with his molars.
Michael glared at the two of them for ten long seconds before venturing, “Are you purposely trying to destroy my soul.”
“For the first time, I don't think so,” said Oscar.
“You'll take a right out of the garage,” said Andy as they buckled their seat-belts.
Leonard nodded and pulled out of the parking spot, feeling a little awkward.
“So you're like a scientist or something?”
“Uh, yeah. An experimental physicist.”
“So do you work with, like... lasers?” He mimed a circle with both of his hands, something that Leonard guessed was supposed to be a laser.
“Have you ever blown up a building with one?”
“A likely stooory—but,” Andy suddenly said in a sing-song voice.
“No, I mean, I seriously haven't,” hedged Leonard, feeling more uncomfortable by the moment.
“Sorry I'm not home right now, I'm walking into spiderwebs but leave a message and I'll call you back,” Andy continued, full-out singing now, his right hand moving up and down in the air as his pitch changed.
“I could have been a scientist,” said Andy, as if he didn't just start singing Gwen Stefani. “But I partied all through Cornell. All I wanna do, is have some fun! Well, all I wanted to do. I got the feeling, I'm not the ooonly one!”
“Take a left at the light.”
Leonard got in the left-hand turn lane, flicking on the blinker.
“Ooh, I like this beat,” Andy said, bobbing his head along with the click-click-click of the turn signal. “Three-quarters time, you take the bass. All I wanna do, is have some fun. I got the feeling, the party has just begun... are you taking the bass?”
“No,” said Leonard, firmly.
“Come on, it doesn't work if it's just me.”
“I don't think it works at all.”
“Singing releases the joy... and the heart... and the beat. We got the beat we got the beat—yeah! We got the beat! I think we have the beat.”
Five Minutes Later
“Whooaaa, you and I dancing slow,” Leonard and Andy belted out together.
“Take it, Leonard!”
Leonard took a deep breath, and channeling his inner Melissa Etheridge, wailed, “WE'VE GOT NOWHERE TO GOOOOO!”
After breakfast Sheldon went at once back to their suite in order to pack the 'event bag' with extra sweaters and certain notebooks, and to prepare their lunch. Hopefully Leonard would remember the correct dimensions of the cooler Sheldon needed, as he most certainly didn't want to have to rearrange the prepared schematic with which he would pack their lunch.
There was a knock at the door.
Sheldon sighed, exasperated, then went over to open the door, saying, “Leonard, the next time you forget your key I will not open this door for—oh.” He cleared his throat. “Hello.”
Dwight was, Sheldon estimated, around an inch taller than himself, and even though he had to angle his corneas only a minute degree upwards, it still made him uncomfortable—with both the novelty and, Sheldon knew, the social implication of being forced to 'look up' at someone.
Behind Dwight was a solitary camera, that Dwight seemed to not notice, but it made Sheldon highly uncomfortable.
“Anyone who can possibly want to see you is currently not present in this hotel room. Good-day.”
And Sheldon made to close the door.
“I have something of a sensitive nature to discuss.” The man enunciated each word clearly even though his voice was kept low in volume. “Involving a... conspiracy.” It was now that Sheldon took note of a large manila envelope in the Dwight's hand.
Sheldon considered the other man with narrowed eyes. Then he inclined his head, and stepped aside as Dwight stepped in. They moved around each other in a manner that neither of them angled so much as a portion of their backs in the direction of their enemy.
The cameraman followed Dwight to the interior.
“Proceed,” ordered Sheldon, trying his best to ignore the recording of this event.
Dwight wasted no time in opening the envelope. He pulled out a few full-sized photographs as well as a small tape recorder and set them on the counter.
Unable to help himself, Sheldon bent his head and studied the items.
“I thought your superior forbade you on surveillance.”
“I thought you weren't listening.”
“I'm always listening.”
“Michael is a man of many talents. Sometimes, however, he truly doesn't understand the dire...ity of a situation.”
“And you do,” Sheldon responded, his voice intentionally ladenned with the tone he knew as 'condescension.'
“I am forever suspicious. I never let down my guard. I have mastered the ability of sleeping with both of my eyes open. What does that tell you?”
“It tells me you may have a need for eyedrops.”
“One bottle, carried on my person at all times.”
Sheldon nodded, feeling a grudging respect. “Continue.”
Dwight picked up a photo.
“Exhibit A: Pam is speaking with Angela.” Sheldon surveyed the photograph; the woman next to whom Penny was sitting the night before was smiling and her mouth was open, presumably because she was speaking. The other woman was the woman on whom Penny almost went 'Junior Rodeo.' “Fact: Pam never initiates friendly conversation with Angela.” Then he picked up another photo. “Exhibit B: Jim, Pam, and Penny huddled together. Fact: this sort of huddle never precludes anything but total and utter disaster. Exhibit C.” And Dwight picked up the tape recorder. “Sorry for the crappy quality,” he suddenly said, his finger on the 'Play' button. “They only sold this type at Radio Shack.”
And he hit 'play'.
Dwight was correct in that the quality was horrendous. Even Sheldon, with his excellent hearing, could discern very little. But he caught two things quite clearly: Dwight's name, then his own, the former of which in a deep male voice, the latter of which in Penny's clear voice.
“Fact: Jim never talks about me unless he's planning to destroy. Fact: your name came up as well. Implication: we both have certain cause... for certain alarm.”
Sheldon thought about this. There was always the possibility that all of this was a coincidence. But one thing he had learned about Penny: there were no coincidences when it came to her.
And of course, Sheldon always prepared himself for the worst.
“And what do you propose?” Sheldon asked, suspicious.
“A tentative alliance. Shaky, and we will always be on guard to look for weakness in the other to exploit—but official. Our mission: to destroy. Before we ourselves are destroyed.”
“You mean to 'shoot first',” he clarified.
Dwight scowled. “I propose a term of our alliance. Any discussion over the case of Han Solo ceases until the alliance itself is dissolved.”
Sheldon took that to mean that Dwight was admitting that he wasn't able to hold his own against Sheldon, which he wasn't, so he accepted.
“I certainly don't want this to turn into another castration-of-Starbuck debacle that I had with my roommate.”
Sheldon looked up, truly surprised. “Do you?”
“Uh, duh. It's only the biggest flaw committed by the reboot of Battlestar Galactica.”
“You agree with me. I've never had anyone agree with me on that point. I thought that the overall 'sex appeal' of Katee Sackhoff seduced true fans over to the sexualization of the relationship between her character and Apollo.”
Sheldon decided to test this new component of his perception of the other man.
Clearing his throat, he tried to 'casually' query, “And what is your opinion on the conclusion of the series?”
“Uh, only the best way to end ever?”
Sheldon was half-expecting this, but it still shocked him. “I have argued that point in Battlestar Galactica forums across the internet and I am yet still hard-pressed to find anyone who sees sense.”
“If I were to go with the others among lesser beings, without technology to stop me, through natural selection everyone would answer to me.”
“I would support the decision as well. And then, I would reinvent technology and thereby emerge as the leader.”
“I believe our alliance may be more fruitful than we expected,” mused Dwight.
The both of them jumped when the door opened and Howard walked in, along with Michael, Raj, and Kelly.
Everyone stopped and looked at each other. “Uh oh,” said Howard. “Were you two about to kill each other?”
“Actually, we were forming an alli—” started Sheldon.
Dwight interrupted. “—A discussion on Battlestar Galactica.”
“Oh,” said Sheldon, cottoning on. “Yes. A discussion.”
“Ugh,” said Michael, “we walked right into a nerd party?”
“I dunno,” said Howard, “Katee Sackhoff is a reason in itself to watch that series.” (Dwight and Sheldon shook their heads at each other.) “Blonde and—” He mimed the curves of a woman's body. “And don't get me started on Tricia Helfer.”
“Oh,” said Michael, glancing at the solitary camera in the room, “that may be—I mean, I can see myself getting interested—just to try out, I like to have an open mind—”
“Excuse me,” Kelly interrupted, glaring at Howard. “If we're going to do this, you're not allowed to talk about other women like that. Actually, to be safe, as a general rule, don't even look at other women.”
“Now I'm going to use the bathroom.” And with one last hard look at Howard, she disappeared into the bedroom he shared with Raj. They heard a door close.
“We can always watch the episode where Lee drops his towel,” offered Raj. “I like that one.”
There was a cough from the doorway, and everyone turned their heads to see Oscar, his fist poised to knock on the open door. “Oh,” he said.
Sheldon turned his head to Raj, watching him pale a little, open his mouth, clear his throat, then say, “Hello,” with his voice at a higher register than normal.
“Sheldon, will you come to the corner with me to... discuss Battlestar Galactica.”
“Why? We are perfectly able to discuss Battlesar Galactica right here. … Oh. I mean. Yes, of course.”
Sheldon followed the man over to a far corner of the room. The camera followed Sheldon in turn, and, uncomfortable, he edged away from it.
“This alliance must be a total. and complete. secret.”
“I concur. There is one problem with this, however: it's very likely I will... inadvertently reveal our plans. Especially under duress.”
Dwight considered this.
“Then from now on, any of our discussions are known as 'discussing Battlestar Galactica.' And I will keep from you details of the overall goal of the operation until it's completely—and utterly—necessary.”
“And you're not worried that our actions are being filmed?”
“Ignore the camera. He won't tell anyone.”