It was a normal Monday night, just like any other. The guys were all gathered in Leonard and Sheldon's apartment, eating Thai food and enjoying relative silence. Enjoying, that was, until Sheldon started clearing his throat -- and clearing it and clearing it.
"Can we help you?" Leonard asked, once it was obvious Sheldon wasn't about to stop.
"I've had a revelation," Sheldon announced.
"Well, unless it's about the mee krob, save it for later," Howard said.
"No, no, I'm serious." Sheldon put his food down on the coffee table. "It's really interesting."
Leonard sighed. "Fine. Let's hear it." Raj and Howard both shot him dirty looks. "Oh, come on," Leonard said. "If we don't let him, you know we're just going to get it back later, ten times worse."
"Pushover," Raj muttered.
"Okay," Sheldon said, practically vibrating with excitement. "So last night before I went to bed, I was contemplating the original Star Wars trilogy, which of course I do frequently." The others all nodded in agreement. "And during my contemplation, I realized that Return of the Jedi is a far superior film to The Empire Strikes Back."
Leonard's mouth dropped open. Raj and Howard exchanged incredulous looks.
"No, hear me out," Sheldon said. "Yes, of course Empire has Luke becoming resigned to his fate and learning the unfortunate truth about his lineage, culminating in the suspenseful lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader that results in Luke losing his hand. But Jedi has those adorable Ewoks." Sheldon sat back in his spot, crossing his arms over his chest and looking self-satisfied. "I'm sure you'll all come around to my way of thinking eventually."
The others all sat in stunned silence for a moment.
"Um," Leonard ventured eventually. "Did you hit your head somehow? Should we be checking for signs of concussion?"
Sheldon started grinning, the creepy one that started with pursed lips and ended with his mouth stretched all the way across his face. Like the Joker, only more sinister.
"Bazinga!" he crowed, then shook his head. "Another classic by the Sheldonator. Goodness, you should have seen the expressions on your faces -- believing that I'd ever base my trilogy opinions on something as frivolous as Ewoks. Honestly."
Howard sighed and rolled his eyes. "Really? Really?" he asked incredulously. "You interrupted our nice, mostly quiet dinner for that?"
"Yes, why not?" Sheldon asked. "I wanted to gauge your reactions and that seemed like an ideal time."
"We're not your lab rats," Raj said. "And you're not very funny."
Sheldon shrugged. "Well, I think I'm very funny. Don't you, Leonard?" No one answered. "Leonard?"
Leonard wrinkled his nose. "Your jokes need a little work and, frankly, I think we're all a little tired of your antics. I mean, we're all friends, right?"
"Actually, I consider Wolowitz more of an acquaintance and--"
"Yes, friends!" Leonard went on, ignoring Sheldon. "Sometimes... well, sometimes it seems like you regard us more as your underlings than your equals."
Sheldon considered this for a moment. "Is that a problem?"
"Yes," Leonard said. "Just -- can you give that some thought for awhile? Please? I don't think you're considering the full impact on the contributions we make to your life."
"All righty," Sheldon said. "I'll consider it."
The next morning at breakfast, Sheldon tapped on Leonard's shoulder. "I've considered it."
Leonard reached under his glasses and rubbed at his eyes tiredly. "Considered what?
"What you said last night, about you being my underlings and not my equals."
"And I've decided to stick by my original hypothesis."
Leonard stared at Sheldon for a few seconds.
"It's just that I'm so much smarter than the rest of you."
"Great, Sheldon," Leonard said. "That's great."
"Then I'm glad we're in agreement," Sheldon said, passing Leonard the soymilk.
At the end of the workday, Sheldon locked up the office he shared with Koothrappali -- whom, Sheldon had noticed, had been away from his desk far more often than usual that day, making the office rather quiet -- and headed to Leonard's laboratory, as he always did at five o'clock.
Sheldon knocked and said, "Leonard," then repeated it twice more, but no one answered. He tried it one more time, even though knocking four times seemed rather excessive, before finally trying the door. It swung open, but Leonard wasn't in there. Careless, leaving his experiments unlocked, but Sheldon had come to expect that sort of thing from him. Sheldon checked the men's room and the cafeteria and even outside, but Leonard was nowhere to be found. Even the spot where he'd parked the car that morning was empty.
"Odd," Sheldon said to himself. The sound echoed throughout the parking deck. He dug out his phone and called Leonard, but the call went straight through to voicemail. "Leonard, you seem to have forgotten that we drive home together every day," Sheldon said after the beep. "Please come pick me up."
After a moment, Sheldon walked back inside the building, but he had no idea what to do with himself. Leonard wasn't returning his call, and he had nothing that he needed to work on at the moment. Every minute that ticked by was a minute closer to the dinner Sheldon wouldn't be eating if he were stuck at school. He dug out his phone again.
"Sheldon?" Penny asked, sounding incredulous. Sheldon didn't know why. She obviously already knew who was calling her, as she'd answered by his name.
"Well, I was just calling to ask if you'd seen Leonard. He's not answering his phone."
"Oh!" Penny said. "Yeah, I saw him about ten minutes ago down by the mailboxes, but he was on his way out again."
"Oh good," Sheldon said. "He must be on his way back here to pick me up."
Penny paused. "Honey, I don't think so. He said something about driving to pick Raj and Howard up from Howard's mother's house, and didn't mention you at all."
"How odd. Well, thank you, Penny."
"No problem," Penny said, and hung up.
Sheldon called back immediately.
"Yes, Sheldon?" Penny said, sounding less friendly than she had on the last call. The incredulity, however, was still there.
"Would you be available right now to pick me up?"
Penny sighed. "Sure, Sheldon. It's not like I have my own life or anything. Let me just drop everything to chauffeur you around."
"Wonderful!" Sheldon exclaimed. "See you in twenty minutes."
When Penny pulled up in front of Caltech's physics building, she found Sheldon sitting on the curb, knees drawn up to his chest. He looked sort of like a little kid that way, and Penny found herself feeling sorry for him. She unlocked the passenger door, and Sheldon climbed in, pulling his seatbelt across his chest.
"Your check engine light is on again," he said instead of hello. So much for feeling sorry for him.
"Hello to you, too, Sheldon," Penny said.
"Hello," Sheldon said. "Your check engine light is on again."
Penny rolled her eyes and resisted the urge to bang her head against the steering wheel. "I know. I mean, I see it right there. But it's expensive to get that light fixed." She pulled away from the curb and started driving home.
"It will just get more expensive the longer you wait," Sheldon reminded her. "Remember that I had to help you with your repairs last time--"
"Hey, so why didn't Leonard pick you up like usual?" Penny interrupted. "That's not like him."
Sheldon shook his head. "I really don't know. It's highly illogical. We had a minor disagreement last night, but I thought I cleared everything up this morning. Perhaps I was wrong."
"Minor disagreement?" Penny turned left.
"Put your turn signal on," Sheldon said. Penny ignored him. "Yes, a minor disagreement. Last night, Leonard asked me to rethink the premise that he, Wolowitz, and Koothrappali are my underlings, and to rather consider them as equals."
"Well, honey, maybe that's something you really should--"
"This morning I informed him that I'd thought it over, and I was happy with our current roles."
"Wait, so you told Leonard that you gave it some thought, and you still think of him as an underling?" Penny asked.
"Yeah, I think you were wrong about everything being settled."
"Huh," Sheldon said. "So according to your hypothesis, you think Leonard was unsatisfied with my response?"
"Maybe a little, sweetie," Penny said. She drove over a speed bump without slowing down first.
"Maybe you should consider taking those at a slower speed," Sheldon said.
"Maybe you should learn to drive for real instead of being such a backseat driver."
"But I'm not even sitting in the backs--"
"Seriously, though, I know you tried to drive once, but you never tried again," Penny said. "Why not? I failed my driver's test twice before I passed."
Sheldon grimaced. "Oh, that's reassuring."
"Your face is reassuring," Penny muttered under her breath. "Anyway, the point is I didn't think you were a quitter, Sheldon Cooper. And if you pass your driving test, you could buy a car. Then you wouldn't be so dependent on Leonard, even when you two are fighting. Wouldn't that be great?"
"Maybe," Sheldon said, after a moment's contemplation. "But if Leonard is angry with me, then Wolowitz most likely is, too. He probably wouldn't set up his simulation game for me again." They went over another bump. "Did you car just make a dinging sound?"
"Oh, yeah, it does that," Penny said dismissively. "But back to you. I could give you driving lessons! The parking lot in the Cheesecake Factory is almost always empty before dinner and we could practice in my car."
Sheldon made a strangled noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. "In this car with its perpetual check engine light?"
Penny rolled her eyes. "If you hate it so much, you pay to get it fixed."
"All right," Sheldon said after a moment.
"Yes, that seems like a fair trade. I'll pay to fix your car, and you'll give me driving lessons in return."
"Oh. Actually, that does seem fair," Penny said, braking at a red light. She stuck out her hand for a shake. "Deal."
Sheldon wasn't looking at her. He was too busy peering up through her windshield. "The light is green, Penny. Green means go."
"Good job," Penny said sarcastically. "You just passed your first lesson."
"I did? I wasn't even aware we were having one!" Sheldon said, delighted. "Goody for me."
"Goody for all of us," Penny mumbled. She wondered what she'd gotten herself into.
When Sheldon got home, Leonard was there already and smirking at him from behind a back issue of the Green Lantern. "Did you get home all right?" Leonard asked innocently.
"Yes, thank you," Sheldon said politely. "I called Penny, and she gave me a ride."
"Penny did?" Leonard said, surprised. "That was nice of her."
"Yes," Sheldon agreed.
"I hope-- Anyway, I hope you understand what I was doing, leaving you at work like that."
Sheldon sat down in his spot. "I think you were trying to teach me a lesson about being more independent."
"No," Leonard said. He sounded confused. "I just wanted you to take your friends less for granted. But, actually, now that you mention it, it wouldn't kill you to be less dependent on me."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Leonard."
"Yes!" Sheldon said excitedly. "Because once Penny's car is back from the mechanic's, she's going to give me driving lessons."
"Penny's car is at the mechanic's? I thought you said she drove you back here," Leonard said. "Wait, she's giving you what?"
Sheldon bounced a bit on the couch cushion. "We dropped the car off after I agreed to pay for repairs in exchange for lessons, then walked the rest of the way."
"I didn't know Penny was applying for sainthood," Leonard said, laughing.
"She is?" Sheldon asked. "You think she would have mentioned that on our drive. You know, as much as I don't believe it, the Roman Catholic tradition of canonization is fascinating for many reasons--"
Leonard shook his head. "Never mind that. So are we good?"
"Yes, we're good," Sheldon agreed. He got up and crossed the room to his computer desk. "I'm going to brush up on the Pasadena Department of Motor Vehicles' rules of the road, and then we can head out for dinner."
"Sounds good," Leonard said. "Where do you want to go?"
"It's Tuesday," Sheldon replied. "You know where we're going."
Leonard rubbed his forehead. "Of course. Why do I even ask?"
On Friday, Penny pulled up to Sheldon's work and beeped the horn, even though Sheldon was already standing outside, pointedly looking at his watch.
"Hey, Sheldon!" Penny said, once he climbed inside. "Thanks again for helping out with my repairs. It's so nice to have the old girl back in working order."
"You're ten minutes late," Sheldon said in reply.
"Oh yeah, that. Sorry!" Penny shrugged. "I just got really caught up in this episode of Oprah -- she was giving away trips to Australia and fancy jewelry and Snuggies and all this other stuff, and I lost track of the time."
"Being late on your first day teaching doesn't give a very good first impression," Sheldon said. Penny felt like they were having two different conversations.
"Well, you've met me about a billion times," Penny said, "so I'm not that worried about your first impression of me."
"It's mathematically improbable that we've met a billion times--"
"Anyway!" Penny interrupted enthusiastically, heading in the direction of The Cheesecake Factory. "Are you ready for your first driving lesson?"
"Seriously, Sheldon, seriously, you can go a little bit faster," Penny was saying after Sheldon made his third slow, terrified circle around the parking lot. "I swear to God, the car won't fall apart if you go over --" She looked over at the speedometer "-- eighteen miles per hour? Jesus."
"Please stop using the Lord's name in vain," Sheldon said, an automatic rebuke in a thick Texan accent that made him sound like his mother after a shot of testosterone. His fingers were wrapped around the steering wheel, his knuckles bright white because he was squeezing so hard.
Penny shook her head. "For an atheist, you sure sound like a little old Christian lady right now." She lunged over to the driver's side and put her hands over his, and for that, Sheldon slammed on the brakes, making the car squeal to a stop. Well, it was nice having a car in one piece for a little while, at least. "Relax. Listen, there is no one in the parking lot. Dinner rush isn't for another half hour, and you're not in danger of hitting anything."
"You don't know that," Sheldon said pettily. Penny could tell he wanted to gesture frantically, but nothing would rid him of that death grip on the wheel. "I could easily crash through the front doors of your workplace right now, or barrel off into that grove of trees over there."
"Well, don't," Penny said. "You don't need to hold the wheel so tightly. Just go in a nice, easy circle, and try to top twenty miles an hour."
Sheldon made it all the way to twenty-one before stopping the car, throwing it into park and vowing to never get behind the wheel again.
What was it they said about patience being a virtue? Penny was pretty sure she qualified as virtuous about twelve times over now, and wasn't that a new feeling. Hey, there was a first time for everything.
Penny waited until Monday to try again, calling up Leonard and pleading with him to leave work five minutes early, so Sheldon would have no choice but to get into her car. Leonard was more than happy to have another Sheldon-less evening, and by the time Penny pulled up in front of his building, Sheldon was already scowling because he'd caught onto their trick. Nonetheless, the second lesson went far better than the first. Penny taught Sheldon how to do a three-point-turn, which he liked because he could relate to the geometry of it.
"Whatever works!" Penny said, when Sheldon went on about the tangent of a curve and parallel lines. "If you like parallel things, just wait till we get to parking."
Sheldon even managed four smooth circles around the parking lot before making Penny take over driving again. When they were done, he looked way less rattled than he had the other day and even offered to pay for Penny's dinner.
Well, a girl had to eat, she reasoned as she agreed.
They didn't have a lesson on Tuesday, but the guys still stuck by their normal eating schedule. Penny waved at them from the bar when they came into The Cheesecake Factory. She liked bartending shifts better than waitressing shifts, so she was glad the restaurant had started giving her more of them. The tips were lower -- because, let's face it, someone who came to The Cheesecake Factory to get shitfaced was kind of sad -- but the per hour wage was higher, so it nearly worked out.
She'd planned on heading over to talk to the guys once they were almost done eating, but Sheldon walked over to the bar and perched on a stool as soon as Bernadette took their order.
"Hey," she said while drying a glass. "Have you decided to take up drinking now that you're a driver? I hear vodka tonics go well with driving lessons."
"No," Sheldon said, looking alarmed. "Penny, don't you know how dangerous it is to combine alcohol and driving?"
Penny grinned. "Calm down. I was kidding."
"Oh." He paused, then let out this little high-pitched snort-giggle. "I get it. Very funny."
"Thanks," she said. "So, can you just not get enough of your driving instructor?" She put down the glass to wag her finger in Sheldon's face. "People will talk."
"About what?" Sheldon asked, looking interested. Penny just shook her head. "You know, I'm really not sure why I came over here. I was sitting next to Leonard, like always, and we were discussing tomorrow's comic releases while waiting for our order, like always, but I saw you over here and decided to say hello."
"Well, that was very nice of you." If Penny didn't know any better, she'd swear Sheldon was getting a crush on her. But honestly, how far-fetched was that? It was Sheldon. She looked over to where Leonard, Raj, and Howard were sitting, an empty chair with a barbecue bacon cheeseburger waiting there. "I think your food's up."
Sheldon looked over his shoulder. "Oh, so it is. I'd better go. Will I see you tomorrow for our driving lesson, Penny?"
"Sure! What kind of teacher would I be otherwise?" She smiled and waved at the guys as Sheldon walked back over to them.
At their third lesson, Penny drove to the parking lot and let Sheldon warm up with his regular circles, then asked him to pull over.
"I have a surprise for you," she said.
Sheldon looked dismayed. "I don't care for surprises," he said. "You know that."
"Well, it was either surprise you now or risk you not showing up at all," Penny replied, trying to keep her voice light. It didn't work; Sheldon just went from dismayed to alarmed. "No, calm down. It was something you were going to have to try anyway."
"What is it?" Sheldon asked, voice strangled and tight.
"We're going to drive on the street!" She clapped her hands together. "Ta-da!"
"No, thank you," Sheldon said politely.
"Come on, it's not that bad," she said. "You can't stay in parking lots forever! Anyway, I have a destination in mind that I think you'll like."
Sheldon at least looked a little intrigued at that. "Where?"
"The Comic Center," she said. "I know it's Wednesday and that's your regular comic book store day. We'll just go slowly and let all the people trying to get home go around us. Just a word of warning -- you're going to get flipped off a lot."
"Flipped off of what?"
"That's the spirit!"
The drive to the store was excruciatingly slow, which Penny could have predicted, but toward the end Sheldon was actually less hunched over and his grip less white-knuckled. By the time they parked in front of the store (in a very wide space, thankfully -- Penny had been afraid she would have to take over just to park), Sheldon was practically beaming, and he shouted "I drove here" to Stuart when they walked through the door.
"Oh. Uh, great?" Stuart said, glancing over at Penny. She just rolled her eyes and shrugged, but inside she felt like grinning as big as Sheldon.
Penny was climbing the stairs and flipping through her mail when she ran headfirst into Leonard coming down them. Envelopes and magazines flew everywhere.
"Oof, sorry," she said. "Are you okay?" She bent down to pick up her mail and Leonard stooped next to her to help.
"I'm fine," he said. "I was, uh, I was just wondering if you noticed anything weird with Sheldon lately."
"No? No, I don't think so. Well, he mastered parallel parking yesterday, which means a couple more lessons and he'll be ready to take his driver's test. Did you know he was planning on buying a car of his own?" They both stood up and Penny elbowed Leonard in his ribs. "That means you can bum rides off of him from now on!"
Leonard shook his head. "No, he hadn't told me that." He scratched absently at his cheek. "You mean you haven't noticed him seeming more distracted lately? Quieter? Uh, not that I mind Sheldon being quiet. It's just been strange."
"Nope, nothing. He's a regular chatterbox when I see him, now that he's less of a nervous wreck all the time and I don't think he'll need the steering wheel surgically removed from his hands. He wouldn't shut up when we had dinner last night."
"Oh," Leonard said, looking thoughtful. "Okay. Well, thanks anyway. See you, Penny."
"Bye, Leonard!" Penny replied, waving cheerfully as Leonard continued down the stairs. She was really glad they'd stayed friends even after they'd broken up.
"Well," Penny said, just as Sheldon put her car in park and turned off the engine, "that was your very last lesson. Congratulations, you're now a graduate of Penny's A-plus Driving School."
Sheldon's mouth turned up, crinkling his eyes at the corners. "You gave your school a name?"
"Sure, why not? I've had my first success story, might as well bank on that while I still can."
"Thank you, Penny," Sheldon said. They looked at each other for a few seconds, and just when it was about to cross into weird territory, it got weirder when Sheldon stretched over to the passenger side to give Penny an awkward hug. Once they separated, he asked, "That was an appropriate time to hug, right?"
"Appropriate time, awkward place," Penny confirmed. She patted him fondly on the arm.
Penny went along with Sheldon the morning of his driver's test and let him use her car for the behind-the-wheel portion. Of course he passed the written test easily -- he got one wrong and spent most of the time leading up to the second part of his test grousing about badly worded multiple choice questions -- but Penny was nervous about the driving half. After all, she hadn't even been worried for her own tests, and she still managed to knock a cone over the first time and roll to a stop the second time. She waited inside the DMV, nervously jiggling her leg until Sheldon burst back in, waving a piece of paper with PASS stamped on it.
His driver's license picture was terrifying, but Penny told him he looked nice anyway.
She also came with him when he picked out his new car, a moderately priced hybrid, which Sheldon had determined to have the optimal cross between reasonable price and the best possible gas mileage, and when he negotiated the salesperson down five-thousand dollars from the sticker price, using cold logic and a refusal to take no for an answer, Penny vowed to take him along the next time she bought herself a car.
"Welcome to the world of driving, Sheldon Cooper," she told him proudly.
A week after Sheldon bought his car, Penny found herself moping around her apartment. It wasn't that she had nowhere to go -- some friends had asked her out to a new bar that had opened up -- but she just didn't feel up to it. It was strange; once Sheldon got over his initial fear of the road, she felt accomplished and... fulfilled somehow? But that was sort of silly. They were just driving lessons, after all.
Penny considered walking across the hall and knocking on the door, but she knew it was Halo night, and she didn't want to interrupt that. Now that Sheldon could drive himself around, Leonard didn't feel as much like his servant, and as a result they were both in far better spirits, something that had even spread to Howard and Raj. Penny swore that the other day Raj had almost said a word to her, and he hadn't even been drunk at the time.
Before she knew it, Penny found herself picking up her scattered laundry and throwing it into a basket. She didn't know what it was, but even though she hated it, sometimes doing her laundry helped her think things through.
Which is how she got through halfway through one load and nearly banged her head against a washer when she had her revelation. She missed Sheldon, missed all the one-on-one time they'd been having, missed just having him around. It was like all the pieces had fallen into place and she suddenly knew why he'd come up to her bar that night when he hadn't had to. They liked spending time with each other. Liked it a lot.
"God damn it," she swore, nearly dropping a bottle of liquid detergent on her foot.
Well, Penny never got far in life by not trying stuff out. She'd consider it an experiment.
"This was a nice idea," Sheldon said, following the directions Penny was giving him. She had to hand it to him -- the drive was far smoother in Sheldon's hybrid than it would ever have been in her car. "I never expected I would enjoy driving just for the sake of driving."
Penny smiled. "And this isn't even an easy drive," she said, pointing him around a curve. "You've come so far."
"And I have you to thank for that." Miraculously, Sheldon took his eyes off the road to glance in her direction, and Penny was glad it was dark enough that he couldn't see her cheeks heating up.
"It's right up here." Penny pointed to the overpass. "Don't drive us over the cliff," she joked.
"Of course I won't," Sheldon said seriously. He put the car into park and turned off the engine. "Goodness."
"Yes, goodness," he said, gazing up through the windshield. "What a fantastic view. We're so high up here that the city lights don't blot out the stars." He pointed up. "See? There's Gemini, the twins, and over there is Orion. You can always identify him by his belt, that row of three bright stars there."
"Neat," Penny said, looking where he was pointing.
"Did you know that you'll never see Scorpio and Orion in the night sky at the same time? That's because legend says that the scorpion stung Orion to death, and because Orion was such a great hero and warrior, Zeus killed the scorpion and put them both in the night sky so far away from each other that the sting could never hurt Orion again." Sheldon turned a beaming smile on Penny, and her stomach did a weird flippy thing. "It's beautiful in a way, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Penny's voice got a little caught on the word and she cleared her throat. "How come you know all this, Sheldon? Other than you knowing everything, of course."
"Oh, when I was smaller, my Meemaw and I used to go up to lookouts and talk about the stars. Those times are some of my nicer childhood memories."
"That's really sweet," Penny said. "But, um, you do know why other people come up to lookouts, right? Older people -- like our age, not your grandmother."
Sheldon nodded. "I presume you're talking about mating rituals? I remember when I was away at boarding school, Missy called me up in a panic one night because she'd been caught necking with an older boy by the sheriff. My mother nearly killed her."
Penny wrinkled her nose. "I wish you wouldn't call them mating rituals," she said.
"Why not?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "That's what they are."
"Yeah, maybe, but it makes what I'm about to do seem so clinical."
"What you're about --" Sheldon's words were muffled when Penny stretched over the middle of the console and kissed Sheldon square on the mouth. It wasn't a particularly long kiss, but Sheldon didn't pull away and when Penny tilted her head, Sheldon followed her lead. When they separated, he looked a little shell-shocked but not displeased. "Oh," he said after a moment's quiet.
"Yeah," Penny said. "Oh."
Then it was her turn to be surprised when he leaned into her space.
Sheldon zipped up his jacket and walked over to the bowl next to the door, scooping up his keys and putting them in his pocket.
"Where are you going?" Raj asked from the couch. "It's only five minutes until vintage game night."
"Yeah, and I was planning on whooping your ass in Dr. Mario," Howard agreed.
"Not that you could," Sheldon said, "but I just feel like going out. Have fun with your oversized viruses."
"Are you sure?" Leonard asked. "We could play something else instead."
Sheldon shook his head. "It's not the game. I just think it's the ideal night for a drive, don't you?"
Then Sheldon left his apartment and walked across the hall to knock on Penny's door.