Chapter 1: shock, shock, horror, horror
Given the choice between a revelation and a slow realization, Penny would always opt for the former. She’s used to acting impulsively, not thinking things through logically; the most planning she ever does is figuring out how to fit in auditions around work.
This time she gets a revelation.
She’s opening the freezer to get out the tub of Phish Food that she’s been saving for a rainy day, which translates to “any day when she catches Leonard and Priya making out in the hallway”, when she realizes that Sheldon’s her best friend. Huh. Well. She figures Sheldon can be her best male friend and Amy her best female friend. Not that she blogs about who ranks where in her friendship hierarchy anyway.
She’s picked out a spoon that she’s pretty sure is clean and is on her way to the couch when she realizes that Sheldon’s not unattractive once you look past the aura of neuroses and observe the man himself, and see things like the way when he actually smiles his face lights up, and the way his eyes sparkle when he’s talking about something he’s really into, and the way his fingers practically dance on the keyboard when he’s fragging trolls in Age of Conan.
The next thing she knows she’s sitting on the couch with the spoon chilly against her lips and a mouthful of chocolate-flavored drool melting on her tongue because oh shit, she’s pretty sure she’s in love with Sheldon.
Three more spoonfuls of ice cream later, she’s totally sure.
She’s also sure that she can’t just go over there and break the news to him the way her brain broke it to her, because there would be, well, brain breakage. Plus there’s Amy to consider and, although Penny’s heard the he’s-a-boy-who-is-my-friend-but-he’s-not-my-boyfriend litany so many times she could recite it in her sleep, she’s not up for stepping on her bestie’s toes.
Thing is, Penny’s never been good at taking things slow. So she really does need to plan this out. She grabs her power bill, turns it over, finds a pen amidst the detritus on her coffee table, and starts making a list.
Chapter 2: I need no answers to my questions
“Sheldon, have you ever kissed a girl?”
Sheldon looks startled and almost drops his Xbox controller. “What – why do you ask, Penny?”
“Just curious.” Penny gestures at the screen. “Watch your head.” She lobs a grenade at it and the pixellated Sheldon ducks a second too late. The flesh and blood Sheldon also ducks, but she doubts it’s due to the grenade. He pauses the game.
“Just because Halo night is reduced to the two of us on this occasion is no reason to attempt to engage in your usual brand of chit-chat. I would suggest saving that for one of your girls” nights.”
“But then you wouldn’t be there to ask,” Penny says.
Sheldon sighs. “I see your point. Very well. Leaving aside that regrettable incident with Leonard’s mother—”
“—there’s technically one other time.”
“I’m led to believe from prior conversations that quasi-incestuous situations don’t count.”
Penny attempts to bury her face in her hands and nearly puts an eye out with her Xbox controller. “You kissed your sister, didn’t you.”
“She kissed me,” Sheldon corrects. “We were both fifteen and she wanted to make certain that, should she kiss the young man she was dating at the time, she would get it right.”
“I think we can file that one with kissing Leonard’s mom and say it doesn’t count.”
“Good. Now can we resume our game, please? I owe you for that grenade.” Sheldon gives her a decidedly predatory look and unpauses the game before she can react.
She kicks his ass anyway.
The next step is talking to Amy.
“Um,” she starts eloquently. “Amy, you know how I was upset about Leonard and Priya getting together?”
“I got some incredible research material out of it.”
Penny takes that as a yes and continues. “What if I found someone else to take my mind off Leonard?”
“I believe the colloquialism is ‘getting over him by getting under someone else’. As I understand it, it’s a well-established tradition amongst men and women alike to facilitate moving on from a former lover.”
Penny takes a moment (and a mouthful of strawberry daiquiri) to process this. “Sure, but... what if the someone else is kinda taken?”
Amy gives her a stern look. “You’re not planning on stealing someone else’s man, are you? Because if you are, I’m not sure we can be BFFs any longer. I may not date seriously myself, but I take society’s rules on the matter to heart, and taking someone else’s partner from them is definitely against the rules.”
“What if the someone else is—” daiquiri, don’t forsake me now “—a boy who’s someone’s friend but not their boyfriend?”
Amy gives her a wobbly suspicious look. The problem with strawberry daiquiris is that they don’t really taste like alcohol and so Amy’s downed three. “Like Sheldon and I?”
“Exactly like Sheldon and you.”
Amy either misses the emphasis or doesn’t make the connection. “That’s quite different. There’s no romantic feelings between the two people in question, so if your romantic feelings are reciprocated, I see no reason why it wouldn’t be perfectly all right.”
“Right,” says Penny. “So it’s all right. It’s alll good.”
“Are you drunk, bestie? Your speech is showing the classic signs of intoxication. Perhaps you should slow down your alcohol intake.”
“I’m fine,” Penny says, and she is, depending on your working definition of “fine”.
“Good. Speaking of alcohol, do you think Rajesh would be amenable to undergoing an EEG while he drinks, just to compare his brain wave patterns when he can and can’t talk to women? The entire concept of selective mutism intrigues me, and I’d like to see what’s going on inside his handsome little head when he’s talking and not talking...”
Amy keeps talking, but the words wash over Penny in a wave of intellectual gibberish, and she just nods and murmurs, “mmmm, yeah,” at what she hopes are the right moments.
Chapter 3: and I need no questions to my answers
“Have you ever wanted to kiss a girl?”
Sheldon’s back goes tense when she asks. “Penny, why are you pursuing this line of inquiry?”
“Just curious. Is that a no? Or have you ever wanted to kiss a guy?”
His routine of carefully measuring out the fabric softener is not disrupted either by her question or his response. “Inasmuch as I have any desires at all, they’re not for the same sex. However, I can’t say I’ve ever particularly felt the need to kiss anyone. You’re more than aware of my germ phobia, and I’m sure you’re aware of how many kinds of germ there are in human saliva, after I explained them to you the time that you ruined my trip to see the large hadron collider. By the way, I know you’re doing that thing where you mime a yapping mouth with your hands behind my back. It’s neither amusing nor original.”
Penny puts her hands down and starts stuffing her clothes into the washer. “So you do have desires, huh?”
She wonders if he can see the smile spreading on her face as well.
“And how would you describe these... desires, Dr Cooper?” She puts on her most trying-to-be-sciencey voice. If she had a clipboard, she’d tap her pen on it inquiringly and maybe give him a look over her glasses and it is way too early to be having weird fantasies about dressing up for him but hey, maybe it’s get his attention.
“Inconvenient,” Sheldon says. “Can you move your laundry basket, please? You know I need machine number two for my whites.”
Inconvenient. How very Sheldon. How very not at all fitting with her plan.
She might have known.
It’s only half an hour later that she realizes that he said she ruined his trip to the large hadron collider. Never minds that her Valentine’s Day weekend away with Leonard was ruined. For a moment she’s frustrated, angry, wants to stuff him headfirst into the washer he’s leaning over and give him one hell of a swirly. Of all the egotistic, self-centered, childish people she knows, he’s – well, all right, he at least has those fancy-ass degrees and a steady income, so maybe it puts him a step above man-children like Kurt.
And besides, as awesome as Switzerland is, she can imagine it from the point of view of being Leonard’s date. It would have all been indoors for one reason or another; either hanging around bored in the background at scientific soirees or staying in the hotel room feeding each other room service desserts. The only time she’d get to see the snow would’ve been out of the plane windows as they descended over the Alps.
No, spending the weekend with Sheldon, sick as they were, was better: they mostly agreed on how chicken soup should be served and he’d been too feverish to object when she switched Star Trek out for Now and Then once she got sick of it. She remembers him falling asleep on the couch and mumbling in his sleep and how he woke her up when he couldn’t stay asleep and demanded she sing “Soft Kitty”, and she acquiesced even though her throat hurt, because he joined in even though his throat hurt, and the nap she took, curled into a snotty ball of misery on the far end of the couch, was nonetheless one of the best naps she’d ever had.
Good lord, she can tolerate him even at his most irritating; this must be love.
“I have to go,” she says abruptly, turning and making for the door.
“But your clothes—”
“I’ll come back! They can air dry! Whatever!” And she’s in the hallway, not heading for the stairs but rather out into the crisp night air, sneakers thumping on the pavement. The change for the machines jingles in her pocket as she runs, and she’s vaguely aware that she’s wearing what are possibly her worst shorts and tank top, but she doesn’t slacken her pace until she’s circled the block twice.
She ran because she was scared she’d say something. Do something. She does another slower lap of the block because she realizes that she doesn’t want to regret this, doesn’t want to screw it up, and so far she hasn’t exactly been doing an A-plus job of being careful about what she says and does.
She realizes she’s scared of completely screwing this up, of poisoning their friendship with her feelings for him. There was a time when she would have blown that anticipatory regret away and just gone for what she wanted, but given the change in dynamic between her and Leonard, she’s hesitant now. Not to mention that it’s not just her friendship with Sheldon that’s on the line, but her friendship with Amy as well.
None of this changes the fact that, when she gets back to their building and walks panting up the stairs, hand pressed against a twinge in her side, she can’t stop thinking about him. Especially not when she reaches the fourth floor landing and he’s standing solemnly outside her apartment door, holding her laundry basket full of all her clean, dry clothes.
“Are you all right, Penny?” he asks.
Penny grabs the basket from his hands. “I’m fine. Just fine.”
“Did you forget something you needed to do?”
“Yeah, I did. But, um, I’ve done it now, and it’s done, so… yeah.”
“Is there a problem?”
I want to kiss your face off. “Nope, no problem here!”
“Good,” Sheldon says.
But she can feel his curious eyes on her back even after she’s closed her apartment door.
Chapter 4: she deals in witchcraft
The routine of which food and which games correspond to which day of the week has been thrown out completely. Priya dominates Leonard’s schedule, free time, dress sense, and Penny doesn’t want to know what-all else. She works an irregular roster at the Cheesecake Factory and occasionally loses track of what day it is, alerted that she has a shift only by the reminder system on her phone that Sheldon’s taught her to use.
Things haven’t really progressed with Sheldon in the two weeks since her grand revelation, although she has to admit there would be more progress, either forwards or back, if Sheldon actually knew she was attracted to him.
“What’s going on, Penny?” Bernadette finally corners her one night after work as they hang up their aprons. “You’ve been totally spaced out for days. Is everything all right?”
“I’m fine, Bernadette. I’ve just been thinking a lot, I guess.”
“About Leonard?” Bernadette sounds sympathetic. “I know relationships can be hard to get over, especially when he’s right there across the hall.”
She’s close. She’s right about the location of Penny’s source of distraction, anyway. “No, not Leonard.”
“Really? I thought you were really missing him. Amy said she got some really strong readings from you when you were crying over him.”
“Yeah, well, Amy talks about him too damn much.” A bubble of anger bursts in Penny’s chest. “Maybe if she’d just shut up about him for once and give me some breathing room I’d be able to get over him, but every time she comes over or texts me she’s asking about him and I’m getting sick of it.”
“Isn’t anger one of the steps in the grieving process?” Bernadette asks.
“Oh God, I don’t know.” Penny checks her pockets for her car keys. “Plus, when she’s not talking about him she’s going on about running tests on Raj, and I don’t know how I feel about her using him as a lab rat.”
“What sort of tests?”
“Oh, just checking his brain waves when he’s drunk and not drunk to see what’s going on. She wanted to run a CT scan, but she couldn’t get permission to do it in the lab and we’re pretty sure that we can’t steal the machine and get it up the stairs to my place.”
The usual Halo foursome turns into Sheldon, Penny, Amy, and Raj, and it’s on Halo night that Amy decides to start her experimentation. For one thing, she’s teamed up with Raj and she says she can’t possibly game with a partner who can’t communicate with her in a timely fashion. Penny figures she’s right; attempting to get “Watch out for the grenades” across in charades is difficult at the best of times and impossible when trying to beat a five second fuse.
Sheldon mutters about the game being delayed while Amy hooks Raj up and takes some baseline readings, her fingers moving through Raj’s thick hair to stick the electrodes to his scalp. Judging from the wide-eyed look on Raj’s face, Penny’s not really sure the baseline’s actually going to be normal, but she bites her tongue and mixes Raj’s drink for him.
“I’d worry more about your partner’s inability to play thanks to inebriation rather than his lack of communication,” Sheldon informs Amy, drumming his fingers against the game controller.
“I’m not going to get drunk, Sheldon. Just enough to be able to talk.” Raj sounds righteously indignant and it would be far more convincing if he weren’t openly staring at Amy’s butt as she bends over the machine and makes a couple of marks on a piece of paper, checking her watch.
“I’m not sure you know where your boundaries are.”
“Relax, Sheldon, I’ll cut him off if he looks like he’s going to get his tank pulled over for a DUI.”
Sheldon doesn’t relax, but he does shut up, which is good enough.
The four of them start playing. Raj is in Leonard’s spot and Amy is on a chair beside him, the EEG machine between them. Amy keeps reaching over to make notes with one hand and keeps shooting with the other, which Penny has to admit is impressive, although she and Sheldon are still outclassing them.
“How are you going to tell what mental stimuli are being recorded?” Sheldon asks, firing a shot that sees Amy punctured with half a dozen pink needles. “You can’t be certain that you’re recording his responses to the alcohol or the game.”
Amy retaliates with a burst of laser fire. “I know what I’m doing, Sheldon. I’ve set this experiment up so I can interpret the results.”
“I don’t see how—”
“Then don’t worry about it.” Amy cuts him off midsentence with her words and with a second laser shot, and Penny’s sure that her friend smirks as Sheldon crumples. “I’ve got it all under control.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Raj agrees with a grin, lifting his glass.
“Don’t make me give you a field sobriety test with a grenade,” Penny threatens, and Raj meeps and throws himself sideways just as the grenade explodes where he was standing.
“Impressive. I’d say you’re not drunk yet.” Amy makes another note.
“I’m not.” Raj sets his glass down and focuses on returning Penny’s attack. “Except maybe punch-drunk.”
“Excuse me, but there’s no punching going on here. You could be plasma-drunk, or laser-drunk, or – oh, come on, that’s just not fair,” Sheldon interrupts himself as Raj switches his focus from Penny to Sheldon’s just-recovered character and lasers him.
“There’s nothing fair in love or war,” Raj says.
Amy reaches over and touches his arm. “Rajesh is right, Sheldon. Fairness doesn’t come into this.”
Penny eyes Amy’s fingers lingering on Raj’s skin and the needles jumping on the EEG machine and wonders which she’s referring to: love, or war, or both.
Team Sheldon-and-Penny win the Halo game. Raj tries to blame it on being drunk, then on being distracted by the wires, and finally on Amy being unable to concentrate properly because she was focusing too hard on her research.
Amy doesn’t refute this, but she does yank the electrodes off his head quite hard.
“This was fun,” Sheldon says. “It’s interesting to play with different partners from time to time.”
Penny snerks Diet Coke and passes it off as a sneeze, snatching a napkin from the table and hiding her smirk behind it.
“Agreed,” Amy says. “Rajesh, I hope you don’t really mean it about our loss being caused by my research. I’d like to run further tests on your responses to stimuli, and I’d hate to think that I’d ruined my chance to do so.”
“No, no, it’s all right.” Raj gestures at the EEG machine. “Would you like a ride home? That looks heavy.”
Penny looks at it and at him and at Amy, who’s responding with, “Yes, thank you,” as though the machine weren’t perfectly portable (although how did she get it here in the first place? Penny’s not sure), and wishes she had a better Amy-to-English translator in her head.
The two of them leave, Amy waving goodbye, Raj carting the machine under one arm and attempting to pick electrode gel out of his hair with the other hand. Sheldon starts packing away the controllers (no floor covered in cords in this household), and Penny gathers up the detritus of dinner and fills the sink with water and bubbles.
“You don’t have to do that,” Sheldon says.
“Don’t have to, or you don’t want me to because I’ll get it wrong?” It’s not like it’s all that difficult to wipe down a few plates.
“I’m just puzzled that you would tidy up here when you rarely make the effort at your own home. It makes me wonder whether you’re intending to start another prank war.” Sheldon stands up and comes to lean against the counter near her, arms folded.
“Sheldon... what kind of prank war starts by washing someone’s dishes?”
“That’s the cunning part. You’re lulling me into a false sense of security.”
Penny flicks bubbles at him. “No need to worry; I don’t have anything planned.”
“That’s exactly the sort of thing you would say to throw me off the track.”
All right, now she’s considering gluing a fake spider inside his favorite tea cup. Instead, she just pulls the plug and leaves the dishes sitting in the drainer, knowing that as soon as she’s gone, he’ll be drying them suspiciously, checking each one for signs of tampering. “Goodnight, Sheldon.”
“Watch your back, Penny,” is the response.
As she pulls the door closed behind her, she hears the rattle of plates and shakes her head, grinning.
Chapter 5: we made a vow that we would never sell each other out
She gets rostered for double shifts over the weekend. The boys go out paintballing together on Sunday and for a minute when she stumbles up the stairs, legs weary after a day on her feet, it’s almost like old times; she can hear Howard complaining about friendly fire and Leonard pointing out that technically there’s nothing “friendly” about a paint pellet to the face. Penny grins – talk about missing the point – and raises her hand to push the door open.
“I don’t understand why you boys think that sort of thing is fun,” comes Priya’s voice from within 4A. “Shooting each other with paint, running around playing pretend...”
“Yeah. We should go enlist for a real war.” Raj, capable of speech and sarcasm in front of his sister.
Penny lowers her hand and crosses the hall to her own apartment and if she closes the door unnecessarily hard it’s unintentional. Mostly.
Five seconds later she wishes she’d slammed it, because when she flicks the light switch nothing happens. She drops her bag and kicks off her shoes in the dark, and then attempts to cross the room to find candles and matches.
The torrent of swearing that leaves her mouth when she finds the coffee table with her shin would make Gordon Ramsay blush.
About thirty seconds after that, she’s finally located matches and what she hopes is a candle and not a Pringles can, and she’s just lighting the candle when there’s a familiar knock on the door.
“Now’s not a good time, Sheldon.”
“I gathered as much from your yelling. What happened?”
“I banged my shin on the coffee table. You’re still going to come in, aren’t you?”
“Was that an invitation?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Sheldon.”
He opens the door and the room is briefly illuminated by the hallway light before he closes it behind himself. “Penny, what on earth are you doing?”
“I’m holding a pagan ritual to summon the gods of television to give me luck for my next audition.” She puts the candle down and lights the next one from the same match before shaking it out as the flame tries to lick her fingers. Her shin’s really aching and it’s too late to call the power company and she can’t remember where she put the stupid bill anyway.
Sheldon avoids the coffee table and the couch (although one of her shoes goes skittering across the floor when he accidentally kicks it), and takes the matches from her, striking one and efficiently lighting four candles in rapid succession before the heat can touch his long fingers. “Sarcasm aside, Penny, I thought you were on top of your finances.”
He probably doesn’t mean it to be a reproof, but Penny feels her face go red and is grateful for the half-light. “I am. I was. I just forgot one bill.”
“An important bill to forget.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“Are you sure you don’t need any assistance?”
“What? No. No, Sheldon, I’m fine.” She looks at his solemn expression; in the flickering candlelight he looks like an ascetic monk, although they probably don’t wear Flash t-shirts. “Really.”
“What about dinner?” he presses. “Did you get the chance to eat at work?”
“Wait here.” He presses the box of matches back into her hand and adroitly weaves around her haphazard furniture and shoe maze and back out of the door before she can ask him where the hell else he expects her to wait.
She gets a couple more candles lit and then sits down on the couch. Her shin’s really throbbing now and she can see an angry red mark on it. She lets her head loll against the back of the couch and sighs. That’s going to make her next shift a bundle of laughs. She grabs a couple of tops and a pair of shoes off the coffee table and tosses them over the back of the couch to make room for her dinner.
When Sheldon gets back he’s carrying a couple of takeout boxes and sets them down in front of her, then sits down beside her, fastidiously pushing aside three magazines and a (clean) g-string. Either he hasn’t noticed what he’s touching or he’s so used to her underwear from countless laundry nights that he doesn’t care.
“You’re not going straight home?” She cracks the boxes open and reaches for her chopsticks.
“I spent all day with them.” His eyes are unreadable in the candlelight. “You missed laundry night last night. Therefore, I haven’t seen you to just sit and talk for some time.”
Penny smiles delightedly. “Sheldon, you hate small talk!”
“But you’re my friend, and you like talking, and I’m coming to realize that part of being friends includes participating in activities one wouldn’t usually undertake. Besides,” he adds, drawing his long legs up onto the couch, turning sideways to face her, “the others requested that I shut up several hours ago, and Wolowitz drove his point home by sending me to be a sniper on my own.”
“I thought you liked sniping.”
“They went and had lunch without me.”
“…oh.” Penny’s not really sure what else she can say. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m used to it.”
She glances up from the takeout boxes just in time to see the way his lips tighten at the corners, holding back something else unspoken.
“Well… we can talk. What do you want to talk about? How was paintball apart from the other guys ditching you?”
“It was excellent. We wiped out the botany team almost immediately because their lookout got distracted by an interesting-looking fungus, and then the chemistry team tried to box us in, but Wolowitz is amazingly good at climbing trees even in those dreadful pants of his...”
He goes on, describing the scene, and Penny alternates between the satay chicken and the sweet and sour pork, eating small bites of each just for variety, imagining the four guys out there stalking through the wild paintball arena, devising ever more cunning ways to elude their hunters and catch their prey.
He’s halfway through explaining something about how they’d carefully calculated the right angle for Raj to shoot from to make the math department think they were about ten feet from where they were and stampede the wrong stand of trees when Penny realizes she’s just been sitting there, chopsticks in the air, for about five minutes, completely wrapped up in what he’s saying even though she only understands about half the words.
She’s got it bad.
Chapter 6: she wants to conquer the world completely
The power’s still out the following evening. She can’t find the damn bill. She calls the power company from her cell phone, pacing in the flickering citrus-scented light, and spends half an hour on hold only to be told that unless she has the bill number she can’t pay by phone.
“Why not?” she tries not to shriek, gritting her teeth.
“Sorry, ma'am. Could be fraud.”
“Could be fraud? How many people fraudulently ring up and pay other people’s bills?”
“Without that number we don’t know you’re the resident on file. You could be using a fake credit card.”
“My valid card details are on file. Look them up.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I can’t look them up without the bill number.”
Penny wants to yell but hears the tone of the young man’s voice and thinks of all the times she endured a tongue-lashing from a customer. “I’m sorry,” she says instead. “Of course you can’t. I’ll keep looking. It must be here somewhere.”
The guy sounds relieved when he wishes her a good night, and Penny hangs up, at least not feeling guilty for sharing the crap. Her phone rings almost immediately; it’s Amy.
“Hi, bestie. I was just calling to ask you to tell Leonard that Rajesh won’t be home tonight, so if he and Howard intend to visit Priya as usual they should bear that in mind when arranging dinner.”
“Why can’t you just call Leonard?”
“I find him irritating, and to be frank I don’t want to hear him giggle when he realizes he has the potential for, uh, ‘alone time’ with Priya.”
“Well, I’m not allowed to talk to him, and it’s not like I want to—”
“I understand.” Amy sounds vaguely contrite. “I should have realized that before I called. I apologies. My mind’s elsewhere.”
“Oh, did you have a breakthrough at work?”
There’s a small but telling pause. “One of my research projects seems to be bearing fruit, yes.”
“Interesting,” Penny says. “Does Sheldon know your research is going so well? Maybe I could mention it to him while I’m over there telling Leonard that Raj won’t be around to forbid him from making out with Priya.”
Amy’s pause this time is longer. “Bestie, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say to me here.”
Penny closes her eyes. Maybe she has the wrong idea about the whole thing. “Never mind, Amy. I’ll go let Leonard know.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Tomorrow… oh. Cheeseburger night. How did she forget? “Sure. See you, Amy.”
It’s only after she’s hung up that a whole slew of questions come to mind. How come Amy’s the one who knows Raj isn’t going to be home? Where’s Raj going to be? Is the answer to both these questions really the obvious one that she thinks it is?
Leonard doesn’t jump up and down for joy at the news that Raj won’t be at dinner, but he does get that smile on his face that he always got at the prospect of a few hours alone together with her, and it still hurts to think of him thinking that way about someone who’s not her. Plus he pulls out his phone to text Howard about it, and she’s pretty sure the message isn’t so much order fewer dumplings as it is find somewhere else to be.
“Sheldon, Raj won’t be home,” he calls down the hallway. “Do you still want to come out to dinner?”
Sheldon comes out from his room just so he can give Leonard a long-suffering Look. “I hardly think so, Leonard. I know what you and Priya can be like unchaperoned.”
Leonard laughs awkwardly, cutting it off when he catches the hurt on Penny’s face. “Uh, yeah, okay. I may be out late.”
“Just don’t forget I need a lift to work in the morning,” is all Sheldon says in response to that, and then Leonard’s off, giving her a quick, apologetic smile as he hurries out of the door, and it hurts a little less when his relationship isn’t being rubbed right in her face, so she smiles back.
“I do wish people wouldn’t change their plans at the last minute,” Sheldon huffs, flopping down into his spot. Penny sits beside him, legs sprawling a little across Howard’s end of the couch. “It’s bad enough that we’re spending so much time at Raj’s as it is, and to then turn that plan topsy-turvy…” He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “If we’re going to be all spontaneous and madcap, I might as well see if Amy would care to break routine and pay us a visit.”
“Um, maybe not, Sheldon.”
He pauses, phone in hand. “Whyever not? I’m given to understand you two are best friends.”
Penny can’t for the life of her figure out how to word what she wants to say, and settles for the truth, but not the whole truth. “She called me just before to say she’d be busy tonight with some research.”
“Oh. I see. Is this at all related to her work with addiction? Because if she spends much more time with those monkeys, I’m afraid she’s going to pick up bad habits from them.”
He looks at her expectantly, and Penny gets it. “That’s awful, Sheldon.”
“That’s group pressure to conform, Penny. As a matter of fact, in the 1950s there was a psychologist named Asch who did several experiments to prove that people would agree to wildly inaccurate statements just so that they wouldn’t stand out from the group. His work inspired Stanley Milgram, who conducted experiments where participants believed they were electrocuting other people, yet didn’t stop even when the person they were shocking begged for mercy, simply because they were told not to listen.”
Penny’s listening, horrified and fascinated at once. “And people volunteered for this? Oh my God! How could anyone get away with that?”
“They didn’t have the same standards of ethics back then as they do now.” Sheldon lets out a fussy little laugh. “Listen to me, rattling on about the social sciences. Amy’s really getting into my brain.” He taps his forehead with one finger.
“I’m not so sure teaching monkeys to smoke and making them cry is all that ethical,” Penny says.
Wonder of wonders, Sheldon goes quiet and looks at her as though she’s actually made a good point, one for him to think about.
She drives it home. “Or, for that matter, training people to behave differently by, oh, I don’t know, rewarding them with chocolate.”
Sheldon opens his mouth, about to retort, and she just looks at him.
“How did you know?” he asks finally.
“Leonard explained it. It was a lot more interesting than Schrödinger’s cat.”
“How can you say that?” Sheldon yelps. “Schrödinger’s cat is an essential thought problem. Operant conditioning’s merely playing with basic human reactions to stimuli.” He hits a button on his phone and lifts it up between them.
“Wait, what’re you doing?”
“Calling Amy. Even she’ll agree, despite our dabbling in the social sciences, the value of Schrödinger’s cat over Skinner’s theories.”
“Oh, Sheldon, you don’t need to drag her into this, I agree with you about the stupid cat—”
Amy’s already answered the phone, her face rather closer to the camera than usual, cheeks pink and hair ruffled. Yet she maintains her composure as she speaks. “Sheldon. I’m quite busy at the moment. Is it important?”
“Important? Amy, Penny is under the delusion that Skinner’s behavioral studies are ‘more interesting’ than Schrödinger’s cat! Tell her why she’s wrong.”
Amy shakes her head. “I’m afraid I have to agree with my bestie on this one, Sheldon. The, uh, study of people’s responses to various stimuli and positive versus negative reinforcement is, ah, really quite essential.”
“Well, I just can’t win with you two, can I?” Sheldon huffs. “I know the saying goes that the female of the species is more deadly than the male, but I didn’t realize they were also exponentially more dangerous in pairs or groups. It might be worth looking into.”
“Gee, Sheldon, wouldn’t that just be using the social sciences again?” Penny asks.
Amy grins at the phone. “Well done, bestie! Sheldon, I’m afraid you’ve caught yourself in a web of your own devising.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me—”
Sheldon cuts Amy off. “Amy, why is Raj in your apartment?” Penny squints at the screen and realizes that yes, Raj is sitting on the couch beside Amy.
“We’re merely conducting further research into his selective mutism.”
“Yeah? Then where’s his shirt?” Penny asks, catching a glimpse of bare chest.
Amy gets up and moves away from Raj, sounding rattled for the first time. “I’m performing an ECG on him this time as well to determine what his heart rate is doing in conjunction with his brain waves.”
Sheldon seems to accept this as a valid explanation, but Penny isn’t so sure. “You want us to come over? I can keep track of his alcohol intake,” she offers, and sure enough Amy shakes her head, face going even pinker.
“Thank you, but no. I believe I have everything under control here.”
“We’ll leave you to it, then. Goodnight, Amy,” Sheldon says. “Goodnight, Raj.”
“Goodnight, Sheldon, Penny.” Amy doesn’t relay whether or not Raj says anything before she hangs up.
Sheldon looks very clearly disappointed, and Penny reaches out to pat him briefly on the shoulder. “Oh, honey, are you all right?”
“Of course I’m not all right! How Amy could possibly agree that any principle of the social sciences could be more interesting than a physics theorem, I simply don’t know!”
Penny blinks. “That’s not quite what I meant,” she says.
“Then whatever did you mean?”
“Sweetie,” Penny says as gently as she can, despite the fact that she wants to get the book they gave him and hit him over the head with it a few times, “I think there’s more to what’s happening with Amy and Raj than just a psychology experiment.”
“Oh, Penny, don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s only a psychological study. There’s no physics or any of the hard sciences involved.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s a hard scientist involved.”
“I’m still not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Well – never mind. Sheldon, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think Raj has his shirt off so that Amy can stick electrodes on him.”
“Of course he does. It’s not as though she can take accurate readings through cloth—”
“Not what I meant either.”
“Then what did you—”
“Sex, Sheldon!” Penny snaps.
Sheldon looks as though she’s just suggested that Amy and Raj were planning to suit up and go scuba diving. “But Amy’s always sublimated her carnal desires in the pursuit of knowledge, just as I do.”
“Not tonight, she’s not.”
“I refuse to believe that of her. She refused to go through with her encounter with Zach. She has more willpower than that.”
“Oh? So because I have sex, I’m weak-willed? If I abstained and focused on studying, I’d have a doctorate by now? I don’t think so, Sheldon. Sex and science aren’t mutually exclusive.” She gets up and stalks to the door. “Besides, you may be a big-shot physicist, but I know chemistry when I see it.” And on that note she departs, before Sheldon can take her literally and start talking about test tubes or something.
Chapter 7: a lie detector wouldn't make me doubt you
She’s been alone in her apartment for twenty minutes, picking through the array of crap on her coffee table yet again looking for the stupid power bill, when the first triple knock sounds at her door. His voice is subdued as he says her name, and she wonders what’s brought him out of his castle of self-righteousness.
“What’s up?” she asks, opening the door once the cycle is complete.
“It seems I owe you an apology.”
“In this particular instance, your reading of the situation was correct and mine was at fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“After your departure I called Amy again. She refused to enable the camera on her phone and informed me that whatever I wanted would have to wait as her experiment had reached a new level.”
“Maybe she just didn’t want to get distracted from her machines.”
“Considering the way that Koothrappali was moaning in the background, I rather think her machines were the last thing on her mind.” Sheldon looks woebegone. Penny clears space on her couch and waves for him to sit down; he does so, automatically leaning forward to start alphabetizing the magazines strewn haphazardly on the table.
“Are you okay?” she asks, sitting beside him.
“I suppose so. It just seems so odd.”
“Believe it or not, Sheldon, women have sexual needs too.”
“I didn’t think Amy did.” He’s done with the magazines, moves on to a random stack of paper, mostly flyers from various take-out places. “I thought she felt the same way that I do about such things.”
“I guess not. You’re not angry that she’s sleeping with Raj and not you?”
Sheldon blinks at her. “Why on earth would that bother me? I’ve no interest in engaging in coitus.”
“That’s better. Well, that’s a marginal improvement, anyway.”
“Why are you still using candles, Penny? One of these days you’re going to set off the sprinklers.” It’s an inept attempt to change the subject but she lets him have it, mostly because she doesn’t really want to think about Amy and Raj together either. “If you still haven’t paid your power bill, I must reiterate my offer of financial assistance.”
“I don’t need financial assistance! I just can’t find the stupid bill to give them the number and pay it.”
Sheldon raises an eyebrow at her. “That’s hardly surprising, considering this mess.” He begins to methodically pick up each magazine, shake it, and set it aside, humming “Blow the Man Down” as he does so. Several more pieces of paper fall out onto the heap, some smelling like Chanel or Dior or any of the other perfumes that Penny only ever gets to use when they come off strips of paper like this. Finally there’s a mountain of paper to comb through. She takes on magazine inserts, perfume strips, and glossy flyers; he pulls out payslips, official-looking printed pages, and even a couple of unopened envelopes.
“You really need some sort of organizational system for all this.”
Instead of telling him to shut up, she concedes, “Yeah, probably,” just for the fun of seeing his eyebrows attempt to take off from his face.
An ad for a discount subscription to Cosmo catches her eye and she’s reading the terms and conditions when Sheldon says, in an odd tone of voice, “Penny, I found your power bill.”
“Oh, great! Give it here, I’ll call them now.”
Sheldon withholds the piece of paper. “Not until you tell me why my initials are written on the back.”
Penny remembers and feels her cheeks flame scarlet. “Oh, it’s nothing.”
“They’re in a love heart.”
“I was just doodling.”
“With your initials. And an arrow.”
“Plus a list of what I assume are good versus bad traits. The lists are unlabelled, but I note that you’ve put ‘stubborn’ on both of them. Would you like to explain that?”
“Not really,” says Penny.
“Hmmm. I’ll ask again later,” says Sheldon, and despite the embarrassment burning her alive, Penny snickers. “I assume this part underneath is some sort of collaboration with Amy. No wonder you knew what she and Koothrappali were up to.”
“Wait, what part underneath? I didn’t write any part underneath.” Penny seizes the opportunity and the piece of paper; Sheldon surrenders it readily. Penny scans the page, going a little redder as she recognizes some of the things she wrote down – he probably doesn’t need to know how pretty she thinks his eyes are, after all – and then sees the note scrawled at the bottom in Amy’s abrupt, tiny cursive.
If this is what I think it is, bestie, then you have my blessing. Sheldon and I have a close friendship but, considering all the variables, I think you and he might have the potential for something more. I’m sure I needn’t remind you just how stubborn he can be. Remember that you are, as well.
Under that there’s another little heart-and-arrow doodle that makes Penny smile, both considering its implications and its precision. She doesn’t know how long Amy’s had her eye on Raj, but when she thinks about it, Amy’s spent a lot of time commenting on Priya’s looks, and the two are brother and sister, after all.
She realizes Sheldon is staring at her expectantly and moves the paper out of his reach. “It’s not collaboration. I didn’t even know she’d written that until just now.”
“A likely story.”
“Believe it or not, Sheldon, it’s true.”
“And the part that you wrote? Is that true too?”
Penny gets up, shoves the bill into her shorts pocket, and sweeps up the scrap papers into her arms. It’s easier to say, “Yes,” when she’s got her back to him and is trying to stuff a month’s worth of junk mail into the bin.
When she turns back around, he’s gone.
Chapter 8: I'll shout myself hoarse for your supernatural force
He doesn’t show up at the Cheesecake Factory for his cheeseburger the next day.
He doesn’t answer his text messages, or respond to the voicemails she leaves him, whispering into her phone, huddled in the walk-in freezer so she doesn’t get caught.
Amy and Raj come in together, not holding hands, but walking so closely together and in step it’s as though an invisible cord binds them.
“Where’s Sheldon?” Amy asks, direct as ever.
“At home, I guess. I don’t really know. I haven’t heard from him all day. Have you?”
“He texted me this morning to ask whether my experiment findings had been satisfactory and I told him they’d confirmed my hypothesis.” Amy has the good grace to blush. “I’m still unsure whether or not this qualifies as cheating, considering the nature of our relationship. Maybe that’s why he’s isolated himself.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Penny says reluctantly. “Amy, he found the list.”
Amy doesn’t need to ask what list. “Oh. I see. So his sudden withdrawal from communication might not be due to my liaison with Raj, but rather the discovery that you’re in love with him.”
“You’re in love with Sheldon?” Raj yelps.
“You can talk?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s not important. You’re in love with Sheldon?”
“I think it kind of is important!” Penny realizes she’s just about yelling and lowers her voice and pastes on her best may-I-take-your-order? smile. “Raj, did you drink before you got here?”
“Not since last night,” Amy says, looking smug.
“What the hell did you do to him?”
“I just used some basic principles of positive reinforcement, weaned him from alcohol to a placebo to plain water, and one other thing that I’d rather keep private in the interests of not having my research stolen.”
“I took her v-card,” Raj says, swagger in his voice.
Penny starts laughing. She can’t help it. How it worked or why it worked, they’ll probably never know, but the look of pride on Raj’s face as he animatedly starts discussing the pros and cons of each item on the menu with Amy, who puts her hand over his on the table and interlaces their fingers, says to her that this change is quite possibly permanent.
And he’s forgotten to keep pestering her about Sheldon. Score.
The two of them work out an order that they can share and Penny runs it back to the kitchen, and then sidles across the room to where Bernadette’s just finished taking an order from a table of ten frat boys. She looks harried and ready to tear someone’s throat out with her teeth, but Penny figures she’s got just the right item of juicy gossip to cheer her up.
Chapter 9: when a girl like you has cast a spell on me
Sheldon finally sends her a message back, well after his bedtime that night. It simply reads, Come over. No please, no if you’re awake, just the two words. Penny’s tempted to give him the silent treatment in return but instead gets out of bed and puts her robe and Hello Kitty slippers on.
4A is silent. Sheldon’s sitting on the couch, game controller in hand, Halo paused on the television. There’s no sound at all from down the hallway; Leonard’s probably at Raj’s with Priya since Raj is probably at Amy’s with Amy, assuming that they ever got away after Bernadette texted Howard and Howard came down to the Cheesecake Factory to grill his best friend about his newfound ability to speak to women.
And she is here, and Sheldon is here, and the silence feels awkward.
She sits down on the couch beside him and he hands her one of the controllers and unpauses the game. Asking him what’s going on at this point is probably not a good idea, so she just plays along (literally) and goes easy on him, deliberately fumbling a few grenade tosses and gunshots.
After just a few minutes of this he pauses the game again and tosses the controller onto the table. “Penny, don’t let me win.”
“I’m not letting you win,” she lies.
“Yes, you are. I didn’t ask you over here for your pity.”
Penny puts her controller down. “So why did you ask me over here, then? Is it Amy and Raj?”
“Amy’s managed to cure one of my friends of the selective mutism that’s plagued him for years. Her method may have been unique, but that’s no reason for me to be perturbed. Besides, Raj already called me and I gave them my blessing.” He won’t look at her as he speaks, long fingers fidgeting in his lap. “This is about the list I found in your apartment.”
She feels as though her throat has closed over, but manages to coax it open enough to respond with, “Are you angry that I called you neurotic?”
“No. I’m just… I suppose I’m surprised that your list of good things was so long.”
“I don’t think most people would have come up with a list like that.”
Sheldon waves his hand dismissively. “Amy’s list of my positive attributes included the size of my frontal lobes and swift response time to a series of increasingly difficult questions she planned on using on a quiz for one of her projects. She said she couldn’t use me as a baseline because it would be setting the standard too high.”
Penny figures that’s a compliment, sort of, and jumps on the chance to change the subject again. “And you’re really not upset about her and Raj?”
Sheldon’s smile isn’t bitter or feigned, but wry. “No. I suppose it was only to be expected. The incident with your friend Zach suggested long ago that Amy might fall prey to her primal urges. With all due respect to our erstwhile Superman, I have to say that I think she’s made a rather better choice, although I’m not sure that her fiancé’s going to feel the same way.”
“Faisal? She barely even emails him, let alone, you know, sticks anything to him. You know that’s all just for convenience.”
“Of course.” Sheldon is silent for a moment, looking at the blank TV. “I do wonder sometimes what it must be like to have those urges overcome you.”
Penny’s tempted to climb into his lap and give him a demonstration, but restrains herself. “I don’t think it’s anything I can really explain, sweetie. I think it’s something you’d have to try for yourself.”
Sheldon looks as though he’s about to say something, but he just wets his lips nervously with his tongue instead. “Penny...”
“Thank you for being my friend through all this.” He runs his fingers through his hair, leaving it sticking out every which way. “It’s a lot of change. I don’t like change.”
Penny says the only thing she can think of in response to that, which is, “I love you.” And it means I’m in love with you.
Sheldon smiles, sort of. “I know.” Which means, I didn’t catch the meaningful nuance of that phrase and also I’m quoting Star Wars in a complete non-answery way. (Even if that’s not what he meant it to mean, that’s what she hears.)
There’s only one more thing she can do now, which is to pick up their game controllers, hit the button on the remote, and bring the TV blinking back into life.
He’s got a lot of fancy moves, but she kicks his ass again anyway.
“I knew you were holding back on me before,” he says. “Letting me win is not one of your good traits. I have more respect for you when you’re playing properly.”
Penny snorts. “Since when do you have any respect for me?”
“Quite some time now. I must admit that the first day we met you I wasn’t so sure, especially when you beguiled Leonard into going across town for your television. But I’ve known him long enough to know it doesn’t take much to persuade him to do something for a beautiful woman.”
“I soon realized you weren’t merely using him for information or anything else, though, and your willingness to learn about physics for his sake impressed me. I think more than anything else, though, it’s how resilient you are.” Sheldon looks at her at last and his gaze is unbelievably timid, peering at her from under those long dark lashes. “Admittedly none of your negative experiences have been nearly as shattering as my failure to win the Nobel prize—”
“—but no matter what happens to you, you just keep going. I definitely respect that.” He looks at her more directly. “You’re not afraid to be wrong. You’re not afraid to fail. You put so much of yourself into everything you try. I respect all of that.”
Penny can feel herself blushing. “Anything else?”
“There is one other thing…” Sheldon looks back down at his lap.
“What is it?”
His voice drops to a whisper. “Would you kiss me, please?”
“Amy and Raj pushed one another out of their comfort zones and each improved for it. I want to see what happens when someone pushes me.”
Penny reaches out and strokes his cheek. He looks like he’s only barely tolerating her touch. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” His eyes are screwed tight shut like a little kid trying not to peek at the scary monster pretending to be a blanket draped over a chair in the darkest bedroom corner.
Penny scoots closer and settles one hand on the back of his neck. His eyelids are quivering and she presses a light kiss to each one, then dots each cheek with another kiss, then rubs her nose against his. She kisses each cheek again and then takes a deep breath and presses her lips to his.
Finally, this is something she knows and he doesn’t.
Sheldon doesn’t seem to know how to react at first, but she strokes the back of his neck and head, ruffling her fingers through his hair, and cups his cheek with her other hand, and his lips part a little under hers. She tilts her head so she can catch his lower lip between hers and lightly lick it. He tastes of chamomile tea and, underneath that, toothpaste. But she spends very little time thinking about that because the noise he makes when she does it is far more interesting, a cross between a gasp and a sigh.
She doesn’t push any further and draws back slowly. His eyes are still closed but he looks less like he’s having a panic attack now. His lips are still parted and she can’t resist kissing him again. This time he kisses her in return, slow and shy and nervous. Penny can’t remember ever being kissed like this before; her first kiss was a spin-the-bottle clash of mouths and tongues with a boy whose name she can no longer recall. Sheldon’s hands come up to comb through her hair and this time she’s the one who gasps.
It’s like a dam bursting, after that. He doesn’t go wild with sloppy tongue and wandering hands, but she can feel the change in him as he draws her closer, lets her kiss him harder and deeper, lets her teach him what only she can in a thoroughly hands-on manner. Only when she runs one hand over his chest and moves to undo the button of his pajama top does he catch her hand and stop her. Penny backs off obediently, taking in the sight of him: cheeks flushed, lips wet, hair tousled.
“No?” she asks.
Sheldon shakes his head. “Not yet.”
The promise inherent in the phrase makes Penny smile. She’s breached the borders of his world; now that she’s in, nothing can stop her from conquering him completely. This experiment might not be nearly as innovative as Amy and Raj’s on the surface but, as Sheldon hesitantly pulls her closer and kisses her again, Penny’s pretty sure it’ll be revolutionary in its own quiet way.
Until the text messaging starts, that is. Their social group is not known for being discreet, after all.