They're all standing around in the foyer when she pushes through the glass doors. Penny blows hair from her eyes and sets the two bags of groceries by her feet. It's like a furnace outside and all she wants is to get up to her apartment, down a glass of something that isn't raspberry soda, and climb into a lukewarm bath.
"Hey, guys," she says brightly. They're dressed for paintballing, black camouflage and those fake Kevlar vest and helmet deals that look like something from a GI Joe playset. It must be sweltering. "Lost a member of the troop?"
"Actually, yes," says Leonard. "Except he's not exactly lost."
"And he won't exactly be a member for much longer if we don't get going," grumbles Howard. "Some time this ice age would be nice."
She doesn't need to ask. "Want me to go get him?"
Howard's eyes gleam. "That'd be super. Don't worry about being gentle — just push Dr. Strangelove in the direction of the stairs; he'll float down in his own hot air bubble of unwanted opinions."
Penny's too exhausted to decipher this, so she leaves.
There's no answer to Penny's knock. After a moment she tries the door, finds it unlocked, and wanders in.
At first sight the apartment appears entirely Sheldon-free. She looks around half-heartedly, trying not to sigh at the realisation that she's been several minutes upstairs and still nowhere near the bottle of white sitting in her fridge or the bath she'd practically spent all afternoon fantasising about. God. Her life...
Penny stands by the couch and pokes with her toes at the leg of the table. She'd kicked off her flats back in her own apartment and the carpet feels gorgeously soft beneath her feet. She knows for a fact that Sheldon vacuums at least four times a week. And cleans. And dusts. And polishes, in a thorough housekeeping regime encompassing the furniture, fittings and electronic regalia that would make both Martha Stewart and Bill Gates proud.
"Sheldon!" Penny says. Loudly. She even half bends to look under the table. What the hell, if this isn't hide and seek then she doesn't know what is.
She's rewarded with an answering echo. From the bathroom.
He's all dressed up in his paintball gear. At least, his bottom half is. Penny can count on one hand the number of times she's seem Sheldon in his undershirt. This time there's no tub of Vicks in sight, thank God, but the sight of him is vaguely unnatural. Or possibly unnerving. Whatever. Un-something.
He actually looks normal. Well, normal for a man on the cusp of thirty to be dressed in a geek version of one of those freakishly cute soldiers on that HBO show she'd downloaded in a wave of midnight boredom at the urging of a friend online. Generation Hot, Penny. Seriously. Watch. Which she had, and, okay, Ella was kind of on the money there. And, well, Sheldon—
No. She is not going there. Not this sober, anyway.
"All right," Penny says from the doorway, channelling her best sergeant major and clapping her hands. "You're late to the game, soldier, chop chop!"
Sheldon turns slightly. He looks at her incredulously. "Chop...chop?" he repeats.
He's smirking, damn him. Actually smirking, in that very particular way of Sheldon's where the lips tweak and satisfaction is all in the eyes. Penny grits her teeth and steps into the bathroom. She hasn't time for this. She's only really doing Leonard a favour, what with Raj looking like a lost puppy and Howard ready to explode...and what the hell is he doing on his knees anyway?
She circles Sheldon until she can see.
"Jesus, Sheldon, how big is that thing?"
"Kindly don't take the Lord's name in vain, Penny. This is neither the time nor the place."
But this is like double-entendre heaven. One that sanity deprived Penny decides she's going to take with all guns blazing.
"Wow," she murmurs, with a slowly widening smile. "Sheldon Cooper. You've been keeping that hidden away all this time..."
Penny lowers herself onto the cool floor. Squatted on his haunches, Sheldon eyes her warily. She wriggles her toes, forcing him to look at her feet. By the narrowing of his blue eyes she can tell he's onto her plan.
She watches him, wondering if he'll follow suit, or revert back to Sheldon neutral. Neither of them move.
And then his eyes flash. And she knows it's on.
"I was not aware of your taking an interest, Penny," he says innocently.
"Oh, I do. Especially something as impressive as that."
Sheldon glances away. She can see the lines ticking over in his mind. Maybe he actually absorbed some of her acting lessons. Stranger things have happened.
"I call it Vera."
This very nearly breaks the mood. Penny bites down on her lip, but can't quite stop the giggle. "Really, Sheldon? You can't come up with something more original than quoting Firefly?"
But he only stares at her, then lifts the gun from between his knees and holds it out. He's completely serious. The laughter dies and she reaches across.
It's heavy, perfectly balanced. And it's fucking gorgeous. A shiver runs through her.
"Hold it," Sheldon says. His voice drops, the drawl creeping in. "Hold it properly."
Penny stares back. What happened to flirting? It ran away with her courage, that's what.
He scoots around her. Even on his knees, he's still taller, damn him.
Penny grips the gun. Sheldon covers both hands around hers and they lift it up so that the sight is in perfect parallel to the floor. "This—" she asks, "this isn't loaded, right?"
The fingers of his right hand press down, very suddenly; there's a click and a jerk and an explosion in her ears. Penny screams and falls back. They're all in a tangle; her nose against his shoulder; his stupid, sharp knee dug into her ribs—
And blue paint is splattered all over the shower curtain.
"Oh...oh God," Sheldon stammers, crawling to his feet. He looks in horror at the paint. "Not the periodic table!"
"Then why'd you pull the damn trigger?" Penny snaps.
"I thought it was unloaded!"
He spins on her, eyes blazing.
"Yes, and I was quite obviously wrong! If you hadn't come wandering in, with...with your — your bare feet, distracting me..."
"Oh you can so talk, Sheldon Cooper." She tilts her head and mimics his Texas drawl. "'Hold it. Hold it properly.' I was meant to be in the freaking bath by now, downing my weight in cheap wine. How the hell did I end up exchanging bad one-liners with you?" She glares at him, glares at the blue paint and confused expression on his face. "You and your big fucking gun."
And in one seamless, uninterrupted step, she crosses the room, slams the door shut so that locks, takes the front of his white shirt in both paint-splattered hands, and locks her mouth onto his.
Some time later, and Penny's finally made it back to the foyer, this time with a quiet and very slightly dishevelled Sheldon in hand.
"Here he is, boys! One lost soldier, all accounted for."
"Penny. There's nobody here."
She turns back with a bright smile. "That's right, sweetie."
"They appear to have left without me."
"Oh, what a shame." She runs a hand over his black vest, up to the strap of his helmet, wound tight against his chin.
Sheldon's cheeks redden a little. He averts his eyes, unsuccessfully. "But I'm all geared up and ready to go. What do I do now?"
The vest isn't quite done up. There's white t-shirt and skin still visible. They both notice this at the same time. Penny's smile widens and the hand drops to his belt. "Well," she says. "There's always Vera..."