The check engine light on her car is blinking again. Penny groans and slaps her hand against the dashboard, but it keeps flashing, mocking her. She knows there’s nothing wrong with the stupid engine; she’s been over it twice, once on her own and once with Martin from the garage down the road and they’ve agreed that the engine is fine, that the light’s wiring must be faulty. But that’s just a pain in the ass for her to get at and check herself, and she doesn’t have the money to get Martin to do it.
Still, once she gets home she reverse-parks in her space so that she can pop the hood and take another look. Everything looks as sound as ever; the fan belt’s a little worn, but she can do that herself, and the battery’s still good, and a few minutes of poking around with the flashlight and the dipstick assures her it’s not the oil levels. It can’t be the gas; she hasn’t driven anywhere but to and from work all week.
Once she’s done checking everything she knows how to check she’s covered in grease and needs to get upstairs and showered as soon as possible. She figures once she’s done that she can do some googling and see if she can find the car manual online, since she threw her copy of it at a guy’s head when he wouldn’t get the hell out of the car. (He ducked and she missed and had to shove him out instead and she never knew where the manual landed).
Sheldon is standing in the foyer checking his mail, his new comics tucked under his arm, and the way he’s standing there looking vacantly into the letterbox makes her pretty sure that he’s actually waiting for her. She considers going straight upstairs, but as she hesitates he turns around and sees her.
“Hi, Sheldon.” Now that he knows she’s there, she might as well get her own mail. “What’s up?”
“Nothing’s ‘up’. I’m merely checking my mail.” He withdraws what is probably an internet bill and an ubiquitous pizza place flyer from his mailbox and closes it. “Is anything ‘up’ with you?” He looks her up and down properly and frowns. “Aside from your narrow escape from the La Brea Tar Pit?”
“Very funny.” Penny’s own mailbox is miraculously bereft of bills. “The check engine light came on again; I was just looking to see what might be wrong.”
“I assume the engine was still in the car?”
“Very funny,” Penny repeats, starting up the steps; he’s two steps behind her. “The engine’s fine. I don’t get why the light’s still on.”
“I would suggest at this point that you need to get it checked by a professional.”
Penny’s glad he can’t see her face. How many girls would let themselves get covered in grease and oil if they didn’t have some idea of what they were looking for themselves? “I did, he says there’s nothing wrong, probably just a loose wire in the dashboard somewhere.”
“A loose wire? Shouldn’t that be relatively simple to fix?”
“Oh, no. You have to basically take the dash off to get to it and it’s a pain in the ass. That’s the thing about cars; once you start getting into the electronics, it actually gets harder to fix.”
Sheldon genuinely looks impressed, for once. “I had no idea you knew so much about cars.”
Penny does not point out that she started learning how to drive as soon as her feet could reach the pedals, fanging around the fields in a Ford pickup that eventually died of old age and now acts as a summerhouse for snakes out back of the barn. “I picked up a few things here and there.”
“I see,” Sheldon says in that tone of voice that means he’s thinking about something else already. “Will you be attending Halo night tonight?”
“Oh, Sheldon, I don’t know, I’m tired, and—”
“It’s hard to play teams with only three people.”
She supposes that’s as close as he’ll ever come to saying please. “Oh, all right. But only if Raj takes a shot or something before we start. I’m getting sick of having a partner who can’t talk to me.”
“Good. I’ll see you at eight.”
How kind of him to give her an hour and a half to actually, you know, do things she wants to do.
4A still feels oddly empty with Leonard gone, even though it’s been two months now and she feels like she should be used to it. There are only a few things left around that didn’t either go with him to India or get put into storage, and since they’re mostly DVDs it’s not like his personal aura is lingering on them or anything. His bedroom is the strangest, where the only things left are the area rug with the indentations in it from the legs of his bed and an old con badge pinned to one of the curtains.
(She avoids going in there. Amy has a lot of things to say about this avoidance. Penny also avoids talking about avoidance. Penny knows that one of Leonard’s old shirts is still hanging in the closet, inadvertently missed when he did the big cleanout. She does not want to be the sort of ex-girlfriend who clings to a shirt, for god’s sake, even if it does still sort of smell like his cologne.)
But the couch is still there, and Sheldon’s still at 0,0,0,0, and Penny sits down in Leonard’s old chair at exactly two minutes to eight, controller in hand, looking across to Raj on the far end of the couch and grinning at him. He’s not a bad player as long as he doesn’t overdo the magical talking-to-women juice, and when they’re up against Sheldon plus Amy’s relative inexperience it makes the battles evenly matched.
They don’t talk about what happened between them, or about how Raj didn’t end up moving into Leonard’s room when he left. Somehow, it was easier to just settle back into the old status quo.
Or rather, considering that Leonard’s like eight thousand miles away and Howard and Bernadette are up to their eyeballs in wedding planning, the new status quo.
Tonight Sheldon doesn’t say anything about Amy being a liability compared to Leonard, or Amy being unable to hit the broadside of a battle tank, or anything about her lack of proficiency with plasma grenades. It’s a nice change. Penny hopes it means he’s moving on, not giving up.
Penny and Raj win the first battle and Raj is loosened up enough to whoop and grin at her. Raj, now, Raj hasn’t been moping. Raj has been getting on with his life. He goes to work (Sheldon buries himself in it like a paperwork origami shell of denial), goes out to the gym (Sheldon doesn’t even do his little star chant down the stairs anymore), and goes out drinking (Sheldon – ha, just no). He’s going to be Howard’s best man and his heart’s knitting itself back together. Maybe the difference is that he can see how happy Bernadette is with Howard and be happy for his friends.
Nah. Sheldon saw how happy Leonard was with Priya and all he ever did was grouse about it. Penny spent so much time being annoyed at him for being sorry for himself that she forgot to mope about being sorry for herself, and now it’s too late.
Now the universe has shifted, galaxies have been realigned, Planet Leonard has been moved out of their solar system, and this is where they’re at now, settling into their new orbits and readjusted axises.
(She tried telling Sheldon this once, about two weeks after Leonard left, feeling hopeful that it was a description he might appreciate. All he did was snap, “It’s axes, Penny, not axises,” and she felt like saying, “You want axes? I’ll give you axes,” but didn’t, because he was still in his pajamas-until-ten-AM stage.)
She does wonder, sometimes, whether Sheldon ever feels happy for anyone other than himself. Or sorry.
Penny takes the car back to Martin a couple of days later and joins him under the hood, discussing all the things that still aren’t wrong with it. It reminds her of time spent with her dad, squinting against the sun and occasionally thumping things with a torque wrench because tractor engines responded well to being hit.
“I think she’s pretty much right,” Martin says, clipped Brit warring with laid-back Californian in his accent. “There’re basically three things you can do from here. Number one is to go to this bloke—” he slips her a business card “—and if you tell him I sent you he might not overcharge, but pulling the dash out’s a big job. Number two is to go down to the city college and let one of the students have a go at it for you, although if you come out with a car that only goes in reverse, don’t blame me.”
She doesn’t think much of either of those options. “And number three?”
Martin rips a piece of gaffer tape off a roll with his teeth and hands it to her. Penny look at it, mystified. “Stick that across the bugger so you can’t see it,” Martin clarifies, and both of them burst out laughing.
He’s right; the tape does help.
One other thing he said sticks in her head, though, and that’s the bit about the city college. She doesn’t still have the course list that Leonard gave her – that’s long gone, stuffed into the trash thirty seconds after she shut the door in his face that day – but these days everything’s online and she finds the website easily enough. It’s a bitch to navigate, but she eventually finds what she’s looking for and then sits there looking at it, absently chewing all the lipstick off her lower lip as she thinks about it.
There’s an office number listed and she calls it, ascertains that someone'll be around if she heads down there, and then goes and gets back in her car.
The auto shop smells like oil and gas and paint, all comfortingly familiar, and Penny just stands near one of the row of roller doors for a minute, breathing it all in and thinking about home again. The students are mostly male, mostly working industriously, a huddle of three down one end taking a break in a haze of bluish-grey smoke.
An older man spots her and breaks away from the line of cars, wiping his hands on a rag that doesn’t look like it was ever anything but a rag. “Help you, ma’am?” He has close-cropped grey hair and stoops a little when he walks, like he’s spent so much time leaning over to look at engines that his back’s never quite straightened out.
“Hey, um, I’m Penny, I called earlier about bringing my car down to get the check engine light looked at. Are you Mr. Matthews?”
“That’s me. Matthew Matthews, yes, my parents did hate me, just Matt’s fine.” He wastes no time in crossing the courtyard to her car. “Always good to have a willing victim,” he says cheerfully. “The kids all bring their own cars in, of course, but we can only fix each problem once.” His speech patterns are Southern but his accent’s somewhere East Coast; Maine, maybe. In her head, he’s instantly traveled the states for years on his thumb and his skill with an engine.
“What if the problem happens again?” Penny asks.
“Kid gets an F, of course.” His laugh is good-natured. “Pop the hood for me.”
“Oh, we’ve looked at all that—”
“Sure, you said on the phone, but I believe in starting from the ground up. Ain’t no use running before you can walk.”
He moves around the car like a doctor around an operating table, roughened hands moving with an elegance and delicacy she’s surprised to see. Furthermore, even while he’s head-down in her car’s engine, he’s answering questions that the kids yell over to him, plus he bellows at the smokers to get back to work as soon as they butt their cigarettes and he’s not even looking.
He’s not a teacher, she decides. He’s some sort of miracle worker.
They go over all of the stuff that she already knows. Matt nods along with her as she reels off the list of things that have gone wrong and how and when they were fixed. He laughs when she digresses into an anecdote about her father, and watches her hands beside his, perhaps wondering how she can bear to put her pretty delicate baby-blue nails anywhere near the icky nasty engine.
“I’m not gonna fix your car for you,” he says when the talking finally winds down.
Penny blinks. “You – huh?”
“You’re gonna do it. There’s still a week left ‘fore enrollments close, and it’s a pretty cheap course, ‘specially considering you’ve got most of your equipment right here.” He looks at her, faded blue eyes in his sun-brown face clear and bright. “You’ve got most of the know-how and if you wanna walk away, get someone else to get under there and fix whatever loose wire’s causing this, feel free. But you know your way around this car. Why not look after her yourself?”
An hour later she’s walking up the stairs to her place, photocopies of the enrollment paperwork in one hand, her purse in the other. She feels weirdly excited about this.
She calls her boss at the Cheesecake Factory to tweak her availability; the course doesn’t have a whole lot of contact hours, but she figures she’s going to need a little extra time to study. The course doesn’t have a textbook so much as it does a car manual, but it’ll take some reading. It’s a lot thicker than any script she’s ever picked up but then this is different to acting.
For one thing, she’s not going to have to pretend she’s something she isn’t to get into this role.
Friday night is girls’ night. Bernadette’s shrieking down the phone at her mother when she walks in and then hangs up and smiles so sunnily at Penny it’s hard to imagine that shrill yell coming out of that pretty face.
“Sorry about that,” she says. “Mom wants the bridesmaids to wear pink.”
“What’s wrong with pink?” Penny asks unthinkingly as she plucks at the strap of her own pink tank top.
“We already agreed on aqua!” For a second Bernadette’s voice goes shrill again and Penny cringes. Bernadette sees the movement and relents. “Sorry. But aqua’s the only color you and Amy and my sister can all wear without someone looking ridiculous.”
“If I don’t get the hang of these shoes soon I’m still going to look ridiculous,” Amy grumbles, starting another lap of Penny’s living room, teetering in her heels even though they’re all of two inches tall and really, it’s not like they’re stilettos.
“You’ll be fine,” Penny says automatically. If she says it often enough Amy might start believing it. Also, she privately thinks that in aqua all of them are going to look ridiculous, but keeps that to herself. It’ll be Bernadette’s day and what’s a wedding without ridiculous bridesmaid dresses, anyway? At least they’re not meringuey. “You’ve got months to practice.”
“Only seven months.”
Bernadette goes very, very pale when Amy says this, and Penny dashes to the kitchen to pour her an emergency shot of Baileys.
“Why did I agree on an April wedding anyway?” she croaks, knocking back the creamy liqueur and holding out her glass for seconds.
“Because it’ll be spring, and everything’ll be pretty!” Penny says as reassuringly as she can, bottle at the ready.
“What if it rains?”
Here they go again: the what-ifs. What if it rains, or it’s too sunny, or it’s too cloudy, or Howard decides he doesn’t want an outdoors wedding because he might spontaneously combust if he gets too much sunlight? There’s only one solution to the what-ifs, and Penny pours Bernadette another shot of it.
“Bestie? What’s this?” Amy has stopped doing laps and paused beside what passes for Penny’s dining table. (The only thing that differentiates it from the coffee table is the height of the legs. They are both Ikea-brand-bland fake pine.) She’s tapping one finger on Penny’s copy of her enrollment forms and college class schedule.
“Oh, um, I enrolled for some classes down at the community college.”
“I thought you were already taking acting classes,” Bernadette says, now furiously tapping a message into her phone that, Penny notes, incorporates more capital letters than the average tween’s tweet.
“This is something different.” Now that she has to explain it she’s feeling a little self-conscious. “I’m going to be working on my car.”
“On your car? I thought you had a good mechanic.” Amy’s flipping through the pages now and Penny wishes she’d put them down.
“Martin’s great, but this is an electrical problem and I can’t really afford to pay someone else to fix it, so...” She lets the sentence hang there and pours herself a shot of Baileys.
“Well, teach a man to fish...” Amy finally puts the paperwork down and comes to join them on the couch, looking expectantly at the bottle. At least she doesn’t try to pretend she needs peer pressure any more, although Penny does wish she’d just ask instead of expecting Penny to be psychic.
“These days you can’t teach a man anything unless there’s a Wii version of it,” she says, pouring Amy’s shot. Amy sips it delicately, grimacing a little at the burn of the alcohol. Penny wishes she had butterscotch schnapps; Amy would stop making that face with a couple of Cowboys in her.
“Wii fishing exists,” Bernadette points out, tucking her phone into her bag.
“What about Wii wedding planning?”
Bernadette just glares at Penny for that one and tosses back her second shot.
Penny doesn’t forget to tell the guys about school so much as she intends to tell them all on Tuesday night and Howard and Sheldon already know, because the grapevine is strong with them, so that means Raj knows as well. It’s not like it’s a secret or anything, but she’s a little miffed that she didn’t at least get to say it first.
“The mechanic’s overalls look can be very sexy to the right people,” Howard says. Penny swats him with her order pad. Seven months out from the wedding and although he’s hopelessly devoted to Bernadette (the whole group knows this ever since the karaoke incident) his eyes still incessantly wander.
Raj takes a sip out of a hip flask, swallows, and says, “Good for you, Penny!’
“Hey, no outside alcohol in the restaurant.”
“It’s not alcohol, it’s Nyquil.” Raj sneezes unconvincingly.
“You have got to get help.”
“Does this mean you’ve given up on acting?” Sheldon asks. He’s fiddling with his fork and she knows damn well it’s spotless; she checked it herself before they came in because she’s sick of poking through the flatware with his eyes burning holes in her back from across the room.
“No! No, I just... it’s practical, okay? It’s cheaper than paying an auto electrician to pull the car apart and it means I know how to do it all myself if something else happens.”
“Will it mean your check engine light will finally go off?”
She could’ve fixed all the complaining about that light if she’d stuck the gaffer tape across his mouth instead. “Yes, Sheldon.”
“Oh, good. It was starting to annoy me.”
“Starting to? Annoy you? I—know what, never mind. You want your usual?”
“Of course I do, Penny, that’s why it’s referred to as the ‘usual’, because it’s what I usually have.”
Why does she put up with him again? Oh yeah, because she’s afraid that if he gets any worse without Leonard around he’ll invent something that blows up the world. Maybe she should stop driving him to work. She doesn’t want to enable him. “Whatever, Sheldon. Guys? Are you ready to order?”
Matt runs her through the basics that she’s missed while the rest of the class gets on with this week’s lesson. Penny changes her spark plugs, replaces her oil filter, removes and refits her fan belt, and Matt stops her there and tells her, “Okay, you’re all good,” in a tone of voice that suggests that he already knew that she would be. He hands her a photocopied circuit diagram and tells her to study it while he goes to check on the others, and strolls along the line of cars.
“Hey, newbie,” says a voice from behind her, and Penny stiffens and turns, anticipating a grease-covered sleazeball.
The girl she comes face to face with is definitely grease-covered, but she’s no sleazeball; she’s Penny’s height but stockier, brown hair cut short and gelled into spikes reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog, a multitude of metal bars and rings adorning her ears. She’s holding out her hand; Penny shakes with her and then gives her a relieved smile.
“Sorry, I thought you were one of the guys coming to hit on me.”
“I can hit on you if you want, but I was just gonna bring you something to get your hair outta your face.” The girl hands her a navy blue baseball cap with Mystery Train embroidered on the front in ruby red. “Ponytails’re okay, but the little bits that come out and get in your eyes can be a pain.” She sounds like she could’ve been mothered by the Statue of Liberty and fathered by... Penny does not want to think about phallic New York monuments.
She takes the cap, bends the brim around her forearm, and threads her ponytail through the back before settling it down on her forehead.
“No problem. I’m Ky.”
Ky leans against Penny’s car and eyes the engine. “Tell you the truth, I already know pretty much everything about this shit,” she confides. “But the garage I work at, they wanted me to be properly qualified, just to cover their asses. Plus the certificates look good on the wall.”
Penny thinks of Sheldon’s neatly framed doctoral certificates hanging on the wall of some mechanic’s grease-stained workshop and starts giggling. Ky watches her, one eyebrow raised, and doesn’t ask what’s so funny. She seems to realize that Penny’s not laughing at her.
“Anyway,” she says when Penny pauses to breathe, “I figured you could use the hat, and I don’t need it anymore.”
Penny nods at Ky’s hair. “Obviously.”
Ky just shrugs. “It got annoying after the first class.” She holds up her hands, fingers spread, to show her nails trimmed as short as possible. “You might want to get, like, a serious manicure, too.”
Spreading out her own fingers, Penny looks at her nails; they’re talons by comparison. Ky probably has a point. “As long as I don’t have to start smoking.” She tilts her head toward the gaggle of smokers who have formed around the trashcan at the far end of the row of cars.
“Nah, fuck that shit.” Ky wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know how Matt lets them get away with it.”
“Pot,” Ky emphasizes.
Penny inhales deeply. Sure enough, buried under the ever-present smell of gas and oil and sweat, there’s the sweet tang of pot smoke, and suddenly she’s back in high school, hanging around behind the auto shop, joint dangling from her fingers, the smoke smell clinging to her. It never did wash out of that one denim jacket, she remembers, no matter how often she tried, and she knew her dad never believed that Christy borrowed her jacket.
She thinks maybe she should call home tonight and see how her folks are doing, let them know she’s back in school.
She finally gets up the nerve to tell Leonard after she’s been in the course for ten days, mainly because they don’t Skype all that often and if she doesn’t tell him now he’ll hear it from one of the others and then be hurt that she didn’t tell him.
He doesn’t get it at first. “You mean the TV show? Did you get a role in it?”
Penny totally could’ve played Britta, or done the good-girl thing and played Annie; either way, kissing Joel McHale would’ve been okay. And whoops, there goes her mind; she de-vagues and returns her attention to the computer. “No, not the TV show. I’m actually going to community college.”
“Why?” Leonard blurts out, instantly looking guilty.
There are so many ways that she could answer that question, most of them sarcastic. In an attempt not to be too snarky she goes with, “Because my check engine light wouldn’t turn off.”
“What?” Now he just looks confused. Penny relents and explains the story to him as briefly as she can. She leaves out the gaffer tape solution, and the way she feels uncomfortable being one of the only women in the class, like the guys are staring at her all the time even if they’re not, and basically everything that isn’t just, the mechanic sent me down there to see if their auto shop students could do it cheap and the teacher talked me into signing up.
“...and it’s actually really fun.”
“Don’t you worry about breaking your nails and stuff?”
“Did I worry about that when I helped move all your boxes of shi—stuff into storage?” She hears the snap in her voice and is glad it wasn’t any worse.
“Oh. Yeah. No.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence between them for a moment. She remembers when all their silences were fine, even if he did drop really dumb comments about her breasts into them, and breaks it with, “So how’s work over there?”
(They never say “in India”. It’s always “over there” or “overseas”. Raj, especially, avoids the name of his home country. She thinks it’s partly because he’d never be able to find a job in his field over there and partly because of Priya getting her own way with their parents while he still can’t.)
Leonard brightens up. “Oh, work’s great. I’ve been writing grant applications since I got here and we’re hoping to get somewhere with those soon so that we can secure more funding for the department...”
He continues for a while. Penny does not suggest that he find someone rich to sleep with, but nods and smiles at all the right places, and when they both sign off the uncomfortable feeling has gone away, at least for the time being.
She feels like she’s losing him. She’s already lost him as a potential partner and she’s (nearly) reconciled herself to that fact; it’s the part where he’s slipping away from her as a friend that hurts. It’s never as easy as just parting as friends with a kiss on the cheek and a hug at the airport, not when you have so much history with a person.
Maybe that’s why she does what she does next Halo night.