Penny and Raj kick Sheldon and Amy’s asses by a very thin margin; it’s an exhilarating adrenaline rush, even considering that it’s only on screen, and so when Raj offers to walk her home she giddily says yes without a second thought.
“But your home is only across the hallway,” Sheldon says, puzzled.
“I have my suspicions about the real intentions behind Rajesh’s offer—” and then Penny pulls the door closed on Amy’s voice.
“I thought we weren’t going to mention this ever again,” she says, letting Raj catch her hand and pull her across the hall.
“No, you said it never happened,” Raj corrects her. “You didn’t say it couldn’t happen again.”
He pulls her into his arms, and she lets herself lean into him, and she can remember his body stripped bare of his multiple layers. All four of them are like that: Leonard with his hoodies and Sheldon with his t-shirts and Howard with his overly complicated belt buckles and Raj with his sweater vests; they all hide behind their own layers. And all her life she’s heard that it’s women who’re meant to be self-conscious about their bodies.
It’s nicer this way, when they’re both sober enough to really appreciate it. Raj has a mild buzz on and Penny drank one of his beers and instead of being a dumb drunken thing between friends it’s more like a “why the hell not?” thing between friends.
She wiggles free, opens her apartment door, and waves him inside. Raj goes, turned a little shy again despite her acceptance, but that passes swiftly when he sees the condition that her place is in.
“Please tell me you’re not trying to make rhinestone fanbelts.”
“What? No. Coincidence.” Penny can see what he means, though; the clutter of stuff on her coffee table would indeed lead a casual observer to believe that she was attempting to bring a little bling to her car’s engine. Of course, they’d have to be a casual observer who had no clue what a horrible idea it would be to put little plastic gems anywhere near an engine.
She grabs his hand, now, and pulls him into the bedroom, and there’s just enough familiarity and friendship between them for it to be fun instead of awkward.
The part she’s proudest of is when she wakes up the next morning, his arm across her, and doesn’t freak out. In fact, she wriggles carefully down the bed, being careful not to wake him up until she’s ready to wake him up, and takes advantage of the fact that he fell asleep naked.
She hears a soft whimper and then, “Oh my God, Penny,” from further up the bed and smirks around him.
Seems that under the right circumstances he does talk without alcohol, after all.
It’s a good thing for two weeks and then it falls apart, not noisily, more like one of them tugged on the wrong thread and they just unraveled like a miswoven cat’s cradle. Their schedules don’t really line up except for Halo night – the guys visiting the Cheesecake Factory doesn’t count – and it’s too much of a pain to try and change things around. The bottom line is that Penny wants someone she can talk to when he’s not drunk, and Raj wants to be able to talk when he’s not drunk, and both of them feel embarrassed when all he can do is squeak.
Neither of them mind going back to being friends, but it drives Amy crazy.
“Why?” she wails on the Friday night of that week, pouring wine for Penny, for herself, and for Bernadette, who’s doing that thing where she smiles fiercely at the phone but actually wants to kill whoever she’s talking to (currently Howard, re: cummerbunds). “You could have cracked the mystery of why he can’t talk to women unless he’s drunk! You practically had a PhD handed to you on a delicious caramel plate!”
“He could; I think he just had to get his endorphins going,” Penny says. “Bernadette. Bernadette. Sit down.”
Bernadette covers the phone and hisses, “This is urgent!” and Penny grabs it out of her hand, says, “Bye, Howard,” and hangs up.
“What do you mean he had to get his endorphins going? Alcohol’s a depressant. They’re two totally different things.”
“Penny, give me the phone back!”
“Trust me, Amy, he talked when he wasn’t drunk.”
“Oh. So you were engaging in coitus?”
“I thought I banned that word – Bernadette, get off me.”
“You only banned Sheldon, not me,” Amy says. “Am I right?”
“N—technically, sort of, yes. Bernadette!”
“How can you only ‘sort of’ be engaging in coi—intercourse?”
“She was obviously doing something else sexual to him, Amy, God,” Bernadette snaps, downing half her wine and staring longingly at her phone, which Penny promptly stuffs down her bra. That’ll dissuade Bernadette at least; she’s not sure she would have tried it if it had been Amy’s phone. Amy can be a little unpredictable when it comes to the concept of personal space.
“Yeah. Something else.”
“Oh, oral sex. You know, I’ve always been confused as to why that’s not counted when one discusses losing one’s virginity. What about lesbians?”
Penny sighs and tops up her wine. She’s gone from actress to waitress to car mechanic to, apparently, sex educator.
Six weeks into her course, the crunch finally comes. She’s pored over all her bills, all her income, and the family tree just in case she’s got any elderly relatives likely to die anytime soon and leave her – she checks again – a minimum of three grand.
She’s screwed. She’s going to have to move out of her apartment and into some hole in someone’s basement without windows and a toilet that only flushes on alternate Tuesdays.
Penny manages to stop that train of thought before it gets all the way to Crazytown. Maybe she can pick up a couple extra shifts. Also, maybe she can cancel her cable. And maybe candles are cheaper than her power bill. She can always microwave stuff over at Sheldon’s.
Penny’s always loathed borrowing money. Loathed it. She hates owing anyone anything. But she can maybe sort of kind of tolerate it from Sheldon. Just this one more time.
She steels herself, opens her door, and nearly gets Sheldon’s fist in her face.
“Penny?” He snatches his hand back just in time.
“Sheldon. I was just coming to see you.”
He moves his fist to the doorframe and, with her standing there unable to stifle a grin, does his customary knock. She notices that he’s got a clipboard under his arm and contemplates shutting the door just in case it’s another friendship survey.
“So, why were you coming to see me?” she asks when he’s done.
“Why were you coming to see me?”
“Oh, it can wait.” She gestures at the clipboard. “What’s that?”
He clears his throat a little nervously. “I wanted to get your advice on something.”
Sheldon follows her inside and sits down on the couch, holding the clipboard out to her. “I’m going to start looking for a new roommate and I want you to look this over. It was very difficult finding Leonard in the first place. Replacing him is not going to be an easy task.”
Penny feels an unexpected tightness in her chest. Sheldon doesn’t exactly look happy about the prospect of someone else moving in, filling that hole in the apartment across the hall, and she knows her expression mirrors his.
Still, she takes the clipboard and looks at the top page. “This is what you’re going to put up at the university?”
“Well, I can hardly look on Craigslist. I need to know that my new roommate and I will have at least something in common.”
Penny looks back down at the page. The typing is tiny, divided into subsections that have bullet points, and Sheldon has clearly decided to preemptively narrow the field by only including four tear-off strips with his contact details on the bottom.
“Why do you need a new roommate anyway? I thought you were doing all right. Can’t you afford your place on your own?”
Sheldon looks down at his hands, interlaced in his lap. “It’s not that. It’s—” He closes his mouth and just shakes his head.
She gets it. She won’t say it out loud, but she gets it: Sheldon’s lonely. Homo novus needs companionship. Who knew?
Instead of saying it out loud, she carefully tears one of the contact strips off the bottom, and then crumples the rest of the page.
“What are you doing?” Sheldon squawks.
Penny hushes him with a finger to her lips and gets out her cell phone. She doesn’t need to look at the paper slip; she already has his number.
Sheldon’s phone rings in his pocket and he automatically pulls it out, looks at the screen in bemusement, and then answers it anyway. “Hello?”
“Hi. My name’s Penny. I saw your advertisement for a new roommate, and I’d like to apply.”
He’s just gaping at her from the other end of the couch, but gets it together enough to respond with, “And what makes you think you fit the criteria?”
She throws the balled-up paper at him, nailing him on the forehead. “I know when you do your laundry, which night is pizza night and Xbox night, what times you require the bathroom, and your favorite route to be driven to work.”
“I see. And how soon can you move in?”
“I have to give notice on my current place, but that should only be a week.”
“So you have a current apartment?” He’s looking right at her now. “Is there anything the matter with it?”
“No. No, there’s nothing the matter with it. I’m just juggling study and work and it’s less affordable than it used to be.” She ducks her head, having trouble looking him in the eye. “I figured sharing with a roommate, being able to split bills and so on, would make my situation financially viable again.”
“I see,” Sheldon repeats. “Well, you sound like the perfect candidate.”
“Yes!” Penny punches the air, and doesn’t even bother to hang up before she’s throwing herself on him in a huge hug. Sheldon doesn’t seem to mind, even awkwardly puts his arms around her in return and squeezes before letting her go.
“Was that what you wanted to talk to me about?” he asks, ending the call and putting his phone away.
“Yes. Well, sort of. I was going to ask to borrow more money. But this is even better!” She retrieves her own phone from where she dropped it and hangs it up. “We can totally make this work, Sheldon, I promise.”
“We’ll just see what the new roommate agreement has to say about that,” he says, but there’s a hint of a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth, and when she rolls her eyes he doesn’t give her an automatic strike.
After that there doesn’t seem to be much point in waiting a week when she can start moving right away.
He does write up a new roommate agreement for her, hunched over his laptop as she ferries armloads of clothes across the hall, typing and backspacing and sighing.
It’s hard to condense her stuff from one apartment down to one room. She’s sitting on her bed, her back aching from putting it back together, and looking at the mountain of boxes around her, when Sheldon knocks on the doorframe. He has a stack of papers in his hand, but seems distracted, looking around at the heaps of things in her room.
“I know, it’s a lot of junk, I’m going to go through it and throw some of it out. I promise I won’t make a mess outside this room. Well, okay, I’m going to need some room in the bathroom for my stuff, I have a lot of—”
“Penny,” Sheldon interrupts her, “you’re entitled to half the communal living space. It’s in the roommate agreement.”
“Though I would prefer it if you don’t go overboard with your candles and your vases and your trinkets. Oh, and I’ve added a clause about segregating your scented soaps in the bathroom.”
Penny just grins and darts back to her old place to drag her couch over. It completely clashes with Sheldon’s big leather couch, but when it’s set in place of Leonard’s big chair (which finds its way to the corner near the window), it makes the gathering space around the coffee table look bigger. Of course, then the round coffee table looks sort of weird, and like it maybe won’t have enough room for all their food even though she knows it totally does, so she puts her table beside it and then looks from one to the other, and then at Sheldon.
“Geometrically speaking, your coffee table has more surface area,” he says, and Penny moves the round table out of the way, also to the corner near the window. She figures that’s the closest she’s going to get to his blessing.
“Twelve hours is way too much notice for sex.”
“Leonard said the same thing, but he managed.”
“Sheldon. I will yell ‘Headphones!’ on my way to the bedroom, but that’s the best you’re going to get.”
Penny’s dining table and chairs and her microwave have to go into storage, but that’s no great loss. Her toothbrush looks strange in the bathroom holder, an invasion of neon orange in the neutral colors surrounding it. She hangs her towel up on the towel rack and that’s a splash of brilliant jade. Perhaps she’s being unfair to the décor; the periodic table shower curtain is quite brightly colored. She puts her soaps and bath bombs and pads on the bottom shelf where Sheldon won’t have to see them.
The creak of the floorboards between the bathroom and her room is already familiar and it makes her smile, because this is the easiest move she’s ever done. Every other move tore her roots right up, transplanted her roughly, left her wilting a little. This move’s more like being moved out of a too-small pot into one where she can thrive.
She opens the closet, sees Leonard’s forlorn shirt still hanging there, and pulls it off the hanger. She presses it against her face, taking one last deep breath of the ghost of his cologne, and then unceremoniously drops it into the box of stuff that she’s going to throw out.
It’s weird being sentimental about Leonard when Raj was the last guy she had sex with in this room anyway. Not that that’s likely to happen again. It was fun, but she’s just not going to be in a relationship with someone who needs to be drunk to talk to her, even if Amy is still bugging her about the details. She’s already snapped at Amy to go date Raj herself if she was so curious and the scary part was that Amy didn’t scoff at the idea.
“Okay, okay, okay, give me the pen. If you’re going to put the stupid clause in, I get to word it.”
“Penny, you don’t know how to phrase these things.”
“Oh yeah? Want me to call Priya and ask her?”
(They both know she won’t.)
“Penny, this is absurd. You can’t put down precise dates and then add ‘subject to change due to stress’.”
“Sheldon. The day you grow a uterus is the day you can dictate what dates I put down for when my goddamn period might or might not come. Now just initial it.”
“...what’s this about chocolate?”
“This first date seems to be very soon.”
“Initial it. And then make me hot chocolate. With marshmallows.”
“That’s for when you’re upset.”
“Sheldon, if you don’t think I’m at least partly upset, then you’ve been sniffing too much printer ink.”
“My printer is a laser printer.”
“...how many marshmallows?”
By that evening all her stuff is at least in her new apartment, if not yet all neatly arranged (or relegated to storage). She breaks out the vacuum, looks regretfully at the irremovable dent in the bedroom wall from the time she and Leonard broke the bed, and leaves a Penny Blossom clipped to the corner of the bathroom mirror. She paid first and last month when she moved in and her landlord says she’ll get the extra back if he can rent the place any sooner.
She does one last run-through of her old place, vacuums up some rhinestones she missed the first time around, and checks the kitchen cabinets. There’s nothing left in them except for a faint layer of dust, which she brushes away with her hand, wiping it on her shorts.
Then it’s done. That’s all.
She goes across the hall and lets herself in, only to see Sheldon fiddling with her laptop, which he’s set up on Leonard’s old desk. Her favorite coffee mug’s beside it, steaming gently, and there’s a pink pen holder and Hello Kitty notepaper next to that.
“Sheldon... what is this?”
“You can’t use your laptop in your bedroom or at the coffee table all the time. It’s bad for your back.” He’s tossed one of her throw blankets over the chair as well; the whole setup no longer looks very much like Leonard used to have it at all.
“But where did the... accessories come from?”
“They were in the same box as your laptop.”
“Oh.” Actually, they do look vaguely familiar. She has the feeling that she recognizes them from the start of the semester. From her first time at college. Eight years ago. She doesn’t remember packing them. She also doesn’t remember ever giving Sheldon permission to go through her stuff, but then, the box with the laptop in it was the one that kind of only made it as far as the end of the couch. She sits down, fiddling with the seat height; this is better than leaning over the coffee table.
The only problem is that the wireless connection won’t work.
“Sheldon. Did you change the wi-fi password again?”
“Come on. I agreed I’d pay my half of the bill!”
“I know. As such I felt that ‘pennyisaleech’ was no longer an appropriate password.”
“Well, what is it then?”
He glances sideways at her. “Welcome home, Penny.” A pause. “No spaces.”
“You’re talking about a guy who usually shows about as much emotion as an iceberg lettuce, Pen,” Ky says from underneath her car. She scoots out on her backboard and looks up at Penny. “A guy who wants you to give him notice if you’re going to bring someone home to have sex with, for Godsakes. I didn’t think he had a sentimental side.”
Penny, currently lying with her head in the driver’s side footwell of her car and her hands up under the dashboard slowly easing apart a tangle of wires, just says, “Mmmm, I know.”
“What happened to that Indian guy you were dating?”
“We weren’t dating, we were just trying out the friends with benefits thing.”
“What, was he not beneficial enough?”
Penny can’t see the hand gesture Ky’s making but she now knows her well enough to know what it is. “Ky! It wasn’t anything like that. I just didn’t want to screw the friendship up if one of us got too emotionally involved, that’s all.”
“I know what that means. You were falling in love with him.” Ky sprawls across the passenger seat and shoves her head into the footwell beside Penny’s. “Am I right? I’m right, right?”
“You’re the opposite of right.”
“Oh. So wait, was he falling in love with you?”
Penny doesn’t say anything right away, but just concentrates on stripping the plastic off the wires. She’s remembering, not Raj, but Leonard. Remembering three little words spoken too soon.
“He was, wasn’t he?”
Wondering whether it would happen again.
“It was easier to end things before they got too complicated,” she says out loud.
Ky, who doesn’t have the advantage of following her train of thought, just sighs and then gasps. “Pen, watch out...”
Two of the bare wires touch. A shower of sparks spatters into their faces and the car’s engine splutters surprisedly into life.
“Please tell me you left the parking brake on.”
Thirty seconds later, on the other side of the car park, hanging out of their respective sides of Penny’s car, they conclude that no, Penny did not in fact leave the parking brake on. Matt is no help whatsoever, too busy laughing his ass off in the most professional teacherly way possible. Not.
That night she’s a little late for her shift and her boss grabs her on the way in and says, “Penny, you have grease on your face.”
She gets to the guys’ table, face scrubbed clean of grease, and they’re trying to rope Bernadette and Amy into playing armies with the condiments. Bernadette gives her a pleading look and Penny smacks Howard across the side of the head with her order pad.
“Penny, your face looks weird,” Bernadette whispers.
“I don’t still have grease on it?” Penny reaches up to touch her cheek.
“No, but you kind of only have half your lipstick on.”
“Are you sure you’re not taking on too much between working and studying?”
Penny bites her lip, removing another quarter of her lipstick. “You did it.”
Bernadette shrugs. “It’s not for everyone.”
“She’s not worn out from combining work and study,” Sheldon puts in unexpectedly. “She’s still tired from moving in with me on Saturday.”
Howard also gapes. They look scarily similar.
Raj spits water across the table and says, “You moved in together?”
“Well, um, it’s not really – how are you talking?”
“We’ve been experimenting with endorphins,” Amy says. Of all of them she’s the only one who doesn’t look surprised, but then again Sheldon probably told her at some point.
“You’re experimenting on Raj?”
“You’re living with Sheldon?” Raj is still staring at her. “Is this why we broke up?”
“You two were together?” Howard isn’t staring, he’s still gaping, and he’s also looking back and forth between Penny and Raj like he’s watching a ping-pong tournament. “Dude, when were you going to tell me about that?”
“We weren’t together together, we were... you know what? Does everyone want their usual? I’m gonna get everyone their usual. I’ll go do that.” Penny flips her order pad shut and hightails it over to the kitchen. She has all their regular orders memorized and so, for that matter, does half the restaurant staff. She scrawls them on the notepad anyway, drops the order off, and then goes and locks herself in the staff bathroom.
She’s not quite sure what she’s doing here, because she’s going to have to go back out in a minute and deliver two red wines, one lemonade, one diet virgin Cuba Libre, and one non-diet non-virgin Cuba Libre because if she has to serve Raj one more grasshopper, ever, it will be a swarm of locusts and she will shove them down his throat one by one still buzzing.
At least while she’s in here she can fix her lipstick.
She sidles out three minutes later. Raj is kneeling on the table yelling into Sheldon’s face. Howard and Bernadette are trying to pull him back. Amy’s – well, Penny’s not quite sure, but Amy appears to be taking notes.
Maybe coming out of the bathroom was a bad idea.
Her boss catches her elbow as she’s heading over there. “Get them out of here.”
“I’ll get him off the table.”
“Out of here.”
“All right, off the table, but you have two minutes.”
Penny literally runs.
“Raj, get down or you’re going to get me fired,” she says, lips right against his ear. Okay, so maybe it’s cheating, since she knows that turns him on, but everyone in the damn restaurant is staring at them.
Raj gets down off the table, sits down in his chair, and gives her a plaintive look.
“I’m sorry, Penny. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Dude, you didn’t sleep last night because you were marathoning My Little Pony and eating Pixy Stix, that’s what came over you,” Howard points out. “I told you to take it easy on the cartoons.”
“But Pinkie Pie’s so adorably funny!”
“Wait. Rajesh, you let me dose you with synthetic endorphins after you’d already filled up on artificial sweeteners? You’re a scientist, you know how the scientific method works, and you’ve ruined it by introducing your own variables!” Now Amy looks like she’s going to jump on the table.
“You guys make it really hard to be a bona fide brony,” Raj grumbles.
Penny finally gets the full story out of Sheldon when she gets home that night, the two of them sitting side by side at their laptops. Penny’s using up the last of the credit on Leonard’s old World of Warcraft account since Priya’s got better ideas about how he should spend his free time.
It seems like Raj misconstrued the reasons behind her moving in with Sheldon and, although Sheldon tried to explain it quite rationally, Raj somehow still took it the wrong way.
“I have no idea. There’s an ogre on your flank.”
Penny spins and shoots, the arrow catching the ogre in the eye. “You must have said something that gave him the wrong idea.”
“I assure you, Penny, all I said was that you felt you had the kind of friendship with me that meant you could move in here.”
Penny’s fingers fall still on the keyboard. “Please tell me you didn’t use the term ‘with benefits’.”
Too bad for Sheldon that they’re in a player versus player area. Penny decapitates him, texts Raj to explain while Sheldon respawns, and then decapitates him again just for good measure when he reveals that he also used the term “financially beneficial”