Chapter 1: overcome the dreaded curse, a symptom of the universe
Guys, seriously, I grew up on a farm, okay, I rebuilt a tractor engine when I was like twelve, I think I can put together a cheap Swedish media centre.
– Penny, “The Big Bran Hypothesis”
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.
Chapter 2: recreate the scene of everywhere you've been
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”
Chapter 3: despite what you believe I keep away from trouble
She has to immerse herself in study for the next week because of midterms. Sheldon speed-reads her course reader and starts firing questions at her at random. She’s scrambling eggs one morning and he’s asking her about antifreeze; that evening she’s trying to give herself a mani-pedi and he’s asking her about timing chains versus timing belts.
Laundry night that Saturday is particularly onerous. She sits cross-legged on top of one of the dryers while he leans against the wall and runs through a practice test that he, after an hour on the phone determining the college’s testing methods for the course and the required modules to be tested, wrote himself.
“It’s all multiple-choice, Sheldon, how hard can it be?”
“Sometimes they like to throw you off by having two very similar possible answers, thereby wasting your time if you’re not completely familiar with all of the material.”
Penny snorts. “It’s a shame I’m not studying physics then. At least Schrödinger’s cat was only ever dead or alive.”
“Penny, you’re oversimplifying the problem.”
“And you’re overproblemifying it.”
“That’s not a word.”
“Then I won’t need to worry about it being on the test, will I?”
There’s a classroom just off the garage area where they are supposed to be given weekly lectures. The desks smell like citrus cleaner; when Penny sits down she realizes the surface is still a little damp. Matt Matthews is not a teacher who does well in a blackboard-and-chalk environment; he looks as impatient as any of them to get out of the classroom.
“Reading time starts now,” he says, leaning against the wall up the front, dressed in a collared shirt and proper pants instead of jeans and a t-shirt. He looks uncomfortable, but Penny saw the other guy sitting at the back of the room, the official adjudicator, and she knows a little something about keeping up appearances.
Around her the room isn’t quite exam-silent; one of the smokers, who goes by Taylor J only a little because it’s his name and mostly because he’s the fastest joint-roller in that crowd, manages to break the point on both of his #2 pencils. The way Matt throws a sharpener at rather than to him is the only time she sees their teacher do anything less than professional in the hour and a half that they sit in the small room. One of the fluorescent lights is broken and buzzes alarmingly. Ky, beside her, is a pencil-chewer when she’s nervous. The endless thunk-thunk-thunk of the ball on the basketball court just the other side of the building is much clearer, as are the yells when someone goes up for a dunk.
If anything, though, the constant background noise helps. She’s used to taking orders in a noisy restaurant, after all.
The first time she gets stuck she closes her eyes and imagines sitting in the laundry room, the smell of fabric softener hanging in the air, and brings Sheldon’s voice to mind. Then she opens her eyes and fills out the little answer bubble, not letting herself second-guess anything the first time around.
“Ten more minutes, guys,” Matt says sooner than she expected and Penny checks the clock. He’s right. Ky’s already long gone, filling the paper out and then leaving as early as permissible. Penny half wishes she’d done the same thing and then starts checking her answers one more time. She closes her eyes again and remembers something Sheldon said about the probability of people changing their answers from the wrong one to the right one. Well, she doesn’t remember what he said so much as that he said something about it. She really wishes she did.
In the end she only changes one answer, almost wearing a hole in the paper with the eraser. She catches herself wishing she could take the exam paper home to go through with Sheldon and shakes her head. Apart from anything else she’d only end up incapable of remembering what answers she chose.
She never yells at Sheldon. Oh, well, sure, she yells, but she doesn’t shriek, doesn’t let her voice wind up into that fire-alarm squeal she used to let rip with when she got really angry at Kurt or Leonard. Most of the time, with Sheldon, it’s her tone of voice more than anything that gets him to shut up and listen, and that’s weird, because normally he’s so bad at reading emotions she wonders if his mom ever had him tested for things other than insanity, whether he was ever lumped in with the special kids at school for things other than his intellect.
But she just got the results of her midterms back, and she did pretty damn well, and so she bought new shoes. Now, this is not something she would have expected him to notice, but:
“Are those new shoes, Penny?”
“How did you know?” She curses herself for not just saying no and gives the pasta sauce a stir to keep it from sticking.
“You’re doing your classic breaking-in-new-shoes waddle.”
Here we go. “I do not waddle, Sheldon.”
“It’s not a criticism, merely an observation. You don’t do it normally. Only when you’re wearing new shoes and you’re worried about them falling off your feet.”
How the hell does he know that? “Shut up, Sheldon.”
Sheldon does not shut up. “Are you sure your finances can handle them at the moment? I was under the impression that you’d had fewer shifts at the Cheesecake Factory thanks to your increased need to study.”
“I also had a need for these shoes.”
“New shoes aren’t a ‘need’, they’re a ‘want’. They’re not a necessity if you still have other serviceable shoes.”
Penny starts dicing his stupid damn hot dogs with short furious chops of the knife, the subtext of which Sheldon completely misses because he’s too busy being obtusely Sheldon.
“Let me explain this.”
“Oh, all right. Can you use long words so I’ll understand?”
She whirls around and sees the joking attempt-to-smile on his face that vanishes at the sight of the uplifted knife. Oops. “Sorry. Sure.” It takes her a few seconds to gather her thoughts, during which she finishes dicing the hot dogs and adds them to the sauce simmering in the pot. “Okay. What do we do on Wednesdays apart from Halo night?”
“It’s New Comics Day.”
“Right. Now, imagine you can’t afford your comics every week.”
“But I make more than—”
“No, listen. Imagine you don’t make as much as you do now, okay? You only make enough to get by, to pay for the bare necessities. A roof over your head, food, water—”
She isn’t willing to argue with him that hard and besides, these days, he’s probably right. “Sure, okay. So you can’t afford your comics. But then they come out with a special edition of Batman and it tells a story you really, really want to read. Wouldn’t you buy it anyway, because it was special? Even though you didn’t need it?”
Sheldon’s silent, and she’s not sure if it’s because he’s thinking about what she said or if he’s just been distracted by a shiny equation.
“I’m not quite sure where shoes and comic books fit on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” he says eventually. “They’re certainly not a bottom-layer need.”
“Then don’t think about them as shoes and comics. Think about them as... look, sometimes you just need something kind of extravagant, even if it’s just a little extravagant, because it’s not something you need to live.”
“Purely because it’s frivolous?”
Penny looks down at her shoes. They’re black strappy sandals with red flowers on the outer ankle straps. “Exactly,” she says. “Because it makes you feel good to have it, even if you have to cut back somewhere else to afford it. Because you’re doing more than just getting by on the basics.”
Sheldon’s silent again and she’s pretty sure she finally got through to him. She drains the spaghetti and starts spooning it into their bowls, ladles the sauce over the top, and gets the garlic bread out of the oven.
“I could always just read the comic book in the store,” he says with an air of triumph as they sit down to eat.
“...so then he says he could just read the comic in the store, totally missing the point of what I was saying, can you believe it?”
“Have you got a flat-head screwdriver? Of course I can believe it; everything you’ve said about this guy makes him sound like he’s got no clue about anything.”
“Here. How can someone with two doctorates have no clue about anything?”
“Oh, not all that shit. I mean real stuff that real people need to know about. This is a Phillips-head.”
“Oops, sorry. Here.”
“He’s not totally clueless about everything. Did I tell you what he did with the wi-fi password when I moved in with him? That was cute.”
“Uh-huh. How long have you been into him, Pen?”
“...what? What did you just say?”
“I’m not into Sheldon. God.”
“Right. So if Brad Pitt walked in here right now and asked you out, you’d go?”
“I don’t know, Ky, wouldn’t Angelina get on my case?”
“Stop pretending this is about Angelina and that you’re not into... ow. Ow! Hey!”
“Penny! Why in hell’re you beatin’ on Ky with your baseball cap?”
“...because I couldn’t reach a wrench?”
“Damn good thing, too. Get back to work.”
Penny almost doesn’t have a Halloween party that year because she’s so busy between school and work and keeping Bernadette from exploding in a small blonde combustion of homicidal pre-marital rage.
But Raj asks her which night she’s having it on, and Sheldon’s got ideas about how they can have best costume awards now that he’ll be a co-host, and Howard thinks it’ll take Bernadette’s mind off things for a little while, so on the Saturday night just before Halloween Penny finds herself tearing open bags of chips while Sheldon strings streamers around the living room.
“This would have been better if we could’ve used the whole fourth floor,” she says, tugging on the sleeves of her dress. It’s too big, which is because it’s actually Raj’s Uhura costume, and she had it dry-cleaned before even trying it on, because she’s heard things about it.
“I hope you didn’t invite too many hangers-on from your class.” Sheldon raises one angled eyebrow. “We simply don’t have room for everyone if you did.”
“Relax, Spock, I only invited Ky. If it gets too busy in here we’ll just overflow up to the roof or something. It’ll be like a sitcom!”
“That is the least comforting thing you have ever said to me.”
Three hours later, the party consists of:
Penny (Uhura), holding her hand under the cold water tap after a mishap with a tray of mini-pizzas, being scolded by
Sheldon (Spock), who’s also about three seconds from having a fit over
Raj (also Uhura, dear god why does he have two dresses), sucking on helium balloons and attempting to hit on
Ky (a surprisingly passable Kirk), who is not so patiently explaining that lesbians do not exist for men’s entertainment to both him and
Howard (a tiny Han Solo), who’s not helping his and Raj’s case any by citing porn film titles, and is being death-glared at by
Bernadette (Princess Leia), who’s trying to talk Raj out of ruining any more of Sheldon’s balloons, not aided in her quest by
Amy (no costume), who’s scribbling notes about Raj’s antics with the helium and encouraging him to keep going because allegedly he’s managing to talk without drinking, which Penny very much doubts because seriously, who the hell does the helium thing if they haven’t been drinking?
All of her friends with IQs in the average part of the bell curve are spread out around the living room and out into the hallway. The new inhabitant of 4B, a hopeful artist who’s managing to pay her rent by (as far as Penny can tell) never buying new clothes, opened her door an hour ago to yell at them; now she’s sitting on the stairs doing caricature sketches of people for five bucks apiece.
Penny’s hand doesn’t look like it’s going to blister. She shuts the cold water off and dumps the mini-pizzas onto a plate, carrying them out into the hall, Kirk and Spock hot on her heels, the one complaining about other-Uhura, the other complaining about everyone indiscriminately. She steps around the artist (Poppy? Rose? Chrysanthemum? Shoot, she can’t remember) and heads up the stairs just to check on the rooftop.
When she steps onto the rooftop it’s into a haze of smoke.
“Why in hell did you invite Taylor J?” Ky asks.
“I didn’t.” Penny looks down at the plate of mini-pizzas, assessing their value as projectile weapons. When she finds out who the hell invited this idiot and his bottomless Baggie she’s going to test their armor class to its limits.
“Hey, Penny! Bitchin’ party,” Taylor greets her, grin so wide it’s straggling off his face at the corners and dripping down his cheeks. He offers her the joint he’s currently hitting off. “Oh, dude! It’s Spock!”
Spock looks unimpressed at being recognized. Penny didn’t even know human eyebrows lifted that far.
“What’re you doing here?” she asks.
“Oh, I heard you making party plans and, like, figured you wouldn’t mind me bringing a little life to it.” Taylor offers her the joint again. “Come on, babe, this isn’t a talking stick.”
The smoke is sweet and Penny remembers days she drifted through high as a kite, wanting nothing except for maybe some food (or all the food) and sex. Her current reality of bills-work-school-bridesmaiding-study makes an evening of drifting very appealing.
“No thanks, Taylor. I’ve got food to serve.” She offers him the mini-pizzas, and he stuffs like half the plateful into his mouth, and Penny walks away knowing that at least she won’t wake up in the wrong bed or with the wrong person in the morning.
The morning sunshine across the ceiling is on the wrong angle to be her room. Penny’s eyes are slitted against the brightness. She can feel the solidity of a male body beside her. She remembers declining the joint. She remembers not having time to drink very much, thanks to running around with food (kind of like work, only without being paid, part of her mind thinks cynically). Therefore, she is unimpressed by this waking-up-with-a-stranger bullshit.
She turns her head very carefully to see who she’s in bed with, and screams.
Two seconds later, she and Sheldon are standing on opposite sides of the bed. Sheldon is in his pajamas; Penny’s still in her Uhura dress and yanks the quilt off the bed to wrap around herself.
She gropes for words, can’t find them, and falls back on that old familiar standby: “What the hell?”
“You woke me up, Penny.” Sheldon rubs his eyes. “It’s not breakfast time yet.”
“It’s explanation time. Why am – did we – you don’t – what the hell?”
(Why am I in your room? Did we have sex? You don’t let people in your room, let alone your bed, let alone your pants. What the hell?)
Sheldon moves to the door (naturally he ended up on the side of the bed closest to the door, just in case he had to implement one of his goddamned escape plans, probably), and opens it. “I think that checking your own room would be a good idea.”
“Oh.” Penny walks around the bed and passes him; he doesn’t reach out to try and give her so much as a good morning hug. (Inconsiderate jerk. Although she has to admit that she doesn’t exactly feel like she’s had sex. She feels like she needs a couple of aspirin and maybe some bacon and eggs, but not like she’s had sex. Surely sex can’t be that unmemorable? Even sex with Sheldon, who by all accounts has as much sexual experience as a head of lettuce?)
When she reaches and opens her own bedroom door, her parenthetical anger fades instantly and is replaces by sheer shock.
Raj is in her bed.
And he’s not alone.
Amy looks very different without her glasses, which are sitting on Penny’s nightstand. Correction: they’re sitting on her notebook, which is sitting on Penny’s nightstand, pen neatly tucked into its spiral spine. Her head is on Raj’s shoulder; Raj’s arm is curled around her. Penny’s jaw is hanging somewhere around her knees and she’s not sure how she manages to go backward and close the door without falling over the quilt trailing around her feet.
Sheldon is still standing in his bedroom doorway. Penny is very glad that she didn’t say anything that she was thinking out loud. A touch of color comes to her cheeks because part of her mind has merrily kept on thinking about sex with Sheldon, and looking at him standing there with just a hint of chest exposed by one undone pajama button – just, damn it, a man in plaid pajamas should be definitively unsexy, but he isn’t.
“So why your room?” she asks. “People don’t come in your room. Go! People don’t go into your room.”
(She’s having her brain fired and replaced by robots.)
Sheldon, because he’s Sheldon and (thankfully) not Howard, misses the double entendre, and just says, “There was already someone asleep on your couch, and your friend Ky had her feet in my spot. I got her to move her feet but she wouldn’t move any further and I didn’t think you’d be comfortable sleeping upright.”
“But why were you trying to find somewhere for me to sleep in the first place?” Penny runs her hands through her hair and winces at the unwashed feeling of it, the lingering scent of pot smoke.
“You fainted,” Sheldon says simply. “The party was winding down, you were running around trying to clean up so you wouldn’t have to do it in the morning, and I found you on the kitchen floor.”
“How come you didn’t just leave me there?”
For the first time since she screamed and woke him up, Sheldon hesitates. “I didn’t want you to get cold,” he says eventually.
Penny doesn’t know why she has the feeling that’s not the whole story, but she leaves it at that. She needs to shower, and put on real clothes (oh, hell, that means going into her room), and eat breakfast, and see how much damage has been done.
Amy emerges first as Penny’s frying eggs for herself and Sheldon and Ky. The guy passed out on her couch is one of Raj’s astrophysicist buddies, if the fact that he’s dressed as Saturn is anything to judge by. Penny’s wearing the first top and pair of shorts she could find by grabbing stuff off the top of her clean laundry heap without looking too closely at her bed. Amy’s wearing last night’s blouse and skirt and a hungover look.
“Morning, bestie!” Penny puts a special effort into sounding as perky as she can.
Amy gives her a baleful glare, catches sight of the expression on Sheldon’s face, and then maybe the smell of the eggs gets to her or maybe she just had a sudden moment of recollection because she bolts, hand over her mouth, toward the bathroom.
Raj walks out two minutes later, yanking his dress as far down over his thighs as he can manage. There’s an electrode stuck in his hair. Penny has to concentrate very hard on grating cheese into the scrambled eggs to keep from laughing.
“You weren’t lying about how complicated things get with your friends,” Ky says as though it’s just her and Penny in the room, and that sets Penny off. She keeps poking at the eggs with her spatula to keep them from burning, but she giggles until her cheeks hurt.
Amy finally comes out of the bathroom, looking paler but saner. She glances at Raj and then her gaze skitters over to Penny and the frying pan.
“Don’t worry, I can feed everyone,” Penny says, although she knows that’s not actually what Amy’s worried about. And then, because she’s occasionally a terrible person, she adds, “So, you’re moving into the next stage of your ‘experiment’ with Raj?” She does the air quotes with the spatula, flicking little yellow yolk-bits everywhere.
Raj yanks the electrode out of his hair and throws it at her, but he’s smiling, and Amy sounds at least a little amused as she groans and buries her face in her hands.
Chapter 4: so I landed on my feet, the steadiness is bittersweet
Penny’s days settle into a quieter routine after Halloween. She works, she studies, she spends more and more time on the phone with Bernadette, and she feels a little less like she’s going out of her mind because Sheldon’s helped her out with her schedule.
She has a diary now, one with more in it than just homework dates that stopped getting conscientiously updated about three weeks into semester.
Halo night’s in it as well as work shifts and class times. Sheldon insisted.
It’s on a mid-November Halo night when Amy stops referring to Raj as “Subject #1” and uses the word “boyfriend” instead. And it’s not qualified with “boy who is my friend but not my”. Penny and Sheldon beat Amy and Raj that night, but it’s not much of a victory, because the other two are clearly distracted.
After Amy and Raj have gone home Sheldon’s wiping soda can rings off the coffee table and Penny’s packing away the Xbox controllers. Sheldon’s mind is elsewhere; he’s wiped down the same section of table three times.
“You’re not jealous of Raj, are you?”
“Of course not. Amy and I didn’t have that level of compatibility.”
“But you don’t mind?”
Sheldon seems to realize he’s about to wear a hole in the table and stops rubbing. “No. I’m not interested in Amy that way. Or in Rajesh, for that matter.”
Penny laughs, and Sheldon does the half-smile he’s managed to figure out without Joker-facing at people, and they take their turns in the bathroom, and it’s not until Penny’s been lying awake for over an hour that she realizes she didn’t get the whole Homo-novus-doesn’t-have-feelings vibe off him this time. She resolves to ask him about that in the morning, and then falls asleep and promptly forgets all about it.
In her dreams she wakes up beside him and, instead of screaming, curls her arm across him, and he rolls to face her, and they kiss. A couple of his posters have been taken down to make way for a couple of her paintings. In her dreams there’s safety in his arms, and a depth of warmth she’d never considered might reside within him.
When she wakes up she doesn’t remember her dreams, but she hugs him spontaneously because he has her coffee waiting when she stumbles into the kitchen, and Sheldon doesn’t pull away.
Then comes the morning when Penny gets to class and the smokers are rolling cars one by one out of the neat line to push them out of range of the cameras aimed at the garage. Her car isn’t going anywhere, just the real junkers that won’t even make it as extras. Matt’s directing them with resigned sweeps of his arm. Near the cameras, the little cluster of director-actress-cameraman waits for the set to be arranged.
“What the hell,” Penny says to Matt by way of greeting.
“I may’ve forgotten to warn you these folks were comin’ in. They want their new ad to be all authentic and stuff. Somethin’ about the cars bein’ high-tech enough to, I dunno, parallel park themselves, but still easy maintenance.” He jerks a thumb towards the trio at the cameras. There’s a certain amount of squabbling going on. “Only problem is, now that she’s seen what we do, she’s gone all high maintenance and won’t even put her coveralls on.”
“Huh,” Penny says, and goes to her car. She’s not going to let some actress’s histrionics keep her from learning; last week she figured out how to turn the odometer backward and, although she’s not planning on using the trick again, she wants to see what else happens if she pokes around with a few more wires.
“Hey, Pen,” Ky says from the bay beside her. “Check out this body.”
“I already told you, I don’t swing that way.”
“I mean the car, dumbass.”
Penny turns around and registers that Ky’s usual lesson machine has been replaced by a sleek, shiny, blue, highly polished brand-new piece of pretty. She sucks in a quick breath and Ky gives her an I-told-you-so look.
“Sucks that they’re wasting it on her.” Ky looks over toward the blonde woman who’s now holding her hands out to the director in an accusing way. Penny remembers going on auditions for commercials where she had to pretend to be enthused about, amongst other things, pills made out of cow placenta, a new kind of dairy-free gluten-free fat-free (taste-free) snack cake, and Stephenie Meyer’s latest book. She has no sympathy for this woman who, if she breaks a nail, will probably just get a new one glued on at her next manicure appointment.
“Let’s pop the hood,” she says.
Ky doesn’t even waste breath asking her if she’s sure. It’s the work of seconds and then they’re peering in at an engine so pristine it doesn’t look as though it was even driven here from the studio, but perhaps airlifted in, or carried on the backs of several strong young men.
“Hey, you two! You can’t poke around in there.” It’s the director, looking simultaneously angry at them and relieved at the break from his pretty pink princess. Pink overalls, what the fuck. She’s holding them up in front of herself, nose wrinkled. “Come on, back off.”
“We’re not going to hurt her,” Ky says absently, touching the battery. “Look at this, Pen – it’s brand new.”
Penny looks at the director. “Sorry. She really likes cars.”
The director’s eyes linger on her face a little longer than Penny likes, then drop to her hands; she’s got them resting on the top of the engine itself, feeling the slight warmth that indicates it did get driven here. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”
“Please. I grew up on a farm. I’ve been doing this forever.”
“You ever act?”
Ky throws a very unsubtly excited elbow into her side; it makes it hard for Penny to sound calm when she says, “Not recently, but yeah.”
“Good. Got your equity card?”
She knew she was right not to throw it out in a fit of pique last time she cleaned out her purse. “Yeah, I do.”
“Good. I’m Rafe. The cameraman’s Leo. You’re...”
“Right,” Rafe says, trotting back across the tarmac to Leo and Nameless Diva. He says something and gestures towards Penny. Nameless Diva’s jaw drops and she shakes her head. Rafe shakes his harder. Nameless Diva’s high heels click toward Penny, but Ky interposes herself between them.
“Uh-uh, sweetie. You had your chance and you blew it.”
Penny just puts on her best aw-shucks-who’da-thunk-it? face and shrugs innocently. Nameless Diva storms off, Leo gets the cameras rolling, and Rafe comes back to give Penny her (very minimalistic) script. He makes her take her Mystery Train cap off but Ky puts it on and scores the role of Extra #1, handing Penny a dipping stick to check her oil, and just like that Penny switches from student to actress.
Matt watches her from behind the cameras, eyebrow quirked, and if Penny’s smile still seems genuine even after the twelfth take (not her fault; the shiny blue car is just a little too shiny, and Leo’s struggling with the lighting, and Rafe’s a little less than sympathetic about it), it’s because it is.
“Daddy. It’s not ‘just a car ad’. It’s nationwide!”
“Sure, sweetie,” Wyatt says from hundreds of miles away. “Let me know when they’re gonna start airing it and I’ll be sure to tape it.”
“Well, it’s supposed to be on at seven on Thursdays because the actress is from a TV show that’s on at the same time, but they might change it because it’s just me.”
“Come on, now, you deserve a prime-time appearance more than she does. If she’s too scared to break a nail or get a little dirty she should hand over her job to someone who’s not afraid.”
Penny laughs. “Dream on, Dad.”
“Well, she should.”
“I’ll let you know when it’s going to be on.”
“Will it be on YouTube? I’m not exactly going to see it on television over here.” Leonard looks a little rueful, as if anyone could actually miss commercials.
“Please. It’ll be up. You know Howard. He put up video of his mother trying to get out of a beanbag; he’ll put anything up.”
“That was kind of funny. Anyway, congratulations. Is college going well?”
“Well, some of the guys started teasing me because of the whole ad thing, but I’m pretty confident, plus Sheldon makes me study for half an hour every night.”
“Only half an hour? Wow.”
“Yeah, well, it’s in the roommate agreement. It goes up at exam time.”
“He put a study clause in the roommate agreement?”
“More like I put a clause in that says if Sheldon gets too annoying, Missy’s going to teach me exactly what she used to do to his testicles.”
The car ad gives her a real boost. Customers at the Cheesecake Factory recognize her; the men usually just leer (damn overalls. Damn Howard for being right about them). Some people seem to be genuinely pleased to see someone who knows what she’s doing rather than some ad of a car being driven through all kinds of terrain that the average car owner won’t even look at on Google Maps, let alone ever drive through personally. But changing tires and topping up oil and checking the battery, those are things that people can identify with.
Plus it means she has enough money to put together a real Thanksgiving dinner. She invites Howard and Bernadette, Raj and Amy, and Ky. Ky declines on the grounds that she’s heading back east for the holiday weekend to spend the time with her parents, and also because she doesn’t want to be a seventh wheel. Penny hits her with her baseball cap.
When the big day finally rolls around, the coffee table looks properly grown-up. The checkered tablecloth and the real plates and flatware have changed it a lot. Even the small army of Warhammer figurines launching an assault on the bread rolls don’t change that. Being paired off the way they are, Penny realizes Ky was right; anyone looking at them from the outside would assume they were three couples dining together.
Although she and Sheldon aren’t holding hands like Amy and Raj or practically sitting on each other like Howard and Bernadette.
She is sitting close enough to him that her thigh brushes against his from time to time, though, and each touch almost makes her recall that dream she can never quite remember in the mornings.
“Next year we should have turducken,” Howard says through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“You two can host it, then. It was hard enough just doing the turkey,” Penny says.
“We can all take turns.” Amy’s carefully pulling the crisp brown skin off her turkey leg because she thinks it’s too fatty. “I have an amazing recipe for cranberry sauce that my mother gave me.”
“So, we’re set until 2013 then,” Howard cracks.
“Assuming the world doesn’t end in 2012 like it’s supposed to.” Raj steals Amy’s turkey leg and takes a bite out of it before giving it back. Amy smacks his hand to no avail.
“That’s highly improbable.” Sheldon looks set to give them all his lecture on the historical significance of the Mayan Long Count. Penny slides her fork into his potatoes and he interrupts himself with an outraged squawk as she steals a mouthful. Good. Half the words in that lecture sound like Klingon.
“I thought the world was meant to end earlier this year,” Bernadette says, absently joining the food-mooching bandwagon by scooping Howard’s disdained honeyed carrots from his plate to hers.
“If the world ended as many times as people say it’s supposed to, we’d run out of worlds.” Penny breaks open her bread roll, butters it, and starts stuffing it with bits of turkey and potato. Sheldon looks torn between some sort of doubtless scientific response and outright horror at her food-mangling ways. She idly wonders how he can eat hotdogs in pasta sauce or in split-pea soup and still have the gall to turn his nose up at other people’s food choices, then reminds herself: it’s Sheldon.
“We’d never run out of worlds.” Oh good, he’s decided to go with the science instead of the scolding. “Assuming an infinite number of dimensions, there would also be an infinite number of Earths, upon which the many prophesized apocalypses could all take place. Which, of course, is the entire point of having a multiverse in the first place; the endless possibilities that stem from every single decision every single person ever makes.”
“Do you ever decide to shut up in any of them?” Raj inquires, and Penny throws one of her carrots at him.
“At least someone cares about my theories.” Sheldon doesn’t quite look like he approves of Penny’s method of defense.
“I don’t know if I’d put it that way... okay, sure, whatever, the caring thing,” Penny hastily adds as Sheldon’s uncertain smile starts to waver into a puppy-dog look. Apart from anything else he’s just plain bad at puppy-dog looks. Leonard, now, Leonard was the master of them, and Raj is good at them if he tries, but on Sheldon it’s more confused shih-tzu than winsome Labradoodle. “Does anyone know what time it is in Mumbai? We should Skype Leonard and wish him happy Thanksgiving.”
Unsurprisingly, Raj is the one who knows. “It’s tomorrow morning over there. If I know my sister, they’ve probably already left for work.”
Sheldon tries on his laptop anyway, but there’s no answer. Later, when everyone’s gone home and Penny’s playing fridge Tetris with the leftovers, cursing her decision to roast a whole turkey instead of a convenient breast roll (oh, and wouldn’t Howard have had a field day with that?), he tries again, but wherever Leonard is, half the world away, he’s not near his laptop.
“Do you think he’ll ever come home?”
The question surprises Penny and she bumps her head on the fridge door, rattling the condiment jars. “Who, Leonard? I don’t think he’ll stay overseas forever. You know he misses us.”
“I miss him.” Sheldon looks surprised at the words coming out of his own mouth.
“Well, sweetie, that’s because you occasionally have human emotions.”
She feels bad as soon as the words leave her mouth and moves to hug him. He’s really not the hugging type, but he does sort of lean against her for a second before she lets him go.
“I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“What you said, or the hug?”
“What I said.”
“Even though you’re aware of my aversion to germs and you’ve just been up to your wrists in cold poultry and didn’t wash your hands before hugging me?”
“Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Sheldon.”
Despite her newfound source of income, the thought of moving back to a single-bedroom place doesn’t even cross her mind, really. This is much more financially beneficial for both her and Sheldon, and it’s not like she’s getting that much more money, and anyway, she doesn’t feel like moving again.
It has nothing to do with being too used to waking up in the morning and doing the dance of breakfast-shower-dressing-driving with Sheldon to even think of going back to mornings alone. Really.
“—don’t know what to do!” Sheldon’s voice is an almost petulant whine. Penny, about to open their apartment door, pauses with her keys dangling from one hand and the pizza boxes propped on her hip. Did she really just hear Sheldon Cooper admit to not knowing what he was doing, or has her roommate been replaced by an alien pod person?
The smart money is on the latter.
Whatever response he gets is inaudible, so he’s on the phone.
“Hold hands? Without sanitizer?”
Penny bites her lip, trying to hold back laughter.
“I just don’t see why I have to do all the compromising!”
The pause this time is considerably longer. Sheldon attempts to break into it at least three times and finally manages, “All right, Mom, I believe you, you can stop. Although I don’t see what Jesus has to do with letting women get their own way.”
“I can’t tell her that! Leonard said that to a lady once and she slapped him!”
What she wouldn’t give to be able to hear Mrs Cooper’s half of the conversation.
“I have to go, Mom, Penny’s going to be home soon with dinner. I love you.”
Penny retreats down to the third floor landing and, after a little juggling, extracts her phone from her pocket. She still has Mrs Cooper’s number in her phone; between the ball pit incident and, well, Sheldon being Sheldon, all of them do. Seconds later she’s connected to Texas.
“Lord’s sake, Shelly, what now?”
“Um, it’s not Sheldon, Mrs Cooper. It’s Penny. I just got home and Sheldon seems a little wound up. I was wondering if he’d, I don’t know, called you today and said anything about it?”
Mary’s tone is guarded. “He may have done.”
“I just get worried about him. I wouldn’t want you to have to come all the way up here if he’s really not doing well.”
“He’s all right. Just tryin’ to work some things out in his head, that’s all, and needed a little help from his mother.”
Penny thinks of and rejects a few responses to this. “I’m glad he asked you and didn’t just stew over it,” she says in the end.
“I’m glad you’re there with him. He really wasn’t doin’ so well after his friend Leonard went overseas.”
“I know.” Penny remembers days of Sheldon being late to work or skipping it altogether, times when his whiteboard equations degenerated into scribble, and the unforgettable incident when Stuart called her, thoroughly confused because Sheldon hadn’t shown up for New Comics Day.
“Well, I’ll let you go, if you two’re havin’ dinner. Pizza night, right?”
“Take care, hon.”
Penny hangs up and goes back up to 4A, where Sheldon pokes dubiously at his pizza and then goes to microwave it.
“Was this sitting on the oven when you went to pick it up?”
“No, it just came out.”
“The cheese is cold.”
“We live on the fourth floor. Maybe the stairwell created a wind tunnel with mozzarella-chilling powers.”
“That’s just ridiculous.”
Penny joins him in the kitchen, waiting for her turn at the microwave. “Are you sure? I mean, it seems like it should be physically possible.”
“Two words, Penny: rooftop door.”
“Two other words, Sheldon: it broke.”
Sheldon looks surprised as the microwave beeps and he retrieves his food. “When?”
“Halloween. Didn’t you notice?”
“No.” He doesn’t look like he’s paying much attention now either, busily poking at the steaming slices with his fork. “Now it’s melted right off the top.”
“Gee, Sheldon, you just can’t catch a break, can you?” Penny puts her own meal in the microwave. “For your information, the door broke because Raj bet Howard it wouldn’t stay open if they propped it open with a brick.”
“Well, he’s right. The hydraulic force of the door closer should have been vastly superior to the minimal opposing force provided by the brick.”
“It was. The problem was when one of the guys walked into it while it was open and broke the hinges.”
“Broke the hinges?”
“He’s six foot four and weighs three hundred pounds.”
“I assume you called the super about this.” Sheldon’s blowing on his pizza, trying to cool it enough to eat.
Penny shrugs. “I did. I’m sure it’ll get fixed when the elevator does.”
“But having a broken access door is a security risk!” He’s gone all wide-eyed now. “What if someone breaks in?”
“Sweetie, nobody’s going to break in from the rooftop unless they’re Batman.”
“You don’t know that. They might climb up the fire escape and enter that way. Or they might jump from the roof next door. Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier? We need to make sure that door gets fixed right away?”
“Will you relax? It’s been broken for weeks. If I were you I’d be worrying about the cold, not robbers.”
Sheldon abandons his pizza and goes to get his phone, punching in the super’s number from memory. “If we get frozen in our centrally heated apartment I’m blaming you,” he informs Penny.
Penny just rolls her eyes and eats her dinner.
“Damn it, voicemail,” Sheldon mutters. Raising his voice a little, he leaves a message for the super about the door. He doesn’t mention the cold, and when he sits back down he eats his pizza without complaining about the temperature of the cheese. Penny lets him pick an episode of Star Trek and they sit on their respective couches, Sheldon upright in his spot, Penny stretched out with her feet up on one end of her couch and her head resting on a cushion. She can only just see Sheldon out of her peripheral vision, which is probably why it looks sort of like he keeps glancing at her instead of staying fixated on the television like usual.
“Penny...” he says when the credits are rolling.
“Now that it’s December, you should really start studying more for your end of semester exam.”
“Thanks, teacher. I’ll get right on that,” Penny says, not moving.
“You did say you’d study extra around exam time.”
“I’ve got time. And the roommate agreement never specified what ‘around exam time’ meant.”
“I’ll have to fix that. Non-specificity can lead to arguments.” Sheldon gets up to turn the television off. Penny knows what he means by arguments: housemates bringing in wise-ass lawyers who decide they know everything and therefore can run people’s lives through loopholes.
God. It’s been months. She really needs to get over this.
Sheldon unexpectedly offers her a hand up from the couch, which she takes. His palm stays clasped against hers for a moment and she thinks he’s going to say something, possibly something about the acceptable time frame preceding an exam in which to study, but instead he just drops her hand after a moment and says, “Goodnight, Penny,” and goes off to have his shower.
Her conscious mind doesn’t put the pieces together. Her dreaming mind has them holding hands and walking through the grounds of Caltech, Penny visiting Sheldon at work after a lunch shift, still in her uniform, the yellow matching the last faded leaves still clinging tenaciously to the trees.
Her waking mind only remembers the leaves so determined not to succumb to winter’s chill.
Chapter 5: when your walk-on role becomes a major part
Being in the car ad gets her a couple more auditions instead of just an automatic thanks-but-no-thanks, especially since word has gotten around about why it’s her in the ad instead of Nameless Diva. She lands one for laundry detergent and they want her back in the overalls, first gluggy with engine muck and then pristine-clean. Not that the detergent actually works that well, but still. She does it; being typecast as auto mechanic girl in a couple of ads is hardly the same as being typecast as a boy wizard or a wide-eyed hobbit, after all.
She’s sitting at an audition for a Greyhound ad, reading her class notes – such as they are – while waiting to be called, when she hears someone say the words girl scientist and her head turns all by itself.
It’s a couple of guys who’ve paused for a moment in the serious business of corridor-pacing. She misses the first part of what the next speaker says.
“—think it’s sexist?”
His friend snorts. “No, I don’t.”
“It so totally is, man. I mean, having a girl lead character like, by definition, excludes men from auditioning. It’s a show about science, anyway.”
“Are you saying women can’t be scientists?”
“All I’m saying is the playing field needs to be, like, equal.”
Penny has gone from alert to actively homicidal. She doesn’t know if she wants to get in the guy’s face and tell him to check his privilege, or just beat him repeatedly around the head with a TV Guide with all the male-centric TV shows underlined, possibly with bricks.
Fortunately, she gets called over to her audition and doesn’t hear anything else out of him, but her anger must still be visible because she only gets a couple of lines in and they say thanks-but-no-thanks and she walks away thinking she could’ve gotten that from a phone call. Or the absence of a phone call.
Captain Sexism has wandered off, talking loudly on his cell phone. His friend meets Penny’s eyes and gives her a quick rueful grin.
“You heard that, huh?”
“I did,” Penny says carefully.
“Mick’s a good guy, but he’s not real bright. I’m sorry.” He offers his hand. “Donnie.”
Penny shakes with him, catching the quick smile that crosses his lips when she shakes properly instead of limply. “You don’t have to apologize for him. But hey, what was the new show you were talking about?”
“Just this sitcom about a female scientist and some of her co-workers and friends and getting along in a male-dominated industry.”
“And that’s comedy?”
Donnie shrugs. “That’s what I heard. It’s supposedly called Em Theory, if you want to look into it.” He offers her a sunny smile. “Although I thought you were more into cars than science.”
Penny blushes. “Yeah, well, a girl’s got to have a hobby.”
“You know, we could go for a coffee or something, if you want. I’m not here to audition; I’m just Mick’s ride.”
Penny’s about to say yes when Mick himself comes bulling back over, his eyes already fixed avariciously upon her. “Hey, sweetheart! What’re you doing talking to my doofus brother? Come talk to me instead.”
“Thanks, but I have to go.” Penny manages to wink at Donnie without Mick seeing it. “I’ve got a physics exam this afternoon.”
“I thought you were the detergent girl?”
“A girl’s got to have a hobby,” Penny says again, and leaves them to it. Whatever “it” ends up being. Mick sure as hell isn’t Greyhound advertisement material.
She gets online and noses around when she gets home, and before long she’s tracked down the casting call for Em Theory. The more she reads about the show, the more excited she gets. Sheldon’s got his headphones on and is busy being Sheldor, so she leaves him be and takes her laptop into her bedroom to call Leonard.
Penny has to admit to being a little surprised when he actually answers, rubbing sleep out of his eyes and yawning.
“Hey, Penny. How’s school?”
“It’s good. Leonard, I found a show I really want to audition for. It’s called Em Theory and it’s about a female scientist who’s trying to get recognized in her field as well as dealing with a guy-dominated industry, and it’s a comedy. What do you think?”
“I think it’s going to be hard to help you learn your lines from over here,” Leonard says promptly, “but you should give it a shot.”
Penny grins. “Great! Um, don’t tell Sheldon, but I was thinking maybe if you have Leslie’s number still, I could talk to her and kinda get the inside scoop?”
“I do, hang on...”
While Leonard’s scrolling through his phone, Priya’s voice in the background asks who he’s talking to, and then Priya herself peeks into the corner of the monitor.
Spending time together at the hospital had done a lot to mend the fences between the two of them. Sleeping with Priya’s brother, on the other hand, had basically been like locking the barn door after the cattle had not only escaped, but also kicked the shit out of the barn on the way out so there were giant holes in the walls. They reached an uneasy truce not long before Priya and Leonard mended their own fences and left for India, but a quick greeting is really all they ever exchange these days.
It doesn’t matter too much, anyway, because Leonard finds Leslie’s number and gives it to her and then that’s pretty much the end of the conversation, because Penny doesn’t really want to talk to Leonard about her acting career when Priya can hear. She knows what Priya thinks of it. She knows Priya’s probably not all that impressed by her car ad or her detergent ad. Nor would she have any idea how those things are important additions to Penny’s résumé; how the more experience Penny has, the more likely casting agents are to not just toss her headshot aside without a second look.
She says goodbye to them both, because it’s only polite, and then shuts her laptop. When she looks up, Sheldon’s standing in her bedroom doorway.
“Who were you talking to?”
“I wanted to ask him something.” Penny doesn’t mention Leslie, but she does explain the Em Theory role and Sheldon looks thoughtful.
“I suppose as long as the role isn’t dependent on you actually knowing the science to which you refer and merely memorizing the relevant dialogue, it would be suitable.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘you can do it, Penny!’,” Penny says dryly.
“Well, of course you can do it, it’s not actual science.”
“Sheldon! Can’t you just be nice about it instead of, I don’t know, literal?”
Sheldon gives her a vaguely hangdog look. “I have trouble not being literal sometimes.”
Penny almost responds with a sarcastic oh really, but she’s not in the mood for playing “Was That Sarcasm?” with him today. Instead, she keys Leslie’s number into her phone and hits send.
“Hi, this is Penny.”
“Oh, hey Penny,” Leslie says in the tone of someone who remembers who they are speaking to but can’t fathom why. “What’s up?”
“I’ve hopefully got an audition for a role as a female scientist and I thought maybe you and I could meet and talk for a while so I could get a better idea of what it’s like for you.”
Sheldon mouths, Is that Leslie Winkle?, pointing at the phone; Penny shoos him away with her free hand but he stays put.
“Well, sure, why not? I’d rather not come to your place, though.”
“I can understand that. I was thinking I could take you out to dinner.”
“Sounds good to me. Friday night work for you? I’ll be at the university until five, but I’m free after that.”
“I’ll swing by and pick you up.”
“Great. I promise I won’t be picky about dinner,” Leslie says slyly.
“It’s a date!”
Then Penny has to explain to Sheldon why “it’s a date” doesn’t mean a date-date, it’s just a thing people sometimes say even if it’s not a date and they’re just meeting up, and no, she’s not planning on dating his arch-enemy. No, she’s not planning on releasing any latent lesbian urges. Yes, she could have just asked Amy, but Amy’s got a lot on her plate with her research and her... her Raj. Yes, she could have just asked Bernadette, if she’d wanted to be beaten to death with a sample flower arrangement.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had another audition?”
“Because I don’t know for sure yet whether I do or not. I have to find out when and where it’s going to be.”
“Well, as long as it doesn’t—”
“It won’t interfere with Halo night.”
Sheldon seems somewhat mollified by this. “I still don’t really understand why you have to ask her instead of Amy or Bernadette. I was given to understand that Amy was your ‘bestie’. Shouldn’t you go to her first?”
The real reason why she wants it to be Leslie is because she remembers sitting at the Physics Bowl, trying not to fall asleep, and watching Leslie’s face so intent on each question, her hand on the buzzer. She knows she could ask Amy and get some dry response about how Amy never really notices any particular pressure on herself as a woman to achieve anything specific because her department treats her like anyone who knows how to slice up brains. She knows she could ask Bernadette and (after being slapped around with a napkin swan) be told about how things aren’t so bad, really, these days things are a lot more equal than they used to be.
She wants it to be Leslie because the point is that things aren’t equal and women aren’t the same, and Leslie’s the one who, as far as Penny can tell, knows that the best.
“I’ll talk to both of them too,” she promises Sheldon. “I just want to get a range of perspectives. You know, instead of just one point of view.”
“I suppose trying to make the role well-rounded is important enough for you to talk to her. Just don’t bring her here.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.” Penny’s half annoyed at him trying to dictate who she can and can’t bring home, and half amused at how adamant he is about it.
Penny picks Leslie up just after five on Friday night and they go for Chinese, sharing special fried rice and lemon chicken and satay beef, the servings far too big to finish.
“So why’re you talking to me about this instead of one of your friends?” Leslie asks, fanning her mouth a little in the wake of the spicy meat.
“Because I think you’ll get it.” Penny crunches a bit of crisp chicken batter. “Bernadette’s busy planning her wedding, and Amy’s busy experimenting on Raj, anyway.”
Leslie raises an eyebrow at her. “Don’t you ever get sick of all the partner-swapping? It’s like the way high school kids do it, and frankly it strikes me as a little incestuous.”
Penny flicks a pea out of the rice at her. “Shut up! And you’re part of it too; you slept with Leonard and Howard.” She suddenly remembers Sheldon on the phone to his mother, presumably asking relationship advice, and almost mentions it before realizing that Leslie Winkle is the absolute last person she should give that sort of ammunition – information – nah, ammunition – to.
“That’s true. I suppose that makes you and I practically cousins.” Leslie shoves another piece of satay beef into her mouth but it doesn’t hide the smirk on her face.
Penny rolls her eyes. “You’d be kind of related to Sheldon too, then; he used to date Amy, Amy’s sleeping with Raj, and Raj kissed Howard once, although he claims it was totally an accident.”
Leslie shakes her head, suddenly stony. “I’m not being anything-in-law with Doctor Dumbass.”
“Why do you call him that, anyway?”
“Did I never tell you that he told me I’d more useful barefoot in the kitchen popping out babies?”
Penny almost drops the piece of chicken she’s holding. “Sheldon said that? Really? I can’t imagine him being such a sexist ass.”
“Oh, I doubt he was being intentionally misogynistic. But it was a dumbass thing to say, and I made sure he knew it.”
“So how come you keep rubbing it in his face? Why can’t you just let it drop?”
“Look, Penny, I know he’s got an eidetic memory, but this is one thing I can’t afford to let him even pretend to forget. The thing is that if you let a guy get away with a comment like that once, if you react negatively the next time he says something, you’re just overreacting and whining and should get over it, because you didn’t say anything last time.” Her hands have tightened so hard on her chopsticks that her knuckles have gone white.
“I’m sorry, Leslie, I never realized it was that bad.”
Leslie releases her chopsticks and gives her a wan smile. “Yeah, well, it’s a man’s world. Wasn’t that what you needed to know? Science is a man’s world. It’s getting better, but there are still certain Neanderthals who’ll point out that Marie Curie had her husband’s help.”
Penny’s still trying to process the notion that Sheldon could be quite that much of an ass. She knows he can be blunt, and that he can say things that are socially inappropriate, but she didn’t think he was quite that 1950s.
They talk for a while longer. Leslie has a lot of anecdotes about being mistaken for a man on college applications due to her first name and preferred field of study, having her work ignored in favor of work done by male colleagues, and so on. But there are good sides to it as well; access to grants offered specifically to female scientists being one of them.
“Some people complain that it’s sexist,” she says, sipping her wine. “Depending on how much they complain I either ask to see their payslips and show them the disparity with mine, or threaten their balls with a laser.”
There isn’t really a whole lot else left that Penny can ask after that (except, possibly, “Can I borrow your laser?”), so she settles for paying for dinner and then driving Leslie home.
“What was the sex like with Raj?” Leslie asks after they get in the car.
“I just meant because he’s so quiet all the time, whereas Leonard and Howard are both loud.”
“I didn’t need to know that about Howard.” Although she’s already heard stories from Bernadette. “He wasn’t noisy, but he wasn’t super-quiet either.”
“Good for him,” Leslie says somewhat contemplatively.
“You can’t hit on him; he’s dating Amy now. Besides, you can’t collect the guys like they’re – they’re My Little Ponies, or something.”
“I know, I know. I was always more of a Transformers girl, anyway.”
“How was Howard?” Penny doesn’t really want to know but can’t resist asking.
Leslie sighs. “After Leonard? All I can say is that if you’re used to a good solid Toblerone, downgrading to a dinky Hershey’s Kiss is a little bit disappointing.”
When Penny gets home Sheldon’s waiting for her. The television’s turned off and, although the lingering aroma of Chinese food lets her know he didn’t eat alone, nobody else is in the apartment. He’s sitting at his laptop but it’s still obvious he was waiting for her to get home, because almost as soon as she’s through the door he’s picking up a handful of stapled-together pages and looking expectantly at her.
“What now?” she asks, shrugging off her coat and plopping down into her computer chair.
“End of semester exam preparation, of course.”
Penny twirls around on the chair. “If it’s as easy as midterms I won’t have to prepare much.”
“Midterms were easy because you were prepared,” Sheldon corrects her. “First question—”
“Why do you care so much about this, anyway?”
“No, that’s not it. First q—”
“Just answer me, Sheldon.” Penny stops her chair and puts her feet up on her desk. His eyes flicker to where her skirt slides down from knee-length to pool around her thighs and she feels her face heat up a little as she hastily pulls it back up.
“In short, I’ve decided that, although your field of study isn’t one I have any particular interest in, it’s good to see you doing something that you have a genuine feel for rather than continuing with your mere menial waitressing job or persisting in identifying as an actress when you’ve yet to secure an acting role outside of a couple of advertisements. Therefore, I’m keen to see you do as well as possible at it.”
Penny blinks at him. She sort of wishes she’d brought Leslie home with her. Leslie knows how to make him cry when he’s being an asshat.
“Honey,” she says slowly, “I appreciate that you’re trying to help me, but you’re being really condescending about it. Could you try offering to help me without sounding like, I don’t know, you think I’m never going to amount to anything unless you give me a hand up? I did manage to move from Nebraska to California, get a job, and find somewhere to live when my ex and I broke up all by myself, you know, and I didn’t have to be a super-genius to do it.” Sheldon just sort of gapes at her, and the words won’t stop flowing. “Not everyone’s as smart as you, but we still manage to get through life without screwing everything up. I know you’re used to being surrounded by really smart people, but you know I’m average, and I know I’m average. You don’t have to rub it in my face all the time.” She can feel angry tears pricking at the back of her eyes now. “That’s not how friends treat each other.”
Sheldon’s silent for a long moment, and then he says something totally unexpected.
He says: “I’m sorry, Penny.”
And it sounds like he means it.
“Thank you, Sheldon.” She really wants to go to bed, but instead she asks, “So, what’s question one?” Because if she doesn’t compromise, expecting him to isn’t terribly fair.
Penny gets the first audition and nails it. Gets the callback and (she hopes) nails that as well. The producer and director are both at that one along with the casting agent and Penny spends the whole time panicking about overacting.
She has never felt more like a literal cow at a cattle call than she does at that audition. All of the other women seem far more put together than she does. Some of them are wearing glasses obviously purpose-bought to use as a prop. Some have gone for the whole sexy librarian look. She sees a couple of discarded lab coats and a couple of unfortunately not discarded lab coats.
Penny’s wearing the Hello Schroddy t-shirt that Leonard bought for her a million years ago, black jeans, and a white hoodie with faint grey butterflies on it. (She’s also wearing her lucky audition panties, but she’s not about to advertise that fact.)
When she gets called up and handed the script, the casting agent raises an eyebrow at her t-shirt. “What’s that mean?”
“Oh, it’s a Hello Kitty parody of the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, which basically boils down to you don’t know how something’s going to turn out unless you actually try,” Penny says absently, scanning the script. Years as a waitress and actress-in-waiting mean that she can read and memorize scripts pretty fast.
“Oh,” says the casting agent, and when Penny analyzes the exchange at home that night, pacing around the living room, she realizes it’s not just any oh, but an impressed one.
She gets up and does her stuff, only referring to the script a couple of times. She already likes the lead role; Emily seems like a tough, no-nonsense kind of woman and, although there are some references in there to shoe shopping and stuff that seem a little like they’re gratuitous reminders that she’s female, it’s not disgustingly clichéd.
Then it’s thanks-for-your-time-we’ll-let-you-know-soon time, except that as she’s about to walk away the casting agent catches her arm and leans in to whisper, “Top five, hon. I promise you,” and that makes Penny bounce away instead of walking, and anyone looking at her with jealousy can get screwed.
So can the tiny voice at the back of her head saying she probably says that to everyone.
“Surely being in the top five means something, though, bestie.”
“I don’t know. What if she’s just saying it to everyone?”
“What if she’s not?”
“Here,” Bernadette pipes up, “drink your pina colada.”
“Can’t. I think I’m gonna puke.”
“No, you’re not.” Amy does, however, move subtly away from her, just in case. “Come on, just a little sip.”
Penny takes a little sip, and then a bigger sip just in case the first sip gets lonely, and then a third sip to make sure the first two made it safely to her stomach, and then a fourth, more of a slurp, just in case two of the first three sips are fighting for the other sip’s attention. Then she starts coughing, so she has to have a fifth sip to make sure that the slurp is all right.
And so on.
At some point Raj and Howard turn up at the club looking for their girlfriends. Penny informs them that they are her favorite people ever for being so considerate and thoughtful of their siggif—sniffy—skiffy—girlfriends.
“That’s very sweet, Penny,” Raj says dubiously.
“Two minutes ago she was dunking salted peanuts in her tequila to bypass the ‘lick’ part of taking a shot,” Bernadette informs him, and Howard takes a hasty step back.
“No, I mean it.” Penny summons an immense force of will and elaborates. “Everyone – you guys. You guys everyone, not everyone everyone. Everyone is so considerate. Even Sheldon called his mom for dating advice. Everyone who’s not Leonard, I mean. What did he do? Go off with some sk—sister to India, and leave me behind with Raj, who is a great guy when he can talk, but who couldn’t talk to me.” Then, and this is the part that really makes her cringe, she starts whining, like a little lost puppy.
“Sheldon called his mom for dating advice?” Raj, as usual, latches onto the least relevant part of the whole conversation.
Penny lets her forehead drop onto the table and ends up with wine streaks across her face like dribbly warpaint. “That’s it. I swear off men forever. You’re all witnesses.”
Then having her head down on the table as a dramatic gesture fades all by itself into passing out; the last thing she’s aware of is Raj and Amy lifting her off her bar stool, and her phone vibrating a message in her pocket.
Chapter 6: all the hidden pleasures you find in what you're looking for
Penny wakes up with her head on a towel, a basin beside her bed, and the deep and abiding desire to go plead with Sheldon until he builds a time machine so she can take back last night.
She can hear the quiet chatter of the television. Dragging herself out of bed and straight into the shower to rid her hair of the smell of wine is her first priority. By the time she shuts the water off she can smell pancakes frying, even though it’s not a designated pancake morning. Her stomach growls to inform her that it doesn’t give a good goddamn what morning it is, the pancakes are to be given to it, quick-smart.
There are three new messages on her phone. The first one is from Ky, wishing her good luck with the last week before exams. She replies in kind as she wanders out to the kitchen.
“Good morning, Penny.”
“Morning, Sheldon.” Doctor Who is still on the television; she can’t believe she’s up this early without her head absolutely screaming at her, but she feels remarkably lucid.
The second message is from Amy, checking to see how she’s doing. Penny flops onto the center cushion of the couch and lets Sheldon bring her pancakes over while she replies to that one.
“Thanks, honey,” she says, not looking up as Sheldon settles onto the couch beside her. She puts her phone down for a moment to dig into her breakfast. “These are amazing.”
“It’s all in letting the batter sit for a while so that the gluten chain can break down, ensuring the pancake comes out fluffy instead of chewy.”
“Hey, that’s neat! I should mention that to the writers. If I end up on the show.” Penny tucks another mouthful of pancake into her mouth and checks her last message. She takes a moment to recognize the number, but it hits her like a ton of bricks when she does, and the pancake seems to go solid in her throat as she swallows, making her cough.
“Are you all right?”
Penny waves Sheldon off and he hurries to the kitchen, bringing her back a glass of water; she drinks half of it in three seconds and starts coughing again, but at least she’s not choking.
“Sorry. It’s just... it’s a message from the casting agent for Em Theory.” Penny suddenly doesn’t want to read it. Surely anything sent in a mere text message can’t be good news.
“What does it say?” Sheldon prompts her, not too gently. He’s always been weird about unread messages, unanswered phone calls.
Penny opens the message.
U r top 5 like I sd, will call u Sat b/wn 10-11 w/final decision. :)
“Her spelling is appalling,” Sheldon remarks, reading the message over her shoulder.
“Sheldon, who cares? I made the top five. Out of hundreds and hundreds of actresses, I’m one of the five they want the most!”
Sheldon gives her a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t you be?”
“Well, why else would you go to the audition if you didn’t think you were going to get somewhere with it?”
Penny half-smiles. He just doesn’t get it. Maybe he never will.
By eight-thirty, she’s antsy enough to start cleaning things. She attacks her bedroom first, changing the sheets and pillowslips on the bed, with her phone on the nightstand. Then it’s the bathroom to scrub out the tub, her phone on the vanity. Then the kitchen to wipe down all the benches (Sheldon keeps the kitchen sparkling most of the time, but there’s a light spattering of flour on the center island), her phone shoved back in her pocket.
She almost cries when she checks the time after that and it’s only nine-fifteen. If only she didn’t live with a neat freak; it would’ve consumed hours in her old place.
“Penny, you’re making me nervous.”
“Then don’t look at me.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Then go in your room. It’s not like I’m gonna go in there to clean.”
“I should think not – there’s nothing in there that needs cleaning.”
“Oh? Not even your laundry? Your laundry should be in there. Unless you changed Laundry Night without telling me.”
“I wouldn’t do that!” Sheldon looks and sounds scandalized, as though she’d just insinuated he might’ve gone out and changed the speed of light for shits and giggles.
Penny flops on the couch, buries her face in her hands, and then bounces back up to go and wash the smell of citrus cleaner off said hands. “My point is, there’s something in your room that needs cleaning,” she hollers down the hallway.
“Only because the designated time to clean it hasn’t occurred yet!” Sheldon’s in the doorway now, presumably so he doesn’t have to shout.
Penny scrubs under her nails and uses the pump-bottle soap until her fingers smell like black raspberry and vanilla instead of acrid citrus. They smell kind of like some kind of dessert. Chambord over ice cream. She needs to introduce Amy and Bernadette to that. “And you’re saying there really, truly isn’t anything else in your room that needs cleaning?”
“What else would there be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Robots that need dusting?” She walks past him and down the hallway toward his room. It’s not until she puts her hand on the doorknob that Sheldon cottons on and lunges to stop her, but Penny’s too fast for him.
She takes one step in and then stops, surveying the room, but mostly listening to how seriously freaked out Sheldon seems to be.
“My dust radar detects no dust here,” she says, moving backward, trying not to fall over Sheldon on the way.
Sheldon snorts indelicately. “If you really had dust radar, your own room wouldn’t be in the state that it’s on.”
Penny sighs and opens her own bedroom door. “Look. I Swiffered the whole place two days ago, because I started sneezing and I thought it was allergies but there’s not really that high of a pollen count at the moment.”
“You have allergies?”
“No, but after going out with Leonard as long as I did I think it’s phantom allergies I caught from him.”
Sheldon finally persuades her back into the living room at nine-thirty and puts the television back on. Penny recognizes Star Trek, but although she can usually name the series at least (which is a scary enough notion in and of itself; when did she become this quasi-geek-girl?), this time she’s only able to concentrate for seconds at a time, looking more at her phone sitting on the coffee table, as though she can will it to ring.
“She might not call right at ten,” Sheldon says.
“That’s not helping.”
“I’m just stating a fact.”
“Right.” Penny leans back and closes her eyes for a moment; seconds later she’s staring at her maddeningly blank-screened phone again.
“Do you want to play three-person chess?”
“...Sheldon, even I know that doesn’t work with only two people.”
“I thought we could pretend Wil Wheaton was here and play for him. I think he’d be a really bad player. Don’t you think he’d be a really bad player?”
Penny laughs. Sheldon’s not good at creating diversions, but that in itself is a better diversion than many. “All right, set the board up.”
They’ve played for a few minutes, and one of Penny’s pawns has already picked up the vorpal sword, when she gets the urge to check her phone. Maybe it’s on silent. Oh god, what if it’s on silent and she missed the call and they think she’s a deadbeat who doesn’t even answer her phone and they’re going to turn her down for it?
She snatches her phone off the table and frantically wakes it up. It’s not on silent. It hasn’t rung. And now Sheldon’s giving her a concerned look.
“Penny, it didn’t ring. You’re not hallucinating, are you?”
Penny just groans.
Sheldon reaches out and takes the phone from her, batting her hands away with ease when she reaches for it, setting it down on “Wil’s” side of the chessboard. “You’ll hear it fine from there.” The fingers of his right hand twine around the fingers of her left, holding her hand lightly, but like he really will yank her back if she tries to dive across the table.
“Okay, okay. I’ll be good. You can let go now.”
Sheldon’s fingers tighten on hers. It would be imperceptible to anyone else, anyone who doesn’t know how weird Sheldon is about touch, how weird it is that he’s touching her at all. His thumb strokes hesitantly across the back of her hand. Penny turns her head – it feels like her neck is rusted – and just looks at him, and he looks back.
“It’s your move, Penny.” He nods at the chessboard and doesn’t let go of her hand. His palm is warm against hers; his fingers so long that they almost completely envelop her hand.
Dumbly, she moves her knight out, hopping him out of the way so that she can castle on her next move. She’s never been very good at chess, always too impulsive with where she moves her pieces; it’s only since the first time she tried this variation on the game that she’s learned to be more careful.
She expects Sheldon to let go of her hand to make his own move, but he doesn’t. Instead he just moves a pawn left-handed, and then moves another from the third side of the board right where Penny can capture it with her bishop.
“Bad move, Wheaton,” he says, shaking his head.
What the hell. “Yeah, bad move.” Penny knocks the pawn flying with her bishop. “That’s what you get for getting into my head.”
Sheldon smiles at her and lifts their joined hands in a victory pump.
Right then is when her phone rings.
A thousand thoughts run through her head and she couldn’t possibly list them all, if asked. What it all boils down to, as Sheldon picks her phone up and hands it to her, is that she has her job, and she has college, and she has her weird amazing roommate, and if the call is, ultimately, just one more thanks-but-no-thanks, she has her life.
She takes her phone from Sheldon and gives him a shaky smile. He puts his other hand over the top of the hand he’s already holding, like an anchor, or a lifeline, or a reminder of something that might yet come to pass.
“Here goes nothing,” Penny says.
And presses the phone to her ear.