For a few minutes every morning—between the shower that snapped her out of a sleep-fogged daze and stepping out of the bathroom fully dressed for the day—Penny got to look in the mirror and not be surprised by the eyes that looked back. But then she'd have to take that last step of her morning routine and pop in the colored contacts that finished her transformation from Starving Actress (On the Run) to Boring Entry-Level Office Drone (Faking It, and Badly).
This week it was blue eyes. Mousy brown hair. Maybe a little too much time between waxings, if the state of her eyebrows and upper lip were anything to go by.
Bang, bang, bang went the knuckles on the door, right on time. Penny stuffed the makeup back in the medicine cabinet and slammed the mirrored door closed before it could all cascade back out into the sink.
"Are you ready to go? You need to leave in precisely four minutes in order to catch the bus and get to work by the start of your workday. If you're late again, you could get fired."
"Are you visible yet?" Penny called back. She already knew the answer. It had been almost two weeks since she last heard that hum. Since she felt it raise the hairs on the back of her neck and smelled autumn in the middle of spring.
They had found ways around it, mostly, but Penny missed being able to look him in the eye. To watch the way his face changed when she riled him up, or the slight flush that rose up through his neck and face when she was waiting outside the bathroom for her turn in the mornings. Invisible, it was almost impossible for her to forget for a few hours what a terrible idea it was to get involved with the crazy man who'd ruined her life. The reminder was always right there, in the clothes that seemed to hang on thin air.
She wondered if it would help to make some sort of ultimatum, if reminding him of all the ways visible Sheldon could be useful to her would be enough to kick his brain in gear to fix whatever had fritzed out inside the device.
Of course, she didn't even know where to start with that one.
"Three minutes, thirty seconds," he said instead of answering. The door creaked open an inch or two, his yellow-gloved fingers coming around the edge like some kind of horror movie villain.
Or Brad Pitt-in-Fight Club, her mind unhelpfully supplied. Wrenching the door open, a panting, half-dressed Penny in the room behind him, Sheldon barking out monosyllabic answers to annoying questions....
Penny swept her hair up in a ponytail, trying to cool down the sudden rush of heat that flooded through her.
She really needed to get laid.
"I know, I know," Penny muttered toward the door. She was already dressed in her now-standard work outfit. Today it was a horrible pencil skirt that sagged at the waist and a thin, frilly blouse that had seen better days. There were tiny squirrels capering all across the fabric, their bushy tails the same drab color as the skirt. It was almost enough to make her miss the white, yellow, and denim nightmare they made her wear at the diner.
She pushed on the bathroom door, just a tiny whoosh to shake Sheldon's hand loose and send him stumbling back a few inches to let her pass. He sometimes had a real problem with personal space when he was invisible, as if not being able to see the dimensions of his own body made him blind to hers.
One of the dishwashing gloves thrust a slip of paper at her face. The baggy sweatshirt sleeve above it fell back an inch or two, revealing the seemingly empty air where his pale freckled forearm should have been.
"I need you to bring these things when you come home," Sheldon demanded. "I've also left a second copy in your purse so you can't forget the list like last time."
Or he just barged into her personal space all the time because he was an asshole.
She scanned the paper. The only word she recognized was solder. Everything else was a tangle of letters that looked like they didn't even belong in the same paragraph, let alone word.
"Where am I supposed to get all this junk?"
"It's not junk. It's equipment I need to continue my work."
"Looks like junk to me," she muttered.
"Any reasonably well-stocked hardware store, chemical supply company, or college laboratory stores should have all of these items."
"Great," she said, with about as much enthusiasm as the situation warranted. "And I'm supposed to pay for all of this, how? You spent everything but the rent on those tiny screwdrivers."
She didn't bother to look at him. Being able to see inside the knitted hat he insisted on wearing while he was invisible was still creepy as hell, even after seeing it as often as she had. It was like looking at the pictures in her high school science book, where you could see all the different organs and veins and bones.
Her purse was on top of the boxy old TV where she'd left it after dinner the night before. Inside, she knew without looking, was seventeen dollars and forty-three cents. That was all the money she had left. It had to last until the end of the week when she'd get another envelope of cash at work and spend the bus ride home wondering how on earth she'd make it stretch another two weeks.
Maybe it was time to throw in the towel. Believing that her life was in just as much danger, she'd promised Sheldon that she wouldn't turn him in. But with every week that passed without so much as a hint that anyone was looking for them, the promise seemed more and more like a mistake.
They were holing up in a pay-by-the-week apartment building for the time being—their second in as many months—a tiny one-bedroom place near the freeway, with a mildewed bathroom, stained carpets, and a couch that practically started screaming any time anyone sat on it. Or if, god forbid, someone tried to sleep on it, like she did every single night.
There was at least one upside to being on the run with Sheldon, though. After his initial panic attack at the state of the rooms, he'd flung himself into cleaning with all the stubborn determination of her dad working on his latest classic car restoration. The bathroom was cleaner than it probably had been since the place was built, and Penny was sure there wasn't a cockroach within half a mile that would even think about getting near Sheldon and his face masks and the seemingly endless supply of foggers and sprays.
She was so busy checking to make sure she had everything she needed for the day that she didn't realize Sheldon had answered her question until his hand waved in front of her face.
"I said, use this."
He wasn't just waving to get her attention, apparently. In his gloved hand, he clutched a huge wad of bills. Tens and fives, mostly, with quite a few twenties peeking out from the middle of the bundle.
Penny grabbed for it. Sheldon surrendered the money so easily she almost fell over when she pulled her arm back, expecting at least a little resistance.
"You've had this the whole time?" She added it up quickly, stopping only when she hit three-hundred and there was still almost a quarter of the bundle left to go. All thought of getting to work on time had fled.
"Oh. No." He stopped for a second like he really had to think about it. "I... That is, I found it in my— Well—"
"I had to beg for an under-the-table job in the slimiest office in the world so we could eat something other than expired Fiber-Os and you've had this the whole time? You got this from your apartment, didn't you?"
Her blood pressure had spiked so high there were tiny black dots swimming on the edges of her vision. "I am wearing a squirrel blouse."
Why that was the most outrageous of all the indignities she'd suffered in the past three months, Penny didn't know. But at that particular moment, it sure felt like it. She wanted to rip off the horrible rayon blouse and shove every single stupid, bushy tail so far up his ass, he would be coughing up hairballs for a week.
She had to find a job so he could spend every waking moment working on his stupid interocitor so they could go home. She had to abandon her car in a scary-looking part of town so they wouldn't be tailed—the car that had a giant empty space where its windshield should have been and a perfectly round bullet hole in the backseat. She abandoned her house, her job, her friends, her family....
In return, all he had given up was—well, okay, maybe not having any control over how and when he could actually see his own hand in front of his face wasn't exactly the better half of their twisted little deal.
Sheldon's gloves fluttered at his sides for a second. He didn't have to be visible for Penny to be sure his entire face was one giant, terrified grimace.
"Maybe I was saving the money for emergencies only?" he offered.
It wasn't often that Sheldon sounded apologetic, and this didn't even come close. She could have stood there all day arguing but she was out of time: the alarm on his watch was beeping like crazy. In less than a minute, the bus would pull away from the stop on the corner. If she was lucky, the driver would wait if he saw her running.
But Penny hadn't been lucky for a long time.
The office was seven bus stops away. On a normal day, it would take her maybe half an hour to get there. But nothing was ever normal anymore. Instead, she had to change buses twice, doubling back on her own trail to shake anybody who might be following. Not that she thought anyone would be, but Sheldon always seemed to know when she was lying or trying to hide something. He couldn't tell so much as a fib to save his life, but he always knew when she was even thinking about stretching the truth.
So, she took a different circuitous route every morning—all timed practically down to the second. And over an hour after she raced to catch it that morning, the bus pulled up to her stop in front of the storefront that had been converted to office space.
Smack in the middle of a run-down shopping center, with the greasy smell of fried food hanging over everything, it was the cubicle-dwellers' version of the shitty apartment building she lived in. Mismatched modular dividers sectioned the space into a warren of cramped, crooked pens, with as little regard for traffic flow as interior design. The fluorescent lights were peppered with bug carcasses, and the sound of miserable cold-call scripts buzzed around the office from morning to night.
Penny sat at the reception desk, a linoleum-covered monstrosity that squatted between the drafty front doors and the always-cranking copier that last saw a good day sometime in 1993. The phone barely rang, and when it did, it was almost always a heavily accented caller who asked for Mr Gluggs. Or ear plugs. Or something. No matter how many times Penny asked the caller to repeat the request, the line went dead before she got any more useful information.
The morning passed excruciatingly slowly, as always. It was as if time couldn't be bothered to pay attention to the dejected little building and its equally wretched occupants.
Penny dozed at the desk, chin propped on one hand until her elbow ached or the shrill ring of the phone startled her awake. There was an ache deep in the muscles where her neck and shoulder met that she couldn't shake no matter how she stretched or kneaded. It was from sleeping on the springy couch, frozen in the same position all night so she could sleep in relative quiet.
If she'd gone on the lam with anybody else in the entire world, anybody at all, there was no way she'd be spending every night on the couch. Not when there was a perfectly good, quiet, beautiful, gorgeous bedroom just steps away. The carpet was worn. The window that wouldn't open overlooked a sliver of the weed-strewn lot behind the building, complete with rusted, abandoned railroad tracks and forgotten shopping carts. The bed was narrow and cramped, with a mattress hardly thicker than her forearm. But compared to the threadbare couch it looked like a cloud drifted down from heaven. She daydreamed about it, sometimes.
Okay, a lot. In her head, she pitched dozens of fits bigger than any Sheldon had thrown since the minute he came to on her bedroom floor. In her head, she won and won and won. She claimed the bed. The whole room. She kicked him out and it was all hers, every moth-eaten inch of it. No screaming springs or shuddering support bars or feet stomping past the front door all night long.
Once, late at night, she even decided to try to seduce her way into the bed. She wondered, now, in the dusty light of day, miles away from the irritation of living with Sheldon, if she could have just asked nicely. But then, after heavy footsteps barreled up and down the hall for hours, the various squeaks and groans and shuddering pipes and horn blasts from the freeway piled up on her nerves like lead bricks until she had ripped the pillow off of her head. A few adjustments to the tank top and shorts she wore to bed, and she was tapping on the bedroom door before she could think twice.
It wasn't like Sheldon was all that terrible, face-wise. And as far as she could tell from the past few months, he wasn't a pervert or a creep. Weird, yes, but nothing so strange she couldn't put up with it. At least he wasn't sleeping with her friends and her agent in her own bed.
She could share a bed with Sheldon, she decided. No problem. She'd rather it be just sharing the bed, but if it came down to needing to convince him some other way, well, it wouldn't be the end of the world.
It might even be fun, she'd thought. It had been such a long time that it probably wouldn't take much to get her going. And she couldn't imagine that someone who paid as much attention to detail as Sheldon did would be a complete washout, in any case.
But when she opened the bedroom door, she found Sheldon sitting cross-legged on the bed, with the dull metal pieces of the interocitor spread all around him and a pile of discarded wires on his knee. Just the thought of how long it would take him to pack it all away before he'd consent to talk to her—let alone agreeing to let her near the bed—was so exhausting, she turned around and shut the door behind her without saying a word.
Well, and then the next day he turned himself invisible again and hadn't been able to switch back since. Penny might almost be desperate enough to throw herself at the human equivalent of Big Bird, but trying to seduce an invisible man was taking it about six steps too far.
Dara Seng swept aside the magazines and nail polish that littered the reception desk to hoist herself up next to Penny's phone. Barely five feet tall and nearly as round, with a frizzy perm that somehow embodied her entire personality, her feet swung freely more than a foot off the ground.
With her tendency to butt into everyone's business and a reluctance to sit at her desk for more than five minutes when the boss was locked in his windowless office, Dara was the closest thing to a friend Penny had in the place.
"You going to lunch, Patty?" Dara asked. "I gotta get out of here."
"Nope. Errands." Penny waved the note from Sheldon.
"Girl, you need to tell that lazy ass he can get his own...." Dara peered at the slip of paper. "Whatever the hell that is. What's he need all that for?"
Penny shrugged. Dara crossed her arms.
"He's not building a bomb, is he?"
"No!" At least, he'd said he wasn't.
"Well, if he is, you tell him I know just where he can stick it."
Dara had elected herself the mother hen of the office, always pressing for updates on everyone's lives outside of work. She didn't like the sound of Sheldon much, she'd told Penny repeatedly. She just didn't trust him, which wasn't helped at all by Penny's reluctance to talk about him. But the months of hiding had trained her to play her cards as close to the vest as possible.
"We're just walking over to the Red Bell for that nasty carrot soup," Dara went on. "Or whatever it is Bilal says he can eat this week. I'll bring you back a bowl."
"Oh, thanks, sweetie, but you don't have to do that."
"You sure? Sometimes I wonder if you eat at all."
In another life, Penny would have taken that for a compliment. But her breakfast that morning had been plain ramen noodles and her lunch was going to be more of the same. The noodles were cheaper to buy in bulk from the market up the street from their building, but they didn't come with the seasoning packets either. It was hard to believe how much she missed that little sodium bomb.
She felt guilty accepting anything from Dara, though. With two babies at home and a matching number of full-time jobs to try to make ends meet, it was all she could do to keep a roof over their heads some months. Penny at least still had the option of... Well, of doing something, though she hadn't figured out what yet.
"I’m good," Penny said, with as sunny a smile as she could muster. She nudged her purse with one foot. "Brought mine from home again."
Dara nodded then jumped down off the desk. She stretched her back with a heavy grunt and dropped her car keys into Penny's lap.
"I can't take—"
"All that shit on the bus," Dara finished for her. She crossed her arms again and lowered her chin, ready for a fight.
Penny looked at the list again. Even if she was lucky enough to find everything at the first place she went, it was going to be a hassle and a half to haul everything back to the office. Then she'd still have to drag it all back home, through however many route changes she thought she could get away with without Sheldon noticing she was home earlier than usual.
"Fine, okay. Thank you, Dara, really. I'll pay you back for the gas, I promise."
"You could always pay it off with babysitting."
Penny fought to keep a straight face until Dara had disappeared into the maze of cubicles again.
Dara's kids sounded like nightmares at their best and not many of her stories from home showed them at their best. But Penny wouldn't have minded much, to be honest. She had missed watching her niece and nephews grow up when she followed Kurt to California. By this point in her life, she had always thought she would be a mom already, with a couple of sweet-smelling babies with her hair and Kurt's eyes. But like so many of her dreams, that one had been swept aside and replaced with the reality of just trying to get through the day.
She found a phone book wedged at the back of a filing cabinet and started calling hardware stores in the area, avoiding the big names like Sheldon had warned her the last time she went on a supply run for him.
"Just because you changed your hair color doesn't mean they won't spot you," he'd said. For the next ten minutes he droned on and on about the capabilities of facial recognition until she was tempted to ask if all of it would be on his final exam. But she'd been on the receiving end of his "I'm too smart to waste on teaching" lecture way too often.
Six calls later, Penny finally found a store with a clerk willing to check their inventory against her list. They carried almost two-thirds of what she needed, so she carefully copied down the directions and told him she’d be by on her lunch break.
Jack's Fix-it was a small storefront just a block off the main street downtown. The windows in front were covered with painted plywood taller than Penny, with a mural showing half a dozen home improvement projects in various stages. Inside, the aisles were narrow and dark but the floor was clean and bright. Cheery music played from a pair of speakers on a homemade stand suspended from the ceiling over the single register.
Just inside the front doors, a short man in a brown canvas coat over a lime-green hooded sweatshirt was browsing through a display of gardening equipment. He pushed up his glasses and smiled at her, a crease forming between his brows. She gave him the barest twitch of her lips upward in return. He was kind of cute, if a little nerdy-looking and definitely not dressed for the heat, and she might not have minded striking up a conversation under normal circumstances.
"So you're the girl who called earlier," someone said from behind her. She turned to find a skinny old black man leaning over the register. Dressed in brown pants, a short-sleeved dress shirt, and a knitted vest, he was eighty if he was a day. The tag drooping from the thin fabric of his shirt pocket identified him as the Jack of the sign outside. MR FIX-IT HIMSELF, it said in smaller print at the bottom.
Thinning white hair clung stubbornly to the sides of his head but the top was a broad expanse of dark skin. Thick-framed glasses hung from a cord around his neck. To his left, a polished wooden cane hung from the top of the counter by its handle. His face wrinkled even more when he grinned at her, huge false teeth gleaming in the light from the front windows from behind his thick white moustache.
"That's me!" Penny said. She couldn't help but smile back. "If you can just tell me where to find—"
He waved off her words. "No, no, we got it all here for you."
He thumped the side of the cardboard box next to him on the counter. It was nearly overflowing with all kinds of things Penny wouldn't have been able to identify with a gun to her head, but right on top was a spool of soldering compound. The same kind she'd used the summer she and her dad had replaced the water heater, while Wyatt Junior was getting a second second chance at Boys Town.
While he rang up her purchases, the man kept up a running commentary about this or that item, how he thought they carried it in this length but really only had it in this other length. Penny's eyes started to glaze over by about the third explanation but she kept the smile plastered on. It was really sweet of him (and whoever else worked with him, because surely he couldn't have gathered everything himself) to have everything ready when she arrived.
"Now, Charlie said—that's my son, Charlie—he said there's no way we'd have any of them little diodes you asked for. 'When did we ever carry diodes?' he said." Jack paused to bark out a laugh. "I told him, 'Charlie, don't you remember that time we...'"
Penny snuck a look over her shoulder. The guy browsing the gardening equipment had moved only a few feet from where he'd been standing when she came in. She didn't know how a rack of shovels could hold anyone's attention for longer than it took to just grab one. Suspicion started to crawl up her spine.
As if reacting to her unease, the guy suddenly patted his pockets and turned away to walk deeper into the store like he'd dropped or forgotten something. Penny let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding and turned back to Jack, who was chortling away at his own story.
He wiped at the tears of laughter that leaked from the corners of his eyes with a worn flannel handkerchief, and then turned the register's display to show Penny her total.
"Now that's with the discount, you understand," he said with a wink. "Pretty ladies buying all this handyman stuff always get a discount."
If he'd been a couple dozen decades younger, Penny could have kissed him. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt like anyone found her pretty, or even memorable. Too much time staying to the shadows, until she'd started to feel like one herself.
After counting her change back into her open palm, Jack pulled a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and put on his glasses.
"Now, the rest of that stuff you needed. While Charlie was putting your box together, I went ahead and called around for you. Figured you wouldn't want to be driving all over town on such a nice, sunny day!"
He handed over the paper, which was a map that would take her down near the local community college campus. Marked with a bold X at the end of the traced route was a laboratory supply company.
"I know the guy who owns it, so you just tell 'em Jack sent you and they'll fix you right up. Should be holding everything for you at the front just like we did."
"I don't even know what to say," Penny gushed. "Thank you so much! This is so sweet of you."
He looked at her over the frame of his glasses and winked. "Too much more flirting like that, miss, and we're going to have to send you back in time to look me up when I'm young and handsome."
Penny laughed, hoping he wouldn't see the way she had flinched. From behind her, there was a bang as something heavy hit the floor. When she looked, she saw that the man in the canvas jacket had dropped a large box of nails.
Jack didn't appear to notice the disruption, or he was so used to such noises that they simply didn't register.
"Just doing what I do," he said when she tried to thank him again. "Now, go on, get out of here. Traffic'll be pretty heavy in that part of town."
He was right. After idling more than ten cars back from a stoplight through three complete cycles, Penny abandoned her plan of circling around using side streets and just followed the route Jack had drawn for her.
Tucked away as it was in an industrial park behind a big box retailer, Penny never would have found the laboratory supply company on her own. There were a handful of cars parked outside, and a small group of dreadlocked white kids standing in a loose circle near a dumpster. They kicked something back and forth between them, groans and jeers erupting every time someone missed.
She was hit with a blast of freezing air conditioning when she pushed through the door. An electronic chime wheezed overhead like no one had changed its batteries in a dozen years. The building was long and squat, but the office Penny had stepped into was barely larger than her apartment's bathroom. A dusty plastic plant sat in a puddle of sunlight from the front door and a low desk ran the length of the back wall. Behind it was a taller counter with sliding glass windows, like an old-fashioned drug store pharmacy. And beyond that, she could see a group of men in dark pants and shirts wrapping items in bubble wrap and loading cardboard boxes onto pallets.
Sitting behind the desk, a middle-aged Indian with a thick line of vermilion painted down her part set down the well-worn copy of Message in a Bottle she was reading.
"Can I help you?" she asked, already looking bored by the answer Penny had yet to give.
"Uh, you're holding some stuff for me? My name's Pe- Uh, I mean, Jack called?"
The woman turned away and pulled a thick plastic shopping bag from under the counter. It dropped next to the book with a clank.
Penny started to open the bag to check inside. "Is this everything?"
"Uh-huh. $42.78." Her right hand never let go of the book, one finger holding her place like a bookmark.
When Penny pulled what was left of the money out of her pocket, coins spilled out all over the floor. Her face flushed hot and red and she bent down to scoop them off the thin carpet with a muttered apology.
"Okay, okay," the woman said with a heavy sigh, "just leave it. I'll get it. You give me $42 and just go."
"But it's only—"
"Just go," the woman repeated. She shooed her away with the book. "Take your stuff and go."
Penny was back out in the parking lot with the heavy bag before she was quite sure what had happened. As the door swung closed, she heard the woman rattling off something in a language she didn't recognize.
"Okay," Penny breathed. A cheer went up from the group at the dumpster.
The car was boiling hot again by the time she wrestled the door open—maybe she should have been kinder to her old car, she thought. It seemed that there wasn't a lock in the world that would open when she wanted it to. The fan whirred as she backed out of the space and headed for the lot's exit, but only a trickle of cool air came trickling out of the vents. Penny cranked down the driver's side window and steered with her knees until she could twist her hair up off her neck. Tucking it into a loose knot, she turned to look over her shoulder to make sure none of Sheldon's junk had disappeared out of the back seat.
How she would even notice anything missing amidst the tangle of wires and tools, she didn't know.
When she faced forward again, there was a small tan car turning into the lot. Heading straight for her.
Jerking the wheel to the right, she careened around the oncoming vehicle. The other car passed within inches of her bumper, as if he too hadn't been paying attention. Penny caught only a quick glance at his face, pale and pinched behind heavy glasses, and a blur of colors.
Brown and bright green.
She was already stomping on the accelerator before she realized what connection her brain had made. The guy at the hardware store, the one who'd dropped the box of nails when Jack made his joke about time travel.
Penny swore again, as long and loud and creatively as anything she'd ever heard coming out of her mom's kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. At the main street she turned left through the first gap that opened up, slid in between two heavy sedans jockeying for position, then cut off a slow-moving SUV and snaked through traffic until she reached an open alley.
Keeping one eye on her rearview mirrors, she twisted through the roads around the college campus, doubling and tripling back over her trail until her heartbeat slowed. She pulled into a narrow driveway between two dormitories, found an open parking space, and cut the engine. After a quick check to make sure no one had followed her in, she dropped her head to the steering wheel and exhaled until it felt like there was no air left in her lungs.
"So fucking stupid," she scolded herself. "It probably wasn't even the same guy."
The longer she sat and listened to the ticking of the engine as it cooled, the more convinced she was that her mind was trying to make connections where there weren't any. She was jumping at shadows, letting Sheldon's paranoia infect her, even when he was miles away.
Frankly, it was a wonder it had taken this long. Hopefully, the load of equipment cluttering up the backseat would be just what Sheldon needed to fix the interocitor once and for all. She wanted to go home, where everything might not be the greatest, but at least it was familiar. And all hers.
Feeling foolish—and guilty for how long she'd been away from the office—she started the car and took the quickest, most direct route back to the apartment.
The elevator was working, for a change, so it only took one trip to get all of Sheldon's supplies up to the apartment. Penny unlocked the door and pushed the box in with her foot, dropping the bag on top once everything was inside and out of the way.
"It's just me," she called. "I think I got everything."
The bedroom door was closed and she didn't hear anything from inside.
Walking further into the apartment, she felt a hint of her earlier paranoia rear its head.
"Are you in there?"
There was a whisper of noise, like he was sliding out of bed or opening the closet door.
Penny dropped Dara's keys on the counter in the kitchenette and moved closer to the door. A quick survey of the rest of the room showed that he hadn't moved any of her things: shirts piled on the arm of the couch, a pile of magazines slowly inching its way under the rickety coffee table, the stack of empty soda cans she kept meaning to drop in the recycling bin in the parking lot. That meant he definitely hadn't been out of the bedroom all day; she usually came home from work to find her stuff neatly folded and arranged in straight lines.
"Sheldon? Everything okay? I need to get back to work but if you're—"
"I'm fine!" he called finally. There was another muted whoosh, then footsteps. The door cracked open an inch or so. Inside all was dark, like he had drawn the curtains tight against the light of day. "Everything's fine. Don't forget to zig-zag."
Something dropped to the floor with a heavy thud.
"What the hell was that?"
Penny was just inches away from shoving the door open when it suddenly swung inward and she saw Sheldon step out into the living room.
She saw him step out into the living room.
She blinked a couple of times, wondering if maybe she'd fallen asleep at the reception desk and dreamed this whole weird lunch break. But he was still there when she looked again, pulling the door closed behind him. He was wearing a pair of shirts she didn't recognize, a bright, long-sleeved red shirt under a blue tee with a character she couldn't remember seeing before. She thought his hair might be shorter than she remembered. He definitely looked more tired, with fine lines radiating from his eyes that hadn't been there before. But it had been so long since he'd worn anything in her presence that wasn't the sweatsuit and hat that he covered him almost head to toe, he could have looking like just about anything and it would seem strange to her.
"Wait, what... How? When—"
"Visible again, obviously; calibrated the infraspectrometer; this morning."
Penny sputtered for a second, and then realized that she was brushing her fingers against the skin of his exposed forearm. She pulled her hand away like he was made of penicillin and she was allergic.
Sheldon didn't seem to notice. Still holding the door handle, he continued, "Also: me; here; it was time, to answer the rest of your questions."
She narrowed her eyes. "Why'd I have to get all that junk for you then?"
"Oh!" he said, as if he hadn't heard her announce it when she arrived. "Well, the adjustments I made to the infraspectrometer are only temporary. I still need to re-configure the differential flux and—"
"Whatever, I don't care. Are you visible for good now?"
He opened his mouth but Penny heard another thud from the other side of the door, followed by a high-pitched whine that drowned out his words.
When his eyes went wide, she tried to get past him into the bedroom to see what was happening. The door opened just a few inches before he wrestled the handle back out of her grip and pulled it closed again.
Penny thumped him in the chest. "What's in there? What are you doing in there? Let me—"
"Get out of my—"
She gave him one last desperate shove but Sheldon latched onto her shoulder and pulled her with him when he lurched out of the way. He was stronger than he looked. She couldn't pull herself out of his grip.
"What are you do—"
The rest of her question was lost in the press of his lips against hers. She was so startled she forgot to keep fighting and he pressed the advantage, stepping them back further from the door and wrapping one hand around her elbow. His fingers slipped under the thin sleeve to touch the skin of her upper arm.
She had been on the run with Sheldon for a little more than three months. Before that, aside from a few weekends she would rather forget, she hadn't been held by anyone since the morning her marriage fell apart. The pressure of his fingertips on her arm and the memory of his skin under hers sent goosebumps rippling outward. She forgot where they were, forgot who they were, and pushed herself forward until their bodies met from hip to chest. Gripping the back of his head, she kissed Sheldon back, turning his soft, closed-mouth peck into something straight out of one of the dreams she would never admit to having about him.
Sheldon was the first to pull away. He stepped back and dropped his arms to his sides, looking flushed and even a bit confused.
"I shouldn't have..." he started to say, but Penny rushed to cut him off before he said anything either of them might regret.
"No! It's... I have to go. Just, um, okay. It's fine! Dara's car, and I need to... Go. Right, I'm going!" She stumbled a little over her own feet as she backed away across the room. Scooping the keys off the counter, she lunged for the door and pulled in vain for a few seconds before remembering to disengage the deadbolt.
"Okay, bye!" she called over her shoulder as she rushed out into the hallway, barely managing to avoid bowling over a little girl pulling a toy dog on a string.
She was halfway to the elevator before she heard the apartment door snick shut.