Bernadette is good at hiding things.
She supposes it comes from the fact that she's always had to be the best actress ever to get past her mother (and when that stopped working, she decided to let loose the full brunt of her repressed hatred), and it's coming in handy more than ever these days. It's mostly when she realizes how much she has to hide from Howie's mother (though god bless him, Howie yells back just as much sometimes, but hell, it makes her teeth and brain vibrate, and sometimes, she just really wishes he'd get it over with and just kill her already) that the bitter voice in her head has become her own mother incarnate.
But Bernadette's just shy of 5'1", and can't hold her liquor to save her life. She wasn't sure why she thought she could, but now the rum just tastes heavy and dark in the back of her throat, and she wipes the rim of the bottle off with her overly large shirt sleeve. Her face feels sticky with guttural anger, and she really just wants to call her best friend.
Her best friend.
She knows it's the liquor talking more than anything else, knows that her central nervous system is so depressed right now that a neuron wouldn't fire to let her know the quarantine bell had gone off even if it wanted to, knows, knows, knows that maybe…just maybe…she wouldn't care if the bell went off and she heroically got everyone out but herself.
Bernadette fingers the cross around her neck. Who was she kidding—it wouldn't be heroic, it would be suicide, but she's pretty sure no one would know her well enough to know that.
Besides, as much fun as Ebola and Marburg can be at times (tricky, tricky, tricky bastards!), MRSA is way more fun (every good microbiologist knows that). It's not even MRSA that she likes working with the best—it's influenza, type A.
Bernadette can appreciate virology; the buggers have been around since prehistoric times, and still kill what's supposed to be the top species of the planet, and that's without taking into account their hardy abilities of evolution and mutation against the defenses of homo sapien.
Hysterically, Sheldon's voice is screaming in her head that perhaps Homo Novus will find a way. She snorts, swatting the voice away with a mental hand, because if there was anyone who would fall victim to a virus, it'd be Sheldon—she still remembers what Penny told her as far as Sheldon being sick goes.
And there's Penny again.
Bernadette licks her lips, mostly because she's still trying to decide if she even likes the taste of rum. Penny swears by tequila, Amy only touches liquor if Penny spikes her wine, and Howie…well, she doesn't drink with Howie for a lot of reasons.
The biggest reason of them all is she's afraid of how much will spill out of her, how much she's been pushing down, how much they have the potential to turn into their own parents—either a lonely old Jewish woman who has made her son completely dependent upon her happiness, or a bitter, middle-aged Catholic couple who barely say goodnight to each other for fear of an argument erupting.
Bernadette swigs from the rum bottle directly. She's just as squeamish about microbes as Sheldon is; she supposes she's just better at hiding it. She's definitely better about hiding her rigid schedules and routines.
But really—when you're working with viruses that have mortality rates in the 90% range, it pays to be careful. Leonard works with lasers; Howie works with pneumatic presses and vacuums. Hell, Raj and Sheldon even occasionally work with radioactive substances just to study their decay rates and how the subatomic particles struggle apart before finding their sea of stability.
And that's not even counting all of the chemicals and sharp instruments that Amy works with. Bernadette's nose wrinkles instinctively, mostly because she recalls the smell of formalin that never quite leaves Amy's presence. She wonders if anyone ever notices it anymore.
Bernadette looks sluggishly at her phone. It's blinking with missed calls and texts; she frowns. She didn't text anyone, did she? She tugs her oversized sleeves up. The sweater was Penny's; she'd taken it after Amy threw up on Bernadette's cardigan after one too many appletinis one night (another reason that Bernadette doesn't always drink a lot; the running joke is that even Sheldon could probably hold his liquor better than Amy, and Sheldon once flashed an entire conference room full of people on wine alone).
She doesn't have much time to ponder it, because there's an insistent knocking on her door. She frowns; it's familiar.
Knock, knock, knock. "Bernadette." Knock, knock, knock. "Bernadette."
"Sheldon, you don't have to—" The rest of Penny's voice is drowned out.
Knock, knock, knock. "Bernadette." An exasperated sound breaks after that. "You could've dropped me off at Los Robles, you know."
"Not without taking Euclid Avenue, and you know it. Besides, you're the one who just had to go and get your special shampoo from Stuart!"
"He's the only one who sells it; it does wonderful things for hair, I'll have you know." Another exasperated sigh. "Perhaps if you used it as well, your hair might get back that healthy sheen."
"Might what? Are you saying my hair looks—"
Penny stops talking as Bernadette opens the door, and doesn't bother to hide her emotions. The shorter girl is leaning heavily on the door for support, and her face is covered in tracked make-up and dark circles.
"Oh, sweetie, what's the matter? I got your text." Penny waves her phone around like a beacon.
Bernadette likes Penny, and hopefully shows it through a wobbly smile. Penny always smells like girly perfume instead of formalin, she doesn't smell like engine oil and brisket either. She's Penny.
"I texted you?" Bernadette asks owlishly.
Sheldon frowns in disapproval. "Clearly, someone's been imbibing the harder proof tonight," he sniffs, and Penny jabs him sharply.
Bernadette glares at Sheldon though. "You have a driver's license then, go."
Sheldon shuts up immediately at the idea of driving home from an unfamiliar place though, and meekly stands aside as Penny opens her phone.
"Are you okay? What's the matter?"
Penny's hands feel cool on Bernadette's face, or it might be the washcloth.
"I wasn't sure you really needed it, but you've never asked me to bring you liquor before, so here. It took longer than it should have because Dr. I-Need-My-Darth-Vader-Shampoo here saw me on my way out and decided it'd just be fantastic to ask for a ride."
Bernadette still hasn't said anything other than the earlier question. "I texted you?"
Sheldon snorts before he seems able to help it, and clasps his hand behind his back (he approves of the cleanliness of Bernadette's apartment though; he would expect nothing less from a microbiologist working with deadly diseases).
"It would seem that Bernadette has been testing her height and weight for alcohol tolerance," Sheldon offers, as if this might excuse Bernadette's obvious inebriation. "At approximately 1.52 meters and 61.23 kilograms, I'm given to think that her tolerance would be quite null. However, this does not take into account a biweekly dose of communal wine that I would think is common with a Catholic upbringing."
Bernadette blinks again. "Did you just call me short and fat?" Her eyes are welling up with old insecurities before she can stop it.
"No!" Penny yelps, and glares at Sheldon, who looks like he has no idea what he could have possibly said. "I mean, I don't think so?"
Bernadette can't help it; the numbers are already running through her alcohol-soaked brain. "You really think I weigh—" She turns and runs into her bathroom with a sob, unsure of what she even texted Penny that would've made her come over without dropping Sheldon off first.
There's more voices she can't quite hear, but she can tell that Penny's angry and Sheldon's voice has gone from confused to something related to chagrined. Bernadette can't help it; a watery grin slips over her face, and she rubs at her reddened nose with the too-big-sleeve of Penny's bright sweatshirt.
She's about to come out too, and apologize for overreacting, when there's a knock on the door. Well, more precisely, a triple knock at the door, and her name interspersed between each one.
Just because she's always wanted to though, she whips open the door before he can complete the knocking. His blue eyes are shifting at her, as if calculating whether or not she knew it would annoy him, and there's a flicker there that says he knows.
Or it might've been the smirk on her face that gave it away too, but she's drunk and lonely, and looking past him at Penny a little, who's looking at Sheldon, who's staring at his feet.
"Now, Sheldon," Penny scolds.
Sheldon glares at her, appears to want to hiss something out, but he turns back to Bernadette. "Penny has informed me that it's quite rude to guess at a woman's weight and then correlate it to her estimated alcohol tolerance, even though it's a perfectly reasonable assumption to be able to make."
Bernadette frowns; she's not sure if that was supposed to be an apology or not. She's never been on the receiving end of being hurt by Sheldon, mostly because she's pretty sure she understands him almost better than anyone else does. It may've come from the large family, but Sheldon usually either reminds her of her little brother, Peter (that she always wanted to strangle), or of her lab partner in organic chemistry, Artie (she kind of wanted to strangle him too, at the time, but in a completely different way that makes her chest flush).
Sheldon isn't done though, and Bernadette suddenly realizes her skin is way too hot and tight as Sheldon's mouth keeps moving but she isn't hearing anything. She blinks at him just in time to tune in for the rest.
"—though I still need more data if I'm to make an accurate estimation of your current level of inebriation, and for that, I would like to know how much you've actually imbibed?"
Sheldon's blinking at her. Bernadette can hear glasses clinking in the kitchen; sounds like Penny's sick of the science-y talk; Bernadette can't say she blames her. Bernadette does enough of this at work every day; having Sheldon thrown into the mix just makes her life seem sad, but honestly, a lot of that has to do with the fact that Howie won't stop asking her when they can dress up again.
Bernadette ignores the inadequacy that comes along with that, and accepts the glass from Penny while Sheldon starts talking again.
"Penny," Sheldon whines. "Do you really think she needs that? She needs sleep, not more!"
Penny holds a finger up and tosses back directly from the bottle. "Unless you're going to slug some back too, sweetie, just stop."
Sheldon looks vaguely uncomfortable now. "Penny, if you start intoxicating yourself, you will not be able to drive us home, and we'll be stuck here, and I don't have my emergency bag. I can't—"
Sheldon's cut off, mostly because Bernadette has suddenly overcome her usual shyness in favor of alcohol-tinged bravery to poke Sheldon in the ribs.
"Howie left his full disc set of any and all Avengers-related movies," she offers, and is surprised at how strong her voice is.
Sheldon stiffens, as if considering, and then pins Bernadette with a condescending, calculating stare.
Penny recognizes it immediately; he's about to ask her something geeky about the Avengers movies to see if she knows enough. Penny groans inwardly and knocks back another shot, because shit, she needs to catch up to Bernadette, who's still swaying slightly where she's standing.
Is that her sweater?
Sheldon raises an eyebrow and crosses his arms as he steps nearer to Bernadette (Bernadette struggles to make her voice work, because by god, she was pretty sure that Penny was the only one who could pull off "predatory" in their entire group, and hell's bells, this is just so wrong).
"Which movies do you believe that particular franchise to include?"
Sheldon hears Penny cough a little on the next shot, but ignores it as he stares down Bernadette, who's wearing one of Penny's bright sweatshirts. She's currently stretching the fabric of the sleeve (he wishes she wouldn't do that, even if Penny doesn't seem to care) and darting her eyes from side to side as she shifts unsteadily from foot to foot.
Bernadette's about to answer when Sheldon makes a funny noise in his throat, and his eyes are like shards of chipped sapphire when his hand shoots out and grabs the wrist of the hand manipulating the fabric.
"You're stretching Penny's sweatshirt, and while she may have little respect for her clothing, as her best work friend, you should," Sheldon says stiffly, his long fingers wrapped around her tiny wrist. They aren't touching her skin, but her arm erupts into goosebumps all the same.
Bernadette realizes then, in her foggy mind, that she's really drunk.
Penny's staring at them both, Bernadette realizes, and watches as her taller friend turns a rosy shade and downs another shot straight from the bottle. It makes Bernadette wonder, but Sheldon's grip tightens suddenly.
"You haven't answered my question; I'm assuming your level of intoxication is preventing you from registering queries as well as requests. I'm not above repeating myself," he sounds tired here, "But please cease stretching the fabric of Penny's sweatshirt, and which movies do you consider to be part of the Avenger's franchise?"
Bernadette swallows, and is grateful when Penny gives her the bottle. She drinks from it, tries to ignore the fact that if she pays enough attention, she can taste someone else's mouth on the bottle, and she doesn't hate it. She licks her lips, and notes with scientific eyes that something tics in Sheldon's mouth, as if he's just licked the back of his teeth in thought.
This is all before she points out to Sheldon that while both Iron Man movies, Captain America, and Thor are considered definitely Avengers' franchise, that the Eric Bana movie shouldn't be counted on account of its utter banality, and the Ed Norton version only counts a little because Tony Stark was briefly in it.
Sheldon seems to be satisfied with this answer though, and he begins picking things off the coffee table and rearranging in preparation to find a "spot" within Bernadette's apartment.
While he's doing this, Bernadette finally gets a moment alone with Penny in the kitchen. Penny's green eyes are bright and dilated; Bernadette finds her stomach warm at the thought that those signs are classic earmarks of arousal, or, at the very least, deep thought (something Penny isn't exactly prone to doing).
"You're thinking," Bernadette says, and isn't embarrassed of the way the words slur.
Penny licks her lips visibly in thought though; Bernadette can practically hear the hamster running. "Stay out of my brain, Bernadette."
With that, Penny suddenly hugs her. It's not weird for Penny to hug people, especially friends. What is weird is the way she hangs on a little too tightly and a little too long, and her hands deftly skim over Bernadette's shoulders before she goes to tell Sheldon that Ed Norton is hot enough that they should include his version of the Hulk in the franchise.
Bernadette takes a seat on her couch. She thinks she should be annoyed that Penny is bickering with Sheldon instead of making her talk, but she isn't—Sheldon's analytical voice is soothing, in its own way, and Penny—her best friend, Bernadette thinks a little contritely—is bantering right back to everything Sheldon has to say.
It's when Penny settles down beside of her to let Sheldon continue that Bernadette remembers how earlier, the only thing really in her mind was the delicacy of the icosahedral-shaped Influenza A virus, the shrillness and irritation at Howie, the sudden and abrupt anger at Amy.
It all makes sense now. Penny has evolved to match them a little, or at least enough to hold her own in an argument against Sheldon about which movies are included in the Avengers' franchise. Sheldon has evolved a bit to match Penny's sheer entropy, her amount of chaos, her whirldwind life that is full of disorder and heat.
Bernadette feels the flush adorn her chest again, and she twists the sleeves of the hoodie (Penny's sweatshirt; it smells like vanilla and mint) in her tiny hands. Sheldon's asking her to move; she does so because some part of her actually wants him to stay right now.
Penny settles beside of her on the other side, all loose-limbed and seeming unaware. Sheldon's on Bernadette's other side, rigid as a stone as the opening credits of Iron Man come on.
Bernadette licks the back of her own teeth, and she swears she can taste something other than rum and her own guilt at how wrong, wrong, wrong everything is right now.
But then Tony Stark comes on, and Sheldon relaxes a little. Penny's hand lands on her knee as they both reach forward for the rum bottle.
Sheldon glares at them, but is asking Penny if she would make him some tea.
Penny runs her tongue over her teeth thoughtfully as she gets up and puts the water on to boil. Vaguely, Sheldon and Bernadette are talking about different medias with which to grow bacteria. Bernadette's arguing for something salt-related, and Sheldon's talking about goddamn blood.
Penny tips vodka into the tea cup as the water boils. Something's happening here, she knows it. She can see the guilt lining Bernadette's face, can see the utter curiosity and terror in Sheldon's. She can feel the excitement and intrigue pulsing throughout her own body.
Which is why she makes the decision to go ahead and give Sheldon the tea spiked with the vodka. She's a part-time bartender; vodka is for spiking.