Penny held the bundle of mail against her stomach and flipped through it quickly: bill, bill, bill, overdue bill, magazine, Christmas card, bill. So, pretty much the usual. She tucked it all under her arm and picked up her grocery bag, looking inside to make sure the milk wasn't spilling everywhere. She'd noticed that the lid looked loose by the time she hit the checkout counter but she was in such a hurry she couldn't be bothered to go back for another jug. Besides, if it was already unsealed, she would just steal some from the guys. One of the benefits of dating Leonard for as long as she had been was that she knew where Sheldon hid the grease pencil he used to mark the container.
The front door swung open as she passed in front of the elevator. She jumped, coming down awkwardly and falling with an elbow against the wall.
"Jesus, Sheldon, give a girl some warning!" The hamburger buns were probably squished all to hell now. Great.
He looked at her, then at the glass doors, then back at her again. "Should I knock before I enter the building now?"
It sounded totally ridiculous coming out of his mouth, which she was sure was the point of his asking. So she gave him a death glare and dropped her mail in the bag on top of her groceries. He crossed her path, making her pull up short for the second time, and pulled his mailbox key out of his jacket pocket.
The death glare wasn't making so much as a scorch mark, sadly. Her foot was on the second step up when he made a loud squawking noise behind her. "Oh my God, what now?"
When she looked over, he was standing with his head pressed to the elevator doors. His eyes, so wide that her first thought was of her grandpa's horses as a thunderstorm rolled in, met hers. "I think the elevator's working. I can hear the motor powering up! It hasn't done that in forty-two months."
Penny rolled her eyes. "Yeah, okay, bazinga to you, too."
"No, this isn't- Oh! I think the cables have engaged!"
He jerked away from the doors, eyes roving over the wall. There was a smudge in the dust coating the button, right where she'd fallen when he came in. He pointed at it and cocked his head toward her. "Did you press this?"
"I don't know, maybe? I think I scratched up my elbow a little bit." She tried to peer at it over the top of her bag as she walked back down the steps but couldn't quite manage it.
She sat her stuff down on the floor just as the elevator dinged and the doors slid open, slowly, creaking from all the years of disuse. Together they leaned in, both careful to keep their feet firmly planted on the lobby's floor. Over her head, Sheldon braced his hands against the safety bumpers on both sides of the open doors.
The elevator car smelled awful, like somebody's gym socks had crawled inside and died. There was a thin layer of dust coating the faded carpeting and the brass hand rails. Sheldon sneezed.
"Gesundheit," Penny murmured, craning her head to one side to try to get a look inside the doors.
She took a step inside the car and Sheldon made another distressed noise as the doors tried to jerk closed. He pressed on the safety bumpers and they jumped back to their original position.
"Penny, I really don't think you should go in there."
"Just don't let the doors close, okay? I want to see if-" Her voice trailed off as she noticed the new inspection card mounted above the control panel. "Sheldon, I think they actually fixed it! Look!"
Sheldon, caught up in the excitement in her voice, took two tiny shuffling steps into the car and looked where she was pointing.
"See, it's got today's date on it."
"That does seem to indicate that the landlord has finally resumed his responsibilities toward the building."
Her grin was infectious and she bounced in place, clapping her hands. "I can finally get a new bed delivered!"
Sheldon squeaked as the car swayed slightly at the movement and braced himself with both hands on the brass rail. It moved him closer to Penny, his body almost hunched over her smaller frame. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed.
"And a new entertainment center!" she squealed in his ear.
He stiffened under her embrace and took a hand off the rail to try to pry her arms off of his neck before she asphyxiated him. "Stop moving so abruptly," he warned. "We can't be sure the elevator is entirely safe."
"Yeah, good point."
He watched as she pulled away from him and straightened her shirt. She wouldn't meet his eyes and he mentally reviewed the last few minutes to see if he'd somehow caused offense. Nothing came immediately to mind. He was about to ask her to clarify for him, part of the new social paradigm he'd been experimenting with since the Great Silent Treatment Treaty of 2009 went into effect, when he heard a noise that made his stomach figuratively drop down to somewhere around his knees.
They both lunged for the creaking doors at the same time and cracked heads before either could jam a hand in the path of the bumpers.
Dazed, they stumbled into each other again, their momentum diverted by the collision enough to keep them from reaching the doors before they clunked shut.
Penny braced Sheldon with an arm on his elbow and rubbed the throbbing spot on her scalp. "You okay? Damn, you've got a hard head."
"I have a hard head? My skull is precisely the same density as yours, provided you consume enough calcium." He blinked his eyes, then rubbed the heel of his hand against the right one. "I think you gave me a concussion! I'm seeing double!"
She pressed her lips together instead of pointing out that they were standing in a mirrored elevator car.
Then the lights cut out.
"I'm blind!" Sheldon squawked. There was a rustling noise as he flailed around the small car, his outstretched arms just grazing her head and shoulders.
She caught his hands in her own. "Sweetie, calm down. You're not blind, the power just went out."
"How do you know? My brain could be swelling inside my cranium, putting pressure on my optic nerve-"
Penny rolled her eyes as he kept babbling, even though it was obviously lost on him at the moment. She moved her hands up to his shoulders and squeezed. "Sheldon," she interrupted. "There's nothing wrong with your brain. Get your cell phone out so we can at least see each other."
His shoulders tensed under her hands, muscles shifting as he dug out his phone to shine the display up at their faces.
"See? The power just went out," she repeated, smoothing her hands down his arms again. "You're not blind."
The light from his phone threw his face into garish, flashlight-under-the-chin shadows but she smiled at him anyway. "No problem, right? We'll just call upstairs and the guys will get somebody to help us out."
Sheldon looked down at the phone, his fingers already pulling up his call log. He felt his face freeze in place as though the underlying musculature had suffered some sort of paralysis. Penny's hands tightened on his arms.
"Sheldon, just make the call so we can get out of here," she urged.
He shook the phone even though he knew it was useless to do so.
He held up the phone so she could see the display.
"No signal," he croaked, feeling his throat tighten around the words.
Two minutes later
"Are you human?"
"Do you have pointy ears?"
Penny groaned. "Sheldon, just one time could you pick something other than Spock's dad?"
"His name is Sarek and I don't always pick him!"
Instead of banning Sarek as a choice like she had with Spock, Penny slumped back against the wall of the elevator. "I'm hungry," she whined.
Sheldon propped his phone against the wall and opened the front pocket of his bag. "I have a PowerBar."
Penny wrinkled her nose.
"I thought you were hungry."
"Not that hungry. What else is in there?"
She shifted onto her knees and leaned into his personal space, propping on hand on his shoulder to keep her balance. Sheldon pulled his hand out of the pocket as she slid hers inside.
"Two mechanical pencils, two gel pens, one container each of rubber bands, document flags, mints, paper clips, and binder clips." Penny dropped each of the items on the floor as soon as she identified them, then rooted around for more. "Flash drive, flash drive, stapler, flash dri- How many of these things do you have anyway?"
"Of course you do," she muttered as she dropped those too.
"There's no other food in my bag," he said.
"Well, you could have said something."
"Sometimes it's easier just to let you find out for yourself. You're remarkably resistant to listening to others, especially when they're trying to steer you away from imminent disaster."
Penny sat back on her heels and looked at him. He had dropped his head and in the dim light she could see that he was pinching the strap of his bag into a series of accordion folds. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. It's just an observation."
"Nothing's ever just an observation with you, Sheldon."
He still didn't look up. She watched him for a minute and was just about to drop it when something clicked in her brain.
"You mean Leonard, don't you? You're talking about me and Leonard."
His hands froze on the strap of his bag. "No," he insisted, his voice nearly an octave higher than normal. He cleared his throat and tried again. "No. As I said, it was merely a statement based on my observation of your past behavior."
Penny wanted to keep pushing at him but something in the sloping lines of his shoulders and bent neck told her to back off. She started scooping his things back into his bag.
"Okay," she said. "Okay. Sorry."
Sheldon pulled his bag into his lap and switched from looking at the floor to looking somewhere over her shoulder. Penny folded herself into a sitting position and leaned against the wall.
Fifteen minutes later
Penny's neck was tilted at an awkward angle against the wall as she snored. After a brief run through the pros and cons, Sheldon scooted closer to her and tried to straighten her head. Each time he adjusted her position with his hand on her jaw and pulled away, she would roll her head right back to where they'd started. With a sigh, he slid one hand around the back of her neck. The other he put on her shoulder, trying to shift her enough to keep her from moving again. She gave a loud snort and he froze. When he tried to pull away, her muscles tensed under his hand.
"What are you doing?" she whispered, her eyes still closed. She lifted her own hand and... He wanted to believe that she was swatting at his arm but most of his brain and body interpreted it as a caress instead.
Sheldon jerked away from her and scuttled backward until he knocked into the wall perpendicular to where she was sitting. "Oh good," he said, cursing himself for not giving greater weight to the cons on his list. "You're awake."
Forty-eight minutes later
The elevator car swayed ominously as Penny continued to bang on the doors. "HEY! SOMEBODY, HELP!"
Sheldon fought down another queasy wave of nausea at the rocking motion and pressed his cheek to the cool wall of the elevator, heedless of the dust. "Penny, I think we're going to die in here."
He knew it was impossible, even with his aural sensitivity, but he could hear her eyes rolling.
"We're not going to die in here, Sheldon," she said, for the fifth time in as many minutes.
"We might if you don't stop moving."
"You might," she muttered, not low enough for him not to hear.
He sucked in a deep breath and shakily got to his feet. If he took small enough steps, perhaps he could get to where she was banging on the doors while tricking his brain into thinking he was standing in one place. Of course, that meant he would have to close his eyes, which would set off another round of imagining their inevitable plunge downward. Although he knew that dropping one story to the basement was hardly likely to result in lethal injuries, his brain wouldn't stop concocting elaborate scenarios in which it did just that.
As long as his eyes were open, he was able to distract himself enough so that only the occasional bloody scene flashed across his brain.
Sheldon tried a few steps forward, still clinging to the rail for support. His entire body was trembling, as though he were a crystalline entity and the elevator was directing graviton pulses straight at him. "Penny, please."
She stopped and slumped against the doors. "Fine," she grumbled.
He let his weight fall back against the wall and slid down to sit on the floor again. After a few minutes, he asked, "Do you want to play twenty questions again?"
"If you're Sarek this time, I'm going to kill you."
Three minutes later
"Are you that big dude Spock's fiancee dumped him for?"
"You're really getting the hang of this game," Sheldon marveled. "That only took you four questions!"
Some time later
They were sitting in the dark again, but this time - thankfully - Sheldon wasn't on the verge of a panic attack. Instead, he was pissed.
"I knew this replacement battery wasn't fully charging and discharging. I called the customer service line at least three times about it."
"Honey, it's fine. The dark's not going to kill us."
"Of course it won't," he agreed.
Penny heaved a grateful sigh and tried to find a way to lay on the floor that didn't remind her how gross it was.
"We'll either die of dehydration or asphyxiation," Sheldon finished.
He didn't have to sound so matter-of-fact about it. It was a lot easier for Penny to counter his doomsday scenarios when he was hyperventilating and shrieking about going blind.
"Look, any minute now someone's either going to see my groceries in the lobby, or Leonard's going to realize we're missing. They'll figure out what happened. We're going to get out of here."
Sheldon made a soft snuffling noise that she thought might have been a snort. "Leonard won't notice you're not there until he decides to make a booty call."
"Please don't call it that. It just sounds weird when you say it."
He went on as if she hadn't spoken. "And given the strained relationship between the two of you for the past two weeks, that could be anytime between tonight and next Thursday."
"What strained relationship? We're fine!"
When he didn't answer, Penny sat up and turned toward where she'd last heard his voice. She peered into the darkness. "Why would you say that?"
"Would you disagree that things have cooled considerably between you?"
She wanted to say yes, she disagreed. She disagreed a lot. The words were right on the tip of her tongue but she couldn't get them out. She settled for changing the subject.
"Won't he notice if you're not home?"
There was a faint rustling noise from Sheldon's direction, like he was crossing his arms or his legs. "He'll probably celebrate by whistling," he muttered. "Or watching DVDs without the subtitles."
Yeah, Penny thought as she flopped back down on the floor, he probably will.
More time later
"God, why is it so fucking hot in here?" Penny snarled, peeling her tank top away from her chest and flapping the material in the hopes of getting some air on her sticky, sweaty skin.
She heard Sheldon's quick inhalation as he prepared to launch into some long and boring explanation of why it was so fucking hot in there.
"Forget I asked."
Even more time later
"Truth or dare?"
Sheldon considered it for a moment. So far his dares had consisted of saying something nice about Leonard's research and admitting that the Star Wars prequels held a limited appeal.
On the other hand, his truths had been a fumbling, awkward story about the first time he realized he was smarter than everyone else, and a painful recitation of all the times he'd been proven wrong. In his entire life.
"Hmm, I thought you'd go for truth this time. Okay, I dare you to take off one of your shirts."
Sheldon startled and narrowed his eyes at her, even though they were both as blind as the proverbial bats (if they'd also lost the ability to echolocate, that is).
"It's nothing weird, I swear," Penny said. "I can practically hear you sweating over there."
The elevator was stifling, at least ten degrees warmer than it had been when they entered. He'd already tucked his jacket inside his bag but it hadn't helped much. Without saying anything, Sheldon drew off his Batman t-shirt and folded it neatly in his lap. After a few seconds, he sighed and pulled off his undershirt as well, folded it, then shook out the Batman shirt and put it back on.
"Doesn't that feel better?"
It did, but Sheldon didn't give her the satisfaction of an answer. "Your turn. Truth or dare?"
She barely hesitated. "Truth."
"Why didn't you take my advice about remaining friends with Leonard instead of accelerating your relationship?" That was not at all what he'd intended to ask but the sound of her breathing in the dark had apparently befuddled him. For a split second, he wondered if perhaps witchcraft were real.
"I want to use a forfeit."
"You used it when I dared you to admit how often you steal food from our kitchen."
"Dammit," Penny muttered. "Okay, fine. I liked the way he made me feel like something special just for liking him back, I guess. I don't know."
Sheldon held his breath. He wanted to ask why she was using the past tense but that would be a second turn. With a start, he realized he was disappointed by her answer, not to mention confused about why he was disappointed.
"Ugh, whatever. I can't believe you just asked me that. I can't believe I answered."
Neither could he.
"So, dare again?"
He didn't want to subject himself to whatever Penny might do as revenge for his question, so he said, "No, truth this time." His own forfeit had been wasted on a question about his father. He promised himself that if her question was too intrusive or embarrassing, he would throw caution to the wind and hope that his facial tics didn't manifest themselves in whatever lie he could voice.
"What you said earlier, about me not taking advice from people: was that about me and Leonard?"
"I didn't say that," he hedged. "My point was-"
Penny cut him off. "You know what I mean. Just answer the question."
Truth or Dare was an asinine game. He should have stuck to his assertion that Prime/Not Prime was a better use of their time.
"God, Sheldon, just answer the damn question so we can stop playing this stupid game!"
Something Sheldon had never really considered before was how difficult it was to think up a lie in the dark. Of course, prevaricating was a skill for which he had little aptitude, like driving or socializing, but there was something almost painful about trying to concoct a suitable deflection when one couldn't see a foot in front of one's face.
The silence had stretched on far longer than necessary but he still couldn't make himself answer. He was afraid that the thoughts tumbling around in his head for the last several months - unconnected to anything he should have been thinking about, anything important like his research or his fiber intake - would come spilling out of his mouth instead, the way things often did when he was dealing with the few things in life he didn't understand.
He had just opened his mouth to answer (with what, he still didn't know) when the lights suddenly snapped on overhead. He blinked against the glare, temporarily blinded, and slowly Penny's face swam into view. She was sitting much closer than he'd realized, her hands fisted on her folded legs.
She scrambled up off the floor and jammed her whole hand against the 'open doors' button. They leapt apart like they'd just been waiting for her to do that the entire time.
Sheldon watched as she stuck the toe of her sneaker up against the safety bumpers and leaned forward to pick up her groceries. She was making an irritated face down into the bag when she turned back. He opened his messenger bag and carefully tucked his shirt inside, then rose to his feet.
"Well, are you coming?" Penny asked.
"Don't you want to hear my answer?"
She shrugged, the slight hitch in her shoulder betraying her otherwise casual posture. "Game's over, isn't it? You don't have to answer if the game's over."
Sheldon shook off the disappointed sinking feeling in his solar plexus. "I think I'd like to answer anyway," he said, his heart pounding so loud in his ears he was surprised she didn't mention it.
They stared at each other without saying anything for Sheldon didn't know how long. Penny only broke eye contact when the doors tried to close and she had to pop a hip into the bumper to send them back again. He stepped forward and pressed his own hand to the doors on the other side of the entrance.
"I think," he started to say, only to lapse into silence again as Penny turned her face up to his.
Her eyes darkened and her brows drew together but Sheldon pushed on anyway. "Yes, what I said earlier could be applied to you and Leonard and your foolhardy relationship. But it's not my place to interfere, so-"
"What if it was your place to interfere?" Penny said, her voice slightly breathless. "What then?"
"Then I would say that you still haven't broken your pattern of choosing sexual partners based on how much they value you as a conquest."
"What if I did?" she asked. "What happens then?"
Sheldon gave an involuntary eyebrow raise, just the briefest twitch before he stepped completely out of the elevator. "Paradigm shift," he said. "On an unprecedented scale."
Penny shifted her bag from one arm to the other as she followed him into the lobby. "Is that good?"
"I couldn't say. There are still too many variables."
She looked confused, and Sheldon couldn't bring himself to elaborate. He turned away and started to climb the stairs.
"What if I ask you again in, like, six months?" Penny hurried to catch up with him. "Is that enough time to get rid of some of those variables?"
He kept his eyes straight ahead as they turned the first corner. "I don't think that's up to me."
"Some of it is, Sheldon." Penny bumped her shoulder against his then raced ahead up the stairs. She whipped around the next corner, out of sight, her voice floating back down toward him. "Some of it definitely is."