Howard held the remote control as if he were holding it hostage. "I don't see why we can't mix it up tonight! On Anything Can Happen Thursday, we should be able to watch anything." He sent a glare over toward Sheldon, who had moved purposefully in front of the remote sensor of the television. Sheldon's shirt logo of Namor glared right back at Howard.
"But I had been looking forward to watching New Doctor Who tonight. I know not everyone prefers Eleven, but I find his mix of youthful charm and quirky looks to be reminiscent of some of the Doctors of yore, like Four for example."
"You think he's like Four?" Raj exclaimed from his spot on the right side of the couch. "Dude, if you think a little wild hair and and a large nose are all it takes to--" Raj shook his head. "No. I am not going to get pulled into this argument again. If we can't decide on a TV show, we should watch one of the DVD box sets." Focusing on Howard, he cajoled, "Maybe start a Sarah Connor Chronicles marathon...?"
"I do miss seeing Cameron kick ass in HD..." Howard trailed off wistfully, no doubt remembering the time they'd met Summer Glau on the train. "But I wanted to watch Dollhouse," he whined suddenly. "I know a couple of imprints I'd like to try on Sierra..."
Leonard sat up from his armchair, clearly frustrated. "I don't really care what we watch, guys. Just pick something, for crying out loud. We've been fighting about this for a half an hour."
The three other guys looked at each other warily, none of them wanting to back down first. A Geek Noon standoff.
Sheldon broke the silence first. "Perhaps we can decide this with a game of skill." He gestured to his opponents. "Best man selects the program."
"Oh, no..." Howard dissented. "Knowing you, we'd end up playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl on with Rock Band controllers again. I still can't figure out how you rigged that..."
Sheldon's nostrils flared. "I did not rig that game. You cannot blame me if your fine motor control on the bass guitar is less highly developed than mine."
Howard and Sheldon both tensed, dropping into similar defensive crouches to protect their territory. Any moment now there was going to be scratching and hair pulling.
"Wait, I've got it!" Raj shouted.
"Oh, thank God," Leonard said, dropping back into his armchair.
"We let lady luck decide for us." Raj walked over to the closet and brought out a poster tube from last year's Comic Con. Popping the top off the tube, he removed and unfurled a life-size poster of William Shatner in his gold Original Series uniform. Captain Kirk held his phaser at an uncannily similar angle to Howard with his remote. Raj held the figure high. "I propose a little... 'Pin the Badge on the Captain!'"
The two opponents were immediately interested. "Intriguing... As much as I hated the original game as a child, a Star Trek spin immeasurably improves the concept."
"You'd have to mock up a set of badges..." Howard absent-mindedly handed his prized remote control to Leonard, and made a beeline for the computer. "A quick image search and scaling to the right size...."
"And even if we utilize sticky tack, giving the poster a run through the laminator is absolutely necessary," Sheldon added, leaving the television to hover over Howard's shoulder.
"Leonard, can we borrow that godawful tie you wore to the symposium in September?" Raj asked, heading for the bedroom. "It would make a perfect blindfold."
"Sure, go ahead..." Leonard resignedly waved his consent before going to set up his whiteboard as an easel for the game.
Twenty minutes later, Captain Kirk's image still warm from a fresh coat of polyester and resin, Raj announced, "Sheldon, please crouch down for blindfolding."
"Why am I first?"
"Last to win, first to go, dude."
Sheldon's mouth crinkled up as he pondered this. Then he shrugged and crouched at Raj's height. "Proceed."
Once Sheldon's eyes were properly covered, Raj spun him three times and pushed him in the direction of Kirk. He walked a remarkably sure-footed line to the poster, and placed his badge... square in the center of Kirk's forehead.
Sheldon removed his blindfold and pouted. "William Shatner's charisma clearly affects his perceived height," he complained.
"Hey, that's how the laddu crumbles. Deal with it." Raj fell silent for a moment, as he studied the poster. "You know it's funny... with that marker there, Kirk looks remarkably like my aunt Nithya..." He nodded firmly. "She could really work a pantsuit."
"My turn." Howard held out his hand to Sheldon, who passed it over. "We're one step closer to sexy Active times."
Raj tied the blindfold and spun his friend around several times. Howard stumbled sideways immediately, knocking the remote control off the coffee table where Leonard had placed it. Howard's foot came down on it, an overloud commercial on the TV blared to life, and he tripped forward toward the poster, hand outstretched...
"Owww." The three onlookers winced at the badge's unfortunate placement.
Howard whipped off his blindfold to see where the badge had landed. He winced as well, face turning as red as his turtleneck.
"I didn't know Captain Kirk communicated with the Enterprise using his crotch," Raj teased.
Leonard laughed. "No, just aliens of the female persuasion."
"I tripped!" Howard yanked the badge off in embarrassment.
At about the same time, Howard, Raj and Leonard noticed the robotic voice emanating from the television. "Attack of the Show... Attack!" The three were immediately riveted to the program, completely forgetting about the game.
Sheldon, on the other hand, had moved to measure the distance between his and Howard's placement and the insignia on Kirk's chest. "Koothrappali, you know as well as I do that communicator badges weren't used until The Next Generation series..."
The guys around the television only had ears (and eyes) for Olivia Munn, joking with her co-host Kevin Pereira about Comic Con. "Who do you think she'll cosplay this year?" Howard asked in a dreamy voice.
"I don't know, but I love what she wears on the show. Nothing tops her Wonder Woman." Raj placed his chin in his hands and sighed.
"What about the Bond girl catsuit?" Leonard reminded them.
They all sighed as one. "Yeah..."
Sheldon, who had extended the tape measure between his hands, straightened up, annoyed. "Oh, please. She could be dressed in a hazmat suit and talking about proper soil fertilization and you three would watch."
Howard, Leonard and Raj looked at each other, then shrugged. No disagreement there. They went back to watching. Sheldon took a second-set of measurements - obviously unhappy with the result he was getting.
Behind him, the door to 4A opened, and Penny walked in. "Hey, guys, I was going to watch Grey's Anatomy but it's a rerun. What's on the menu for Anything Can Happen Thursday?"
None of the men in the room responded. All except Raj, who pointed silently at the TV briefly before focusing on it again. Penny sat beside Raj amiably. He didn't squirm out of the way. He might not be able to speak directly to her yet without help, but he was comfortable having her around. She looked at the screen and read the caption at the bottom of the screen: Four-Day Passes Selling Out Soon. "Oh, is Comic Con coming up?"
"As it does every July," Sheldon answered. The three around the television kept their attention on Olivia Munn. "We purchased our passes the day they went on sale. As long as you've known us, I'd think you'd remember that."
"I don't keep track of all of your 'social activities' on my calendar, Sheldon." She stood up from the couch and walked over to where he was still standing beside the poster of Kirk. "What are you doing? Taking measurements? I thought you already had a Spock costume."
"No." Sheldon retracted the measuring tape with an annoyed snap, having determined that Howard had come closer that he had to the insignia on Kirk's uniform. "I haven't yet determined what I will wear this year."
She glanced at the TV again, where a parade of cosplayers was going across the screen. "You know, it might be fun to go with you guys this year... but what would I go as?"
Sheldon stepped back for a moment and spread his hands like a picture frame. "Hmm. There are any number of fantasy/sci-fi heroines with your coloring and body type. You could go as Buffy Summers... or Sarah Walker... or one of any number of superheroes..."
"Superheroes?" she asked, intrigued. With all her visits to the comic book store, she'd picked up a few. It was easier to avoid unwanted conversations when you were actually reading. "Like Supergirl?"
"Or Black Canary, founding member of the Birds of Prey and the Green Arrow's inamorata. Though you might find the fishnet stockings uncomfortable... there is also Wonder Girl, the Amazonian... Saturn Girl of the Legion of Superheroes in the Thirty-First Century... Stephanie Brown of the Bat Clan, known as Spoiler, as well as Robin, even though it was only for 72 days..." He barely paused for breath before going on. "Of course, that's only the most obvious ones in the DC universe. On the other hand if you wanted to try one of the Marvel heroines, you could choose from--"
Penny held up a hand to forestall him. "I don't need the Sheldonpedia list all at once, sweetie." She turned to the guys at the TV. "Hey, what do you guys think I should cosplay as at Comic Con?"
"Whatever you want, Penny," Leonard answered distractedly. Howard didn't seem to hear her. Raj, on the other hand, was sitting up straight in shock, eyes wide, his mouth feebly opening and closing.
"Are you even listening? I said, if I go to Comic Con this year..." Penny slowed down her words, enunciating every one. "...what... should... I... cosplay?" She sneered and turned back toward Sheldon. "I swear, it's like I'm invisible when that show's on."
"C-Comic Con?" Leonard finally stammered.
"C-cosplay?" Howard added, looking even more shocked than Raj, if it were possible.
Sheldon looked down at his T-shirt and a slow grin spread over his face. "That's it! You can be 'invisible.'"
She frowned with confusion. "What?"
"Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman! Your words and my fine Atlantean friend here," he gestured to his shirt, "gave me the notion."
Penny frowned even harder. "I thought he was Vulcan..."
Sheldon shook his head. "While it is true that Namor and his people share a similar ear shape to the Vulcans, I assure you that they have little else in common." He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Yes! I believe I have a blue bodysuit that could be adapted for her traditional uniform..." He began to walk toward his bedroom, gesturing for Penny to follow.
"But isn't invisibility sort of a... lame superpower?" she asked, following.
"On the contrary, her ability to create force fields and manipulate energy make her one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel universe!" He rounded the corner.
"Really?" Penny stopped in the hall, grinning. "Cool." She joined Sheldon in his room, her voice moving out of earshot.
Raj, Howard and Leonard looked at each other in amazement, the shock slowly wearing off.
"Wow," Raj said, finding his voice again. "It really is Anything Can Happen Thursday."
"What do you guys think I should get today?" Leonard asked, flipping through the Cheesecake Factory menu the way he did every Tuesday evening. "I'm not sure I'm in the mood for Soy Cheese anything right now." He frowned, and turned another page.
"I know what I'm going to order," Howard said with a smirk. "In the mood for a little ragin' Cajun."
"Are you sure about that, Howard?" Raj asked. "Remember last September when you tried the extra hot blackened catfish to impress that girl...?" Raj turned to Leonard and Sheldon, seated on the other side of the table. "The only thing she was impressed with was how fast you raced to the bathroom."
Howard snapped back, annoyed. "It's not my fault that my stomach is remarkably oversensitive to cayenne pepper!"
"Anything for a girl, huh?" Leonard said, one eyebrow rising over his black eyeglass frames.
Howard smiled slowly. "You would have done it, too, if you'd seen the size of those--"
"Hey, guys!" Penny greeted them brightly, thankfully interrupting Howard's lascivious comment. "What are you guys going to have tonight?"
Sheldon spoke up for the first time since the others had been dithering over their order. "I'm going to have my usual, of course." He snapped closed the menu, even though he had not needed to look at it at all.
"Why mess with a classic, eh?" Penny didn't bother writing it down. The cooks in the back were probably already getting it ready. "Raj?"
He lifted his menu and pointed to the Steak Diane.
"Still mad at your folks, huh?"
Raj nodded with a rebellious frown. They'd been interfering in his love life again and he was striking out the only way he could.
"A bit adventurous, too! You know there's... wine... in the sauce, right?"
He nodded again. He nodded over to a trio of hotties sitting at the bar. Perhaps he'd be able to talk to one of them tonight.
"Alrighty then! Howard?"
"I'd like the..." Howard lowered his voice and waggled his eyebrows for effect. "...Bang Bang Chicken and Shrimp."
Penny reacted not at all, except to write it down. "Got it."
Howard seemed a little disappointed that she hadn't risen to the bait. "Add a little extra..." He thrusted his hips. "...bang, if you know what I mean."
Penny's eyes narrowed and she gave him one of her patented looks. "Watch where you're shooting that gun, or it might misfire... if you know what I mean."
Howard curled in on himself just a little bit.
Expression bright again, Penny turned to Leonard. "And what about you, sweetie?"
"Hmm..." He scanned the menu page again. "I can't really make up my mind. It's between the Chinese Chicken Salad and the Herb-Crusted Salmon Salad..."
"Oh, please, Leonard," Sheldon interjected. "Don't pretend to be health-conscious when you're just going to go and binge on Fritos Flavor Twists when you get home."
"Fine," Leonard said with a pout. "I'll have the Fish and Chips."
"Great!" Penny said as she collected the menus. "I'll be back in a few minutes to check on you." She briskly walked toward the kitchen
"Penny? Penny? Penny?" Sheldon called after her, but he was too late -- she had moved out of earshot. "I believe that she is ignoring me."
"Why would you think that, Sheldon?" Leonard asked, rolling his eyes.
"Well, considering that she was clearly within range before her ambulatory velocity would have taken her out of..." Sheldon pressed his lips together suddenly. "Oh, this is sarcasm, isn't it?"
"Is Sheldon really starting to master the ways of social interaction?" Howard sneered.
"Better than you, Wolowitz," Sheldon shot right back. "How many times must you continually proposition our neighbor before you realize that she is uninterested in any sort of sexual encounter with you?"
Howard leaned forward, narrowing his eyes. "Oh, I'm learning all right. It's a field experiment. I'm exhausting all possibilities -- discovering what works and what doesn't."
"It's exhausting all right," Raj put in.
Before the verbal sparring could start up again, Sheldon continued, "I am beginning to suspect that she is not as committed to costume authenticity as I am."
"First of all, Sheldon," Leonard tried to explain, "don't you think it's a little much -- coming over to her place at all hours to make some miniscule adjustment to her costume?"
"That did not stop her from interrupting my sleep cycle to ask me about strategy for Age of Conan." He huffed. "Or calling me at work for the same purpose."
"That was over a year ago, Sheldon. Has she bothered you since then?"
"Well, no... but I think we can all agree that this situation is far more important than trying to level up in online gaming."
"Give her a break -- this is her first Comic Con -- and her first time cosplaying!"
"Which makes this all the more essential! If she's going to attend the convention with much more experienced cosplayers, she mustn't look like a noob." Sheldon shifted in his chair. "If Penny prefers the 'Invisible Girl' moniker, or is fine with being the mother of two children, then she's going to have to wear flat boots. If she wants to wear the classic, post marriage, pre-Franklin costume, that would have been the redesigned version with high-heels - an uncomfortable choice, but the simplest from canon's perspective without denying her the more interesting scripts when she meets other costumers representing citizens of the Marvel Universe. Despite the nuances that have come and gone with fashion over the years, it's plain to me it has to be one of these three versions of Jack Kirby's original classic look. It's simple, elegant and iconic. It's not too flashy or crass, won't make her look awful and it won't have tailoring so bad it'll chafe. It won't require too much flesh exposure or leave her looking half-undressed, unlike the designs created by some artists such as Greg Land or Jim Lee." He shuddered. "The trick however is to get these details right -- the swatch of blue, the glossiness of the black sections, the height of the boots and length of her gloves... and most importantly of all -- her era's hairstyle."
"He has a point there," Raj conceded with a shrug.
"Fine," Leonard said, giving up. "Secondly, the con is five months away."
"I know! She barely has enough time to learn Sue Storm's rich and varied history, let alone begin to develop a script for all possible interactions."
"Sheldon..." Howard said. "She's going to be wearing a skintight blue spandex bodysuit. Do you think anyone is really going to pay any attention to any canon mistakes?"
"I will! And considering that I am going to be responsible for her complete authenticity, it will reflect on my reputation." Then in a very low serious tone, Sheldon added, "And I'm sure Penny will care. She would be far happier impressing them with her proportionate knowledge of continuity than with her actual proportions."
The other three were silent for a few moments, considering the truth of that statement.
Finally, Leonard said, "That may be so, but I think you're making a lot of assumptions for Penny..."
At that moment, Penny came back to the table, carrying her loaded trays. "Assumptions about what?" she asked as she set their orders in front of them.
Sheldon answered, "Why, assumptions about what you would find important in preparing for Comic Con. I--"
With a frustrated moan, Penny said, "Enough on Comic Con, Sheldon! It's still five months away!"
Leonard gave Sheldon a victorious look.
"More like only five months away," Sheldon pressed. "Have you requested the time off yet?"
She sighed. "Not yet."
He tilted his head, raising his eyebrows like a peeved schoolteacher.
"I'll do it soon. It's not a big deal."
"On the contrary, it is a 'big deal,' as you say. I have already lent you the money to purchase the four-day pass, and unlike in previous years, the implementation of the new identification system will not permit me to 'scalp' the tickets outside the San Diego Convention Center, let alone proffer them on Craig's List." His voice got more strident. "What will happen if you have to work!"
"Sheldon, just shut up about--" Her eyes cut to the side, and she gathered up their empty drink cups. "Oh, crap. My new manager is looking this way. We'll talk about this later." She strode off in a hurry.
"Dude, if you keep this up, she's going to refuse to go even if she does get the time off!" Raj complained.
Howard growled, "And if you ruin my chance to see her in that costume... you'll be worrying about more than a hairstyle."
Sheldon ignored Howard's feeble warning. He was all bark and no bite, as had been proven by a certain crossbow threat which never materialized. He prepared his burger, placing the bacon, cheese and barbeque sauce in the proper order, and then sank his teeth into the burger.
He immediately spit the mouthful of beef back out. "What in the name of the de Broglie Hypothesis is going on?!"
"What?" Leonard asked, unsure he really wanted to know.
"This," he pointed to the offending morsel, "is not the burger I ordered."
"Oh, c'mon, it looks exactly the same as it has every single week for the last two years," Howard said.
"It may look similar, but I assure you, it is not." He lifted two fingers imperiously in the air. "Excuse me, Penny?"
She turned away, speaking to customers at another table instead.
"Penny!" he called again, raising his voice a fraction.
She smiled and nodded at the people at that table, even laughing at something one of them had said.
"Penny!" he nearly shouted.
Her head whipped toward him, her stare like knives. Just as imperiously, she lifted two fingers toward him... then slashed them downward in dismissal.
"How rude. Well, I'll just have to take this up with the manager, then." He pushed his chair back and pistoned up out of his chair. He walked purposefully toward the hostess' stand.
"What was that?" Leonard asked the other two guys. They just shrugged and took a simultaneous mouthful of food. Leonard set down his fork to watch.
Penny noticed what Sheldon was doing with a start, excused herself hurriedly, and took off after him. She caught up just in time to hear him say to the hostess, "...expect to eat the same hamburger as I ordered, not some poor imitation."
"I'll call the manager for you, if you'd like," the hostess said immediately -- she'd had enough experience with Sheldon that she knew it wasn't worth it to argue with him. She lifted the receiver on her extension.
"Thank you," he said with a nod.
"That won't be necessary, Tami." Penny put her hand on the girl's arm to halt her. "I can take care of it."
Tami set the receiver down and backed away from them with a quick step.
Penny hooked him by the elbow and dragged him away from the waiting area. "What is the problem, sweetie?" She ground her teeth together on the last word.
"My Barbeque Bacon Cheeseburger is no such thing! They've changed the sauce!"
"No, they haven't. If they had, someone would have commented on it by now."
"Or possibly, no one has as highly refined sense of taste as I have. Either way, it is different, and it can't be different."
"Sheldon... can't you just accept that sometimes things are different?!" She stamped her foot and waved a finger close to his nose. "Not everything has to live up to the exacting standards of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D!"
"Is there a problem?" a voice interrupted. Penny's new manager stood beside them, a frown on his pinched-looking face.
"Yes!" Sheldon insisted, as Penny argued, "No!" at the same time.
"The barbeque sauce on my Barbeque Bacon Cheeseburger is sub-par. The hickory-smoked flavor has been tainted with a touch too much garlic."
"And I was trying to tell him that it is no different than before, but if he would like his order replaced, we would be happy to give him something else."
"You said no such--"
Penny started to drag him back to where the guys were sitting, pretending not to know him. "Just come on back to your table, sir, and we'll take care of--"
He shook off her hand. "I would rather have the burger I came in here for, not something else!"
"Ooooo, Sheldon! Just sit down, shut up, and eat!"
All conversation around them came grinding to a halt. Penny flushed, realizing that she had let her emotions get the best of her. She turned to the manager, whose mouth was set in a grim line. "I'm sorry, Mike, but he--"
"Sir," Mike said, ignoring Penny, "I deeply apologize. It is true that we changed the brand of barbeque sauce we use last week."
Sheldon sent Penny a vindicated look.
"I will be happy to take it off your bill if there is nothing else on the menu that is satisfactory."
Sheldon nodded and opened his mouth to respond, but Mike was already turning toward Penny.
"Penny, may I see you a moment?" he gestured for Penny to follow him over toward the kitchen, away from the other customers.
"Your behavior has been rude toward these gentlemen all evening..." Mike began, "...might I even say... snippy."
"Snippy?" she asked in disbelief.
"We will not be needing your services here at the Cheesecake Factory any longer. Please turn in your notepad and your apron." He held out his palm.
Penny's mouth opened and closed in shock. Then she bit her lip, willing the tears not to come, and took off her apron. "Well, good. I needed to devote more time to my acting, anyway," she said breezily. She draped it over her manager's palm and then turned on her heel.
Across the room, the guys watched her grab her purse from behind the bar and stalk out of the restaurant. Mike came to offer his profuse apologies, but his words went unheard. Even Sheldon was stunned to silence. The manager left after pressing a gift card into Sheldon's stiff hands.
When Sheldon awoke from his stupor, he said in a shaky voice, "That was... unexpected."
"Well," Raj said quietly. "At least now you know she's got the time off."
Many thanks to van_el, whose lengthy exposition and analysis of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow costume for Iron Man 2 in an attempt to piece together her Movieverse origin, inspired me to ask him to help with Sheldon's Sue Storm lecture above.
Leonard stood at the top of the first landing, calling down toward the lobby of their apartment building. "I don't care if it was their fault with the barbeque sauce, Sheldon. It was your fault that Penny got fired!"
A mumble came from around the corner, out of Leonard's sight. He didn't need to hear what Sheldon had actually said to know the other physicist was making excuses.
"You have to apologize, Sheldon!"
Howard and Raj stood off to the side, watching the two roommates like they were watching a tennis match.
A little louder, Sheldon said, his voice a bit stronger, "I tried to get her job back, but that manager was simply unreasonable. With one fell swoop, he has irrevocably changed Hamburger Night."
"You need to tell her that personally, Sheldon. No matter how hard it is to admit you were wrong." Leonard set his face in a mask of determination. He jogged down the stairs and faced Sheldon with courage. Pointing upward, his finger shaking with adrenaline, he commanded. "Up the stairs, now!"
"But Leonard..." Sheldon whined.
"Whatever hogtying, throat punching or risk of castration there may be, you are going to face her and admit to your mistake!"
Sheldon's face fell, and his shoulders slumped. "You have to admit she has a surprising amount of upper body strength for a girl of her stature..."
Leonard's pointed finger and granite-like face didn't waver.
Sheldon nodded and began to climb the stairs, one slow step at a time. Leonard followed right behind, to make sure he didn't change his mind.
"Masterful, Leonard," Howard commented in a low voice.
"Yeah, dude," Raj added. "Those assertiveness DVDs are really paying off."
Sheldon ascended the stairs like a man going to the scaffold. With each step, it seemed as if a brass choir tolled his impending doom...
Sheldon whipped his head back to give Howard a death glare. Howard tapped pause on his iPhone, with a devilish grin. "What? I thought this occasion deserved a little mood music."
He turned to Raj and murmured, "You'd think I was playing the Requiem or something."
The rest of the march continued on in relative silence. The procession finally reached the fourth floor, the other three trailing the condemned in solemn anticipation. Sheldon straightened his shoulders and strode to the door to meet his fate.
He knocked three times as usual, the sound overly loud in the hallway. "Penny?" Again, stronger. "Penny?" As strong as he could manage. "Penny?"
The four waited for some sort of response. A shout, an opened door, projectiles...
"I wish we had the camera set up," Raj commented.
Howard was already prepared. "I got it, buddy." He held up his iPhone toward the door to 4B.
There was no response.
Sheldon began his triple knock again, but Leonard inserted himself between Sheldon and the door. "Let me try," he said.
Leonard cleared his throat. "Penny? Sheldon is here to apologize to you..."
Sheldon opened his mouth to protest, but Leonard pressed on.
"Won't you open the door?"
"Maybe she isn't home?" Raj wondered.
"No," Howard said. "Her car was in the lot. And based on the heat coming from the hood, I'd estimate she's been here 20... maybe 30 minutes."
No one questioned Howard's knowledge of mechanical engineering.... or stalker technique. They waited for another minute or two.
"Here, let me try." Howard handed off his iPhone to Raj and sauntered forward. "I think I know what might draw her out." He knocked suavely. "Penny? Come out and talk?" He waited a moment, listening for any sounds inside. "Believe me, we know how you feel. You probably want to rip his head off right now."
Sheldon sent Howard another dirty look.
Howard ignored it. "In fact, any sort of physical violence you want to inflict on him is a-okay with me! I'd even place a bet on--"
"Howard!" Leonard cut him off.
The engineer simply shrugged. "I know it would give me an incentive..."
Sheldon's tone could have doubled for a laser beam. "Wolowitz, while I appreciate that you associate the intensity of your dissatisfaction with your pitiful accomplishments in life with your general distaste of my pointing out of the same, I don't think I need to remind you that Penny certainly has a capacity for physical violence that could extend to diminutive, annoying Jewish lechers as well. I could inform her of the thong incident, perhaps?"
Howard stepped forward, his face stormy. "You wouldn't dare..."
Sheldon stepped forward as well. "Bring it."
Leonard got between them quickly. "Do you really think that arguing in the hallway is going to convince her to come out here?"
Raj shrugged. "She might like a good nerdfight..."
Leonard shook his head sadly. "Look, guys, I'm going to try again..."
"This is futile." Sheldon walked briskly toward his apartment door. "She is either ignoring us, or not at home. Either way, I will not be able to speak to her." He opened the door with his key and dropped the key ring into the bowl beside the door. "She will talk to me when she is ready." Sheldon sifted through the other keys in the bowl as he talked. "And if not, there is always the..." He trailed off, and sifted the keys again. "Where is Penny's emergency key?"
At that moment, Penny came walking from Sheldon's bedroom. She stalked by without comment, moving past him as if he did not exist.
"Penny!" Sheldon exclaimed. "We need to talk about what hap--"
She did not acknowledge him at all. Instead, she nodded at the other three guys. "Good evening," she said coolly. "Raj... Howard... Leonard."
Though they greeted her, Raj with a wave, she simply opened her door with a single key, entered her apartment, and closed it again.
"Was that her spare key?" Leonard asked, troubled.
"It appears that she has revoked our apartment visiting privileges..." Sheldon said in an odd voice. Then he froze. "She was in my..." His eyes widened to the size of satellite dishes. "Oh, sweet Jesus and his barefoot apostles!" He raced across the living room to his bedroom.
The three in the hallway watched his panic silently for a beat. Then Raj said quietly, "When he's quoting his mother, you know it must be bad."
An agonized shriek of horror emanated from inside 4A.
"Ohhh, it's bad," Howard said, pleased.
Leonard wrung his hands. "Oh. no... I have to put a stop to this now, before it turns into Penny vs. Sheldon 2: The Apocalypse." He knocked frantically on her door. "Penny...? Penny, please. Let me in before something terrible happens..."
Another scream floated into the hallway.
More frantic knocking. "Penny!"
"Dude, what about us!" Raj asked, face tight with worry.
"You've got your car, right?" Howard said, already jogging toward the staircase. "Let's head for the border and not look back!"
An almost unearthly moan was all it took to make Raj chase after his friend.
Leonard turned to watch them go, considering fleeing with them, when the door behind him suddenly opened and he was yanked inside.
Leonard put a hand over his heart to calm it. "Penny!"
She didn't answer, opening her cabinets haphazardly and moving things about.
"Are you okay?" Leonard walked cautiously toward Penny's kitchen island, eying her frenetic search of the cabinets with dismay. "Penny?"
"Leonard, you wouldn't happen to have any whiskey, would you?" she asked cheerfully, completely at odds with the tenor of this evening. "I threw all of my alcohol out last summer. I mean, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, considering that I make too many bad decisions when I'm drinking, but now I could just kick myself."
"I could check, but I don't--"
"Silly, me, why am I even asking? I didn't see any when I was rearranging the cereal and the silverware a few minutes ago. Unless you keep some in your bedroom or something? But why would you? That's just silly." She banged one cabinet shut with more force than necessary.
Leonard winced at the sound, and glanced at the door with apprehension. "I suppose I could make a run to the liquor st--"
"Oh, no, sweetie, that's not necessary. I could probably go myself, but no matter how much I want to get crashingly drunk right now, it won't solve anything, will it?" Her voice got more strident and she closed the rest of the cabinet doors in time with her next words. "I'd probably just do something stupid!"
"Penny..." Leonard came around the corner of the island and stretched out a comforting hand toward her. "You're not stupid, you're just upset..."
Penny yanked open the refrigerator next, shoving aside the few contents inside back and forth. "Not stupid, huh? What kind of idiot continues to go on audition after audition with absolutely no results! What kind of brainless airhead thinks that working at the Cheesecake Factory for three years is a perfectly respectable way to make a living?" She slammed the refrigerator door shut.
"You've just had a run of bad luck..."
She stalked back toward the door, shaking her finger at it like it was standing in for Sheldon. "Dr. Tall, Dark and Crazy over there doesn't like anything different, right? Well, I never stop wishing that everything was different!" Her shoulders started to slump, and her voice got shaky. "Why did I think that this year was going to be any different than any other year...?"
Penny staggered back a few steps until she bumped into the couch. "This was... not... the way it... was supposed to go..." The tears started to flow full force then, the anger quickly draining from her as she sat.
Leonard rushed to put an arm around her. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Penny. Sheldon can be a huge jerk sometimes, but even I didn't think he would get you fired."
She leaned into him, her tears soaking Leonard's sleeve. "Me either... what am I going to do about money now? I can't keep going to auditions without a job..."
"I'll help you find another job... heck, we'll help you find one. I don't care if you took a blowtorch to his things... or even got germs over every single thing he owns... Sheldon owes you that." He reached over to pluck a tissue from a box on the coffee table and handed it to her.
She wiped her eyes with it, soaking the tissue in seconds. "Another waitressing job? Something at CalTech like a secretary or the cleaning crew? What does it matter? It will just be another dead-end job to pass the time between rejections..."
"No... of course it won't..." Leonard comforted with all the conviction he could muster, rubbing circles on her back with his hand. "You're bound to get discovered any day now."
"But what if I'm not--"
Knockknockknock. "Penny..." Sheldon's voice through the door sounded ragged and weak. Through the door, they could hear huge gasps of air. Knockknocknock. "Penny." Weaker this time. Knockknockknock. Almost like nails scratching at the door instead.
"I can tell him to go away, if you want," Leonard said quietly.
"No... I have to face him sometime..."
She untangled herself from Leonard's arm and stood, sniffling loudly to clear her nose. She opened the door just as Sheldon was about to knock again, his hand poised in the air.
They looked a pair, she blotchy and red from crying, he pale and asthmatic from panic.
"Penny," he rasped, sounding like he was on the edge of sanity. "While I fully understand how angry you are with me, there was no need to disrupt years of bagging and boarding every comic book with loving care..."
Penny sighed tiredly. "Get to the point, Sheldon. You messed up my life, I messed up yours. I consider us even."
"Even?!" he said, his eyes going red around the rims. "Why the very number of strikes incurred by the damage done to my Flash collection alone..."
Penny guffawed, a maniacal edge to her laughter. "Strikes? Well, get this, Dr. DiMaggio. I'd like to see you try to collect on them after I go home... to Omaha." She spun on her heel and stomped back toward her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
"Omaha?" Leonard asked in a small voice.
Sheldon cocked his head to the side with annoyance. "Distance has absolutely no effect on the strike sys..." He trailed off, finally realizing what Penny meant. "...oh."
Sheldon walked briskly down the hall to his office. He kept his head down, not pausing for idle chitchat along the way. Not that this was really any different than usual -- but today he was even more intent on making it to his office without being stopped.
"Hey!" a shout came from behind him. He recognized it immediately. "Doctor Stupor!" Leslie Winkle.
Sheldon halted, back straightening in offense, before he set his jaw and continued walking. He didn't have the energy or time for her inane need to challenge him.
"Or is it Blooper?"
He pretended not to hear, picking up speed.
"All right, go ahead and run," she taunted. "I guess what I heard -- well, read..." She held up her cell phone. "...was true, then."
Sheldon reached his door and unlocked it, going inside and closing the door in Dr. Winkle's face.
The door stopped short of closing, a high-heeled shoe blocking the way.
With an aggrieved sigh, Sheldon stepped away from the door and removed his messenger bag from over his shoulder. "Dr. Winkle," he said, busying himself with unloading the bag, "I have no doubt that you believe everything you hear without first subjecting it to rigorous experimentation." Sheldon turned his back to her and opened his filing cabinet. "Your continued insistence on accepting the loop quantum gravity theory on blind faith proves that."
Leslie didn't rise to the bait. "You would agree that interviews with primary subjects are valid in any thorough research?" She came closer, voice modulating into the practiced tones of a lecturer. "I'm interested in verifying my hypothesis."
Sheldon paused. "Go on."
"So... is it true that you drove away the only woman who can stand you anymore?"
Sheldon whirled at that, eyes flashing.
"Well, I say 'stand,' but to be more precise -- reluctantly tolerate," Leslie continued laconically, "I mean, other than the women in your family." She added with a smirk, "And even then, I hear that's iffy..."
"Penny has decided to return to Omaha, yes," he returned stiffly. "She is unhappy with her job prospects here. My interference was unfortunate -- though I contend that I simply sought to point out the Cheesecake Factory's failing, not Penny's own as a waitress, she is quite skilled, though sometimes short-tempered with her friends -- but the situation has proven to be the tipping point in her basic dissatisfaction with her life in California." Sheldon stepped forward, temper rising. "Why should I stand in the way of her life choices?"
Leslie grinned smugly, and laid a hand on Sheldon's arm. "You're missing the point, as always."
Sheldon quickly jerked his arm away, frowning as much at her words as her outstretched hand.
He opened his mouth to protest, but she removed her glasses and ran a hand through her crown of curls. "I've got to go anyway, thanks for the confirmation. I hate to gossip... you know, without possessing the full details."
At that moment, Sheldon noticed the way she was dressed. She wore jewelry, a form-fitting black suit dress, shimmery stockings and heels. There was actually a hint of lipstick and smoky eye shadow across her lids. She flipped her hair over one shoulder and sauntered off down the hallway.
Sheldon frowned, but headed for his whiteboard instead of following her to argue further. His face betrayed no emotion, but he snapped open a dry-erase marker with a sharp jerk.
As Leslie Winkle continued down the hallway, an appreciative wolf-whistle pierced the air. "Is there a Sexy Librarian convention on campus this week?" Howard said, turning to Raj, who was walking beside him. He added, "Why can't we get more hotties like that on our faculty?"
Raj lowered his voice. "No. Didn't you hear? They're holding aud--"
His voice cut off in a squeak as Leslie pivoted to face them. "Hi, boys. What a lovely way to start the day, with a little misogyny."
Howard swallowed, still highly uncomfortable around Leslie after their ill-fated relationship. "N-No, Dr. Winkle. I was simply commenting on how... how professional you look today."
"As opposed to how I look every other day?" she goaded, eyebrow rising.
"Ye--I mean, n--I..."
Leslie laughed. "You're too easy, Wolowitz. See you later... Raj." She winked flamboyantly at him and sashayed off again.
"You lucky dog..." Howard said, voice full of jealousy.
Raj turned to him, horrified. "Are you kidding? Dude, she is so not my type."
"Type? Who bothers with a type?" Howard adjusted his collar for an unseen audience of admirers. "If she's female, she's my type."
"Whatever." Raj set off down the hall in the same direction Leslie had gone. "I want to see who else showed up."
"Showed up to what?" Howard asked, hopping to catch up.
"It's like I was trying to tell you. Today they're having those auditions for the hosting job on a science show for one of the cable networks."
Howard's eyes grew large. "Auditions? Hosting job?"
They rounded the corner and saw a line of their fellow researchers outside one of the lecture halls. All of them were dressed to the nines... or at least eight and a half. Up and down the row, researchers, professors and graduate students chatted, preened and practiced lines.
They passed Andrew, one of the astronomy teaching assistants, who belted out in a booming voice, "A team of astronomers led by Roberta Humphreys of the University of Minnesota used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory to measure the motions of the ejected material and to map the distribution of the highly polarized dust, which reflects light at a specific orientation. The polarized light shows how the dust is distributed. Astronomers combined the Hubble and Keck information to produce a three-dimensional image of the matter emitted from VY Canis Majoris."
Dr. Ikeda adjusted her chic glasses and read, "Nitrous oxide is mainly formed through the bacterial breakdown of nitrogen in soil or in water. A key component of fertilizers, most nitrogen is emitted from agriculture and from waste water treatment plants. Nitrous oxide doesn't directly affect the ozone layer, but once it is in the atmosphere it can react with oxygen to form nitric oxide, which in turn attacks the ozone layer."
Kripke -- Raj and Howard did a double-take when they realized he was there -- declaimed like a Shakespearean Elmer Fudd, "The wesonance cone expewiment, motivated by a contwoversy in the antenna community about the wadiation from an ideawized dipole in an ideawized anisotwopic pwasma, was the first expewimentow demonstwation that cones weawy existed and that the cone angow vawied with pwasma pawameters in a wewativewy simpow way."
"What the frak?!" Howard cried out, floored. "Why didn't anyone tell me about this?"
Raj guided Howard away from the line, far from Dr. Ikeda's look of disdain. "They told everyone, Howard. It's been in the departmental newsletter everyday this week."
"It was?" Howard paused in thought a moment, and then made a dismissive gesture. "Eh, no one reads those anyway." He strode toward the end of the line, and picked up the audition script from the sign-in table. "I'd be perfect for this. By the time I get to the front of the line, I'll have it down cold."
Raj stood and looked at him, eyebrow raised.
"Aren't you going to join me? You could be the next Sanjay Gupta!"
Raj did nothing more than point at the several women in the line, and the cute female casting assistant taking names.
Raj shook his head in disgust, as much with himself as with his friend, and lifted a hand as if to say, 'More power to you -- I'm outta here.'
"Hey, if you aren't going to audition, at least you could keep me company..." Howard called futilely after Raj's retreating back. "Fine. See if I put you in my entourage."
Hours later, the casting director, Terence James, and his assistant Carrie, opened the door to the hallway where the long line had been. The last of the hopefuls had left a few minutes ago. "No others, then?" James asked.
"No, sir. Dr. Valasquez was the final candidate."
James slumped against the outside of the door to the lecture hall in which they'd been holding the screen tests. "Oh, god. Two full days of auditions and not one I want to call back."
"I know, sir." Carrie agreed.
"After today, I wish I could scrub some of them completely from my brain. Did you see that little guy in the Junior Austin Powers getup?" He shook his head in amazement. "What made him think that was acceptable for this kind of show?"
"I don't know, sir."
"And then the day before, a whole day of beautiful airheads -- all of them no better than a talking parrot."
"I think a parrot would sound more convincing about the science than they did, sir."
James smiled briefly, but continued on. "Today's group -- they were all passionate. They clearly love their fields -- but the camera?" He tsked. "Did not love them."
"There was the one..."
James sighed. "I guess we could give a callback to Dr..." He lifted his clipboard and started to run down the list of names with a finger. He trailed off, noticing Sheldon, who had just walked around the corner into view.
The scientist stood in front of a bulletin board and lifted a crisp piece of paper. He aligned it exactly, and tacked it to the cork by the corners. He then stepped back, studying it briefly. He stepped forward again... and instead of adjusting his own flyer, he removed the papers scattered around the surface to give his own contribution better visibility.
James and Carrie watched this in silence from the other end of the hall. Then James turned quietly to his assistant. "Do you see that? The way he holds himself?" He took an involuntary step toward Sheldon. Carrie shuffled forward to keep beside him. James added, "So... confident. I bet he'd be brilliant on camera."
Carrie was starting to feel it, too. "Maybe put him in a dark suit..."
"A jewel-toned shirt or tie..." They both moved a few steps closer.
"Excuse me..." James began when they were within a few yards of the tall researcher. He held out his hand toward Sheldon. "My name is Terence James, casting director for the new show Unified Theory. This is my assistant, Carrie Sussman. And your name is...?"
Sheldon glanced at James' outstretched hand just long enough to show he wasn't going to touch it, and then nodded his head in greeting instead. "Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D."
"Very nice voice -- strong, assertive." He nodded at Carrie, who nodded back happily. "Tell me, Dr. Cooper, we were just finishing our auditions, and--"
"Oh, good," Sheldon cut in. "I need to get into the Robert Sharp Lecture Hall." He strode toward the entrance of the room.
They had to jog to catch up with him. "Wait, Dr. Cooper! I was wondering if you might..."
Sheldon's eyebrows came together in annoyance. "If I might what? I'm very busy right now."
"If you might consider auditioning for our host position. We're trying to find a young, dynamic scientist who can connect with our viewers. I think you might just have the right... something."
Sheldon's lips pressed together and he faced them. "So let me get this straight. You wish me to consider becoming the representative face of your program?"
"Yes," James nodded eagerly.
"A program which takes scientific concepts and... if I remember your prospectus from the newsletter... helps to make them more palatable for a general audience?"
"In effect, watering down the true nature of the theories presented in such a way that they would lose their essential viability?"
"Yes..." James was now much less sure of his initial impression.
"So that every Dick and Jane who watches the program would feel that they could grasp the information, when it would be more akin to a child thinking he understands the complexities of interactions between subatomic particles simply because he created a foam-and-toothpick model of the water molecule?"
"Hmm. As much as I am... flattered... by your request, I simply cannot attach myself to such a project. I would need to acquire full control of the material presented in order to ensure the end product's veracity. And particularly considering the amount of time this would bleed from my primary research, I must decline."
James and Carrie's expressions had slowly turned from hopeful to confused to blank incomprehension. Sheldon waited for a moment to pass, to allow them to respond.
"Ah... well... thank you for your time," James finally said.
Sheldon gave them another curt nod and turned toward the room.
James sighed again. "Well, Carrie, I guess we'll simply have to callback this..." He scanned the list again and stopped on a name. "Dr. Leslie Winkle. But first? There's a non-fat soy latte calling my name." They headed toward the other end of the building.
Sheldon had frozen in place with his hand on the door when he heard Leslie's name. "Dr.... Winkle?" Sheldon asked in shock. He shook himself out of his inertia to call after the two... but they were already gone. He frowned deeply, and a cold fire lit in his blue eyes. "Oh, hell no."
In Penny's apartment, boxes lay scattered around, stacked on the sofa, on the kitchen counter, beside the door. There was no discernible order to the packing -- some boxes were filled with clothing and knickknacks, books and appliances, DVDs and dishes. The living room seemed deserted, except for the chaos.
Then a frustrated sigh of effort emanated from behind thekitchen island. Penny heaved herself upward, blonde hair flying around herhead. With a crash, she set a box of dishes on the counter. She wiped her brow, causing strands of hair to mat to her forehead, and snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge.
After taking a big swig from the bottle, Penny walked over to pick up her list from the arm of the sofa. She crossed off 'coffee mugs' with a flourish of a Sharpie and a self-satisfied nod. But her expression quickly turned into a frown as she saw how many things she had left to pack. She glanced briefly at her cell phone (she hadn't yet canceled her plan, thank God) but shook her head. Who could she call to help? Most of her friends were at work... or would beg off with some other excuse when they heard what she needed.
She could ask the boys, who were probably home... but was it worth it? They'd help happily, but just the thought of Raj having to write down every question he had, Howard pawing through her things, and Leonard begging her to stay -- in his passive-aggressive way -- again... she decided against it. She could probably lift more weight than any of them, anyway.
And then there was Sheldon. She hadn't spoken to him since the other day. She wasn't sure she even wanted to anymore. They had always had an interesting friendship, one she couldn't even define. But if he wasn't going to apologize, then the friendship must not mean as much to him as it did to her. She pushed down the tight feeling she got in her stomach at the thought.
She moved over to fill another box, this time from one of the bookshelves. There were more knickknacks than books, and what was there would have perplexed the Penny of three years ago. A comprehensive guide to the Star Trek universe, purchased after she saw the newest Star Trek movie and wanted to learn more about her favorite characters while the boys were away in the Arctic. Penny smiled as she put the book in the box. She was glad she had, too. When they returned and watched the movie on DVD a few months later, she actually was able to debate with Sheldon on--
She stopped that perilous train of thought. Would she ever be able to think of Star Trek -- or anything related to it -- without thinking of him?
Penny grabbed for the next item. It was the manual for the kids' science experiment kit Leonard had bought for her a couple of Christmases ago. The kit had been cannibalized for parts long ago in whatever scheme one of the guys had going on a weekly basis (how a bunch of scientists could constantly get themselves caught up in so many hijinks was beyond her). She'd only done one of the experiments, on a summer day when she was bored. The one about magnetism. At the time, she felt a little closer to Leonard, wondering how she'd ever make it through the whole summer without him...
Of course, now she was about to move away and never see any of them again.
There was the glass globe with the constellations that Raj got her after their trip to the Griffith Observatory, and the little menorah she bought to observe Hanukkah with Howard. Of course, after he asked, "So what gift are you giving me today?" with a wiggle of his hips, she nearly embedded it in his skull. There was still a little dent on the side and everything. Penny grinned at the memory and placed it in the box.
She pulled her hand back a little when she touched the item at the back of the shelf. One of the first Penny Blossoms she and Sheldon had ever made winked back at her with one rhinestone eye. It was a little faded, and a lot dusty -- she wasn't even sure how it got back there in the first place, rather than being sold. But it was definitely one of the early Blossoms -- the exact placement of the glitter had the Sheldon touch.
Penny still looked back on that time with fondness. It was the first time she and Sheldon ever worked together on something, rather than arguing or ricocheting against each other's perceptions and abilities. They had been so damned efficient! And it was fun, to boot. But now... her memory of that one crazy night would be forever tainted by the way things were ending.
Penny stilled and then gave her herself a derisive laugh. "Dramatic much, self?" No need to act like a scorned sixteen-year-old. She picked up the Penny Blossom carefully between two fingers and placed it inside the box.
Once the shelf was cleared, she closed the top of the box and looked around for something else to pack.
She was distracted by Sheldon's voice, coming through her doorway from the hall. "Good evening. My name is Sheldon Cooper, and I invite you join me in an exploration of... oh, dammit!"
What the--? Sheldon was sounding crazier than normal -- he didn't usually curse except when he was really upset. Curious, Penny crept over to the door to peek out of the peephole.
Sheldon held a sheaf of papers in his hand, and was gesturing dramatically at the perpetually-broken elevator doors. "Throughout all human history, man has wondered about the origins of the universe. Whether we were formed by the hand of an all-powerful god, or came into being from nothing, as well as a multitude of interpretations in between and on the edges. We--" Sheldon growled suddenly and then threw the pages down to the ground in a fit of frustration. "Oh, this is tripe!"
Then he immediately bent down to gather all the papers up, meticulously checking page numbers to keep them in the proper order. What could possibly be going on? She smiled, a small vindicated grin. He was obviously having a rough time with whatever it was.
Sheldon straightened each page, carefully ironing out the kinks in the corners with his fingers, then lifted the sheets before him dramatically and took a deep breath...
His chest collapsed and he shuffled over to his own door to bang his head on it. Once. "Leonard." Twice. "Leonard." Three times. "Leonard."
Penny had never seen him so despondent. The tiny schadenfreude-ian part of her which had rejoiced at his pain dissolved. She quietly opened the door and poked her head out.
Before she could speak, she heard Leonard's voice come from the other side of the door to 4A. "Are you done yet?"
"Yes, Leonard," Sheldon said, his voice defeated.
"Are you sure?"
"I..." Sheldon began, and then sighed. "I can't do it."
"This is Leslie Winkle we're talking about. The Dr. Doom to your Mr. Fantastic, remember?" Leonard encouraged, still through the door.
"How could I forget? I forget nothing. Or don't you remember?"
Penny heard the deadbolt and chain rattling on the other side. Then the door opened and Leonard stepped aside, gesturing for Sheldon to come back in. "I suppose I should offer Leslie my congratulations, then..." Leonard stopped and noticed that Penny was peeking out of the door. "Penny?"
Sheldon whipped his head back toward her, his face going scarlet at her previously unnoticed presence.
Leonard gave Sheldon an annoyed look, and then stalked into the hall. "Don't tell me he was bothering you with this?!"
Sheldon started, "Absolutely not--!" at the same time Penny said, "Bother me with what?"
Leonard closed his mouth and looked back at Sheldon, who was not meeting either of their eyes. Then Leonard said, "Never mind. How is the packing going? Need any help?"
She smirked at Leonard's obvious attempt to change the subject. She wanted to know what Sheldon's problem was! True, if Sheldon had come to her door, for any reason at all, she would have ignored him. But he hadn't. He seemed to be doing everything in his power not to bother her. "I'm just fine. What on earth is going on?"
"You really don't want to know, Penny..." Leonard tried to placate her, just as Sheldon was pushing his way back into 4A. She moved past Leonard and hurried back to block Sheldon's continued path.
She planted her fists on her hips and stared up at Sheldon in challenge. "What. Is. It?"
Sheldon fixed his eyes on the space just above her head. "The point is moot. I will not be auditioning after all." He side-stepped her, more deftly than she would have imagined, and walked toward the kitchen.
"Why is the--?" Then the point sunk in, moot or not. "Did you say... audition?"
"Yes, the casting director thought I would fill their host position, but on second, or more specifically, third thought, I wish to have nothing to do with this program." As he spoke, Sheldon filled his bright red kettle with water for tea.
"You were... asked... to audition for a show... and you're... turning it down?!" Penny's eyes grew wider and her words grew stronger with each word, until the last came out almost as a shriek.
"P-Penny," Leonard said, reaching out to calm her by touching her shoulder. "This is sort of why he wasn't supposed to bother you..."
She shrugged his hand away, and stalked to the counter to slap her hands down in front of her tall neighbor. Or soon-to-be former neighbor. "I can't believe that I've sweated and slaved to get a call back, when meanwhile, a job just drops in your lap!" She backed him into the sink, eyes flashing. "And you don't even want it! Or have any experience! It's not fair!"
Sheldon squirmed over toward the range, and flipped on one of the burners to get away from her. "Fairness has little to do with one's success in any endeavor, Penny."
Penny pressed her lips together and did her best impression of Sheldon's red tea kettle. Steam figuratively shot out of her ears.
"You're not helping, Sheldon," Leonard put in. But he stayed well back from the two of them.
Which turned out to be the smart decision -- when, as he'd expected, the explosion came. "WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMN EASY FOR YOU!"
Sheldon jumped, banging slightly into the refrigerator's edge. But he kept calm in the face of Hurricane Penny. "I wouldn't use those terms. My achievements have always been a result of my astronomical IQ combined with careful planning and hard work..."
Penny screamed, a feral growl, and stalked back toward her apartment.
Sheldon, rubbing at his arm where he'd hit the refrigerator, took a few steps toward her as she left. He shouted, "But this is not easy for me at all!"
Leonard's mouth dropped open. Penny froze in place. Then she turned slowly back toward him. "What did you say?"
In a more modulated tone, Sheldon said, "It's not easy for me. Though I have serious doubts about the quality of the research behind this..." He gestured disgustedly at the stack of papers on the counter. "...script... I can also state without a doubt that I have no talent for acting, at all."
"Oh, sweetie," she said, her anger fading slightly because of his honesty, "I'm sure that's not true."
"It is. I will have to concede that Leslie Winkle is..." He shuddered dramatically. "...better than me at something."
Penny's anger flared right back up. "They're giving this job to Leslie?!"
Sheldon looked surprised and pleased. "I had no idea you felt so strongly about Dr. Winkle."
"How could I not? I mean, she's pissed all over Leonard... and Howard... and she's been nothing but mean to you... and I can't imagine what she'd do to Raj if she ever got her hands on him..."
"You never seemed bothered by those things when they happened..." Leonard asked, perplexed.
"I was, I just--" She strode over to the script and picked it up to shake in her grasp. "Can't believe she would do a better job than..."
Sheldon raised an eyebrow. "Than you?"
"Okay, yes!" She shuffled the pages, scanning through them. "But if it isn't going to be me, then it should be you! I mean, Sheldon, you could do this, you really could." Penny drew herself up to her full height, put an arrogant expression on her face and then intoned, "So what do we know about gravity? We know that it causes any two objects in the universe to be drawn to one another. We know that gravity assisted in forming the universe, that it keeps the moon in orbit around the Earth, and that it can be harnessed. Even if we believe, as a child once said, 'There is a tremendous weight pushing down on the center of the Earth because of so much population stomping around up there these days,' we know that it exists." Penny laughed. "Heh, that's cute."
By the time she finished, Leonard and Sheldon were looking at each other with twin expressions of surprise. "Wow, you nailed that, Penny."
"Thanks," she said with a pleased grin.
"Are you pondering what I'm pondering, Sheldon?" Leonard asked.
"I think so, Leonard. But based on my previous experience, you will undoubtedly surprise me with something banal and trivial."
Leonard grimaced and gestured at Penny. "No, I mean, Penny could help you! You could pay her to coach you for the audition. She would be perfect!"
Penny's face looked hopeful. "You think so?"
"Yes, I--" Leonard began, but Sheldon cut him off.
"No," Sheldon said strongly. "I will not need a coach."
Penny's hope visibly crumbled. "But why...?
"Because." Sheldon held her eyes. "You are the one who is going to audition in my place."
."">"What?" Penny stared at Sheldon as if he had started to glow like his luminous fish. "You can't be serious."
"As serious as van Vleck determinants are to traversable wormhole spacetimes," Sheldon stated matter-of-factly.
Penny pressed her lips together in annoyance. "Which means...?"
"He's serious," Leonard put in helpfully.
"I could coach you in the dialogue, do the research, teach you to pronounce the words correctly so that you sound like you know what you are saying. It would be quite similar to the way Professor Higgins trained Eliza Doolittle to behave like a princess in Pygmalion, or in the story's more recognizable form as My Fair Lady."
Penny blinked a few times, then shook her head. "Look. It's nice that you're trying to help in your Sheldon-y way." She handed back the script firmly. "But this is just a dead end. They are looking for an actual scientist, right? Not just someone who can say the right words in front of a camera. This job does not fit me at all."
She turned and started walking back to her apartment. There was a whole hell of a lot more packing to do before the moving van came on Saturday.
"But Penny..." Sheldon called toward her. There may have actually been a touch of desperation in his voice. "Are you not an actress?"
"How is this different?" Sheldon went on. "I may not be conversant in the ways of such dramatic endeavors... but I am given to understand that a good actress can play any part."
Penny stayed where she was for a few moments, considering his words. Her face went through a series of emotions, from surprise to sadness to bitterness. She slowly turned to face him. "But that's the reason I'm leaving, don't you see? I'm not a good actress."
"Oh, Penny, you know that's not true," Leonard said. "You've just had a run of bad luck." He took a few awkward steps toward her to comfort her.
She held up a hand to halt him. "Oh, stop pitying me. I've cried a river of tears these last few days, and a few more aren't going to change anything. If I can't get even one decent job in three years, then it's never going to happen."
Leonard opened his mouth to protest, but then his face fell. What could he say?
"You guys just don't understand. You're both successful in your careers..."
Sheldon cut his eyes toward his roommate. "Debatable."
Both Penny and Leonard gave Sheldon an annoyed look. "You know what I mean, Sheldon. I've tried, and I've failed. Time to bulldog that steer."
She turned again to leave.
"Penny," Sheldon said.
She turned back with an aggrieved sigh. "Sheldon?"
"You present a compelling argument."
Her lip twitched in irritation. "Gee, thanks." She turned again and walked a few more steps.
Penny stopped, slapping a hand on the doorframe to keep from smacking him. "What?"
"You said this part doesn't 'fit' you at all."
She swiveled again, almost growling. "Obviously!"
"Which is because you perceive that a person with no scientific training could not believably connect with an audience on these topics. Correct?"
"Yeah...?" she said as if Sheldon were an idiot, though she felt like one herself.
"I argue that possessing expertise in a field is not necessary to be a successful entertainer." Sheldon walked over to the coffee table and picked up the TiVo remote control. "I wish to present Exhibit A." He tapped a couple of buttons and then gestured to the screen.
A toothpaste commercial came on, promising all the viewers a fresher, brighter smile with consistent use.
Penny rolled her eyes and stayed in the doorway. Sheldon winced and fast forwarded. He tapped play a few moments later. As soon as the program began, Leonard was moving toward the screen, a pleased smile lighting his face.
"Oh, my god, you're right, Sheldon!" Leonard said.
"As always, but it remains to be seen whether Penny will agree." He tilted his head and gave her a plaintive look.
She gave in with a slump of her shoulders. "Fine, I'll come see what you're so 'right' about..."
The three of them gathered around the television, which was now filled with Olivia Munn's smiling face. Penny suddenly remembered all of the times the boys virtually ignored her for Attack of the Show. "You know, maybe I could..."
Sheldon's face transformed into a pleased grin. "By George, I think she's got it."
Sheldon watched Penny pace back and forth in front of the audition room. They had arrived after Leslie Winkle had already gone in, and both of them could faintly hear her arrogant drone through the door. After a couple of uncomfortable minutes, Sheldon had placed himself as far from it as possible.
Sheldon tried to focus on his reading -- he had brought a few journals with him to catch up on -- but Penny's pacing was highly distracting. He found himself watching her move from one end of the room to the other like he were the spectator at some sort of high-stakes tennis match. Penny was dressed more conservatively than normal, with her hair swept up off her neck. Little strands were beginning to escape as she kept twisting her neck back and forth, trying to loosen up. She recited the words he had made her memorize over and over, punctuating each sentence with a turn on her heel.
"Penny, there is no need for nervousness."
Penny continued her circuit of the room. "I know. I just can't help it. I get the feeling that they are simply going to laugh me out of there before I can even say a word."
"Either you are well-prepared and you will be fine, or they will be 'looking for something else' and nothing you can do will change that."
This made her pause. "Thanks a lot, Mr. Brightside."
Sheldon tilted his head, curious for a moment about what she meant. Then he shrugged and went back to reading.
Penny hardly had time to start across the room again when the door opened. Leslie came out of the room, looking smug.
The casting assistant, Carrie, followed her partway out and shook Leslie's hand. "Thank you, Dr. Winkle. We'll give you a call if we decide we would like to hire you." Carrie noticed Sheldon sitting across the room and smiled toward him. "Dr. Cooper? Just give us a few minutes, and we'll call you when we're ready." The door closed quickly behind her.
Leslie turned in surprise. "Sheldon? You're my competition?" She noted Penny's presence with an odd smile, but kept her attention on her rival physicist. "Though I guess this means I have the job in the bag."
She nodded curiously at Penny. ""I thought your Lennard-Jones Potential with members of the opposite sex wasn't so much a 12-6 as a 12-zero."
He ignored her, turning a page in his journal.
"That means you only repel them, dumbass."
Sheldon stiffened, but refused to rise to the bait.
"So why are you his babysitter today?" she asked Penny directly, cutting her head toward Sheldon.
"I'm--" Penny began.
But Sheldon, unable to remain silent, protested at the same moment. "Babysitter?"
"Oh, please. Leonard brings you to school, Raj takes you to the comic book store..." Leslie quipped. "Can you do anything for yourself?"
"I fail to see how my attempt to decrease my carbon footprint can be construed as--"
Penny, who had watched them argue too many times before, jumped in before it could really get going. "I'm not here for him, he's here for me."
"For you?" Leslie asked, eyes widening in surprise. She took in Penny's professional appearance for the first time, and noted the pages in the actress's hand. "You're auditioning in his place."
Penny took a step forward, challenge in her eyes. "I am."
Leslie went silent, considering. "I see. You're auditioning instead of him." Then she barked a laugh at Sheldon. "Way to prove my point, dumbass."
Sheldon sat up straighter, offended.
Leslie patted Penny on the shoulder and sauntered toward the door. She called over her shoulder, "Good luck in there." The door to the hallway shut behind her with a snap.
"Ooooh," Penny said, adding a hiss of air between her teeth in annoyance. "I've never met anyone more condescending!"
Sheldon nodded in agreement.
Penny hastened to add, "Other than you, of course."
Sheldon stopped nodding. But before he could speak, the door to the audition room opened. "Dr. Cooper, we're ready for you."
Sheldon stood primly. "Thank you." He gestured for Penny to precede him into the room.
Penny swallowed and hesitated -- but then lifted her head and walked into the room as if she belonged there. Carrie let her pass with a small frown and shut the door behind Sheldon.
Terrence James gave Penny and Sheldon an identical frown when he saw the physicist was not alone. "Dr. Cooper, your assistant should wait in the other room during your audition."
"She is not my assistant. She is your candidate. Or auditionee." He cocked his head and pursed his lips. "Hostess? I'm not sure of the correct terminology." He shook his head. "Anyway, Penny is here to audition in my place."
Carrie and James looked at each other, their identical frowns growing deeper. "Dr. Cooper, we were interested in what you could do in this role, not some... someone else." He looked down and began to shuffle papers. "I wish you'd told us you weren't interested. This is a waste of time." He began to stand up.
"Just a moment, Mr. James." Sheldon said, walking right up to the table where the man was rising from his chair. "I am not interested in hosting because I am not an actor. I am a scientist, first, foremost and exclusively. My friend Penny here, is an actress."
James sighed. "Dr. Cooper, we've auditioned dozens of actresses for this. That is not the issue here."
"So you will not even give Penny a chance? You will go with Dr..." Sheldon shuddered dramatically. "Winkle?"
Carrie raised her eyebrows at James. After a moment, he shrugged and sat again. "Fine. Show me what you got, Miss...?"
"Penny is fine," she said, speaking for the first time since they entered the room. She hadn't even been sure that she would be auditioning at all. She walked over to the center of the room, squared her shoulders, and began. "Quantum mechanics is the description of the behavior of matter and light in all its details and, in particular, of the happenings on an atomic scale." Her voice sounded different, more clipped. More Sheldon-like, in a strange way. "Things on a very small scale behave like nothing that you have any direct experience about. They do not behave like waves, they do not behave like particles, they do not behave like clouds, or billiard balls, or weights on springs, or like anything that you have ever seen."
James shuffled his papers again. "What is this?" he asked Penny.
Sheldon answered for her. "I took the liberty of making some improvements to your script, by incorporating some of Dr. Richard Feynman's lectures."
"Oh, did you?" James said with a sarcastic quirk to his lips.
"Well, these scripts were clearly written by a person with only a passing acquaintance with true science. I hope that you are planning to consult with an actual working scientist as you develop your series or your viewership will quickly dismiss your program as a farce."
Again, James and Carrie gave each other a look. It was becoming a common reaction. "Um... okay..." He pretended to make a note on his pad and waved his other hand for Penny to continue.
Penny cleared her throat before restarting. "Newton thought that light was made of particles, but then it was discovered that it behaves like a wave. Later, however in the beginning of the twentieth century), it was found that light did indeed sometimes behave like a particle..."
As she spoke, the attentive light in the casting director's eyes slowly died. By the end of her audition, James was disinterestedly doodling in the margins of his notepad.
Sheldon, on the other hand, was rapt. He mouthed the words along with his pupil.
Penny finished and stood quietly, waiting for a response.
James nodded politely at Penny. "Thank you for your time, but I'm sorry. You just aren't what we're looking for."
Penny tried to keep a smile on her face, but it was difficult. "I understand."
Sheldon, however, was immediately up in arms. "What was wrong? She sounded believable, knowledgeable... and I, for one, was moved."
"You may have been, Dr. Cooper, but I was not," James snapped, finally tired of the constant undercurrent of disdain. "She does a rather convincing impression of you, I admit, but your style of ultra-logical narcissism fits her as well as your unfortunate fashion choices fit you."
Sheldon ignored James' jibe. "It is clear to me that your show is doomed to failure. If you will not--"
Penny stepped in between them and pulled Sheldon back by the arm. "Sheldon! Give it a rest! They don't want me; they don't want a version of you, either."
Sheldon turned on Penny, shaking off her hand from his arm. "Well, maybe if you had added in the stress on particles, and used my little play on words..."
"I told you that no one would get that joke. Who do you think is going to watch this show, sweetie? The Nobel Prize committee?"
"If my name is attached to it, they may well do that while they take my contributions to science under consideration!"
Penny and Sheldon continued to argue, the volume steadily increasing as Penny slowly herded Sheldon toward the door. Carrie slipped out of the way with a squeak, and hurried behind the table where James was watching them argue, dumbfounded. Leaning over, she whispered, "Can you believe those two?"
"Actually..." he said, lifting his hand to his chin thoughtfully. "...this is the first time I can believe..." He took a few steps toward the arguing pair and shouted, loud enough to interrupt them from leaving, "Wait!"
They turned as one. "What?"
"I may not have enjoyed your performance from earlier... but this," he said, gesturing to the two of them, excited for the first time since he had started the audition process, "this fire, this spark, is what I'm looking for. Do you think you could do that again... on camera?"
A/N: I'm sure a few of you noticed my little nod to Bartimus Crotchety's The Reverse Pygmalion Paradox. Great fic, and I couldn't help the reference. :)
Penny's modified audition script comes from The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Richard P. Feynman and Robert B. Leighton.
Sheldon walked behind Penny going into the television studio, his pace a bit slower than his normal quick stride. His back was straight, however -- even though he was here against his will, his sense of honor would not permit him to renege on his promise. Penny only turned her head once to make sure he was still following her from the parking lot. He returned her raised eyebrow with an affronted glare. Penny smiled in satisfaction.
Reaching the door, she opened it and gestured with a sweet-dangerous smile for him to enter. "After you."
Sheldon nodded almost regally, and went inside without another word. He was not willing to risk a repeat of the scene after the preliminary auditions a week ago. James, the casting director, had told them he wanted both of them to audition -- he loved the arguing, the banter, the way Sheldon and Penny were... how did he put it? "Fire and Ice, Beauty and Brains, a Perfect Paradox."
Sheldon had protested: he was a scientist, not an entertainer! In the course of arguing further -- and some literal arm-twisting, he could still feel a bit of bruising on his wrist -- Penny had convinced him it was his duty to see it through.
In most other circumstances, Sheldon would fight an adversary to a full conclusion. Leslie Winkle, Barry Kripke, even the dread Wil Wheaton... they received no quarter. But Penny...? Penny was not an adversary, she was a friend. To prove it, he'd even kept her on his friend list. Even though they seemed to argue more often than not, it was simply a part of their friendship paradigm.
Sheldon hadn't meant to cause the loss of her job... but it had happened because of his actions. No matter how right he was in complaining that there must be some other way to get her a job... This situation was clearly a high-level obligation. He would go through this final step of the casting process, "co-hosting" on Penny's audition, the producers would see the utter foolishness of their mistake, and his obligation would end.
James met them at the reception desk, holding out his hand to shake eagerly. "Penny, Dr. Cooper. The producer, Michael Walters, should be here any minute."
Penny, bubbly with excitement, shook his hand in return. "I'm really looking forward to showing him what we can do."
Sheldon added, "I am confident that your producer will know for certain whether we are best for his program within moments."
James smiled and nodded, then looked down a hallway for the producer to arrive. Penny wasn't fooled by Sheldon's clearly ambiguous statement -- she tilted her head and frowned at him, squeezing his injured wrist sharply in what looked like an encouraging gesture anyone who might see.
Sheldon yelped, but he kept quiet enough that James didn't notice. He plastered as pleasant an expression as he could on his face to cover the pain.
James checked his wristwatch and then turned back to them. "Maybe Mr. Walters is planning to meet us in the studio. If you would both follow me?"
Sheldon followed behind James and Penny, who was chatting animatedly about something or other related to acting. She didn't seem nervous exactly... but she was humming like a circuit in a positive feedback loop.
Sheldon wasn't nervous; the audition was merely the final step to fulfilling his friendship obligation. Still, he found himself pulling at the tie the studio had sent over. In fact, his whole ensemble, as well as Penny's suit dress, had been sent over the night before. The black suit Sheldon was wearing was certainly not the sort of thing he would have picked out -- not enough color or comfort for his taste -- but Penny had seemed to like it. That is, if the half-grin and the comment, "Nice, Sheldon" were anything to go on.
Leonard, Wolowitz and Koothrappali hadn't been any help in determining how he looked. They totally ignored him, planning some sort of outing in his absence. And they shouldn't delude themselves into thinking that he hadn't noticed their muted conversations about the way the "schedule" would change once he was off taping the show with Penny.
They entered the studio, where a type of temporary set was waiting. There was a wall with the logo, Unified Theory, in large blue lettering emblazoned across the back and a couple of flat-screen monitors like one would see in a newscast. Two stools were placed in front of the logo, presumably where Penny and Sheldon were to sit while speaking.
Sheldon immediately walked into the set area without being invited, ignoring the cameraman and the set assistants. He stood in front of the camera dead center, looked around intently, then moved six inches down right. He had moved another six inches when Penny was suddenly there in front of him, blocking his view of the camera.
"Sheldon, what are you doing?" Penny hissed in a low voice.
He moved another six inches before responding. "Finding my optimal placement on the set. I must consider the lighting, the camera angles, my line of sight..."
Penny guided him forcibly to the stool to the left and pushed him down into it. "This one's yours." Her tone brooked no argument. She took the other stool and swiveled to face the camera.
Sheldon opened his mouth a fraction... but then simply lifted his stool and placed it exactly one foot to the right. Penny rolled her eyes but didn't challenge him.
James sat in a director's chair beside the producer's still-empty one, his face difficult to see through the glare of the stage lights. "Let's go ahead and get started. Mr. Walters can review the tape later if he wants."
Penny frowned slightly, but kept her voice bright. "Sure."
It didn't matter to Sheldon. "All right." He suddenly realized that one of the key tools of his trade was missing. He peered to both sides of the stage dramatically. "Where is the white board I requested?"
James answered off-handedly, "We felt it was too old-fashioned for the look of this show."
"Too old--?" Sheldon sputtered. "I'll have you know that the greatest minds in science, from time immemorial, have used a white board or its equivalent! I can't be expected to explain some of the more advanced theories with nothing but my--"
Penny placed a heavy hand on one of his flailing arms. "Sheldon, sweetie, chill. I'm sure that you'll be fine…"
He stood, indignant. "Fine? I am absolutely not fine, I--"
"Doctor Cooper." James' voice rang out strongly. "We have already pre-programmed the formulae you sent us with your audition script. When you mention them, the techs will display them on the screen behind you. It also functions as a touch screen if you need to improvise at any point."
Sheldon's mouth closed. "Very well," he said, satisfied. He twirled his finger at the cameraman, imitating an old-style film projector. "Roll film."
The cameraman looked back at James for confirmation. James rolled his eyes and nodded, already used to Sheldon's temper tantrums. Scientists seemed to suffer from the same prima donna syndrome as movie stars.
Music swelled from the speakers, filling the sound stage with a currently popular rock song before fading away. Penny spoke confidently, "Everyone loves music. We listen to it in our cars, blast it from our headphones, sing and dance to it. Our favorite movies and television shows use a constant soundtrack; we even use music to help us focus and concentrate."
The screen behind them dissolved into a video of the band Muse, playing their latest hit. Penny continued, "Rock music is one of the most prevalent forms of popular music today, and the guitar is the instrument that most people associate with rock music. How many of us wished we could play when we were teenagers? How many people now live out their guitar hero fantasies in video games instead?" Penny smiled and winked. "Let's face it. The guitar is cool."
The image on the screens behind them paused and zoomed in on the strings of the guitar. "Even 'cooler'," Sheldon used air quotes, "is the way a guitar works. Each string is tuned to a different frequency, or pitch, and placing one's fingers on the fretboard changes the pitch as the strings are plucked."
Penny nodded pleasantly at his explanation, easily following.
A visualization of the neck of the guitar, strings and fretboard appeared. "The pitch of a plucked string is directly dependent on three variables: the length of the string, the tension of the string and the mass density of the string. When the string's length is decreased or when tension on it is increased -- for example, pulling on a string -- the pitch increases. When mass density is decreased then the frequency goes up. This is why the thinner strings produce higher sounds. The relationship between frequency and wavelength is also one of importance. As frequencies increase, then wavelengths become shorter. This can be better explained--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa... slow down there, Dr. Gibson!"
"Dr. Sheldon Cooper," he corrected, frowning at the teleprompter. "Ph.D." Penny was already going off-script.
"Sheldon," she emphasized, "what does all of that even mean? Mass density and tension and..."
"Frequency?" he added, tensing up at being interrupted in his speech.
"'Frequency' refers to the speed of the vibrations of the sound wave."
The tech running the monitors quickly skipped ahead to a visualization of a single guitar string. The string was plucked in slow motion, and the vibrations were clearly visible.
"The smallest string vibrates the fastest, because it has the lowest density." The lines in his face grew taut. "This makes the pitch higher."
"So smaller equals higher?" Penny asked.
Sheldon was trying to keep calm, but her deviations were causing the scene they'd carefully practiced every evening this week to break down. He answered with clenched teeth, "Yes, and vice versa. The largest string..." Sheldon waited for the visualization to show proper string, "...vibrates much slower, and therefore produces a lower sound." The two strings were juxtaposed to show the rate of vibration. The smaller string was vibrating much faster.
By this time, they had caught up to the teleprompter. Sheldon relaxed slightly and read again, "As frequencies increase, the wavelengths become shorter. This can be better explained through the use of natural harmonics. In the diagram behind me, you can see points called nodes. Nodes are areas where the string is unable to vibrate. These are found where the ends of the string are attached to the guitar and wherever a finger applies pressure on the guitar sting when in use. Harmonics occur at the same time..."
The sound of the door opening distracted James from the audition as Sheldon and Penny continued on, not having heard it. An older gentleman entered the room, dressed in an untucked button-down plaid shirt and a pair of brown pants. "Mr. Walters," James called in a quiet voice, and made a cut motion with his hands. "Do you want me to stop them?"
"No, no..." Walters said, "keep it going." He settled into his chair to watch, distractedly placing the papers James handed him in his lap. Sheldon was explaining the way the harmonic frequencies changed as each fret was pressed.
"I think they're pretty good," James commented, "but they're not quite in the groove yet."
Walters and James had been working together for several years, and the producer trusted his casting director's judgment implicitly. But this was a change from what he had expected. "Why are there two of them? I thought we'd decided on just the physicist."
"No, they're better as a team." James was confident. "I think you'll be surprised at how well it works."
Sheldon was now gesturing at a formula displayed on the screen behind him. "So when figuring out wave problems for guitar strings, that must be accounted for. The following equation can be used: L = (harmonic # / 2) L (L = string length). So if the velocity wave on a guitar string was 345m/s, then the second harmonic frequency of a 1.2 m guitar string would be 287.5 Hz."
Penny stood up in the middle of his explanation and began to walk off-set.
Sheldon quickly turned away from the camera, whispering furiously. "Penny, what are you doing?"
Penny stopped and leaned in to Sheldon, smiling deviously. "He wanted us to argue, right?"
"But we didn't practice it that way..." Sheldon complained, on his last nerve.
"No. You and I didn't. James and I did." She patted him on the shoulder. "Just go with it."
Sheldon, never the best at improvisation, exploded. "Penny!" He stood up from his chair. "How can we possibly explain these concepts to an audience like this?"
"Sheldon!" She matched his pitch and intonation exactly, standing on tiptoe in her heels to look him in the eye. "How is an audience going to stay interested if we don't!"
"This is a perfectly simple explanation -- any student of even high school physics would find these concepts beyond rudimentary."
"But this isn't high school physics, Dr. Cooper, this is you trying to explain things that happen in every day life in scientific terms."
"What are they doing?" Walters whispered, confused. "Is this part of the audition?"
A smile grew on James' face. "Yes and no..."
Penny stalked over to the display and pointed to the formula displayed there. "This? This is total gobbledygook to me. You wanna really explain it?" She walked to the edge of the set, and one of the prop guys handed her a guitar. She stalked back to Sheldon and shoved it in his face. "Use this."
"What? I'm no musician," he answered with more than a little distaste.
"Obviously. And I'm no physicist."
Sheldon's lips twisted in a small smile. "Obviously."
She placed the guitar in his unwilling hands. "We both have to move out of our comfort zone to get the point across."
James stood suddenly. "Thank you. I think we have enough tape for now."
Sheldon frowned, looking flummoxed by the large wooden instrument in his hands. "But I couldn't even finish my explanation. Surely we have to redo it!"
Walters cut in, a broad smile on his face. "No, it's great as it is."
James motioned for the two of them to come forward. "Penny London and Sheldon Cooper." James nodded at each of them in turn. "This is our producer, Michael Walters."
"Doctor Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D.," Sheldon corrected smoothly. This time he dodged Penny's wrist grab.
"Pleased to meet you." He shifted the papers he had been holding to shake Penny's hand, and only then seemed to notice what they were. He flipped through first Penny's acting resume and then Sheldon's lengthy curriculum vitae. C.V.s were supposed to be only a page or two long, but Sheldon's accomplishments were far too many to be listed on a few sheets. Then Walters suddenly stilled, halfway into turning a page. "Wait a moment. You're the Sheldon Cooper?"
"Ph.D.," Sheldon corrected for the millionth time that day. "Yes."
His demeanor instantly changed from affable distraction to full-on fanboy mode. "I can't believe that I didn't make the connection before! Your work on 11-dimensional M-theory is absolutely brilliant!"
"If I had known you were interested in television, I would have contacted you long ago as my science advisor. I would never have dreamed you would be interested in hosting Unified Theory!"
"Well, I'm not exactly interest..." He trailed off at Penny's look of warning. "I mean, I admire what you are trying to accomplish with this program. And I..." He cut his eyes toward Penny again before continuing, "...owe it to you to explore this further."
"Well, I couldn't be more delighted." Walters turned to Penny. "I didn't notice any scientific background for you on your resume. Do you have a C.V. to add?"
"No," Penny said, her face coloring. It wasn't often that Penny felt like the socially awkward one in a situation. "I'm an actress."
"That's actually the beauty of it," James interrupted. "Penny here provides the viewpoint of the audience."
"The plebeians, if you will," Sheldon put in.
Penny was nonplussed. "Or the regular Jolene," she added.
James nodded. "She reacts to the information that Dr. Cooper presents and helps to explain it to the viewers."
"Then I would love to have you both for the show!" Walters enthused.
Penny's face lit up and she bounced slightly in excitement, squeezing Sheldon around the waist. "Thank you!"
Sheldon was so speechless that he didn't react at all to Penny's hug. Sheldon had never expected the producer to actually want both of them for the job. His mind was almost paralyzed with the conflict between his obligation to Penny and his drive to rise to the top of the scientific community.
"That is," Walters continued, confused by Sheldon's reaction, "if CalTech is okay with this."
"Why..." Sheldon started, not completely coherent, "...why wouldn't they be?"
"Well, losing one of their top physicists for weeks at a time can't be easy. Or would you go on sabbatical?"
Sheldon's mouth dropped open. "Weeks?" His eyebrows looked as if they were going to make a break for the ceiling. "Whatever are you talking about?"
"Sweetie..." Penny turned him gently to face her. "Television work usually requires several hours a day."
He blinked repeatedly, and then sat suddenly in the director's chair. "What about my Nobel...?" he said in a quiet voice. "I just can't accept..."
Penny's shoulders slumped in defeat. She knew if Sheldon had to choose between the two of them -- Penny and science -- which one would win. "Sheldon, I un--"
Walters interrupted her before she could finish the thought. "What if I added a lucrative research grant on top of your salary to sweeten the pot?"
Sheldon slowly turned his head to look up at Walters, an avaricious glint in his eye. "How lucrative?"
Walters and James shared a triumphant glance. Penny, overcome with emotion, leaned over and gave him an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. "Sheldon, thank you!"
She pulled back, embarrassed, expecting Sheldon to push her away. Instead, he stared back at her in surprise, a blush darkening his cheeks.
Walters chuckled. "I take it that's a 'yes'?"
Author's Note: The information on guitar string harmonics comes from Physics 24/7's Physics Tutorial: Guitar String Harmonics. Also, "London" is the last name used on Penny's mail on set (the prop guy Scott London's joke). It's the closest thing I have to canon until they actually give her a last name in a script. :)
"C'mon, Sheldon!" Penny beckoned with her hand for Sheldon to come out of the hotel room. The show had put them each up in rooms at the Marriott next to the San Diego Convention Center, which definitely beat driving down from Pasadena.
Leonard, Howard and Raj shared a room several floors up. They were now out in the hallway dressed in their Comic-Con best, Howard shifting excitedly from foot to foot. "Yeah, Sheldon, c'mon! If we don't get there soon, we're going to have to wait in a hell of a line."
"Not everyone has a Presenter's Badge, you know," Leonard added. Raj nodded his agreement, eying Penny's lanyard with envy.
"If you would just make us part of your posse, we wouldn't have to worry about getting there in time." Howard was edging his way toward the elevators. "We could just waltz up to the front of the line, past the little people..."
Sheldon's voice drifted out of the room. "It would not be possible, Wolowitz, that's why. I'm not sure what you think I earn, but it is hardly enough to support a full-time entourage."
Howard's lip curled up, tired of rehashing the argument now that they were actually in San Diego. "Forget this. I'm going to get over there before I end up standing in the back of Hall H. I mean, Zoe Saldana is scheduled to appear! I want to be close enough to monitor her frequencies." He spun on his heel, his Captain America shield flashing in the light.
Raj watched his blue cowl retreat down the hall for a moment, pulled out a small metal flask from beneath his breastplate and took a swig. "Yeah, I'm with him. Uhura's way hot. Catch ya later, bitches!" He flipped down his Iron Man mask and took off after Howard.
Penny turned to Leonard and nodded toward the boys' departing backs. "You can go, too, you know. No sense in missing the panel for us."
"You sure?" Leonard asked. "I don't mind. This is Sheldon."
"I can handle Sheldon." In fact, she could handle Sheldon better than anyone apart from his mother and sister.
"Yeah, I know," he agreed easily, patting her shoulder sympathetically. "See you inside. Break a leg!" He took off at a half-jog toward the other two guys, his Fourth Doctor wig bouncing and his scarf fluttering behind him.
Other costumed folk passed by her, a few of the guys giving her an appreciative look. She knew she looked good -- she rocked the skintight blue spandex look even better than Jessica Alba had -- but she didn't have time to preen or even be annoyed. This was Penny's first time at Comic-Con, and though she had initially agreed to go on a whim several months ago, her first day turned out to be actually pretty interesting. Penny shook her head and smiled. Even a year ago, if current Penny had told past Penny that she would go to Comic-Con and like it, past Penny would have told her to lay off the tequila. So she wanted to enjoy the Con a little today before their panel started. Yesterday they had spent the whole afternoon on the vendor floor.
"Sheldon." She let a little more than the usual bat-wielding Cornhusker into her voice. "Remember, I'm the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe. I will kick your ass if you don't leave this room."
Sheldon's voice drifted out of the room. "Technically, Sue Storm's status as most powerful has never been made canonical by the company -- it is simply a supposition based on some of Sue's more spectacular feats in comparison to others in the 616 universe..."
She yanked the hotel room door open as wide as it could go and fixed him with her best 'Don't mess with me' glare. "Get out. Now."
He sat there on the bed, seeming to gauge just how annoyed with him she was for a few seconds. Then he sighed and stood. "It's just that I've always gone as some version of Spock. TOS Spock, Mirrorverse Spock... this year I planned to embody Spock Prime."
"You did that yesterday, sweetie," she cajoled as she walked toward him, trying not to lose patience. "And you can do that tomorrow, too."
He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. "But today is the Star Trek XII panel..."
"I know." She patted him on one spandex-covered arm. "But so is our panel. And the producers want us to look like we're together, and you already had my costume made."
He looked down at the stylized four on his chest. "I guess. Dr. Richards is a scientist."
She tried to appeal to his pride. "The best in the Marvel Universe, right?"
"Of course," he agreed, as if it would be madness to suggest he would dress as any character which wasn't the best at something.
She shut the door to his hotel room firmly, holding out her hand to him. "C'mon, Doctor. You don't want to miss the panel do you?"
He took her hand grudgingly, and she ignored his mumbles about how his Spock costume would have fit in much better.
There were definitely benefits to having a presenter's badge. Penny goggled at the size of the line to get into Hall H for the Star Trek panel. To her surprise, they didn't clear the room between panels, so even the hopefuls in line wouldn't all get in to the room. She didn't know how far back Raj, Howard and Leonard were in line -- she couldn't catch a glimpse of shiny red metal, blue cowl or curly wig. She and Sheldon walked right up to the ushers at the front and were waved on through. Penny ducked her head with embarrassment at the angry stares which felt like phaser blasts between her shoulder blades. Sheldon soaked it all in, proud and unapologetic about the privileges he was getting. When she tilted her head at him, he simply responded, "I have stood in enough lines at cons to last a lifetime. When one of them gets their own show..."
She grinned back at him.
It was sort of amazing how easily he accepted his new career path these days. After a few rough weeks (for everyone) of adjusting his schedule, he treated it like the new status quo. The brass at Cal Tech, particularly Gablehauser, had actually been nothing but encouraging about his moving on. (To hear Leonard tell it, 'Sheldon's away from the department three days a week, someone else pays for his research, and the university can still take the credit...? They're over the moon.')
Penny was shaken from her thoughts by the sheer number of people in the room as she walked through. Sheldon moved with his head held high, but Penny was more than a little nervous. She had a set of note cards, kept in Sheldon's messenger bag, of the questions and answers the producers expected her to field during the panel. They had received a little bit of media attention so far -- a few lines in the entertainment magazines (and a larger article in the CalTech newspaper). So far, she hadn't had to answer many questions. But they always seemed to ask the same thing: "What is it like to work with someone you've known for such a long time? Is there anything more between you?"
She had launched into an amusing story of how they met and became friends and didn't elaborate further. At the very least, after years of friendship and months of working side by side, they knew each other better than anyone else. Was there anything between them? Every time the thought entered her mind she buried it again. After all, it was Sheldon... obsessive, particular, loyal, science-loving Sheldon.
As they walked down the aisle toward the front, Penny tried to take it all in. Two huge screens lined both sides of the stage, and several smaller monitors were placed throughout the large hall. The room was buzzing with excitement, people chatting animatedly, texting or Twittering, reading their programs -- all waiting for the lights on stage to suddenly brighten and the empty table on the stage to be occupied with the likes of J.J. Abrams, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine. As Penny and Sheldon got closer to the stage, she could make out the names on the placards placed in front of each chair. She recognized almost every name. Chuckling, she shook her head. Three years ago she hadn't seen even a single episode of any one of the series.
She and Sheldon weren't noticed in the slightest, just another cosplaying couple among the many. If their show did well, this might be the last time that happened. Sheldon seemed ready for the VIP treatment right now.
Sheldon spotted a section reserved for other presenters, and thankfully there were a few seats still open. They showed their badges again and sat. Penny couldn't believe how close they were to the front. Sheldon immediately got into a conversation with a man beside him about their costumes, and for once she could understand at least some of what was going on. She didn't really recognize the other person -- a member of the press, maybe? Someone on another genre show she didn't watch? (It was very possible -- she'd been so busy the last few months that she could hardly find time for America's Next Top Model) Penny decided to just let the noise and excitement wash over her, imagining that she was the one about to take the stage in the biggest hall at the convention, thousands breathless for any piece of news that would come from her lips.
Before she knew it, the lights dimmed in the hall and brightened on stage, and the announcer came to the podium to thunderous applause. "Is everyone excited?" the person asked, which was the most obvious question ever based on the response. It was someone she didn't recognize, but must have had some connection to the Trek franchise. "Then let's not waste any time. Here's your world premiere preview, your sneak peek into the film of 2012 -- Star Trek XII!"
Walking out of the hall, Sheldon continued to talk to his seat mate from the preview, and Penny just trailed along beside. They were arguing about which Star Trek novel might be referenced in this film, based on the clips they saw and the remarks from the panel. Penny had no idea what they were talking about -- she might have seen a fair amount of Trek since the summer of 2009, but she was mostly what Sheldon referred to disdainfully as a "movieverse" fan.
They had about fifteen minutes before they had to report to their panel in another part of the convention center. Unlike the Trek panel, with thousands of dedicated fans screaming at every photon torpedo, they had a smallish room with space for a couple hundred people. She hoped that they would have at least some interest. Maybe the people who didn't get into Hall H or Ballroom 20 would decide to kill time at their panel.
Suddenly, a crowd of bodies brushed by them in a rush -- and she could swear she felt a hand on her butt. She reflexively curled her hand into a fist to go after the guy (Or girl? She didn't know) when she saw that Raj, Howard and Leonard were part of the group. If Howard had been the one... she was going to see how he liked the taste of aluminum and gloss-finish paint.
Leonard called over his shoulder without stopping, "Aren't you guys coming, too?"
"To what?" she called back.
But Leonard was out of sight, and she missed his response.
"Oh, they're just trying to make it to the Marvel Entertainment panel," Sheldon explained, right at her ear. "They are going to be showing clips from the Avengers movie coming out next summer."
Penny cocked her head to the side. "And you're not upset about having to miss it?"
"Yes, I am a little put out, but..." He glanced pointedly at the clock mounted on the wall that they passed. "We do need to have enough time to get situated in our room."
Get situated? she thought with a frown, but she was more surprised at how well Sheldon was taking that news. Only a year ago, he would have freaked at the possibility of missing out.
"But I expect a full report from Leonard, and I'll certainly be watching the pirated video clips on the internet and reading the Newsarama discussion boards." He snorted. "Even if we could go to the preview, I might be upset. Marvel has a history of tampering with canon as set forth by Stan Lee..." he said the name with reverence, "...and pandering to the masses by 'updating' the stories." He harrumphed. "Of course, the origin stories of the Avengers are timeless! There is no need to change them."
"Of course," Penny agreed. It was easier.
"I mean, I cannot believe they are really using the retconned version with Captain America as part of the original lineup! That's more of a travesty than shoehorning Black Widow into the movie just because she appeared in Iron Man 2!" His fist clenched around the strap of his messenger bag, which was emblazoned with a Fantastic Four symbol as a nod to their costumes. "Everyone knows that the original team should contain Thor, The Hulk, Giant Man, Wasp and Iron Man!"
She affected complete shock. "The nerve!"
He looked down at her approvingly. All these years of knowing each other and he sometimes still missed out on her sarcasm.
She smiled fondly, and reached over and unzipped the side of his bag, fishing out the convention center map. She unfolded it and turned it one way and then another while keeping Sheldon in her peripheral vision. "How far away is our panel?"
"Not far. Down this hallway and around the corner." He pointed to the spot on the map.
Sheldon went right back to rambling about the Avengers movie. Every once in a while she would catch something that made sense, like, "If they decide to go with the Ultimates lineup, similar to the way the Spider-Man franchise took many of its cues from Ultimate Spider-Man, I might be more inclined to be forgiving," but most of the time she let his words wash around her like they always had. She had actually done her research, as Sheldon requested -- no, make that demanded -- in order to dress as Sue Storm. She could convincingly talk about Sue's history and current place in canon without embarrassing herself too much. (All bets off on Sheldon, though, he'd already winced markedly when she was talking to some guy in the vendor's area -- she had punched Sheldon playfully, a little too hard, and he'd kept quiet.)
She was enjoying all the costumes around her as she walked. Most people weren't dressed up, but the people who were seemed to be really popular. Lots of photos were being taken, accompanied by squeals of recognition. So far, only a couple of people had asked them to stop and take a photo during the con. Penny smiled secretly -- if their show made it big, some lucky geek would have a collector's item on their hands.
That struck her suddenly as the coolest thing ever.
After a few more minutes of walking, they could see Walters in the distance. Their producer had already seen them and was waving them over. "Oh, good, you're already here. We can't get into the room right away. We have to wait for the panel before us to clear out." Walters took a few steps in the direction they'd come from. "We can go get a snack to kill some time."
"Isn't Perpetual Motion in there right now?" Sheldon asked, drifting over to the schedule posted beside the door without waiting for an answer.
"No, they changed rooms at the last minute..."
Sheldon's curiosity suddenly changed to consternation. "This is unacceptable."
"What is, sweetie?" Penny went over to stand beside him.
He jabbed at the paper with a long, black-gloved finger. "That." He poked it again. "Him."
Penny read the schedule, still unclear what the problem was. "'Cup of Joe' panel?"
Walters joined them. "Yes, apparently the equipment in the original room wasn't working right, so they traded with someone else who didn't need the projection screens."
"I see," Sheldon said in a voice that sounded overly tense.
"Hey, honey," Penny said carefully, placing a hand on his arm. "I know you don't like coffee," Penny remembered his caffeine-crazed night all too well, "but isn't this overreacting a bit?"
"Coffee?" He turned to her, a thread of annoyance creeping into his anger. "No, Penny, 'Cup of Joe' is the saccharin-sweet nickname Joe Quesada gives to his question and answer sessions."
"Joe Quesada?" The name wasn't ringing a bell.
Sheldon sighed heavily, almost a grunt. "You really didn't research as thoroughly as I asked, did you?"
Her eyes widened at the affront. "Yes," she said through gritted teeth. "I did. Is this some Marvel guy?"
"So-some Marvel guy?" he asked incredulously. "Only the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics!"
Her eyebrows knit together. "I thought that was Stan Lee?"
"Stan Lee was one of the founders, responsible for creating the characters to which we pay homage! He is no longer officially attached to Marvel, more's the pity, and has not been editor for decades. Pshht, Penny," Sheldon scoffed. "I begin to think you have no idea about the basic workings of a comic book company."
"You think?" Penny rolled her eyes.
Sheldon was back to staring holes in the schedule. "If I had known 'Joephisto' was going to occupy the same room as I was, I'd have prepared better," he muttered darkly.
"Oh!" Penny said suddenly, understanding coming at last. "Joephisto! You should have said that in the first place! This is the guy that broke up Peter and MJ, right?"
"Only one of his many offenses..." He seemed slightly annoyed that all she cared about was the romance aspect of the comics. "...but yes."
"Oo, I hate that guy." This time she wasn't teasing at all.
Walters watched this conversation with amused incomprehension. "You guys... have a problem?"
"My problem will be solved in..." Sheldon looked at the clock behind him. "In about five minutes." He walked to the back entrance to the room and posted himself like a guard.
"What is he...?" Walters asked.
"Better not to ask." Penny nodded over at the food cart several yards away. You might wanna get a snack. I'll make sure he behaves himself."
Walters left them alone, saying he'd return in time for their panel. Sheldon waited beside the door, ready to hit the guy with continuity error tornado... or whatever it was he did in these situations. Penny pulled out her note cards to study, making last minute changes with a pencil.
She heard Howard's voice behind her. "Hey, Mr. Stretchpants!" he joked. Penny turned toward him. "Hi, Hotp..." Her glare made him fumble the last part into, "...hhhhi, Penny."
"What happened to the Marvel preview?" she asked Leonard instead, who was coming up with Raj right behind.
"Missed it, line was too long."
"Yeah, 'cause someone had to make a pit stop," Raj complained, looking pointedly at Howard. Raj looked a little unsteady. Unlike the character he was playing, he still couldn't hold his liquor very well.
"It's this damn costume! It's giving me an all-American wedgie." Howard pulled at his leggings. Penny turned her eyes away, though not in time. "I knew I should have used a higher spandex to nylon ratio."
The sound of applause from the other side of the door started up her nerves again. She could hear the muffled sound of the announcer, "Next up in fifteen minutes, the hosts and producer of the new show, Unified Theory!"
She focused on Leonard to take her mind off it. "Well, I hate to tell you, but you just missed the Marvel Comics panel in there, too."
"Balls," Raj announced with a swig from his flask.
"I've missed nothing." Sheldon's voice cut through the noise of the exiting comics fans. He opened the door and faced what he saw like a soldier going into battle. "I'm going in."
The guys looked to Penny for explanation. "He wants to have a few words with Joe Quesada, I guess?"
"A few words?" Leonard asked, voice taut with worry.
Howard pushed toward the door. "This I gotta see." They followed him in with varying degrees of excitement and trepidation.
Sheldon was holding out a gloved hand to Quesada, who was surrounded by his lackeys. "Mr. Quesada, my name is Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D. I'm one of the new hosts of Unified Theory." Quesada took his hand and shook it as Sheldon continued, "I'm a big fan of Marvel."
Quesada smiled jovially. "Always nice to meet one of my fans. Especially in the business."
"Oh, I'm not a fan of your work," Sheldon said matter-of-factly. "By no means."
Quesada was nonplused. "Um, okay..."
"In fact, I am appalled by your mishandling of several of the books over your tenure, your insistence on heavily-hyped but ultimately unsatisfying company-wide crossovers and your willingness to, if I may use an impolite term, 'get in bed with' companies like Disney just to turn a profit."
Howard and Raj, unable to resist, came to flank Sheldon on either side. "Yeah," Howard put in, "I can't wait to see what crossovers you milk next! Oo, here's a great idea! Duck Tales vs. Runaways! Or X-Men 1607: Pocahontas!"
"Heh, Spider-Man saves the Disney Princesses!" Raj suggested with mischievous glee. "Or what about The Punisher vs. Buzz Lightyear or Elektra vs. Aladdin!"
Back to Howard. "Deadpool in the Pride Lands, out-wisecracking Timon and Pumbaa!"
Then Raj. "The epic forbidden love story of Wolverine and Pinocchio!"
With each ever more ludicrous suggestion, Quesada's face got darker with annoyance. "Now, look, that's just ridic--"
Raj couldn't help but put in one more. "Hulk vs. Bambi!"
Quesada looked a little guilty then, but quickly recovered. "Hey, what I've done for Marvel during my time as editor I stand by one hundred percent. I doubt any of you could understand the intricacies involved in my job."
"I beg your pardon!" Sheldon said with affront. "If I can calculate the properties of Born's Law of quantum mechanics in my sleep, I think I could run a company better than you! You've brought continuity to a state even lower than the..." Sheldon's lip curled in ultimate distaste. "...the Clone Saga!"
Penny jumped in, too, caught up in the heat of the moment. "Do you have something against true love?"
Raj took another swig, swaying a little on his feet. "And what, do you have some sort of boner for Norman Osborn? Putting him in charge of everything?"
Howard added, "And you keep canceling all the good titles!" He advanced on Quesada, brandishing his shield. "Like Marvel Divas! I loved that book!"
Leonard got in front of everyone, panicked at the scene they were causing. "C'mon, guys, calm down. I'm sure he's just doing his job."
Quesada smiled like he was eating all of this conflict up rather than being disturbed by their extreme fanboy behavior. "Thank you... what's your name?"
"Leonard. Dr. Leonard Hofstadter."
"It's nice to hear a voice of reason every once in a while." Then his lip quirked upward in amusement. "But I gotta ask..." He gestured toward Sheldon, Penny, Raj and Howard's Marvel-themed attire and then back at Leonard in his Fourth Doctor getup. "Did you miss the memo this morning or something?"
Leonard's eyes narrowed. "You know what? I take it back. Get 'im." He stepped aside.
The cacophony of voices that arose was immediate, and slowly grew deafening. One of Quesada's assistants headed for the door to get security. Penny spied a marker on a supplies table, and in the thick of the argument, slipped over to scrawl a note on the back of one of her notecards. She crept back to the group of hotheads and pretended to try to break it up.
"Guys! Guys!" she shouted, pressing into the knot of angry men. She put an arm around Quesada, patting him on the back. "We've got to get ready for our panel, and I'm sure Joe here has places to be..."
Just then, Walters came rushing into the room. "They're ready for us, Dr. Cooper, Ms. London." He pulled on Sheldon's arm, his eyes a little wild. He looked like he was imagining the crashing and burning of his show before it ever hit the airwaves.
Penny came over to take Sheldon's other arm and helped pull him toward the curtain behind the platform. "I'm not done yet!" Sheldon protested.
"Oh, yes, you are, sweetie."
"Save it for the letters page!" Quesada laughed. He turned and left with his entourage, the word 'ASSHOLE' clearly written on the card Penny had stuck to his back.
Penny surreptitiously pointed to the note with a devilish aside to Leonard, Howard and Raj. "At least he'll get people to agree with that the rest of the day..."
They laughed, and Raj gave her a tipsy thumbs' up. "Break a leg!" The guys headed toward their seats in the audience. The room was about half-full, and lucky no one seemed to have paid the backstage argument much mind.
"I'm going to go out there and make sure everything is ready, all right guys?" Walters asked, looking between them with concern. His eyes seemed to ask, Is he going to be okay?
Sheldon stood stiffly, visibly trying to control his breathing. He didn't answer, staring at the floor.
Penny used her most reassuring voice. "We're fine, go do what you need to."
"You have about five minutes before the host announces you."
"Got it." As soon as he was out of sight, Penny put a hand between his shoulder blades, and rubbed at his tense muscles. It was a sign of how comfortable they were with each other that he didn't flinch away. "Sheldon?" she asked softly. "You going to be okay?"
"Yes," he answered just as softly.
"He's not worth it." She continued to massage his back, trying to calm him down. It was sort of amazing how her earlier nervousness was lessening by the moment.
Sheldon took a deep breath. "No, he isn't. He may have ruined Marvel for me, but I won't let him ruin this for us."
Her hand stopped moving at his words. Us? The way he said that had caused a tiny warm flush to creep through her. She was suddenly nervous again, and not for the same reasons.
To hide it, she patted his back briefly and said, "I'm just going to study my cards one last time. Not everyone is blessed with eidetic memory like you, Superman."
"I'm Dr. Reed Richards, Penny," he began, sounding like himself again. "Or did you already...?" He noticed her smirk just then. "Oh, a joke. I get it." He smiled in return. His smiles were getting more natural all the time.
She shuffled the cards, and strangely, the question interviewers always seemed to ask came up: "What is it like to work with someone you've known for such a long time? Is there anything more between you?"
Her hilarious, but pat, story about how she moved in across the hall one day and how the two had slowly gone from being like oil and water to becoming close friends... didn't seem right anymore. Her eyes unfocused and the cards went slack in her hand.
She didn't know how long she stood there, but she felt Sheldon's hand on her shoulder and she broke out of her trance to look up at him.
"I... I have wanted to articulate my feelings, but I do not often have the words to express myself properly."
"Oh?" She affected surprise. "You usually have more words to say than 97% of the people I know."
"But in these circumstances..." He swallowed, his voice taking on a tone she'd never heard before. "I did not want this job; I did everything I could to ensure you got this job instead. But it has actually freed me to follow my research without boundaries or interference. I would never have had that staying in my quark-sized office at CalTech."
Penny felt a wide smile growing on her face. "Are you trying to say 'thank you'?"
"Hrm, um, yes." A slight blush darkened his cheeks. "But the words never seem enough with you, they never have."
He awkwardly made to put his arms around her, and she assumed he was giving her another hug. She slipped her arms around his waist and tried to rest her head on his shoulder... but he stopped her, a hand coming up to cup her chin.
His lips covered hers firmly, moving slightly, almost precisely, like he'd been reading up on it or studying the way people kissed in the movies. Penny squeaked in surprise and pulled back, her lashes fluttering. He tilted his head to the side, and opened his mouth to speak...
She didn't analyze her next action. That was what Sheldon did; he never did anything he didn't have at least 27 contingency plans for. So she didn't think as she grabbed him by the neck and pulled him down to her to kiss again, her note cards fluttering down to land around their feet. She had never even checked to see if she and Sheldon had a box, let alone if there were a cat inside.
Apparently it was a tiger.
He wasn't bad for an amateur. There was a lot of time to play professor to Sheldon, and she wouldn't start with Ancient Greece. Just then, the microphone on the other side of the curtain crackled to life. "Welcome to the Unified Theory panel, Comic-Con 2011!" She pulled away, taken aback at the heat between them.
He opened his mouth to speak. "You dropped your note cards, Penny."
She laughed and grabbed him by the hand, pulling him to the stairs at the edge of the platform. "I don't need them, anyway."
And when the expected question came, the one she had answered over and over, Penny reached over and clasped his hand with both of hers before beginning. "It all started when I moved in across the hall..."
Author's Note 2: In case you were wondering? Yes, my bias was showing in the Joe Q. scene. ;) Special thanks for various ideas and jokes to: van_el, fujiidom, damalur, ishie, xenokattz, rj_anderson, debelle77, juniperlane, annjej... and renisanz for the lovely fanart which inspired the final scene.