Leonard stopped reading their orders off of the piece of paper on his knee and squinted over at Raj. "Beef lo mein? Are you sure? I thought you were back to vegetarian again."
"Just order the food," Sheldon commanded. "We're already one minute, forty-six seconds behind schedule."
Everyone else rolled their eyes. Raj made some kind of complicated hand gesture in an attempt to explain and Leonard sighed.
"Yeah, the platter. But no egg rolls with the lo mein," he said into the phone. "Howard, you want your usual?"
Howard didn't say anything.
Penny, looking like she'd rather do anything else, leaned away from Sheldon and poked Howard in the shoulder. "You want the shrimp or not?"
He half-turned toward her. "Huh?"
"Are you okay? You don't look so good."
He didn't. He was sweating profusely and much paler than normal.
"Oh, I'm better than good," he leered, but it was clear that his heart wasn't in it.
"No, Penny's right," Sheldon said.
Penny beamed a little.
"You look like the rider on a pale horse after a run-in with a can of Sterno," he continued, then sucked in a breath and chuckled.
Leonard put down the cordless and leaned toward Penny. "The rider on a pale horse is..."
She interrupted him. "Yeah, Death warmed over. I got it."
He blinked at her and she huffed. "What? I grew up on a farm. I know my Johnny Cash."
"What does Johnny Cash have to do with-"
"Oh my God, did all of you grow up in the same cave?"
Howard wiped sweat off his forehead, disheveling his carefully arranged mop-top. "I'm fine," he insisted. "It's just a little warm in here, that's all."
The other four exchanged looks. Southern California was in the middle of an unseasonably cold winter, and Sheldon refused to let anyone open the radiator supply valves until the boiler in the basement had been properly sterilized. Predictably, the landlord placed that on an even lower priority than fixing the elevator. They were all wearing twice as many layers as normal; even Penny was huddled on the couch in an oversized sweatshirt with Cheetos stains on the sleeves.
Sheldon was the first to respond. "Clearly you are not fine. You've been sitting next to Penny for approximately eighteen minutes now and you have yet to make an off-color remark about her choice of attire. Such as: that outfit would better suit the decor of my bedroom."
Penny patted him on the thigh. "I think that one needs a little more work, sweetie."
Sheldon looked to the others. Leonard nodded, but he looked a little queasy at the same time. Raj added a thumbs-down.
Howard jumped to his feet, swaying a bit once he was standing. "Look, seriously, I'm fine! But if you guys are going to make such a big freaking deal out of everything, maybe I'll just take my Commodore 64 and go home."
He leaned down to pick the console up off the coffee table in preparation for storming out. Raj made a strangled noise and pointed at Howard's back where two lumps were visible under the purple and black stripes of his sweater, just above the familiar protrusions of his bony shoulder blades. Howard reached for the plug end of the power cable, pulling the sweater tight across his narrow back. When he did, the lumps twitched and wiggled like something alive was trapped under the fabric.
Penny gasped and knocked Howard's hands away from the Commodore 64. It wobbled on the edge of the coffee table. She pushed Howard back down onto the couch, trying to flip and pin him so she could get a good look at whatever was under his sweater; he shrieked and fought her as best he could but he was no match for her greater strength.
At the same time, Leonard leapt over the coffee table in an attempt to keep the ancient computer from crashing to the ground. Raj, doing the same, collided with him in mid-air and they hit the floor in a heap. Sheldon stood and took two jerky steps away from the chaos.
Penny made sure Howard's arms were trapped under him and planted a knee in the small of his back. Once he was relatively still, she leaned over to pull Sheldon back to the couch by the waistband of his pants. She stripped off her sweatshirt, leaving her in a white t-shirt with Robot Kong emblazoned across her chest, and tossed it over her shoulder at him. "Here, tie his legs before he bucks me off. He's got a wicked kick."
While Sheldon did that, she shuddered and pushed up the back of Howard's sweater. He was wearing a dickey instead of a full turtleneck and she shuddered again. She exposed his upper back in one quick motion, like pulling off a band-aid, then froze.
"It's a good thing I've been practicing my cat's paw," Sheldon said, pulling the sleeves of the sweatshirt tight. "Unfortunately, there is not enough material here for me to do it properly."
When no one responded, he straightened and looked around. The others were all staring at Howard's bare back so he did the same, then snapped his mouth closed with an audible click.
Howard kept squirming and tried to make a joke. "Look, Penny, it's great, really, that you finally decided to get on board the Wolowitz Express but getting your boyfriend to tie me up is not exactly what I had in mind."
"What." Raj looked just as surprised by the word that came out of his mouth as he did by the tiny, iridescent green wings sprouting from Howard's shoulder blades.
"What what?" Howard shrieked. "Guys, seriously, what's going on?"
No one said anything; they just froze in their various poses of horrified fascination and stared.
Penny carefully slid her knee off of his back, stepping backward and almost tripping over Sheldon's feet. He steadied her with one hand on her hip and one on her upper arm, his fingers slipping up under the sleeve of the t-shirt she'd appropriated from his laundry basket.
"Um," Leonard said from where he was flat on the floor under Raj's legs, the bulky keyboard lying on his chest.
"There's a guy at work with a pick-up truck we can borrow," Penny said as she sagged back against Sheldon. "We could head over to Arroyo Seco. It's freezing out but we had all that rain the other day, so the creek should be pretty high...."
He nodded but he didn't look that happy about it. "It does appear to be that kind of a day."
"And you said I was one lab accident away from supervillainy."
Leonard had just come back from picking up their dinner. "Look, just because he's got wings doesn't mean he's- Can we talk about this later?"
"Certainly. I'll add it to the nominations agenda for our next pre-roommate-meeting meeting. You'll present after Penny gives her rebuttal to the changes I red-lined in the grocery rotation."
"Fine, whatever. Has Howard come out of the bathroom at all?"
Penny didn't look up from where she was rooting through the bag of food. "Nope. He finally stopped crying about ten minutes ago though." She passed out cartons to Sheldon and Raj, then sat back down on the couch with her own meal.
Raj snapped apart a pair of chopsticks. "My guess is that he was exposed to something when he went out on that satellite retrieval project. Those JPL guys are bad news."
"Seriously, I know I keep saying it, but it's so weird that you're talking," Penny said around a mouthful of eggroll, her hand cupped under her chin to catch any stray bits of pork or cabbage. "And sober."
"How is this weird? Howard's turning into a butterfly."
She made a face at him.
"Actually, based on the glimpse I had before he fled, I think Howard's wings looked more like something from the Chrysopidae family," Sheldon mused. "The wide costal field in the wing venatio-"
"Shouldn't somebody go talk to him?" Leonard interrupted, still hovering awkwardly near the refrigerator with a bottle of juice in his hands. "He's been in there an awfully long time."
Penny swallowed. "Tried that. He just starts crying again. He wouldn't even let me in when I said I'd spilled water all over my shirt."
Leonard slanted a quick look at her chest then hurried to look at Raj when Sheldon shot him a narrow-eyed look. "What about when you tried?"
"She's the one who lost Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock." Raj pointed his chopsticks across the room at Penny. "In best of three!"
She stabbed her sweet and sour chicken and scowled. "I still say that stupid rock would crush Spock."
"You've already agreed to the stipulation that Spock would not be traveling in an area prone to rockfalls without a Type-1 phaser. Several times now, I might add." Penny sighed, and Sheldon kept layering hot mustard into his carton.
"Leonard," he continued, "perhaps you could take him some reading materials if he plans to stay in there for the duration of the evening. I put all of your pornography back in your room when I cleaned yesterday. Also, and I apologize for bringing this up outside of a roommate meeting, but I would appreciate it if you would stop hiding the magazines behind the toilet tank. There are far more sanitary-"
"Got it! Thanks!" Leonard yelped, blushing a deep red.
"Well, I'm stumped," Sheldon declared, closing the lid of his laptop and setting it aside. "And that speaks volumes, in and of itself. Penny, may I have my phone back now?"
"Just a second," she mumbled. "This idiot keeps trying to tell me that there was no way Chrysta would have hooked up with Pips in FernGully."
Sheldon made an exasperated noise. "You're supposed to be researching Howard's predicament, not getting into arguments on the IMDb message boards and exceeding my data plan usage limits."
"I was researching," she cried as he tried to pry the phone out of her hands. She let go suddenly and he pitched backward on the couch, phone clutched protectively against his chest while he eyed her warily. "Whatever. 'Watched the movie fifty times', my ass. That moron doesn't understand the first thing about rainforest fairies."
Sheldon's eyes widened and he started scrolling through menus to close down the programs she'd opened.
"Wait, I think I've got it!" Raj called from behind the couch where he had built a small fortification of books around himself. He turned the page. "Oh. Never mind, I thought it was something else. Can I borrow this McCaffrey, by the way? I've heard about the Dragonriders but I've never read any of the books."
"Yeah, go ahead. I think all of them are over there somewhere." Leonard slumped down in his desk chair and rubbed his eyes under his glasses. "I can't find anything either, and the new entomology guy just 'lol no'd me and logged off Facebook chat."
"Morrison? Yeah, he's an even bigger dick than Crawley," Raj declared.
"So what do we do now?"
Sheldon was concentrating on typing something into his phone. He didn't look up. "Since we've already lost two hours and as such are now hopelessly behind, I propose we shift our Secret Agent Laser Aardvark tournament to tomorrow night. That is, if the Commodore hasn't been damaged."
"No, let's do it Saturday after paintball. I've got a double shift tomorrow night, all the way up to closing," Penny explained.
"Works for me," Raj piped up.
"Did you switch shifts? You didn't amend the schedule," Sheldon chided Penny.
"Yeah, well, nobody penciled us in for a live-action remake of The Fly tonight, either. Roll with it."
"No, guys," Leonard cut off whatever Sheldon's retort might have been, "about Howard. What do we do about Howard?"
"Well, our first step should be to get him out of the bathroom. It's nearly 9:15," Sheldon said, his voice rising slightly at the end.
"Can't you just hold it?"
Penny slapped her hands down on the arms of her chair and pushed herself to her feet. "If I have to listen to his urinary health lecture again, I'm going to kick your ass, Leonard," she warned, pointing a finger at him before stalking down the hallway.
The guys followed, hanging back at a safe distance. She banged on the door and bellowed, "You've got five seconds, Wolowitz, or I'm coming in there. And if I see a copy of Big Pixels in your hand, there's going to be hell to pay."
She counted down in the same loud voice and when she hit one, the door swung open. Howard's face was blotchy and swollen, his eyes blood-shot. His hair was slicked back from his forehead with water and his dickey was gone, exposing the long, pale line of his throat and a prominent Adam's apple.
"Hey," he mumbled.
Penny's expression softened. She visibly braced herself then laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Honey, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Howard said, still clearly not. "I'll just call and get a doctor's appointment tomorrow and-"
A Star Trek communicator alert blipped from the phone in Sheldon's hand. "Hold that thought, Howard," he said, imperiously, holding up his other hand for quiet.
He turned away to answer. "This is Dr. Sheldon Cooper speaking. Oh, hello, Missy! Good, you got my text. Yes, that's what I- No, it's not- If you would let me finish!" His voice trailed off as he went back into the living room.
Howard's eyes bugged out and he clenched his hands into fists; Penny dropped her hand from his arm like she'd been burned and stepped away.
"I'm going all Kafka over here and he's talking to his sister? That's just great. Really wonderful. I'm feeling the love in this room, I can tell you that," he griped.
Sheldon re-emerged, tucking his phone back into the pocket of his plaid pants. "I was asking for her assistance, Wolowitz. If my hypothesis is correct - and why wouldn't it be? - she has the unique knowledge we require."
Raj squeaked. Then he clapped a hand over his mouth and groaned. Penny gave him a sympathetic half-hug.
"How is your sister going to be able to help?" Leonard asked.
"She's the only fully-grown adult I know who still possesses a pair of fairy wings and refers to pixie dust in common conversation."
"No, she's not," Penny corrected him. "I've got a pair of-"
Sheldon cleared his throat and gave her a crooked smile. "Cosplay doesn't count."
She grinned in return and leaned into him, her face tilted up toward his.
Howard summoned up a leer, looking even more grotesque than normal with his red eyes and swollen face.
Leonard groaned and looked around the hallway like he was trying to find a hole to crawl into.
"Howard, I really don't think you should go anywhere tonight. Why don't you sleep on the couch?" Leonard asked. "We've still got Barbarella on the TiVo!"
"Ooh, slumber party!" Penny squealed, clapping her hands.
Raj's eyes widened. He picked up his coat and quickly left the apartment without saying goodbye.
"Or, not? What the hell?"
"He fears a recurrence of his nocturnal enuresis," Sheldon said.
"Bed-wetting," Leonard explained.
Penny stumbled down the hallway with bleary eyes and tangled hair hanging in her face. Sheldon was right behind her, robe neatly belted over matching pajamas.
"It's not even light out yet," she whined as she slumped over the kitchen table, pressing her cheek against the cool wood.
Sheldon pulled two bowls out of a cupboard and poured a single serving of Big Bran in both. He topped them off with milk: 2% for himself and skim for Penny. "We have to meet Missy's flight in ninety minutes."
Penny climbed onto one of the stools and took the spoon he offered, dipping it into the sugar bowl. "Why can't she just take a cab?"
Sheldon scoffed. "Penny, really."
"She did last time, you big jerk," she mumbled into her cereal. "Twice."
He ignored her. When they'd finished eating and Penny had slurped up her remaining milk, she stood and scrubbed her hair out of her face. She frowned at the section she'd accidentally dunked in the bowl.
"I'm gonna go jump in the shower. You wake up Howard. I don't want to leave him here all by himself."
"But Leonard's here," Sheldon balked.
"Yeah, and he's still sleeping like a normal person. Just get him up so we can get out of here." She stomped up the hallway and shut herself in the bathroom. The shower came on a few seconds later.
Sheldon crossed over to the couch. The pillow and blanket were still lying on the cushions but Howard was nowhere to be seen.
"Well, that's odd."
"What do you mean, he's gone?" Penny yelled over the spray of the water.
"Why must you persist in making me repeat the simplest statements?" Sheldon complained.
"Well, where the hell did he go?"
He sighed. "If I knew that, I would hardly have come in here to ask you."
She jerked open the shower curtain and glared at him. He stepped back to avoid the spray of water bouncing out of the tub.
"Maybe he felt better and went home?" Leonard offered from the hallway. He kept his back to the open bathroom door.
Penny's hand curled into a fist over argon's atomic number. "Do we need to talk about who's allowed in here when I'm naked?" she hissed at Sheldon. "Again?"
Leonard dropped the phone on the kitchen counter like it had grown fangs and tried to bite him. "Uh, Howard's not home. Also nobody should call there for at least a week. I think his mom was serious about the cops."
"Well, he can't have gone far," Sheldon said. "His wallet's still there on the table and Raj drove him here last night."
Penny came in, dressed for the day in several layers of clothing but with a towel wrapped still around her head. "Did you call Raj? Maybe he-"
"No answer," Leonard told her. "He's probably still asleep."
"Imagine that," she said, shooting a dirty look at Sheldon.
He made a distressed sound as he checked his watch. "We have only sixty-four minutes until we have to meet Missy at baggage claim!"
Penny grumbled and unwrapped her towel. She balled it up and tossed it toward the bathroom, missing by several feet and ignoring Sheldon's outraged "Hey!", and headed for the closet to grab her coat. Sheldon trailed behind her.
Leonard said, "I'm going to head over to Raj's place, see if he can think of anywhere Howard might have gone."
"Good idea," Penny said. "Call us if you find anything?"
Leonard agreed and went to hold the door to the hallway open for them.
"Are you truly angry with me or have your reactions this morning been due to a combination of sleep deprivation and worry?" Sheldon asked as they passed him.
"Little of both," Penny answered as she jammed one of the hats his mom had knitted over her still-damp hair. "Plus, you know, Howard within hearing distance all night."
"So that's why...." He noticed Leonard watching them and turned away from him slightly, lowering his voice. "I have a proposal that may temporarily ameliorate all of those irritants. Time permitting, of course. Once we reach the airport parking garage, perhaps we can engage in a brief session of-"
Leonard closed the door on the rest of his suggestion but it wasn't enough to block Penny's high-pitched and excited, "Sheldon Cooper!"
He picked up Penny's discarded towel and dropped it into the hamper in the bathroom, then went into his own room to change into something warmer than pajamas. On his way out of the apartment, he flipped off the lights and let the door fall shut behind him as he rushed down the stairs.
Once he was gone, Howard muttered sleepily, "Finally," and rolled over.
Penny and Sheldon hurried through the lower terminal entrance at LAX just as Missy's plane was due to land.
"I told you we'd have plenty of time," she panted, stuffing something into her coat pocket along with her keys and zipping it closed.
"Only because you took the route I suggested for a change."
"Hey, you gave me a good enough reason this time. Just for future reference: 'We're going to miss Stuart cutting open the boxes', no. 'Let's make out', yes."
"Witnessing the opening of the boxes is part of the tradition, Penny, which you would understand if you..." He trailed off, his attention caught by the arrivals display. "Oh, Missy's flight's been delayed."
Penny craned her neck, trying to see around him to read the monitor as they passed it. "Twenty-five minutes, huh?"
Sheldon checked his watch against the time the airport displays were showing. "Given her assigned arrival gate, she should be at baggage claim thirty-two minutes from now. If you're bored, we could pass the time by trying to guess the departure point for the people coming to pick up their bags."
"Thirty minutes, huh?" Penny looked up and down the wide, mostly deserted concourse.
"Thiry-two minutes. Well, thirty-one now tha-Aahh!"
She pulled him in to the nearest restroom and ducked down to check under the stall doors for occupants, then threw the bolt on the door.
"Plenty of time," she repeated as she advanced on him.
Missy was waiting for them at the baggage carousel with a large duffel bag slung over her shoulder and an old-fashioned hard-sided suitcase at her feet.
Sheldon winced as she and Penny shrieked at each other. They hugged tightly, then Missy let go to turn to her brother. She punched him lightly in the shoulder.
"What was that for?" He rubbed his shoulder and scowled.
"That was for waiting until you had a big emergency to invite me back up here, you big dummy." She took some of the sting out of her words by giving him a big hug. He was quicker to return the embrace than he had been the last time she visited. He also didn't try to argue with her about his IQ, for once.
When they separated, it only took three hints from Penny for Sheldon to heave a long-suffering sigh and pick up Missy's suitcase. The doors slid open as they neared, bringing a frigid blast of air and the thick, oily smell of car exhaust.
Missy, wearing only a thin knit sweater and a pair of jeans, shivered. "Boy, Shelly, you weren't kidding about that cold!"
"I never joke about meteorological phenomena. And I see you didn't take my advice about packing appropriately. Typical."
Penny rolled her eyes at Sheldon's back as he started marching out ahead of them to the parking garage. "Here," she said, struggling out of the coat she'd put back on only moments earlier, "wear this. I've got, like, six layers on and I'm boiling."
Missy eyed her flushed face, then the way her brother's normally neatly combed hair stuck up all over as he waited impatiently for them on the sidewalk. "Sure looks like it."
Penny was patting down the pockets of her jeans and sweatshirt and didn't hear her. "Oh wait, I think I left the keys in my coat."
She tried to grab it back but Missy was already unzipping a pocket to dip a hand inside. She pulled out part of a lacy black strap. "I'm thinking maybe you missed a layer?"
Penny didn't look the slightest bit embarrassed. "You know, I think you might be right about that."
"We're going to get stuck in morning traffic if you two keep ... lollygagging!"
"You just hold your horses!" Missy pulled out the keys and handed them to Penny. "I don't understand how you put up with him. If I didn't know better, I'd ask if Mom was paying you somehow."
Penny just smirked, like she knew something Missy could never in a million years figure out.
It was Missy's turn to roll her eyes. "Hand to God, you two are a matched set."
As they merged into traffic on Sepulveda, Sheldon rubbed his hands together in the little bit of warm air trickling out of the dashboard and asked, "Did you arrange for a hotel room? I have a list of several acceptable establishments within easy distance of our apartment."
"She's family, Sheldon! And you're the one who insisted she fly up here. She's staying with us."
"I can just bed down in the living room," Missy said. "There's no need for you all to go to any trouble."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all," Penny assured her. "You can share with me! It'll be like the last time you were here before I moved across the hall, except- You know. With Howard growing wings and stuff."
"And just where am I supposed to sleep?" Sheldon whined. "You know the couch doesn't offer adequate lumbar support, and I can't use Leonard's room while he's there. And there is far too much ambient noise in the living room. And I never get enough rest unless I'm using my own blankets." He edged closer to the door, well out of the path of anything his sister might try. "Why can't she stay out there?"
"How about: if it's good enough for your twin sister and every other person who has to crash for a night, it's good enough for you, too?"
"Well, that's just blatantly untrue." He snorted. "What's good enough for everyone else is very rarely good enough for me."
When he continued to press the issue for the next five miles, Penny gritted her teeth and added, "Because Missy doesn't need to worry about whether she's getting back in bed with me when this is all over, that's why."
Sheldon turned to look at his sister in the back seat. "Try not to make any sudden movements while she's sleeping. Sometimes she kicks."
"I'll remember that," Missy said solemnly. When Sheldon nodded and faced forward once more, she caught Penny's eyes in the rearview mirror and winked. "Nice," she mouthed.
Penny gave her a broad smile and reached over to pat Sheldon's knee, asking him, "Do you want to play the elements name game? I've been studying in the shower."
As soon as they got into the apartment and saw that Leonard hadn't yet returned, Penny dug out her cell to call him. Sheldon carried Missy's suitcase back to their bedroom, giving her instructions about schedules and timetables the whole way.
When Leonard picked up, Penny asked, "No luck finding Howard? Okay. Yeah, Missy's here, safe and sound. We'll see you guys in a few minutes."
She ended the call and chewed on one of her nails. "Where the hell is he?"
"I'm right here!"
Penny rubbed her right ear. "Howard?"
"No, it's the Hebrew Hammer. Of course it's me!"
"Where are you?" She looked around the room, then kneeled on the couch to peer behind it.
Penny looked down to find Howard sitting cross-legged on top of the blanket, just inches away from her knee. He was about as tall as one of her Barbie dolls and his wings stuck out of two ragged, off-center holes in the back of his sweater. It looked like he'd ripped them by hand.
She screamed and jumped away. Howard winced and covered his ears.
"Penny, what's wrong?" Sheldon cried as he and Missy burst into the room. He used Missy, who was brandishing a lightsaber like a baseball bat, for cover and pointed his phaser around the room. "Is it Morlocks?"
"Why the hell would there be Morlocks in the apartment?" Penny asked.
Missy looked down at the couch and sighed. "Oh, damn. It's worse than I thought."
"Hey!" Howard protested.
Missy brought Sheldon's laptop out of hibernation and plugged in the flash drive she had pulled out of her duffel bag.
"Please tell me you've used a virus protection program on that at some point?"
"Relax. I run a scan every night, just like you taught me. This baby's clean as a whistle."
Sheldon sniffed. "Well, that's hardly reassuring. I seem to recall someone saying that very same thing about an actual whistle she was trying to shove in my mouth-"
"For the millionth time, that is not how you got the mono!"
"Oh, and I suppose your advanced degrees in epidemiology and-"
"Don't you be calling me stupid again, you-"
"Hey!" Penny shouted.
Both Sheldon and Missy stopped in mid-sentence and turned identical glares on her.
"Can we do the fighting thing later? We've still got Thumbelina over there to deal with."
"I can still hear you!" Howard called from his perch on the coffee table. He kicked his legs irritably and fluttered his wings. "I haven't gone deaf."
"I wish I would," Penny muttered.
Sheldon crossed his arms, looking mutinous. "Fine," he bit out. "Missy, we'll continue this at a more opportune time."
"You're darn tootin' we will," she said, turning back to the computer.
Sheldon stalked into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water. Penny leaned over the back of Missy's seat, trying to see what she was doing. As she watched, Missy clicked open a few folders then highlighted and printed a handful of Word documents.
"So, what's all this?"
"Oh, just a couple of things I've picked up along the way." Missy picked up the papers as the printer spat them out. "This here's an identification guide so we can try to figure out what exactly we're dealing with - found that one on the internet, would you believe that? And I've got a questionnaire for Howard to fill out."
"Where'd you get that?"
"I wrote it," Missy said with a proud smile. "Well, with some help."
"Get out!" Penny nudged Missy's shoulder with her own. "Seriously?"
"Yeah! I was dating this guy who was kind of like an investigator for this kind of thing, I guess? Just sort of fell into it after that. I mean, it's not like I want to be a hostess at Fuddrucker's my whole life. I know some people," she threw a dark look over her shoulder at her brother, "think we're just a bunch of backwards hicks back home but that doesn't mean we're oblivious."
Sheldon snorted. "Yes, the great state of Texas and its citizens are regularly recognized for their all-consuming intellectual curiosity. Sometimes I'm almost sorry I moved away." After a beat, he added, almost to himself, "You know, I think I've finally mastered sarcasm."
Missy turned back to the computer but not before Penny saw the hurt that flashed across her face. She leaned down and whispered, "Don't let him fool you. He's got the first three seasons of Friday Night Lights on DVD, hidden under the bed. And every time we watch them, he spends half the time telling me all the ways East Texas is better than West."
"Hold still, Howard! This isn't going to work if you keep squirming all over the place."
"I can't help it. It tickles!"
Sheldon grunted in frustration, and Howard giggled nervously.
When the door flew open, Howard toppled off the coffee table onto the pillows Penny had spread on the floor for just that reason. Sheldon looked up from his tape measure and notebook with a mild look of surprise.
Leonard sagged against the doorframe. "Oh, thank God. I thought- Something I hope I never think again!"
Raj grimaced. "Dude, tell me aboooooooow!"
"Found the camera," Missy said, looking down at it and fiddling with the settings as she stepped down into the living room. "And I don't want to know why you were taking pictures of a bunch of dolls in your bedroom, Shelly."
He let the dolls comment slide, and the nickname, although his left eye and cheek twitched briefly. "I've almost finished measuring his wingspan. Should we move over by the windows so that we have adequate light for the pictures?"
"Nah, Penny's bringing out a couple of lamps."
Sheldon startled and dropped his equipment. "Tell me she's not dismantling the.... Oh, how would you know?"
As he disappeared around the corner, heading for their bedroom, Leonard took a tentative step into the apartment. "Hey, Missy!" he said, too cheerfully, cringing as he did.
Her head shot up and she flattened the hand not holding the camera over her chest. "Oh, my Lord, I didn't even see you there! How you doing, Leonard?"
He started to stammer out a response and she leaned to one side to look around him.
"Hey there, cutie," she said to Raj with a wink. "Penny mentioned you were on your way over."
Raj cleared his throat and waved limply, looking mortified.
"We're just getting ready to do my centerfold," Howard said as he crawled back up onto the coffee table. He waggled his eyebrows and directed an exaggerated lascivious look at Missy. "This is going to be great!"
Leonard and Raj paled.
"Am I imagining things or is he a lot smaller than he was last night?" Leonard asked, his voice rising higher and higher with every word.
"You are definitely not imagining it," Raj said. His eyes bugged out and he started to babble. "Did I just talk? Out loud? Oh! I just did it again. And with the most beautiful woman on the planet standing right there! Augh! I'm still doing it!"
"Well, aren't you sweet?" Missy purred.
Whatever could have happened next, didn't, as Sheldon distracted them all by yelling from his room, "There! Are! Four! Lights!"
"It's just that we've been really worried about you, Howard. Even Sheldon."
Sheldon scoffed, then grinned maniacally and nodded when Penny elbowed him in the ribs.
"I told you. It's not like I meant for you to think I disappeared. I just, I didn't realize how much smaller I was and that you couldn't see me." Howard hunched up his shoulders, making his wings shift. "I thought you were just being dicks, basically. I heard talking - really freaking loud for five in the morning, I might add - and then I fell back to sleep, and then when I woke up everyone was gone."
His face fell even farther. "And I was a Troll doll."
Penny tried to tease him. "Oh, come on, you looked like a troll before... Too soon?" she asked when everyone turned to glare at her.
"But look!" Howard's face contorted and he hovered several inches off the coffee table, wings moving so fast they were a blur.
Penny covered her face with both hands. "God, Howard, no offense but that's really creepy."
On either side of her, Raj and Sheldon sat forward with looks of avid curiosity.
Sheldon tilted his head slightly to one side. "Would you say the movement is caused by flexing your trapezius muscles or is there some other biological mechanism at work?"
"What about your heart rate and respiration?" Raj asked. "Is it taking substantially more effort to stay in the air than to it does to just, sort of, flutter them?"
"And can you stop?" Penny added from behind her hands.
Howard landed with a tiny thump and crossed his arms. "Oh sure, yeah, if it's creeping you out I'll just walk everywhere and hope a mouse doesn't eat me."
"A mouse?" Sheldon pulled his feet up off the floor, crossing his arms over his knees to hold his legs up. "You've seen rodents in this apartment?"
"Well, if you'd just let me get a cat then we wouldn't have to worry about it!" Leonard called from the kitchen where he was cutting the leftover shrimp in lobster sauce into Howard-sized pieces.
"I was speaking hyperbolically!" Howard bellowed.
"C'mon, boys, quit your arguing," Missy soothed. "And Shelly, put your feet down. You look like an idiot."
He glared but did as she told him.
"Now, the way I see it," she continued without missing a beat, "we're dealing with one of two things. Either Howard here got himself into something he shouldn't have - whether you want to call it science or black magic, I'm not saying which 'cause it's not my place to judge - or what we have here is what they call a supernatural awakening."
The four guys looked at her with matching blank expressions like they'd tuned out everything after she tried to equate science with magic.
Penny brightened. "Ooh, like Buffy!"
While the guys argued over the best way to build a carrier for Howard should the need arise, and Howard protested that he could just ride in someone's pocket instead, Penny pulled Missy into the kitchen.
"Okay, what's going on with Howard is really weird, but I'm a little more freaked out about Raj."
Missy's forehead wrinkled. "What do you mean? What's wrong with Raj?"
Penny stared at her for a moment then smacked her own forehead. "Right, I forgot. Last time you saw him was when he tried that drug." She explained about Raj's selective mutism and that in all the years she'd known him the only other times she'd heard him speak had been when he was drunk.
"Hmm, that's probably not good."
"You think it means something?"
"Yeah, could be. I need to go check on a couple of things - there a library nearby?"
"I think there's a branch over on Hill, about a mile away. I'd drive you over there but I need to take a nap or I'm going to be dead by the end of my shift."
"That's okay. I can walk."
"First rule of LA, sweetie: nobody walks anywhere except crazy people. And your brother."
Missy gave her a look.
"Yeah, yeah, but your mom had him tested or so he says. Hang on a sec." She raised her voice. "Hey, Leonard. Need to borrow your car."
"What? Why?" he whined. "I just got the dents fixed from the last time."
"Missy needs to go somewh-"
"Keys are in the bowl! Unless you want me to-"
Missy smiled, "Oh no, that's okay. I'll be back before you even know I'm gone. You all just get that questionnaire filled out."
There was a mad scramble as Raj and Leonard, and even tiny Howard, dropped whatever bits of junk they were playing with and dove for the papers on the table.
"Oh, for pity's sake," Sheldon grumbled. "She's still not going to choose to mate with any of you."
Missy still wasn't back by the time Penny got up from her nap. She scarfed down a bowl of instant macaroni and cheese she'd found at the back of the cupboard while standing over the sink, ignoring Leonard's pained looks and Sheldon's increasingly pointed eyebrow raises and head jerks toward the table.
"I just don't feel right about leaving you guys here alone," she said after swallowing a huge bite of rubbery noodles.
"Come on," Leonard said. "It's not like we're going to get in trouble sitting here in the apartment waiting for you guys!"
Howard and Raj nodded firmly.
She swallowed again and made a face. "Kind of what I'm afraid of."
"We're just going to fill out this questionnaire and finish constructing Howard's carrier," Sheldon assured her. "We'll be fine."
"Penny, this is Sheldon."
It had taken her a long time to convince him that he didn't need to announce his full name every time she answered his calls.
They were still working on it.
"We're not fine."
Penny's manager cringed in horror when she threw down the phone at the hostess stand and ran back to his tiny office to claim "lady troubles." She was racing out of the restaurant and into her car within minutes. As she turned the corner onto Los Robles, she braced herself with both hands curled tightly around the steering wheel.
"I swear to you, God," she said into the cold air, "if the apartment building is on fire, or under attack by robots, or just straight-up missing altogether, I don't even know what I'm going to do."
When she pulled into the parking lot, there were no police, fire, or ambulance flashers. No gleaming metal leviathans. The building was as reassuringly sturdy as always under the gunmetal gray sky.
"Okay, so that just leaves miniature black holes and time portals," she muttered as she locked the car. She pulled out her phone to call Missy, then realized halfway through the directory that she didn't have her number, just an email address. "Fan-freaking-tastic."
The door to the apartment swung open as she was climbing the last flight of stairs and Sheldon stepped outside, pulling the door closed behind him.
"Sheldon, what the hell? Are you okay?"
"No," he said in a low voice. "I don't think I am."
As soon as she was close enough, she reached out to grab his arm. His skin was hot to the touch. "Oh my god, do you have a fever? What are you doing out here? Did the guys leave you alone like this again?"
She pressed her hand against his forehead and he swallowed hard.
"I'm not sick."
"Sweetie, you're burning up."
"It's not... It's not that kind of fever," he choked out.
She could smell beef vegetable soup on his breath. He stepped further into her personal space, sliding his fingers along the nape of her neck, making her shiver.
"Ah," she said faintly. "Gotcha."
When he leaned in closer, she ducked under his arm and pushed her way into the apartment. He followed, his hand coming up to rest on the back of her neck, thumb tickling down under the collar of her uniform shirt and coat.
Howard was hovering near the door, a look of panic on his face. "Oh, thank God!" he cried. "I don't know what's going on! They've all gone crazy!"
Raj was leaning against the windows, talking away a mile a minute on speakerphone, a sultry female voice replying in Hindi. In the kitchen, Leonard was grinning and singing along, badly, to what sounded like a sickly sweet pop song.
Penny danced out of Sheldon's reach as his hand slid down her back and started to curve around her side, slipping up under the loose waist of her coat to stroke the lower curve of her belly. "What did you do," she said through clenched teeth.
Howard twitched, his wings beating twice as fast as he bobbed out of her reach. "What makes you think it's my fault?"
She just looked at him, making a frustrated gesture with the hand that wasn't busy keeping Sheldon at bay.
Howard bugged his eyes out at her, dipping down a foot in mid-air as he shrugged his shoulders. "What?"
"Ohhh, I don't know. Maybe because you're the size of a doll, you're flying, and- Why are you sparkly?"
"Oh, that," he waved it off like it was no big deal. "Sheldon made me sit on a heating pad when I bitched about the cold. Next thing I know, I'm sweating like a pig, only it's glitter instead of perspiration."
"And you wonder why I think this might be your fault?"
Penny glared at Howard, practically vibrating with indignation, and Sheldon took advantage of her distraction long enough to brush aside her hair and press his lips against the slope of her neck. Reaching up over her shoulder, she tried to shove his face away.
"Sheldon, no! Living room's a G-rated zone!"
"Don't care," he mumbled into her skin.
"Howard!" she barked. "Talk! When did this start?"
She tried to wedge her elbow in between Sheldon and her back, but when she made contact with his abdomen he made a growling noise and bared his teeth against the rise of her shoulder. Her knees wobbled and she had to cling to the back of one of the desk chairs to stay upright. She tried to concentrate on what Howard was saying as he drifted over to the back of the couch. He wasn't even leering.
"Well, Raj was sober and talking in front of you last night, Leonard started playing..."
"Yeah, yeah, okay, but what did you do?"
"Nothing! They were helping me fill out Missy's questionnaire, which is actually very well-constructed," Howard digressed. "She's mixed in some intriguing queries with the usual questions about age, sex, weight. I gather that she uses it pretty routinely."
"I'm famished," Sheldon announced as he suddenly stepped away from Penny. "That soup wasn't very filling. Are there any sandwiches left?"
It took more than half an hour for her to corral the other two and get them to sit quietly with Sheldon and Howard in the living room. She kept trying Missy's cell from Sheldon's phone in the meantime but it went straight to voicemail every time.
Raj pouted. "I was just about to seal the deal with Geetha," he reminded her for the fifth time in as many minutes.
"I know, sweetie." She patted him on the shoulder and sat next to Sheldon on the couch, tucking her skirt in under her knees and brushing her knuckles against his outer thigh as she did. He shivered and captured her hand with his own, giving it a brief squeeze before dropping it back into her lap.
"Okay," she said, "tell me exactly what you guys did after I left."
Sheldon picked up his social interactions log and started reading from the notes he'd updated after finishing his sandwich. "Leonard, Raj, and Howard rejected several of my suggestions regarding the design of the carrier. After a democratic vote failed to break the deadlock, Howard practiced take-offs and landings from a variety of positions and locations around the apartment. Raj subjected us to a litany of the eligible women he wanted to-"
"She doesn't need to hear that!" Raj hissed.
"Very well. Howard somehow became wedged inside the open computer case." He pointed it out to her like it hadn't been sitting in exactly the same spot for years. "Leonard rescued him and then logged in to YouTube to watch videos for approximately seventy minutes. I made soup. Raj began calling women from his list. I ate my soup. During that time, Howard spent approximately fourteen minutes complaining about the ambient temperature of the apartment, then twelve minutes sitting atop the heating pad, then another fourteen minutes describing his glitter in excruciating detail."
"Like you're one to talk," Howard muttered. Raj held out a finger for him to high-five.
"After all of that," Sheldon continued as if he hadn't noticed the interruption, "I attempted to get things back on course by making Howard complete Missy's questionnaire while Leonard began practicing his singing, if indeed one can call it that."
"That's it?" Penny said blankly. "Then what was all that ... that when I got here?"
The other guys looked around like they suddenly found the floor and the ceiling completely fascinating, but Sheldon held her gaze. "As you know, any part of my interactions log relating to our relationship is confidential. You may review it later if you like. In private."
"Sheldon, come on! You practically mauled me in a G-rated zone! I think that calls for an emergency overruling."
"And I have already awarded myself the appropriate number of demerits as per our agreement with Leonard."
"I gave up a double shift to come home!"
"Penny, this privacy rule is in effect for a reason. If I were to establish precedent now, how could I logically refuse to reveal intimate details at a later date?" He shook his head. "You're asking me to invite chaos and anarchy into our bedroom."
"Okay, yeah, never mind," she said, shifting away from Howard's studied - and entirely false - indifference.
Sheldon looked satisfied by her capitulation and continued. "All I will say is that when I first realized that the situation was spiraling out of control, I attempted to contact Missy and had no reply. Once I understood that I had been affected, and in what way, my only option was to call you." He closed his log book and sat back as if that settled the matter.
Leonard started singing an old Christina Aguilera song under his breath and Raj was furtively toying with his phone, so she sighed instead of arguing.
"Fine. Let me see that questionnaire."
Penny read the questions and answers aloud and watched the guys to see if their behavior changed. It didn't, but she kept a careful distance from Sheldon just in case something set him off again.
They had only just finished the first page when the door flew open and Missy stomped in, her hair damp and loose around her face.
"Can you believe it's snowing out there now?" she asked as she peeled off the coat and gloves she'd bullied Sheldon into loaning to her. "I thought this was supposed to be the Sunshine State."
"Florida is the Sunshine State," Sheldon corrected as they all started across the room to the windows overlooking the parking lot. "California's nickname is the Golden State, owing to the discovery of gold in 1848. Although, with the average number of sunny days per year around 70%, Sunshine State is perhaps a more apt nickname."
Missy just shrugged.
Sheldon made a frustrated noise, flinging his hands out to his sides. "Well, excuse me for continuing to try to educate you!"
Howard flew ahead of them, holding on to the latch and pressing his face against the glass as the rest of the group crowded in behind him. The cars in the lot were covered with a thick dusting of snow and more was still falling heavily. The Gabriel kids from 3-A were tossing snowballs at each other, a virtual army of angels pressed into the ground around them.
"Started about twenty minutes ago," Missy said as she peered over Leonard's head. "You should have seen everybody freaking out at the library."
Sheldon sketched a quick equation in the air behind her. "At the current rate of snowfall, the roads will be impassable in approximately ninety-five minutes. Provided the precipitation doesn't shift to sleet or rain in the meantime."
"It won't," Leonard declared. "The temperature's been dropping steadily since we had that rain on Monday."
"Since when are you an expert on weather patterns?"
"Uh, since I grew up in New Jersey? Where we have actual winters?"
Penny nodded, pushing Raj out of her way so she could see outside better. "Yeah, cold like this usually means blizzard."
"In Pasadena? That's preposterous," Sheldon scoffed. He flexed his fingers like he was already thinking of which search terms to use on Google.
"Apparently," Missy drawled, "it's not."
Leonard squinted hopefully over the rim of his glasses. "Does this mean we can finally turn on the heat?"
"Dibs on the radiator!" Raj and Howard said in unison while Sheldon grudgingly agreed to forego his careful supervision of boiler sterilization.
There was a brief game of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, during which Howard proved unable to maintain a steady beating of his wings while throwing wild Papers and Spocks. He dropped to the floor like a stone, cheering his victory.
"Damn it, how does he always know?" Raj said as he smacked his Rock into his other open palm.
After they'd picked up Howard and dusted him off, over Sheldon's scandalized protests that there was no dust anywhere in the apartment, Missy tried to explain what she thought was happening.
"I've never seen anybody who progressed this fast," she began. "Usually, it happens gradually, like over a couple of weeks or months. First you start getting the weird physical changes, like the wings. Shrinking's pretty common-"
"-but, again, it usually takes a while. Overnight's pretty much unheard of."
"What about the glitter?" Penny asked. "Is that normal?"
"Well, I wouldn't say normal, but yeah. It's a pretty common waste product of magical energy."
Sheldon and Leonard both blanched, hurriedly wiping their hands on the nearest cloth they could reach. Raj studied the sparkles dusting the tips of his fingers.
Howard sat up on his knees, bracing himself against a thick book on the coffee table. "Did you say magical?"
Penny held up a finger for him to high-five. "Guess this means you don't need that stupid top hat anymore!"
"I guess not!" Howard's face lit up. "So I'm made of magic now?"
"It's more like you're an instrument for magic. You don't really have any, but you can direct it," Missy paused, considering. "Well, kinda."
"Like the Force!" Raj said, his voice hushed and awestruck. "Dude, you're a Jedi!"
All four guys started talking at once and Missy had to stick her fingers between her lips and give a piercing whistle to get them to stop. "Sorry, hon, he's not a Jedi. He's more what you might call a common woodland fairy."
Penny and Missy sat on the kitchen stools, poring over the questionnaire, while Howard paced irritably on the counter.
"This is just ridiculous," he repeated, wings fluttering behind him as he turned and stalked in the opposite direction. "How am I a fairy?"
Raj called from the living room, "You know how I know you're ga-"
He swallowed the rest of the words when Penny twisted in her seat to glare at him.
Howard continued like he hadn't heard any of it. "I'm Jewish. My whole family's from Russia, for crying out loud! On both sides!"
Penny gave him a questioning look, and he dropped his voice.
"Ix-nay on the Atholic-cay?" he said with a shrug, raised eyebrows, and a hand he wiggled from side to side.
"Yeah, I don't-"
"It's got nothing to do with your heritage, Howard," Missy interrupted. "Most of the stories are about Irish magic, but I've met folks from all over the place who have fairy characteristics."
Behind her, Leonard and Raj snickered and guffawed, breathless with mirth, clinging to each other on the couch.
Sheldon, who was crossing from his desk to the kitchen, rolled his eyes. "It's like they've suddenly transmutated into members of a particularly juvenile fraternity," he mumbled into the fridge.
Missy snorted. "Not even Alpha Betas are this bad."
"Ooh, Revenge of the Nerds reference! Nice," Penny said.
"Yeah, it was on Comedy Central last night while I was packing."
"Which one? I like when they go to spring break best."
"Really, I thought you'd like the first one! Lewis and Betty totally remind me of you and-"
"Hello!" Howard yelped. "Can we get back to the part where you're explaining why I'm living a fairy tale?" He grimaced. "Literally?"
Sheldon put down his bottle of soda. "Not literally, unless you've been sent on some kind of quest or challenged by an ogre within the last twenty-four hours."
"Wings, Sheldon! I. Have. Wings!"
"Lots of non-supernatural beings have wings," Sheldon retorted. "At best, you can say that your situation is indicative of-"
"Oh my God," Penny muttered under her breath as she rose from her stool. She wrapped her hand around his bicep and started to drag him from the room. "Sweetie," she said when he tried to resist, "you can tell me all the ways that Howard's wrong and you're right, but only if you come with me right now."
Sheldon looked from her face to Howard's, and shrugged. "Fair enough."
When they heard the bedroom door close behind the couple, Missy gave Howard a sympathetic smile. "Just hold on a minute, will you? I promise I'll explain what's going on."
"Great," Howard said sulkily. "Finally."
She had to resist the urge to pat him on the head and moved off the stool instead.
"Raj? Could you do me a little favor?" she asked as she plopped down in the chair opposite the couch and leaned forward.
He scrambled upright, pushing Leonard away and visibly shaking off his amusement to put a solemn and inviting expression on his face. It came out looking more like he'd been punched in the face.
"Could you and Leonard maybe go get us something for dinner? I know it's terrible outside, but I am just starving," she said, laying the accent on thick. She even batted her lashes.
Raj nodded eagerly, opening his mouth to reply but a stream of gibberish came pouring out instead.
Leonard leaned forward. "Wait, did you just- He was just talking a minute ago!"
Missy turned to look at Howard, who was sitting on the edge of the counter.
"What?" he cried.
"What did you say right before I came over here?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Finally? Great?"
Raj's squeaky gibberish melted back into English. "-does this keep happening to me? Wait! Am I-"
Missy leaped out of her seat and scooped Howard off the counter. He struggled in her grasp, his wings quivering against her fingers. "Say it again!"
"-English again! What the frak? Missy, what's going-"
She held Howard up to eye-level. "No, the other word!"
"I don't remember!" Howard shouted. "Fine? Great?!"
And Raj made a strangled, high-pitched noise like a dying chicken.
'Oh my god, this is great!" Howard wriggled out of Missy's grip and flew over to peer at Raj.
"Just you wait, tiny man," Raj growled.
"So, all he has to do is say a word and he sets one of us off?" Raj looked equal parts perplexed and pissed off.
Howard looked sheepishly at Missy, who nodded. "Most magic has a spoken trigger. You know, like abracadabra?"
"Well, that's just-"
Howard smirked as Raj slammed his mouth shut and glared at him.
"What was the trigger for Leonard then?" Penny asked. She and Sheldon had come running down the hallway when Raj abandoned English entirely and started chasing Howard around the room, alternately yelling in Hindi and making noises like a bagpipe as Howard yelled the same word over and over. She was still trying to button her shirt back up without any of the guys noticing that it had been unbuttoned in the first place.
Leonard sank further into the couch, purposely not meeting anyone's eyes.
"There wasn't one," Sheldon told her. "He really does listen to puerile pop music when you're not around."
He scowled. "Let's just concentrate on Howard!"
"Yeah," Howard said, kicking his feet against the arm of Raj's chair. "Let's concentrate on me."
He leaned toward Missy and waggled his eyebrows. "What other powers do I have?"
She leaned away. "I think you're the reason it's snowing, first of all. It's pretty common for unharnessed magical energy to do all sorts of crazy things to the weather."
"What? That's ridiculous," he scoffed.
Sheldon shook his head slowly. "As hard as I find it to believe, Missy does appear to be an expert in these matters."
Missy kicked his ankle.
"It's been getting colder for, like, weeks," Penny protested. "He's only been ... uh, like this, for what? A day?"
"On the outside, maybe, but I bet he's been feeling weird for longer," Missy said.
They all turned to look at Howard, who fluttered up into the air and spread his hands. "All right, maybe that's true. I thought I was coming down with the flu or something!"
"And you continued to come to our apartment?" Sheldon gasped. "While you believed you were contagious? That's a third strike for you, right there!"
"Oh, just forward me the link again," Howard groused.
"All right," Missy said, "let's just try to figure out when all this started. If we can figure out what triggered Howard's change, maybe we can figure out how to reverse it."
Penny sat forward to ask a question but Howard whined over her, "Do I have to?"
"Yes," everyone said in unison, except Raj, who flicked Howard in the back of the leg.
"That's just great," Howard spat at him.
"Dude," Raj said, "come on. You look like Cathy Rigby for real this time."
"All right, we're going to do this quick and dirty," Missy said.
Penny and Sheldon both shot her panicked looks and she grimaced as she realized her mistake.
Before she could take it back, Howard smoothed down the hair covering his forehead and flew over to land on her leg, picking up one of her fingers with a courtly flourish. "I am at your mercy, milady," he smarmed.
"No, Howard." Missy's jaw set as she shook his hand off her finger. "Penny, could you-?"
"Sure!" Penny pulled the trigger on the water bottle Leonard kept to break up fights between the kittens Sheldon still insisted he couldn't adopt.
Howard spluttered. "C'mon!" he yelled, his voice squeaking. "My glitter's already clumpy!"
"Tough," Penny said, narrowing her eyes. She kept the bottle at the ready. "Let's get to the bottom of this. Missy?"
She didn't need to consult the questionnaire; she just started rattling off questions. "Have you tried any new foods?"
"Any new medications? Prescription or over the counter?"
"Have you traveled anywhere in the last three months?"
"We went to San Diego for Comic-Con. And then I was in Arizona for the satellite retrieval thing."
"I'm telling you: those JPL guys are bad news," Raj muttered.
Missy ignored him. "Did you touch any of the debris on that trip?"
Howard crossed his arms and stared at his feet. Eventually, he admitted, grudgingly, "No, I didn't."
Leonard frowned. "But you said-"
"They made me stay in the trailer while they went out in the field, okay?" Howard burst out. "They only invited me because my hands were small enough to work the touchscreen on the GPS."
There was a brief, awkward silence while they all avoided looking at him, then Penny muttered, "I can't believe I'm about to ask this."
Missy threw her a pleading look, and she squared her shoulders and asked, "Have you hooked up with anyone?"
Howard cleared his throat and gave her his best leer. "Well," he said, drawing out the word, "there were these two totally freaky grad students on Halloween..."
"So, that's a no, then?"
He held the leer for a beat, then sighed. "Yes, that's a no."
"What? They were too drunk! Even I have standards, low as they may be."
Tapping a finger against her lips, Missy sat back.
While she was thinking, Sheldon drummed his hands on his knees. "Have you been exposed to any gamma radiation?"
Leonard leaned forward. "Ooh, what about radioactive spider bites?"
"Those JPL bastards didn't trick you into building an intrinsic field generator, did they?" Raj added.
While they argued over whether it was an generator or a remover that blew Dr Manhattan apart, and whether that would even be able to cause Howard's mutations, Penny turned to Missy. "What do you think?"
"I don't know. The way it came on so fast... I really haven't seen anything like this before. Usually it's something hereditary, you know, like how women in the same family hit menopause around the same time."
"Well, we don't really know anything about his dad..."
Missy cut her off as abruptly as Sheldon did when he was warming up to a long-winded lecture about how he knew everything. "The weather thing kind of rules that out."
Penny waited for her to explain but Missy just shook her head instead.
"No, it's got to be a hex gone wrong."
"What, like somebody cursed him?"
They both looked at Howard, who noticed and puffed out his chest. He winked and jerked his chin up in a frighteningly accurate but silent how-you-doin', Joey Tribbiani-style.
"Yeah, okay, I'll buy that," Penny said.
"Leslie? Hi, it's Leonard." He turned away from the group and curled in on himself slightly, raising his shoulder to block his voice. "Leonard Hofstadter. Oh, ha ha, yeah. No, that is funny... Listen, I wanted to call and ask if you noticed anything weird about Howard-"
Penny tuned him out and nudged Raj's foot with her own. "Anything?" she whispered.
He held his phone flush against his chest. "Maybe. The last girl I called, Rachel Adler, the one he met at temple. She hung up on me as soon as I said his name."
She made a note on the list while he went back to his conversation. They had made it only about halfway down the page, and Leonard was still dictating names to Sheldon.
"You attempted to sleep with Ramona?" Sheldon sounded as scandalized as if Howard had admitted to plagiarizing his master's thesis. "That- that harpy? That black widow? That glory hound?"
"Oh, come on," Howard wheedled, "she's a nice girl!"
"She makes George Smoot look like the shy, retiring type!"
"Don't be ridiculous. And anyway, what do you care? You dumped her."
"I did not dump her," Sheldon protested. "Whatever relationship we were in was entirely in her head, I assure-"
"You did let her see your sock tan lines," Penny reminded him. She bared her teeth in a parody of a grin as he snapped his mouth shut and the vein in his forehead started to visibly throb.
Missy muttered, "I don't even want to know."
"Be that as it may," he said, his shoulders hunched forward slightly, "whatever our 'relationship', be it real or imaginary, I hardly expected that one of my friends would go crawling after her when my back was turned."
Leonard dropped his phone on the couch and snorted. "Yeah, that sounds like something only a real jerk would do to a friend."
Penny bristled and Sheldon's cheeks flushed a dark red. Before either of them could retort, Howard hissed, "Like you're one to talk, Mr Doctor Stephanie."
The room erupted in shouting as all four of them leapt to their feet, pointing angry fingers at each other. Howard wheeled into the air, buzzing Leonard's, then Sheldon's heads like the climax of King Kong in miniature. Raj snapped his phone closed and joined in, spitting "What about Lalita!" at Sheldon and trying to stay out of Penny's reach as she made repeated lunges at Leonard.
"Oh, damn," Missy sighed. She picked up the water bottle and started after Howard, dodging around the rest of the group.
Sheldon and Penny were sitting next to each other in their customary spots, with tightly crossed arms and tension radiating from every line of their bodies as they glared daggers around the room. Raj was slumped in the armchair, frowning at his knees and playing with a loose string hanging from one of the pockets of his shapeless cargo pants. Leonard was squeezed into the far end of the couch, as far away from Penny as he could get without falling over the side.
They all started talking at once when Missy came back from locking Howard in one of the bedrooms. She held up a hand. "I do not even want to hear it. Obviously you all have some stuff to work out but let's get through this first, okay?"
At their sheepish nods, she said, "Good. Howard's taking a nap in your sock drawer, Leonard. It was the only place I could think of where he wouldn't hurt himself."
Leonard's eyebrows shot up over his glasses. He squeaked, "You went in my- Uh," he cleared his throat. "That's cool," he said with a self-conscious shrug.
"So, hopefully," Missy went on, "that's enough of a distance that he won't be influencing you anymore."
"Is that what that was?" Sheldon uncrossed his arms and relaxed slightly, just enough so that he wasn't leaning on the arm of the couch but into Penny's side instead. "I wondered why I felt an overwhelming need to resort to physical violence to make Leonard stop talking."
"You and what army?" Leonard jutted out his chin and his chest, his hands balling into fists again.
Missy spritzed him.
The snow stopped at some point while they worked out a plan of attack. Raj, Penny, and Leonard went back to calling Howard's impressive list of flame-outs. Missy and Sheldon suited up in the warmest winter wear they could find in the apartment and trudged out to Penny's car. Missy went first, blazing a messy path through the shin-deep snow. Sheldon stepped gingerly in her footprints and stopped every few feet to dust the flakes off of his pants with mittened hands.
"Would you just hurry up?"
He straightened and adjusted the hat that kept sliding down his forehead. "I don't see why I have to be forced to go with you on this death march."
"Oh, stop sulking. I already told you Penny can't come with us because there's no telling what Raj and Leonard will do up there with Howard only a few feet away."
"What havoc could they possibly wreak? He's locked in Leonard's room."
"He's dripping magic all over the place like Daddy's old Buick leaked oil," she tried to explain. "He's got no control at all. Hell, he had the five of you at each other's throats in seconds flat!"
When his jaw set like he was working up to a good arguing, she cut him off. "Plus I don't want to be stuck in a car with either of them. And if I take Penny and leave you upstairs, you're going to kill each other before we get back. I just do not feel like scrubbing blood out of those nice floors you've got."
Sheldon began rattling off a long list of ways that bloodless mayhem could be achieved, several of which Missy had first learned when they were shouted at her through closed bedroom doors decades earlier.
She shoved the broom into his arms. "Just clear off the windows while I start the car."
"If I lose any extremities due to frostbite, it will be entirely your fault," he grumbled while she pried open the driver's side door and slid inside. "I hope you're prepared to deal with the consequences. The financial burden alone would be insurmountable on your sal-"
She shut the door on the rest of his lecture. The engine turned sluggishly and then roared to life, and a sea of warning lights lit up the dashboard. Missy pressed the gas pedal to the floor several times in quick succession to rev the engine. She switched the heat to the defrost setting and turned the blower up as far as it would go, huddling deeper into her borrowed coat and oversize scarf to shield her face from the icy air rushing up the inside of the windshield.
The world was revealed slowly as Sheldon carefully swept snow off the car. He was standing at an impossible angle, arms fully outstretched, to avoid brushing against the car and getting his coat wet. His hat slid forward with every stroke of the broom and he bit a corner of his lower lip, wrinkling his brow to try to move it back up again.
Missy waited until he was gingerly brushing the snow off of her side of the windshield, then jammed the gas pedal to the floor. The engine roared and Sheldon glared at her through the still frosty glass.
"Don't make me call Mom!" he yelled, his voice muffled.
She rolled down her window and flinched as the colder air rushed in, sucking out what little heat had gathered in the car. "Come on, get in. It's cleared off enough."
He pointed with the broomstick. "I still haven't removed the layer of snow on top of the car."
"It's fine, Shelly, it'll blow off once we get moving. Get in."
Sheldon marched around the front of the car and gingerly got in on the passenger side, stowed the broom across the backseat, and smoothed the seatbelt down over his chest.
"Do you even know how to drive in the snow?" he asked.
His teeth chattered slightly on the Ds and he gritted his jaw to stop them. Missy leaned over and redirected the vents on his side of the car. The air pouring out of them was still only barely warmer than the rest of the car.
"Daddy taught me that winter we came to visit you in Germany," she reminded him. "You were always too busy studying to come with us."
The muscle under his right eye jumped. "I was in the middle of several very important experiments! Not to mention the tiny detail that we weren't old enough to drive yet, even in this country."
"Aw, Poindexter," she drawled, "that was the fun part."
It took them more than half an hour to go ten blocks. The snow had started up again, not as heavy as it had been earlier in the day but still piling up. Sheldon maintained a death grip on his door handle the entire time, occasionally forgetting to stifle his whimpers.
Missy gritted her teeth a little harder every time he made a noise. As they slid to a stop at an intersection, she kept her foot on the brake and peeled her hands off the steering wheel. She flexed her fingers and asked, "How much further, do you think?"
"We have another zero point seven miles to go. Are you sure we shouldn't go back to get Penny? She may be an even poorer driver than you but she does have more experience with snow."
"I can do this," Missy said, checking both ways before pulling away from the stop sign at a snail's pace.
Sheldon was quiet for another block, then he startled her by asking, "You said something to me once... What did you mean when you said you wouldn't mind if I acted more like a brother?"
"I don't know, do more brotherly stuff, I guess. You've been getting better."
"Is it even possible for you to be any more vague? I require specifics, Missy."
"For one, you could call me sometimes."
"I called you yesterday!"
"You texted me yesterday, and it was because you needed something! I'm just saying, it might be nice if you pretended like you cared about what I'm doing every once in a while."
"Mom gives me regular updates on your social and professional obligations. I follow you on all the major social media and networking sites. And Penny keeps me apprised of the news you don't share with Mom."
She sighed. "Not really the same thing."
He didn't say anything else until he had to direct her to turn onto a side street. They crawled along, each peering out the window to look for house numbers. Sheldon spotted the address first and Missy eased the car into the first open spot she could find, skidding the last few inches to tap the bumper of the car in front of them.
She threw the gearshift into park. "Don't you even start with me."
"I wasn't going to," Sheldon said faintly, still bracing both arms against the dashboard.
They slogged their way through the snow up to the covered front porch of the house they were looking for. Missy stamped her feet against the welcome mat to shake off the snow that clung to her jeans, and rang the doorbell.
"Let me do the talking," she said.
"That does seem like the best option, since we seem to have accidentally uncovered a subject with which you are better versed than I am."
The creaking of the heavy inner door covered his sharp exhale when she ground her foot down on his booted toes. A young woman, thin and pretty with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, put her hand on the screen door's handle.
"Can I help you?" she asked with a slight frown. With her other hand, she pulled her thick cardigan tighter around her torso.
"Hi, I'm Missy Cooper. This is my brother, Sheldon-"
"Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D."
"-we're friends of Howard Wolowitz-"
"It would be more accurate to say we're acquaintances and colleagues, respectively."
Missy ignored the correction. "Are you Rachel Adler?"
"I am," she said hesitantly. "I'm sorry, what is this about?"
"Like I said, we're friends of Howard's." Missy smiled and dropped her shoulders, trying to make herself look as non-threatening as possible while Sheldon hovered over her shoulder like some kind of stick insect. "I know this is really weird and all, us turning up on your doorstep like this, but Howard's in a little bit of trouble and we were hoping you could help."
Rachel dropped her hand from the door handle and tucked her arms around her stomach. "Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
"Well, he's kind of-"
"He's turned into some sort of magical creature with wings," Sheldon told her.
Missy's nervous smile slipped off her face entirely.
Rachel sighed and pushed the screen door open. "I think you'd better come in."
The house was small and warm. Rachel offered them coffee, but Missy turned her down before Sheldon could start to repeat their mother's words on the evils of the drink.
"I'm sorry for hanging up on your friend earlier," Rachel said as they sat down in the living room. "I figured it was another one of Howard's tricks to get me to go out with him again."
"That's hardly surprising," Sheldon said under his breath.
Missy glared at him.
He folded his arms and sat back with a pout. "Well, it isn't."
She turned her back on him and smiled at Rachel. "Howard said you all met at temple?" she prodded.
Rachel nodded. "His mom introduced us after services. We just moved here a few months ago, right before Rosh Hoshanah, and I haven't really met anyone yet outside of work and the congregation. I thought it would be nice to have someone to hang out with."
She laughed, shaking her head. "Definitely not one of my better ideas. He was all right that night, kind of quiet and polite. So we went out for coffee the next day and he was, um, much less quiet and polite. I chalked it up to him being nervous, and it wasn't that painful really, so we went out a few more times."
"Seriously?" Missy asked, incredulous. "He wasn't-"
"-a total pig?" Sheldon finished. He'd dropped the pretense of being uninterested in the conversation. "Fascinating."
"No, he was kind of sweet, actually. He called me every day and, I don't know, it was kind of flattering to get that much attention."
"Sure, of course it would be," Missy said. The look on her face said the complete opposite. "So what happened?"
Rachel twisted her hands together and didn't answer for a minute. When she finally spoke, she stood up and said, "Would you excuse me for a minute? It might make more sense if you see..."
She rushed out of the room.
Missy immediately jumped out of her seat and went over to the bookshelves around the fireplace. She ran a hand along the spines, muttering the titles under her breath as she went. Sheldon came up behind her and knocked her hand away so he could see the books as well.
"What are you looking for?"
"Books of spells or incantations, a grimoire, Magic for Dummies - whatever."
"If I kept anything like that in the house, do you really think I'd leave it out in plain view?" Rachel asked from the other side of the room.
Sheldon and Missy froze in place, identical bug-eyed looks of terror on their faces.
"You should have been watching for her!" Missy hissed at him.
"Maybe next time you'll tell me what you're planning instead of expecting me to divine it through some sort of mystical twin bond!" Sheldon hissed back.
They turned in unison to face the doorway. Rachel was standing just outside the room, her hand on the shoulder of the improbably small carbon copy of herself standing in front of her. The miniature copy was clutching a brace of dolls against her chest; a pink fuzzy blanket was wrapped around her narrow shoulders and trailing down to pool on the floor at her feet. She grinned, exposing a gap between her bottom front teeth.
"Hi, I'm Polly!" she cried, dropping into a clumsy imitation of a curtsy. "Who are you?"
Sheldon settled himself on a low stool by the coffee table and picked up the red-haired doll Polly indicated was his. He straightened its dress and attempted to bend the legs in the proper direction to allow it to sit on the table without falling over. "What are the rules for this game?"
The little girl screwed up her face and looked up at Sheldon like he'd just started braying like a donkey. "There aren't any," she said dismissively.
"Aren't any ru- Well, that's just preposterous. Without rules, what's to stop me from declaring that my doll is the new wardrobe coordinator and forcing all of yours to wear substandard outfits? Or, better yet, to discard your premise altogether and move the narrative in a direction better suited to my knowledge and skill sets?"
Polly's dark brows jammed together over her nose as she glowered at him. "Because you're a guest so you have to do what I say."
They continued to squabble over the proper way to put on a runway fashion show with a handful of dolls and a Kleenex box.
"He's really good with her," Rachel said. "Does he have any kids?"
Missy coughed her way through a laugh. "Shelly? Lord, no. He'd pass out the first time he had to change a diaper. When we were kids, he wouldn't even come out of his room when our cousins came over."
They watched the mismatched pair for a few more minutes, then Rachel sighed and said, "So Howard's transformed? I hoped this wasn't going to happen again."
Missy turned her back on Sheldon and Polly to face Rachel, who was again twisting her hands together. "It's happened before?"
"Once, sort of. About a year ago." She pointed toward the kitchen. "Can we talk in there? I don't want Polly to hear us."
"Sure, let me tell Sheldon-"
"You can't put a pony in a fashion show!" he protested as Polly introduced another character to their table-top set. "It makes no sense given the context!"
"Please tell me you found a way to change Howard back."
Missy made a face, even though Penny couldn't see it over the phone. "Not exactly. I did find out that Shelly's apparently gotten over his terror of small children, though."
When Penny didn't say anything right away, Missy looked up and grinned at the roof of the car then shifted into professional mode. "It seems that Howard crossed the wrong little girl, which is why he's currently playing the lead in a real life version of The Fairy Prince."
"Um, make that princess," Penny said, sounding distracted. "There's been another ... development. What did you just say about Sheldon and children?"
Missy rolled down the window and stuck her head out to yell at Sheldon, who was once again trying to clear off the car without going near it. "C'mon, Shelly, get the lead out! We've got to get back like five minutes ago."
"Unless you fitted the car with a flux capacitor while I was trying to teach Polly the proper way to outfit a Starfleet officer, I hardly think we're going to-"
"We're on our way," Missy said into the phone then ended the call.
She tapped one hand on the steering wheel and watched as Sheldon gingerly stepped around the front of the car. He teetered on the curb, arms flapping as he tried to regain his balance.
Missy hit the speed dial button and lifted the phone to her ear again.
"Mama? No, everything's fine, I swear. Right, sorry, I don't swear. Listen, I just wanted to tell you that you might wanna start working on getting Meemaw's ring from her... Yeah, you can go ahead and thank Jesus for me, too."
The drive back to the apartment took slightly less time than the drive out, as Missy adjusted to driving on the snow-covered streets with a confidence that had Sheldon covering his face for the last half mile.
"Will you slow down?" he pleaded. "They don't give out Nobel Prizes posthumously."
Missy rolled through another stop sign. "Oh, hush up, you. You told me yourself you're at least six months away from a prize-winning breakthrough."
Sheldon was so busy explaining how very wrong she was that it didn't even register when the car all but slid into Penny's parking space.
"Oh," he said, cutting himself off mid-sentence and blinking owlishly at the parking lot. "Your powers of distraction have improved significantly."
"Goes with the new job," Missy said as she hopped out of the car.
As he unfolded himself from the front seat and painstakingly followed in her wake through the snow, Sheldon said, "It's about time you found something that catered to your talents."
Missy was still beaming when they walked into the apartment.
Leonard was in his chair, tinkering with Howard's cage, while Raj hovered over something steaming on the stove. The air was heavy with the smell of spice and meat frying in oil. Behind her, Sheldon's stomach growled.
"Are you making pakora and chutney?"
Raj turned from the stove. "Why would I be making pakora and chutney? I'm allowed to cook other cuisines, Sheldon."
"But tonight is Indian night and you're Indian. It's hardly a leap to conclude that you would be cooking Indian food."
"I don't even like Indian food! You'll just have to make do with spaghetti and meatballs." Raj went back to stirring a pot. His movements grew choppier as Sheldon responded and blobs of red sauce flew up onto the backsplash.
"But I don't want to make do with spaghetti and meatballs." His voice was sliding dangerously close to a register only dogs could hear. "Tonight is Indian night and-"
Missy elbowed Sheldon in the ribs as she unwound her scarf. "Make do," she hissed as Penny emerged from the bathroom, arms akimbo, and glared.
"Fine. Is there any garlic bread?"
Penny swiped the last meatball from Sheldon's plate, then made a big show of licking her fingers before she finished answering Missy's question. "Leonard went to check on him about five minutes before you called."
"And he's definitely more feminine?"
Leonard nodded. "Yeah, his hair's about twice as long. And he's," he gestured with both hands in front of his chest, "a whole lot girlier."
Raj smirked and Penny snorted into her drink.
Missy checked her watch and nodded. "That's about what I expected, but I was hoping we got to Polly in time to let him avoid the rest of it."
"That little girl really did this to him?" Penny asked. At Sheldon's pained look, she cried, "What?"
He sighed and carefully lined his knife and fork on the edge of his plate. "We've already explained her predilection for whimsical dolls and make-believe, not to mention the fact that she's done this before."
"I still don't understand why she picked Howard," Raj said. Aside from the snickering, he'd been wearing variations of the same puzzled look since Missy and Sheldon had finished telling them about the Adlers.
"Well, he's practically doll-sized to begin with," Leonard started to say.
"I think she was just lonely," Missy cut in. "Rachel said she hasn't really made any friends since they moved here. She spends all her time playing dress up and fashion show."
"If we assume that a six year old follows some sort of logical thought process, unlikely as that may be, Howard is a perfect choice."
When they all gave Sheldon identical looks of confusion, he sat up straighter and started counting off on his fingers.
"One: he is, as Leonard said, closer to a child's size than an adult's which would make him far less intimidating to a little girl. Two: he has a childlike enthusiasm for magic and fantasy, something he and Polly share. Three: and I think this is the critical point, he attempted to forge a bond with her in his ongoing attempts to woo her mother."
"Oh, come on, Howard's not such a jerk that he would use a kid to get in someone's pants," Penny scoffed. "I mean, even he's not so sleazy that-"
"As I was saying," he said over Penny's continued chatter, "it appears that he succeeded admirably, to the point that he seemed to abandon his attempt to court Rachel. Polly told me that he spent more time playing with her than he did talking to her mother."
"Maybe that was his cunning plan all along," Raj said.
"If you mean 'cunning plan' in the Blackadder sense, I agree."
"What's the black adder sense?" Missy asked.
"Damn it, Missy," Penny complained as Sheldon gasped in horror and scurried over to pluck the box set off the bookshelf, "now he's going to make us watch it."
Leonard snorted. "Don't think we haven't noticed how much you like Hugh Laurie in knee breeches."
When they finished the second series DVDs - after skipping most of the first - Missy threw Penny a pleading look.
"Sheldon, honey," Penny said, putting her hand over his on the remote as he started to switch to the next disc, "I think that's enough for one night. You don't want your sister to overdose on awesome, do you?"
"Yeah, Shelly, I'm awful tired and I just don't know if I can give it the attention it deserves."
He put down the remote, only the slightest hint of a frown on his face. "I know when you're using your lying voice, Missy. If you didn't want to watch, all you had to do was say so."
"We've all heard that before," Raj muttered under his breath.
"Rajesh Ramayan Koothrappali," Sheldon exclaimed, sounding scandalized, "when have I ever forced you to do something you didn't want to do?"
"How about making Leonard take your spot on Gablehauser's steering committee?" Raj shot back.
"And Diwali two years ago, when you insisted Raj teach you how to make paneer," Leonard added.
Penny cut in with: "And you made me skip a girl's night to drive you to freaking Lodi to pick up that collector's edition Spider-Man you didn't want to have shipped here."
Sheldon shifted uncomfortably and sniffed. "Well, I can hardly trust the postal service after what they did to the replacement parts for my oscilloscope."
Before they could erupt in another explosion of bickering, Missy stood and said, "I'm going to go check on Howard. Rachel should have had enough time to talk to Polly by now."
"I'll come with you!" Raj hurried out of the room behind her.
Penny pushed herself up off of Sheldon's shoulder. "I want pie," she declared. "Anybody else?"
"Ooh, I'll take a slice," Sheldon said, sitting forward, eyes alight and hands forming a wedge shape in front of him. "One-eighth of the original whole, with a single scoop-"
"Of vanilla, not french vanilla with the bean flecks blah blah. Leonard?"
"Huh? Oh no, thanks. I'm good." He waited until she was rummaging through the fridge and turned to Sheldon, who was sketching something against his knee. "So... you played fashion show with that Polly kid, huh?"
Sheldon snorted. "I'd hardly call it a fashion show. She had a very tenuous grasp of the logistics of coordinating such an event. It was more a study in entropy." He cocked his head to one side and stared off into the distance. "There were a lot more ponies than I would have expected, as well."
"Did you have fun?"
"Hardly," Sheldon said with a withering look.
"Then why play?"
"Because she asked. How have you reached such an advanced age knowing nothing about children?"
"Oh, like you do."
Sheldon mumbled, "I may have conducted some limited studies on the subject."
Leonard leaned forward, squinting slightly. Sheldon fidgeted and wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Sheldon, are you and Penny-"
"Leonard, one does not simply walk into Mordor." With that, he stood and loped across the room to help Penny carry their desserts back to the couch.
Eyebrows pinched together, Leonard watched him go. "I really don't want to know," he told himself. "I really, really don't want to know."
"No change," Missy told them when she came back out into the living room. "He's still asleep. I think he probably will be for the rest of the night. He used up a lot of energy with all that flying."
Behind her, Raj was walking with his head down, his hands stuffed into his pants pockets.
"No change at all?" Penny asked, dismayed.
"Really, Penny, if she has to repeat such a simple stmfff-" Sheldon glared at her over the hand she'd clamped firmly over his mouth.
Missy bit down on a smile. "Not one bit. His hair hasn't gotten any longer though."
"Well, that sucks."
Raj slumped down in Sheldon's desk chair. "What if he never changes back?"
"I'll make some calls," Missy told him. "We'll figure it out."
Raj left not long afterward, still hanging his head and looking like he'd lost his best friend which, as Sheldon pointed out with his usual sensitivity to the feelings of others, he had.
Missy watched him walk across the parking lot from the window next to the bathroom. The snow had stopped hours earlier but the temperature kept dropping and the wind was picking up. Penny came up behind her and peeked over her shoulder.
"Is he going to be okay?"
"Raj? Pfft, he'll be fine. He only lives like six blocks from here."
"No, about-" Missy waved a hand in the vague direction of Leonard's room.
"Well, we'll just have to fix it so he is," Penny insisted. "Listen, I'm going to get ready for bed. Leonard doesn't want to sleep in his room with Howard so he's going to do the whole air mattress thing."
"Roughing it, huh?"
Penny rolled her eyes. "You should see them go camping. Sheldon's already started building his nest on the couch, which means we really do get to share tonight. You still okay with that?"
"You're not going to try to girl-talk with me about my brother, are you? Because I'll tell you right now, I will play the Jesus card if I have to."
"Nah, I think I can control myself." Penny slipped into the bathroom, then stuck her head back out and grinned. "I've gotta say, though, it's really nice having another girl around to girl-talk with."
The pump made a god-awful racket as Leonard slowly inflated his air mattress. When he finally noticed the glare Missy was aiming at it, cell phone mashed against her ear, he shrugged and spread his hands like there was nothing he could do.
"It does this all the time!" he shouted over the noise.
"So I gathered," she replied, as sweetly she could manage.
"Here, let me shut it off! I think it's a design flaw but maybe I could try to fix it!"
"No, that's okay! I'll just go out in the hall-"
He flipped the switch before she could finish and in the sudden silence that descended, they heard Penny bellow from the bathroom, "I told you: you need to clean the intake filter!"
"I'm just..." Missy pointed at the door and let herself out. Leonard's reply was muffled and she heaved a sigh. "I have definitely been living alone too long," she muttered before going back to her call. "Sorry, Carmen, it's a little crazy up here. If I give you Rachel's email address, can you send her those names?"
She paced to the opposite wall and back again, listening as Carmen rattled off a list of things she'd had to take care of in Missy's absence and trying to get a word in edgewise. On her third time around, she finally managed to hang up and go back inside the apartment. Leonard was tucking a sheet around the air mattress. There was a pile of blankets, a familiar old humidifier, and an orthopedic pillow on the couch behind him. She smiled and made for the bedrooms before he could try to draw her into conversation.
The bathroom light was still on behind the closed door, so she went down to Sheldon and Penny's room and rapped on the door as she let herself in.
"Shelly, you better-" She stopped dead just a few inches inside the room and cocked a hand on one hip. "Oh sorry, I thought Penny was still in the bathroom. You sure you all don't want me to sleep out on the couch?"
Sheldon quickly lifted his mouth from Penny's and dropped his hands from her hips. He picked up his pajamas and Penny sat down in the spot he'd cleared on the bed. She shook her head, her ponytail bouncing.
"Just saying goodnight. Come on in!"
Missy stepped aside as Sheldon swept from the room, his head held high and a faint blush rising on his cheeks. He didn't look at her as he passed and closed the door behind him.
"Does he know he's got pajamas from two different days?"
Penny grinned. "I'd say he won't notice for at least another five minutes."
Penny was already snoring by the time Missy changed her clothes and flipped off the light. She slipped into bed, all but clinging to the edge of the mattress to try to keep as much of her body as possible out of the range of Penny's legs. Sleep came quickly, but she was awakened in the middle of the night by Penny shuffling out into the hallway in the weak light from the fishbowl, hitting some part of her body on the doorjamb as she went. There was a soft "Son of a bitch", followed by footsteps growing fainter and the bathroom door creaking closed.
It happened again a few hours later, only with a "Damn it!"
And again, right before dawn, this time with a not-so-softly grumbled, "God, I hate this door."
Missy waited until she heard Penny tiptoe back into the room, the mattress dipping slightly as she crawled under the covers next to her.
"Penny, are you pregnant?" she asked, still facing the wall.
"What?" Penny squeaked. "Because I had to pee in the middle of the night? I drank too much with dinner! Go back to sleep."
"Well," Missy hedged, "you also look a little bit-"
"I swear to God, if you say puffy, I am never speaking to you again."
The sun was only barely above the horizon when a high-pitched scream, and then another, echoed through the apartment. Missy sat straight up in bed, covers clutched to her chest, heart racing. "What th...?"
Penny flopped onto her stomach and dragged her pillow over her head. "S'jusower."
She flung an arm out blindly when Missy pulled the pillow away and asked, "What?"
"It's just Howard," Penny whined. "Gimme that back; I don't wanna get up yet."
Missy dropped the pillow on the back of Penny's head and got out of bed. She pulled one of Sheldon's backup bathrobes out of the closet to throw over the t-shirt she'd slept in. She hesitated by the door, fingers ghosting along the hilt of the lightsaber she'd wielded the day before. With a shrug, she picked it up. "Well, it can't hurt," she said, giving the handle a jerk to snap on the blade.
She looked in the other bedroom first - no one was there. The drawer where Howard had been sleeping was closed and the bed untouched. She padded down the hall, cursing her brother's distaste for running the heat overnight as the bare wood froze her toes. In the living room, Leonard was still sprawled across the air mattress, his face and open mouth mashed against the plastic where the sheet had peeled back.
Sheldon, dressed in his standard long-sleeve/short-sleeve shirts and a truly hideous pair of plaid pants, had a bright-red scarf wrapped around his neck and a ridiculously gaudy red and white knit hat over his hair. He was standing at the kitchen table with a large mixing bowl full of eggs and ladling them out into measuring cups, each filled precisely to a marked line.
Howard was on the counter behind him, twisting and turning to look at his reflection in the toaster with the red flashing light. His normally skin-tight pants seemed painted on over his rounded thighs and hips, small breasts stretching his sweater even closer to his body. Even his wings looked different, with less of a green-tinted sheen and closer to a pale pink.
Missy blinked a few times and cleared her throat when neither of them noticed her.
"Oh, Missy, you're awake," Sheldon said, looking up from his concoctions. "Do you still like bacon in your omelet?"
"Uh, sure. I heard screaming?"
"Howard discovered the additional changes to his physiognomy," he explained before returning to his original subject. "I assume cheddar is still your favorite? We also have soy cheese if you'd prefer, although I don't know why you would."
Missy clicked off the lightsaber and leaned it up against the wall. "I don't know why I would either. Howard, how you doing?"
"Terrible!" he burst out, still studying his misshapen reflection. His wings drooped. "I can't believe I have breasts. It's like a dream come true except it's a nightmare!"
She huddled deeper into her borrowed robe and hitched herself up on one of the stools. "It's only temporary," she soothed. "We'll get you back to normal in no time. Did Shelly explain what we think happened?"
Sheldon, affronted, turned away from the pan he was heating on the stove. "Excuse me, I did no such thing. With so many additional people in the apartment this morning, I've been a little preoccupied with adjusting the proportions of my omelet recipe to accommodate them all."
He carefully laid a few slices of bacon into the pan, nudging them with a pair of tongs until they lined up neatly, then said, "Besides, unlikely as it might seem, you're the expert here. Surely explanations are your responsibility?"
Missy flattened her hands over her chest and raised her eyebrows at his back. "Well, be still my heart! Did you just call me an expert at something other than fetching drinks for redneck drunks?"
Sheldon shot her a dirty look over his shoulder and she let her mouth stretch into a wide grin back at him. His expression softened after a moment and he gave her the tiniest of smiles in return.
"You know, Shelly, you might not be too bad at this brother stuff after all."
Penny emerged from the bedroom not long after, drawn by the smell of breakfast to slump into the stool next to Missy. She propped her head on her hand until Sheldon slid a plate piled high with crispy bacon and a golden-brown omelet in front of her.
"Ooh, I forgot it was omelet day!" After a few bites, she started chattering at Sheldon, who was busy flipping yet another omelet. It didn't seem to bother her that his only responses were nods and the occasional curious look.
Missy rinsed off her plate and left it in the sink, then picked up the lightsaber and headed down the hall.
Sheldon called after her, "It's not your turn to use the bathroom."
"Well, who's turn is it then?"
He hurried over to her with a paper in hand and pointed out her spot in the rotation. "You can shower in forty-five minutes. Leonard has it right now."
"Leonard's not even awake!"
They both turned to look at him, still sprawled across the air mattress. He shifted and mumbled, "I'm up ... just five more minutes," then rolled over and started snoring.
"He still has four minutes left in his forfeit window."
"Well, that's just too damn bad." She started toward the bathroom again. When Sheldon tried to cut her off, she raised the lightsaber. "You remember what happens when you get between me and a nice, hot shower?"
He curled in on himself, hands cupped in front of his crotch, and stepped to one side. "I'll adjust the timetable."
Raj had returned by the time Missy emerged from her temporary bedroom, dressed for the weather this time in a pair of jeans and two of Sheldon's long-sleeved thermal tees under a sweatshirt borrowed from Penny.
He hung up his phone as she came into the living room and sat next to him. Leonard's bed for the night was still inflated, sheets in a tangle. Sheldon's nest, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen.
"Rachel says we can come over any time to talk to Polly. Her work and the school are closed again because of all the snow."
"What's the point?" Howard was moping on the arm of Raj's chair, a study in dejection. His long, dark hair fell in his face and tumbled down his back between his pink wings, which seemed to be drooping even farther. "If Polly couldn't change me back last night, what are the odds she'll be able to do it today?"
Sheldon looked confused. He raised a hand and asked, "Do you want me to do the math or was that a rhetorical question?"
"It was rhetorical! God."
"Well, there's no need to get snippy," he sniffed. He went back to scrubbing the frying pan. Penny came up beside him and rubbed his back.
"It can't hurt, can it?" Missy asked. "Maybe she didn't want to change you back yet."
"Maybe she just needs to see how miserable you look," Raj offered.
Howard peered through his curtain of hair. "You don't ... think I look pretty?"
"I can't even see your face, dude."
"You're probably going to lose your magical abilities when you change back," Missy cautioned as she held the carrier door open for Howard to step inside. "No more changing people with just a word." Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the flash of disappointment on Raj's face and the smoldering look Sheldon shot at Penny.
"I don't care!" Howard wailed. "I can't live like this forever! What am I going to tell my mother?"
"Come on, daylight's burning!" Penny called, clapping her hands. "Rachel probably doesn't want to sit around all day waiting for us."
Leonard, who had been bumped to the bottom of the bath rotation, put a hand to his still-damp hair and hung back as the rest of them trooped toward the door.
"You too, Leonard, let's go." Without waiting for a response, Penny grabbed her keys out of the bowl and swept out the door ahead of him.
"If my hair freezes, somebody had better make me some rice milk cocoa when we get back," he grumbled.
Downstairs, they all piled into Penny's car: Penny driving with Sheldon riding shotgun; Howard in his carrier, awkwardly wedged in above the console between their seats; Leonard, Raj, and Missy squeezed into the tiny backseat.
"Surely this violates at least a dozen motor vehicle safety regulations," Sheldon complained.
"They've all got seatbelts, sweetie. Just button it and tell me where to go."
"How am I supposed to do that? Either I can, as you say, button it or I can direct you to the Adlers' house. I hardly see how I can do both."
"Sweetie, why don't you try?" More than a hint of frustration rode under Penny's honeyed tone.
Missy whispered to Raj, "Are they always like this?"
"Good lord, woman!" Sheldon squawked, his arms splayed out to hold him in his seat as Penny flew threw an intersection. "Have you never heard of a stop sign?"
Rachel opened the door for them before Missy had finished knocking. "How is he?"
Raj held up the carrier for her to see Howard peering out.
"Oh. Well, come on in. Polly's just finishing her breakfast."
They trooped inside, single file, doing their best to knock all the slushy snow off their shoes before they tracked it across the carpets. Rachel led the way to the kitchen, Raj trailing right behind her, opening the carrier to let Howard out to hover along beside him. Sheldon and Leonard hurried along behind them, still trading theories on how Polly could be effecting the change in Howard. Or, rather, Leonard was tossing out theories and Sheldon was shooting them down.
Polly looked up as they walked in, her face splitting in a gap-toothed grin when she saw Howard fly across the room to land on the table in front of her. She squealed his name and made a grabby-hand gesture at him. "Howard! You came to see me!"
"Well, that's a first," Sheldon muttered.
Howard didn't waste much time. He admired the absence of Polly's latest missing tooth, then got right down to business.
"Polly, do you remember when I said you could call me any time you wanted, just to talk? And your mommy said it would be okay?"
Polly scufffed her toes on the floor. "I guess so."
His wings fluttered as he tried to keep his balance sitting on the edge of the table while trying to bend forward far enough to meet her eyes. "Well, why haven't you?"
He leaned in closer and lowered his voice to a mock whisper. "Did you think I wouldn't want to talk anymore since your mommy and I stopped hanging out?"
Instead of answering, she chewed on the end of her index finger and nodded at the floor.
"Is that why you made me look like this?"
She finally looked up, her face alight. "This way we can play together forever!"
"Polly!" Rachel exclaimed.
"But, Mommy, he went away like Daddy! And you said Daddy wasn't ever coming back!"
"That doesn't mean you can just do things like this, Polly. Howard isn't-"
"-going anywhere!" Howard interrupted her. He flew off the table to hover in front of Polly. "Do you remember what I told you about my daddy? How he did the same thing your daddy did?"
He spread his hands. "Well, what makes you think I'm going to do the same thing? You wouldn't do that to me, would you?"
"Uh-uh! I wouldn't do that to anybody!"
She gingerly touched her little finger to Howard's outstretched hand. "Pinky swear!"
Howard smiled so widely it looked like every single one of his teeth was exposed. Polly beamed proudly back at him, then her expression shifted into something more thoughtful.
"I guess this means I hafta change you back, huh?"
"It would mean a lot to me if you would. But," Howard hesitated. "Do you want to play fashion show first? I've been itching to try that green dress on the purple pony."
Half an hour later, they were all sitting around the Adlers' living room watching as Howard tried to wrestle a doll easily as big as he was into a sitting position.
"Does anyone else think this is really creepy?" Leonard whispered.
Penny put down the box of doll clothes she was looking through to reach over to smack him on the shoulder. "Shut up, I think it's adorable."
"You think pictures of hatchling ducks speaking Pidgin English are adorable," Sheldon pointed out. "Your reference points are clearly skewed."
She scowled and dug a thumb into his ribs and he caught her wrist in his hand. "I'm willing to let many of your ridiculous opinions slide without comment, but I have to draw the line somewhere."
Rachel went to put Polly down for a nap not long after she and Howard finished their fashion show to enthusiastic applause. A few minutes later, Howard gave a startled cry and flew off down a short hallway.
"Where's he going?" Penny asked, looking up from a picture book she'd picked up off the kitchen table.
Leonard followed him down the hallway. They heard a door close, and then his rapid footsteps returning. His face was bright red and he toyed with his glasses, not meeting any of their eyes. "He's, uh, changing back now, it looks like."
They were all quiet for a long moment, then Raj sighed. "I'm going to miss talking to girls sober."
Missy reached over and squeezed his hand.
Raj smiled at her, then added, "And he did kind of make a pretty girl."
"So..." Howard began as the others started down the porch steps. "Now that we've got that all straightened out, how about we pick up where we left off?"
He gave Rachel a winning smile, ruined only slightly by the still too long hair falling in his eyes and the carrier he had tucked under his arm. His sweater and pants were hopelessly stretched out of shape, and he still sported a sprinkling of glitter across his face.
"I don't think so, Howard." She stepped back into the house and shut the door.
He shrugged. "Well, it was worth a shot," he said to Raj, who nodded sympathetically.
When they got back to the apartment, Leonard, Raj, and Howard fell into their customary seats like they weren't planning to move again for days. Sheldon settled himself at his desk and tuned out everything around him. Penny stood in the kitchen with a bottle of water and stared at the back of his head, looking like her thoughts were a million miles away.
When Missy sat down in Sheldon's spot, Howard leaned in toward her from the other end of the couch. He tossed his head to get the hair out of his eyes and gave her a crooked grin and his best puppy-dog eyes.
"So, milady, what say you and I go out for a little drink to celebrate my continuing good fortune and your continuing good looks?"
"Actually," she drawled, "I've got a date."
He shrank back. "Oh sure, of course you have a date. You've been here for less than seventy-two hours, why wouldn't you have a date?" he grumbled.
"Yep, big hot date. With Pasadena, and I know just the three guys I want to show me around town," she said, looking pointedly at Raj and Leonard, who gaped at her, and smiling at Howard's dropped jaw. "Come on, it's probably close to sixty degrees out there now, the sun is shining, and," she leaned in conspiratorially, "if I don't get away from my brother for a few hours, I'm going to lose it."
That did the trick. Leonard, Howard, and Raj made a mad dash for the door, seeming to remember only at the last minute that they should wait for her. Penny caught her eye as she stood to follow them and mouthed Thank you.
Penny threw the deadbolt on the hallway door, then draped herself over the back of Sheldon's desk chair, nestling her chin against his collarbone and hanging her arms down over his chest to play with the cuffs of his pushed-back sleeves. "So, whatcha doin'?"
"I was attempting to get caught up on my overflowing inbox. It appears that not everyone had as productive a time off as we did. Look, there are at least seventeen chain letter forwards from my research assistant."
"Scandalous," she breathed against his ear. "You should probably fire the kid."
"Perhaps I will," he said primly, uncapping an ink pen to jot down a note in his correspondence log.
"You know.... We haven't been alone together for more than a couple of minutes since your sister got here."
"That is correct."
When he didn't take the hint, she dragged a fingernail up the inside of his wrist and forearm. "...wanna fool around?"
He capped the pen and stood up so fast that Penny nearly toppled over.
"I think that would be a more than satisfactory way to spend the afternoon."
It was his turn to stagger backwards when she practically jumped into his arms.
"Air mattress?" she gasped when she came up for breath.
"The living room and all common areas are a G-rated zone," he recited from their meticulously written roommate agreement.
When his mouth moved to her neck instead of continuing with the rest of the provision, she prompted, "Except...?"
"Except when the absent party is confirmed to be absent for a period of time deemed to be conducive to higher-rated activities," he went on, the words tumbling out by rote against her skin.
"Air mattress," she repeated, stepping in that direction and tugging him along with her by the shirt.
"Leonard's bedding," he countered.
"Ad hoc laundry day!" she sing-songed.
He responded by dropping to his knees beside the mattress and pulling her down with him.
"So here's something weird," she said between kisses, struggling to pull his shirts over his head. "Missy asked me last night if I'm pregnant."
"I'm not sure how to respond," Sheldon said when he emerged from under the layers of fabric.
"A 'no way!' would be nice."
"No way!" he obliged, sounding more like Admiral Ackbar than the Valley girl she'd mimicked. After another beat, he asked, "Are you?"
She wrinkled her nose up at him. "Don't you think I would have said something?"
"I haven't yet discovered a formula that will allow me to accurately predict such an event. And you do look a little puffy."
"Oh, you sweet talker, you," Penny deadpanned as she pulled him in for another kiss.