"But we can't!" Penny whispered urgently, tugging on Sheldon's sleeve. Explosions sounded all around them, and she flinched back behind the kitchen island. "We're running out of time. We have to get out of here!"
"That is exactly why we must," Sheldon said, looking down, refusing to move. "What if this is the end of the world? What if we never see each other again?"
"It certainly will be the end of the world if you don't move!" She took his hand and pulled him forward, toward the door.
The papers flew out of his hand and he crashed into her, wrapping an arm around her waist. "Penny!" he protested. "We just–!"
Penny gave him an annoyed look, then her face suddenly softened and she stared into his eyes. "Captain..." Her eyes closed as their lips drew closer together.
Then Penny broke away, bursting into laughter. "I can't practice this scene with you, Sheldon! I just can't take you seriously."
"I agree," he huffed, and then bent to pick up the scattered script pages from the floor. "I don't know why you insisted I read the Captain's part."
"It would be a lot easier if you didn't break character all the time," she shouted over the sound effects just before shutting them off. She continued in a more normal tone, "'Penny'? You couldn't just follow the stage directions?" She flopped onto her couch with a sigh. "Besides, Leonard's at the lab, and I don't want Raj to practice with me smashed. You remember the cat food commercial?" They both shuddered. "Who else do I have?"
Howard burst through the door, script in hand, exclaiming in a loud voice, "Captain! Lieutenant! The shields are collapsing! We must esc–" He noticed Penny sitting on the couch and Sheldon tidying up. "Did I miss the cue again?"
"Yes," Penny and Sheldon said in unison.
"Crap. Sorry." Howard came to sit in the chair beside the couch. "I don't know why I have to play the red-shirt part anyway." He leaned toward her and suggested, eyebrows waggling, "I'd be much better as the captain."
She turned back to Sheldon. "You see what I'm saying?"
She never even got to audition in front of the casting directors for the part of the lieutenant. She tried to console herself with the fact they probably wanted a big-name actress for this pilot, or even a small-name actress. Penny London was just a no-name waitress, who liked to drown her failures in a cappuccino at the bookstore down the street after the lunch shift.
She had only taken a few steps into the bookstore when she stopped in her tracks. At 2:30 on a Thursday, the line for the Starbucks was never that long. She suddenly noticed the elevated noise level in the store, and the sign beside the door advertising a book signing.
Curious, Penny wandered over. She might as well; surely the coffee line would get shorter sooner or later. She glanced at the sign advertising the author. She didn't recognize the book cover, but the author's name, Wil Wheaton, had this caption: "Former star of Star Trek: The Next Generation."
The name seemed really familiar. Lord knew she'd sat through enough episodes of every single Star Trek series while she was dating Leonard, even 'that abominable prequel,' as Sheldon called it, even though it was the one she actually liked the best. But it was more than just seeing him on television.
It was, she realized with a start, the guy from the bowling alley! The guy who'd told her about his ex-girlfriend, which helped her realize that she couldn't lead Leonard on any longer.
Wil Wheaton: the guy Sheldon hated more than Barry Kripke, more than Leslie Winkle. Granted, Sheldon flat out disregarded most of the people he met, even outright disliked them. But Sheldon hated Wil more than anybody in the whole world.
Most of her memories of that night were colored by her breakup with Leonard. Sure, Wil had seemed competitive, but no more than Sheldon usually was about, well, everything. She was a little more than curious to see what was so awful about Sheldon's 'nemesis.'
Maybe she should get a copy of the book and have it signed and give it to Howard or Raj. She grinned wickedly. Maybe she could give it as a gag gift for Sheldon. Nah, he'd probably give her a strike just for tricking him into touching it.
She took another glance at the Starbucks line, hoping it had gotten shorter but it actually seemed to be longer. People must have had the same idea – get the book signed, go get a coffee. Penny shrugged and got in line for the book signing. She could figure out later who she would give it to.
As she got closer to the beginning of the line, she kept trying to get a better look at Wil from around the guy waiting in front of her, who had to be half-giant. It wasn't until she was five people away that she finally got close enough to watch him interact with people. He was pleasant, making small talk with each person who gave him a book to sign. He had a nice smile and a sparkle of real intelligence in his eyes. This was the big, bad, evil Wil Wheaton?
Before she knew it, it was her turn. She stepped up to the table, and picked up a copy of the book off of the stack beside Wil. "Can I buy one here to be signed?"
He said with a slight smile, "That's why they're here." Then he seemed to really notice her for the first time. He tilted his head slightly, puzzled. "I know you, right?"
He'd realized it immediately. She tried not to be embarrassed. "Yeah, Penny. We met at the bowling alley, like, six months ago?"
"That's right – you were on the other team, the 'Wesley Crushers.' For a while, anyway." His smile grew wider. "Are you a fan of my work?"
She quirked one corner of her mouth. "Actually, I'm getting this for someone else."
"A boyfriend?" He pulled the book toward him, opening the cover.
"Oh, God, no," she said a little louder than intended.
He laughed. "All right. What do you want it to say, for this someone-else-who-isn't-a-boyfriend?"
"How about..." She didn't know who it would go to in the end. "'All my best' or something like that."
He began to write, and then paused before signing his name. "You don't want me to address it to anyone?"
"Um." She bit her lip and leaned in conspiratorially. "Can I tell you a secret?"
He scooted forward, grinning. "Absolutely."
"I have no idea who I'm going to give this to," she admitted in a whisper.
He whispered back, "Then why are you getting it signed?"
"Well, when you're friends with a bunch of science fiction geeks..." She added apologetically, "No offense."
He grinned and winked knowingly.
"I find it's best to get this stuff when you can." She tapped on the opened page for emphasis and moved back a step.
He laughed. "All right, all right. One 'All my best, Wil,' just like you asked." He finished signing his name with a flourish, and then closed and handed her the book.
She hesitated for a moment, not sure why she wasn't moving on. Maybe it was because Wil was just so nice! Sheldon was absolutely crazy, as if she needed any more proof.
Wil tilted his head slightly. "What's wrong?" he asked.
She suppressed a jump, covering quickly by sighing at the length of the Starbucks line, which had grown even longer. "Oh, nothing. I guess there's no cappuccino in my future." She gave him a shrug and a wave, starting to walk toward the exit.
"Wait!" he called, and she turned back. "I need a break. You want coffee?" He spread his hands and smiled. "I've got connections."
Wil certainly did have connections. They cut right to the front of the line, and no one even complained. A friendly wave to the other customers was all it took. Penny was secretly impressed. Maybe one day people would let her in front of them. Right now she had to fight to be noticed by her regulars on Taste of Italy Night.
Wil set down his three shot full cream vanilla latte and threaded his fingers together. "How did you ever end up being friends with a bunch of sci-fi geeks? Do you work at CalTech, or go to school there?"
She took a sip. "Me? Oh, no. I waitress at the Cheesecake Factory a couple doors down." She gestured at her yellow uniform. "Or did you think this was some sort of fashion statement?"
He held up his hands in mock-apology. "Forgive?"
"Buy me a cappuccino? I'll forgive anything."
"I should have known. You're too young – unless you're some kind of child prodigy. I've never met a genius who seemed this normal, though." He winked at her. "I tend to run into the ones like Sheldon."
She laughed. Wil really was charming, despite his geek background. He certainly didn't seem evil, but that was Sheldon for you, always overreacting to everything. Plus, Wil was in the business. Who knew what connections she could make? If she got to know him, she might even get a lead on a few acting jobs.
"Anyway. The guys work there, Leonard and Sheldon are my neighbors. The closest I get to working for CalTech is as Sheldon's personal taxi service." She set down her mug with a click against its saucer. "And the pay sucks."
"The other two guys, Raj and Howard, are over all the time. We spend a lot of time together, the five of us. Just yesterday, we were watching a DVD that Raj brought over." Before she knew it, she was off on a story about the argument Sheldon and Howard had over the realism of giant sentient robots, and he didn't interrupt her once. He was a great listener.
"You know what, Wil? You're really nice."
He grinned. "I try to be. I think that's the way to approach life."
"Huh." She shook her head gently, and teased, "To hear Sheldon tell it, it's your highest goal to make his life hell."
"He says that?" He looked truly puzzled, which didn't surprise Penny. The rivalry between the two of them was probably completely one-sided. Wil added, "I'm surprised you had a coffee with me."
She winked. "I made sure to test it for poison first."
"Good call." He chuckled, then glanced at his watch. "I'd better get back before they stage a book burning." He rose from the table, and placed his hand on hers. "This was fun. I'd love to take you out sometime. Tonight, if you're free?"
A tiny thrill went through her. This had started out as a friendly cup of coffee, and now he was asking her out. She could bring up the acting career at dinner, if the time was right. "Sure. I'd like that, too."
She slipped her hand from beneath his and fished a pen out of her handbag. After scribbling her phone number on one of the napkins, she slid it toward him. Instead of taking it, though, he pulled a Droid from his pocket and entered the number with a few taps. "Talk to you soon, Penny."
"Later." She waved, and watched him walk back to the signing table. She could feel the jealous stares of the people around her. It felt good.
"I bet you'd really like Power Girl if you gave it a try, Penny," Wil was saying as they climbed the stairs to her apartment. "It's got a lot of humor mixed with the action. Peej is fun-loving and independent – she kind of reminds me of you, actually."
"Really?" She raised an eyebrow in disbelief. It was because she'd made a crack at Power Girl's costume that they were discussing it at all.
"Not because of her looks, I promise." He eyed her up and down before adding, "Though you're every bit as much of a knock out."
She would have given Howard a death glare for that remark – it was Howard who drooled over his copy of Power Girl every month – but coming from Wil it seemed sweetly flattering. So instead, she grinned and said, "Thanks."
They ascended the last few steps and were at her door. "This is me," she announced.
"Already?" He sounded disappointed. "I don't think I'm ready to say goodbye."
"Well," she started, with a lowering of her lashes. "You could come in for coffee." She was pretty sure he would understand what that meant, even though he was one of Stuart's friends.
"As much as I'd like coffee, I can't."
"Oh." She grimaced inwardly – she knew it was too early to bring up acting when she mentioned it over dessert. She covered her disappointment by digging for her keys. "You probably aren't ready–"
He put a finger under her chin and lifted her eyes to his. "I am. Almost. You know, like I said, it's the first time I've really gotten out there again after my wife and I split up." He looked down at the ground for a moment.
She really liked this guy. He was sweet and funny, not to mention connected. But did she really want to be the rebound girl? She'd done that way too many times herself, most recently after things with Leonard ended. "I totally understand." She patted his hand. "Thanks for a nice night."
She turned to open her door, but he stopped her. "Can I," he pulled her toward him and gently covered her lips with his in a tender kiss, "take a raincheck?" he said as he pulled away.
She found herself unable to speak for a moment. Finally, she managed, "For the coffee?"
He nodded a farewell and went down the stairs, her eyes following him.
She didn't hear the sound of the door opening to her right, or the footsteps that came to a halt soon after. She was too lost in her thoughts of what might happen next.
"I hardly think that my presence in the hallway is worth astonishment. You, of all people, should know that my final load of laundry finishes at promptly 9:53pm."
Her mouth quirked upward and she turned toward Sheldon, who was carrying an empty laundry basket. She didn't bother explaining her earlier remark to him. "Oh, believe me, I know." She finished getting her keys out, and unlocked her door.
"Were you out on a date?" he asked politely.
"Yes. In fact, you'll never guess who–"
He cut her off. "Actually, I didn't really budget small talk into my schedule. I was just–"
"Being polite, I know."
He made a noise of disgust. "If you knew, then why did you insist on trying to tell me? It seems like a waste of time for both of us." He took a step down the stairs. "I must go retrieve my shirts from the dryer." He gave her a short glare. "I hope you're pleased that I might I have to use a higher setting on my iron tomorrow morning."
"It's the highlight of my day," she deadpanned.
He scoffed. "You really need a life, Penny." He turned abruptly and trotted down the stairs.
Penny shook her head, and said under her breath, "Bazinga."
Wil called the next Tuesday, on her day off. "I know a great place for barbecue – want to have lunch?"
She thought about the ramen in her cupboard and the half a loaf of wheat bread that she could use with the last dregs of the peanut butter jar. "That sounds fantastic. I love barbecue."
He chuckled. "I thought you might."
The place was a little dark. Various sports flickered on the televisions around the bar, with a small dance floor beside it. Country music played on the jukebox – and no Taylor Swift, which surprised her. Most people in southern California just had no idea what good country music sounded like.
"Wow, I had no idea this place existed. Where'd you find it?"
"A friend from Texas told me about it." He gestured for her to go ahead of him to stand in line. "I know it's not Nebraska-style, but hopefully you'll like it."
"You remember where I'm from? That's sweet." She gave him a smile over her shoulder, and he smiled back.
"So," he began while they were carrying their trays back to the table. "Who did you end up giving the book to?"
"That I signed?"
She blushed. "Oh, I haven't given it to anyone yet. I'm keeping it a surprise."
He looked interested. "The book? Or me?"
Penny paused before sitting down across from him. "Uh, both? I just know they're going to freak out so much when I tell them. I want to wait–"
"–Until the time is right." He nodded, then winked. "We have that in common."
She grinned slowly. "Do we?"
Suddenly one of her favorite songs started playing over the jukebox. Penny couldn't help but sing along: "I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand. Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand. Life is good today. Life is good today." She stopped, embarrassed at herself. "Sorry."
"No, go on. If you love something, you should just enjoy it." He took a sip of his beer. "No point in wasting time being embarrassed by it."
"Even if I have a crappy singing voice?" She'd made peace with that.
He raised an eyebrow. "No comment."
Penny laughed. "Points for honesty and courtesy."
Between bites of her brisket sandwich and potato salad, Penny asked him about his acting. "I still do some acting, but mostly in genre shows," he said. "It's kinda my niche."
"It's a good niche. A lot of fans of those shows."
"But not you?"
"Oh, I don't know. I've watched a bunch of stuff with the guys – it's practically all they watch." Penny crinkled her nose in amusement. "Well, except Raj – he loves the soapy dramas, too."
"I bet you'd love working on one. Have you ever done any auditioning that way?"
"Me? No. I can hardly land an audition for a commercial, let alone a television show. I tried to read for a part for a sci-fi pilot, but they wouldn't even see me."
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. "Here. Let me put you in touch with my agent." He passed her a business card. "Maybe they could get you in for background work, maybe a small one-off role in something?"
Her fingers tingled as she took it and held it in her hands. "Wow, thank you, Wil," she said quietly. "But…" She'd started out being excited about the connections she could make through knowing him, but the more she got to know him, the more she really liked him. "I can't." She tried to hand it back to him.
"No, you should keep it. I know how hard it can be to break in to the business," he said, as if it was no big deal. She slowly put the card into her purse. The music changed again, a little upbeat Keith Urban. "Wanna dance?"
"In the middle of the day?"
"Why not?" He held out his hand.
She couldn't think of a good reason. So she took his hand. "You know how to line dance?"
"So." Leonard began, trying to appear nonchalant and failing. "It's getting pretty serious with this new guy, huh?" They'd been broken up long enough that they were both dating other people but not long enough to avoid a bit of awkwardness when the subject was mentioned.
"Maybe." Penny lifted a forkful of Thai noodles to her mouth. She wasn't sure how much longer she could keep Wil's identity a secret. They'd been seeing each other a couple of weeks, and even though it was too early to know if it was really going anywhere, she really hoped it would. "William," she figured that version of his name would be safe, "and I have just been on a few dates."
"But you like him?" Howard asked with interest. He was back with Bernadette again, and he was always looking for a chance to double date.
"Yeah. He's sweet – and smart, too," she said, trying to feel the guys out. "You'd like him."
Sheldon walked to his spot from the kitchen, carrying a bottle of his special soy sauce. "There's no need for us to like him, Penny. If this follows the usual pattern of your relationships, he will soon be yet another source of regret which you will try to forget by imbibing too much alcohol."
"Hey! What about me?" Leonard protested.
Sheldon gave him a flat stare, and then he turned back to Penny. "As I said, yet another source of regret."
"What if he isn't?" Penny challenged.
"Without empirical evidence to the contrary, it is unlikely." Sheldon shrugged and dug into his food. "Besides, we have no need to add another person to our social circle."
"Fine. But he has a really nice house, and a widescreen TV."
The other guys started to look interested. Raj whispered into Howard's ear. "What kind?" Howard translated.
"Oh, I don't know. It's one of those TVs that Star Trek guy advertises."
"A Quattron?" Leonard asked, sitting up straighter.
"Probably, I can't remember. He's been trying to talk me into watching Doctor Who with him."
Leonard's voice got smaller. "We watched Doctor Who together."
Penny leaned over and patted his arm. "Oh, sweetie, of course we did." She scooted away and continued, "But this is the new Doctor. I've never watched any of those."
"I guess." He sounded like he was trying to hide his hurt.
Penny brightened. Maybe it wasn't too early after all. Wil said he'd like to get to know the guys better. They'd bumped into each other at the comic shop a time or two. In order to be a long-term prospect, any new boyfriend would have to get along with them – or okay, avoid wanting to string them up by their underwear.
"Maybe you guys could come over and watch them with us?"
Raj gave her a wide grin. Leonard shrugged and grunted noncommittally. Howard said, "We've already seen them."
"Ah, ah. Not everyone." Sheldon held up his finger. "I stopped watching them on BBC America once I learned of the hack job they were doing on the original episodes. I will be waiting for the official versions to be released on DVD."
"I thought he said these were DVDs. He knows a guy."
Raj whispered in Howard's ear again. "From the U.K.?" Howard passed along.
"Okay, well, I'm in," Howard decided. Raj nodded fiercely beside him.
"If he likes Doctor Who, he can't be all bad," Leonard conceded.
Sheldon pointed out, "You like Doctor Who."
"And?" Leonard jerked his head toward Sheldon, irritated.
"I'm just saying that liking Doctor Who is no indication of whether a person is 'all bad' or not." Sheldon shrugged. "Very well. I am 'in' as well."
"Great!" She stood and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. "I'll just give him a call. Excuse me." She got up and went out into the hallway.
He picked up after a couple of rings. "Penny?"
"Hey, Wil. Do you remember talking about getting together to watch Doctor Who?"
"Yes." His voice turned suspicious. "Why?"
"I kinda sorta might have invited the guys over to watch with us," she said, starting to chew on her thumbnail.
"Oh. So you told them about me, huh?" She couldn't tell if he was happy or worried by the sound of his voice.
"Yeah. Well, not completely." She lowered her voice, just in case one of the guys was eavesdropping. "Just how great you were."
"What else?" he teased.
"A few other things. But I didn't tell them your name – just William."
"Ugh, I hate that name."
"Sorry. Anyway, I thought it might be fun to surprise them."
"Yes," he said, then was silent for several moments.
"Wil? Are you there?" she asked, thinking the line had dropped.
"No, sorry, I'm here," he said quickly. "That would be fun. Okay, let's do it. Saturday okay?"
She raised her voice to its normal volume and walked back toward the boys' door. Turning the knob, she said, "I'll go check, but I'm sure Saturday will be fine – I doubt anyone has plans. See you then!"
Howard, as predicted, was right there. "Well, I did have plans," he said in a huffy voice. Then he added brightly, "But I can just tell Ma that her bridge ladies can find another water boy."
They drove into Wil's neighborhood, using Raj's car – his was the only one big enough to seat all of them. Sheldon had the front passenger seat, of course. Penny insisted on being behind the driver's seat. She wouldn't sit beside Howard, despite his being back with Bernadette. So Leonard was smashed uncomfortably between them.
"Turn right here," she said, following the directions she had printed off. She had only been here once, and Wil had been driving.
"Nice neighborhood," Howard commented, impressed. "What does this guy do for a living?"
"He's in... entertainment."
"Did you meet through an audition or something?" Howard dropped his voice, and even though it was too dark to tell, he was probably waggling his eyebrows. "Sort of a... casting couch situation?"
She reached across Leonard to smack him with the directions. "Ew, no."
"How did you meet, then?" Leonard asked.
"At the bookstore, actually." No need to tell them more than that until after they'd arrived at the house.
"Well, at least we know he can read," Sheldon said. "That's a step up from some of your former suitors."
"Hey!" she protested. "He not only can read, but he's an au–" She choked back the word 'author.' "–ah–ah–accomplished reader." Lame.
"Hmm," Sheldon said, clearly not believing a word.
She let it drop. "Left at the next corner," she directed Raj. "It's the second house on the right."
They pulled into the driveway, beside a Toyota Prius hybrid. She was really glad to see there was no label on the mailbox or gate – he probably liked to have his privacy from the media.
Once everyone was out of the car, Sheldon noticed Wil's car. "Don't tell me William drives you around in that." His tone was almost big brotherly.
"I'm sure you're aware of the faulty engineering found in many of the recent models."
"Sheldon," she said, exasperated. "I'm sure he's had it thoroughly checked out."
"Just like your 'check engine' light?"
She rolled her eyes and walked toward the front door. Her excitement was rising now. Now that she knew the real Wil, she was sure she could convince Sheldon to drop his feud. Or at least see reason. Then again, she and Sheldon never really could agree on what was reasonable… Her stomach plummeted and her finger hovered over the doorbell without pressing.
Howard, completely unaware of her sudden crisis, leaned around her and pressed the doorbell himself.
A muffled voice came from inside. "Come in! The door's unlocked!"
Penny turned the knob and stepped inside the foyer. The guys followed her, eyes taking in the expensive décor.
"Um, wow, nice place you have here, William," Leonard called out, not sure where the host was.
"Thanks!" came Wil's voice from the vicinity of the kitchen. "Just make yourselves at home – I'm getting some snacks together."
"We will!" Penny called back.
The guys started to wander, looking at the knickknacks and artwork. She hadn't really paid much attention before, mostly focusing on Wil, but there was a lot of geek paraphernalia mixed in with the art. It did really make sense, though.
"Whoa, this guy must have some serious cash to be able to afford all these collectables," Howard said. He moved a careful hand toward a Superman figurine, but drew it back without touching.
"You're not kidding," Leonard said from the entrance to the den. "Come look at this!"
They all stepped into the room, and it was obvious what Leonard was talking about. In a case on the wall was a maroon-colored uniform, lit by track lighting. It looked sort of... science fictiony. Maybe from Star Trek?
"I wonder whose it is?" Howard asked. "Is it a replica?" Raj went to examine it closely, and shook his head.
"Well, who wore that color? Riker? Picard?" Leonard asked.
Sheldon, who had not fully entered the room, spoke from the threshold. "It is obviously too small to belong to either of those characters." He went on, with a tone of distaste. "In fact, there is really only one character it could be – and I once considered myself the foremost expert."
"It was mine, of course."
Everyone turned to look at the speaker who had come up from behind Sheldon, a wide grin on his face.
"Welcome, Penny, gentlemen."
The guys were too shocked to speak. All except Sheldon. His voice was almost a low growl. "Wheaton."
Sheldon stood stiffly, nostrils flaring, eyes boring a death glare into Wil's forehead. He looked too furious to even try to blow up Wil's head, Scanners-style.
Wil simply nodded gravely to Sheldon, a smile on his face, and walked over to place a hand behind Penny's back. "I'm so glad you guys came. Penny has wanted me to spend some time with you guys for a while. You know, in a friendly situation."
"Penny," Leonard said, his eyebrows knitting together. "You're dating Wil Wheaton?"
"Yeah," she said, her earlier excitement draining fast. She had expected this reaction from Sheldon, but surely Leonard wasn't that petty? In a smaller voice, she added. "Isn't it cool?"
Howard stepped forward, his hand outstretched to shake Wil's hand. "Abso-friggin'-lutely it's cool!"
Raj came right behind him to pump Wil's hand even more vigorously.
Sheldon sucked in a noisy lungful of air through his flared nostrils.
"Sheldon might hold a grudge longer than Kahn Noonian Singh," Howard said. "But not us. What's a little embarrassment between friends?" He crossed to the other side of Wil and gestured out of the room. "I'd love to see the rest of the place, if you don't mind."
"Sure." Wil looked completely unperturbed, which was better than Penny could say.
"Penny," he said, turning toward her. "Do you mind getting the snacks from the kitchen for me while I show these guys around?"
"I'll help Penny," Leonard said.
"Whatever you'd like," Wil said, and left the room with Howard and Raj on his heels.
As soon as Wil was out of earshot, Leonard rounded on her. "Are you kidding me, Penny? What are you thinking?"
Penny's worry evaporated in the face of Leonard's accusation. She stalked toward the kitchen, past Sheldon, who was still frozen with rage. Then she shot back, "I'm thinking that who I date is none of your business!"
"But it's Wil Wheaton, Penny!" he complained, trailing after. "He broke us up!"
Penny hefted a bowl of popcorn in her arms, "Leonard, that's crazy."
"Crazy?" Leonard put his hands around a bag of chips, but made no move to pick them up. "I don't think it's crazy to notice that one minute you were talking to him, and the next you were storming out of the bowling alley!"
"What is this, a comic book? Geez, you treat him like he's some evil genius out to thwart your plans. No, he didn't break us up, Leonard. That was going to happen anyway."
"Have you forgotten what we had to do when we lost the game?"
Penny winced. She couldn't forget the pictures of the guys in female superhero costumes if she had a thousand years to try. "Didn't you have some sort of bet going?"
"Well, Sheldon did, but–"
"Doesn't sound like Wil did anything he didn't have a right to. You know Sheldon would have humiliated him in return if he'd won the game."
Leonard looked down at the floor, and then snuck a glance at the den, where they could both see Sheldon, still in place, hands clenched, breathing heavily.
"Then we're staying," Penny ordered. "Help me get the snacks, Leonard."
That was apparently enough to snap Sheldon out of his fugue state. He stalked up to Penny and Leonard, his eyes red-rimmed with rage. "I refuse to stay in this house one more minute!" Then he stomped to the door, turned the doorknob with a jerk, and slammed the door behind him.
Penny watched the door for a few moments, and then sighed. She walked slowly into the TV room with the popcorn. Leonard watched the door for another minute more before following her. The two of them silently retrieved the rest of the snacks and drinks and were just pouring pretzels into a bowl when Wil came into the room with Raj and Howard.
"You should see his game room – damn, it's tight!" Raj exclaimed, starry-eyed.
Penny gave Howard a raised eyebrow.
"Don't look at me, maybe he smuggled a flask in."
Raj grinned widely. "Mouthwash in the bathroom, dude." He looked around the room, impressed.
"Well, here," Wil said, striding over to the bar set up on one side of the room. "No need for that." He took a wine cooler from the fridge and handed it to Raj.
Raj proceeded to down it all at once. He apparently had a lot to say tonight.
Wil pretended to ignore him, and looked around the room. "Where's Sheldon?"
Penny frowned apologetically. "He left."
Wil's frown matched hers. "Oh, that's too bad. We've gotten off on the wrong foot, and I wanted to try to make it up to him." He gestured to the other guys. "To all of you."
"Real nice of you," Howard said, sitting on the couch with a bowl of chips in his lap.
Raj was already pulled a second wine cooler from the fridge. "Already forgiven, Holmes."
Wil and Penny both waited for Leonard, who was standing there looking uncomfortable. "I..." he began. "...I guess it was probably a misunderstanding." He held out his hand for Wil to shake.
Wil clapped his other palm around Leonard's hand and pumped them firmly. "Glad to know we can be friends."
"Who time!" Raj announced, bouncing into the side armchair.
Penny sat automatically in the center of the couch, leaving the far left spot free, but she realized immediately that Sheldon was not there. She could sit where she wanted. With a twinge of sadness, she looked at the spot before sliding over and settling against the armrest. Wil sat beside her, settling an arm lightly across the back of the couch behind her. Howard took the other end of the couch beside Raj's armchair, and Leonard took the loveseat which angled from Penny's corner of the couch.
About halfway through the first episode, Leonard got up to use the bathroom. When he returned, he sat on the edge of the loveseat and leaned over to whisper, "How do you think Sheldon got home?"
"I don't know," she murmured back. "Taxi?"
"Those 'germ-infested death traps'? I don't think so."
"Maybe he got a ride?"
"From whom?" Leonard asked pointedly, looking around.
If Leonard was trying to worry her, it was working. "Maybe you should give him a call."
"I already did. No answer at home, and his cell's going straight to voice mail."
Penny opened her mouth to make another suggestion–
"He's not replying back on Twitter or email, either."
Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn, she thought. "Knowing him, he's probably walking home – refusing to answer," she said aloud.
Leonard frowned. But though he looked as worried as she was, he settled back against the cushions to keep watching the show. Penny paused a moment, and then did the same.
"Sorry," she whispered to Wil.
"Everything all right?"
"Yeah, I think so." She cuddled into the arm across her shoulder, and he wrapped it tighter around her. It comforted her a bit.
All too soon, the credits played, and he shifted away from her to reach for the remote. "On to the next one, or take a break?"
"On to the next!" Howard and Raj shouted in unison, although Raj added, "Bitches!" He really didn't need to be reaching for that third cooler, but she wanted him to have a good time tonight, so she let it slide. She was going to boot his hand away if he touched another one, though.
Or maybe not. He slumped back into the cushions with a tipsy smile without taking his third bottle.
"What about you, Leonard? Penny?"
Leonard looked back at the door, frowning. "I guess I'm good to go on." He grabbed a handful of pretzels.
Penny stood. "I think I'm gonna stretch my legs, but you guys go ahead." She leaned down to give Wil a peck on the forehead. "You can catch me up."
She wandered into the foyer, peeking out of the windows. She had a suspicion – which was correct.
Sitting ramrod straight on the curb across the street, his beige jacket picking up the streetlight, was Sheldon.
Penny quietly opened the front door and slipped out. She took careful steps down the stone walkway, and walked to the edge of the driveway. Only then did she wave to catch his attention. "Sheldon, honey?"
He whipped his head toward her. "Penny," he answered coldly.
"Sheldon," she said calmly, while crossing the street. "Why didn't you go home?"
"I realized that I don't know where we are exactly. I was not about to return inside that den of evil to ask directions." He hunched his shoulders a bit and glanced at the dark house behind him. "Though the dog in the yard is disconcerted by my presence."
The animal barked just then, a warning snarl. Penny turned toward its head peeking over the fence, catching and holding its eyes. The dog barked a few more times and then relented with a whine.
Penny sat on the curb beside Sheldon and placed a hand on his shoulder. He flinched slightly, but didn't brush it off.
"Wil is not evil, Sheldon."
This time he twitched severely, and her hand fell back to her side. "I beg your pardon! I have never known anyone – outside of comic book lore – to be more a master of malevolence than that man."
"Sheldon – all he did was beat you at a couple of games. That is hardly the work of a..." She tried to remember a comic book villain's name. "...Lex Luthor."
"It is not the winning, Penny! He used nefarious tricks to sway the outcome. He reveled in my pain of losing, too." He turned his knees away from her.
"He says he wants to make amends, Sheldon. That's why he invited us all over. The other guys are good with that – they're having a great time. Why can't you?"
Sheldon stilled. "Ohhh, I see," he said in a low tone. "He has already stolen you, and he thinks he can grind me further into his dust by taking away my friends, does he?"
"Oh, c'mon, what're you talking about? He hasn't stolen any of us." Penny nudged him on the shoulder. "You can be friends with more than one group of people at a time."
"I have not found this to be true. As you may remember, I had considered removing one of you from my friendship circle when I was courting Barry Kripke."
She sighed. "Fine. Don't be his friend. Just be civil. Come watch Doctor Who with us."
He stared off in the other direction, not moving except to speak. "No, Penny."
His voice sounded so defeated, so resigned, it made her heart hurt. She tugged on his jacket sleeve. "Sheldon, don't be this way."
"I do not know any other way to be."
She stood, holding out her hand to him. "Be my friend and come inside."
He turned back toward her then, eyes flashing. "Be my friend and stay out here with me." He cut his eyes toward the fence. "The dog seems more docile in your presence."
She placed her hands on her hips, irritated. "The dog won't bother you if you just come inside."
"I find this to be preferable," he answered stubbornly. "At least his dislike of me is honest."
Penny threw up her hands. "Fine! Stay out here and be ridiculous until it's time to go." She spun on her heel and walked quickly back to Wil's front door.
Opening it, she stepped inside to see Wil at the window, holding aside the curtain. He let go of the fabric and turned toward her with a worried expression.
There was obviously no need to explain. "He's being ridiculous. As usual."
"Do you want me to go talk to him?" Wil asked, taking a step toward her.
"No, don't bother. If I couldn't get him to come inside, then I'm positive you wouldn't be able to."
Wil shrugged. "We paused it after the first scene when you didn't return." He held out a hand to her. "Come finish the episode with us?"
She smiled and took it. "Okay."
"That was completely awesome, dude!" Raj enthused, grabbing drunkenly for his jacket on the coat rack. His hands grasped air, and he tried again. "We have to come back and finish the second disc."
"Don't forget the Confidentials," Wil added pleasantly. "They're really charming."
"Oh, you know it," he agreed, finally snagging his jacket on the fourth try.
"Thanks for having us, Wil," Leonard said. "You're all right."
"More than all right," Howard put in. "The best!" He held out his fist toward Wil, who bumped it gently.
Raj turned woozily toward Penny, and said with total seriousness, "I think I shall have to disown you if you break up with him, Penny."
Penny simply raised an eyebrow and jerked her head at Leonard.
"Okay, now, Raj," Leonard said, slipping his arm under Raj's to support him. "Where do you keep your car keys?"
Howard came around the other side and fished them from Raj's pants pocket. "Got 'em. Let's go, buddy."
"Cool," Raj said docilely, letting himself be led outside.
"Are you coming?" Leonard asked Penny as they headed on to the walkway.
"I think I'll stay a little while longer." She looked at Wil with a hint of suggestion in her eyes. "If that's okay."
He leaned down to kiss her lightly. "More than okay."
After the door closed, she stood at the window to watch Leonard and Howard pour Raj into the back seat. Leonard beckoned for Sheldon to come to the car. He stood stiffly, but did not move, as if he would not even set foot on the property. Leonard shrugged, got behind the wheel and pulled out of the driveway, stopping to let Sheldon in the passenger-side door. Before Sheldon got in, he checked inside the car. Then he lifted his head to stare directly at where Penny watched from the window.
He held her eyes for a few moments, a deep frown slowly creasing his face, then he quickly got into the car, and they drove away.
She let the curtain drop and turned to Wil. "They're gone."
She snaked her arms around his waist and tilted her head to kiss him. She let the kiss deepen, and it soon became more passionate than she'd yet experienced with him. With a tiny gasp, her hands came up to circle his head, and she pulled him toward her.
It was strange, they had been dating for a couple weeks now, and they still hadn't slept together. Most guys she went out with she jumped into the sack the first night. She'd even tried that with Wil, and he'd put her off. Well, no longer. She broke off from kissing him to murmur, "Would you like me to stay the night?"
He pulled her closer to him, and kissed her deeply. She took a step backward, toward the bedroom, but he didn't follow. She gave him a look of confusion. "What?"
"Penny," he said, looking her in the eyes regretfully, "I can't." His eyes dropped to the floor.
She stepped back toward him, placing her hands on his chest. "Why not?" she purred, hoping to change his mind.
He took her hands and lowered them. "I'm just..."
"...a little old-fashioned." He met her eyes again. "After getting my heart broken before, I want to wait. Wait until we're sure this is real."
Her forehead wrinkled as hurt touched her eyes. "It feels real to me."
"To me, too." He kissed the top of one of her hands gently. "But we've only known each other a few weeks now."
"Oh," she said, and took a step back again, face flushing with color. Then she turned and walked quickly to get her sweater from the hook. "I'll just have Leonard come back for me."
"I bet you're used to this – used to girls throwing themselves at you." She felt completely stupid now, misreading him like that. "That's not me." She headed for the door. She could just walk until Leonard came.
He blocked her way, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Penny, I didn't mean that. I really am old-fashioned." He gestured into the TV room. "Can we just sit on the couch and talk?"
He smiled hopefully. "We could get to know each other better that way."
Her embarrassment subsided – she would really like that. "Okay," she relented, and he led her away from the door.
The phone rang at the ungodly hour of 10am, and Penny groaned, reaching sleepily for the phone from under her covers. She barely caught the edge of it with her fingers, but it slipped from her grasp and clattered to the floor. Miraculously, she was able to punch the talk button and bring it to her ear. "Hello?" she croaked.
"Hello, this is Heather Stone with Avalon Artists Group. May I speak to Penny London, please?"
She nearly dropped the phone, all sleepiness disappearing in an instant. This must be Wil's agent! "Yes, yes, this is Penny," she answered, trying to clear her froggy throat. "Speaking."
"We'd like to have you in for a meeting, Ms. London. Are you available this afternoon?"
She had a lunch shift but she suddenly felt a terrible cold coming on. "Yes, absolutely." It didn't matter how mad her manager was going to be. "What is it for?"
"To talk about a small role in a pilot, possibly recurring."
Penny wrote down the address and appointment time, her hand shaking with excitement, then thanked the woman and hung up the phone.
When Wil had said he would drop her name with his agent, she hadn't dared hope anything would come out of it at all. She bounced out of bed and put on her slippers. She had to tell the guys! Without bothering to change out of her PJs, she nearly skipped across the hall into Apartment 4A. Leonard was in the kitchen making himself a cup of coffee, in his plaid robe. Sheldon sat at his laptop, fully dressed.
"Hi, Penny, you're early," Leonard greeted her. Sheldon, kept his eyes focused on the screen. He hadn't said a word to her for days.
In fact, Sheldon was hardly speaking to any of them. Ever since the Who marathon a month ago, Wil had been treating her to dinner a couple nights a week. The guys (all except Sheldon, of course) had been playing role-playing games with him, meeting some of his friends – they were basically in geek heaven.
Sheldon's schedule was a total mess. He blamed Penny completely, judging by the way his eyes bored into the back of her head like laser beams whenever Wil was around.
"I know!" she said, the excitement of her news creeping into her voice. She poured a cup of coffee into her favorite mug, a grin on her face.
"Oh," she began, trying and failing to be nonchalant. "Just some amazing news."
"Something to do with," he took a sip of coffee, then whispered, "Wil?"
Sheldon twitched in his chair, but didn't respond.
"Yes," she said, turning toward Sheldon to watch him twitch again, "and no. I got a meeting with Wil's agency to talk about a possible audition!"
"Oh, really? For what?"
She bounced on her heels. "A small role on a pilot! I told Wil about the one I tried to read for, and he must have put in a good word for me!"
"Wow, that's great! But do you know anything about it?"
"No. Or not yet!" She bit her lip. "I was hoping you guys could help me figure out what I should expect." She glanced at Sheldon, whose back stiffened in affront. She turned back to Leonard. "Or maybe just you."
"Um, sure. But why don't you just ask Wil? I'm sure he knows a lot more about the ins and outs of the business, too."
Penny covered her eyes with her hand. "Of course, I should just do that. I guess it's still too early for me to be thinking straight."
Sheldon snorted, but held back from saying anything.
She headed for the door. "Thanks for the coffee – wish me luck!"
"Good luck, Penny!"
Once back in her apartment, she snatched her cell phone from her bedside table.
She punched in Wil's number and impatiently waited for him to pick up. No answer. At the voice mail beep, she could hardly contain the words that came out. "Oh my god, Wil! Thank you so much! Avalon Artists Group called today, and they got me an audition for a pilot, maybe the one I mentioned? Thank you, thank you, thank you! The only problem is, I've had such terrible luck with auditions, so I'm not sure how to prepare, even though it's only for a small part. I think I'd better get some inside information. You have any time this morning to prep me a little? Of course, you're probably busy, so I'll probably have to fly by the seat of my pants. It's too bad that Sheldon still isn't speaking to me – he'd make a really good coach–"
The call-waiting beep interrupted her stream-of-consciousness message and she looked at the screen. It was Wil, thank god. "Wil?" she asked, after punching the button. "Did you hear any of my message?"
He laughed. "No. I just missed your call the first time. What did you need to tell me?"
She went through the entire spiel again for him, but ended it with, "Can we get lunch and talk this through? My appointment is at 3pm."
"Today? Um, sure." On the other end of the line, there was a sound of shuffling papers. "When? Where?"
"How about Arroyo Chop House?" It wasn't too far from the agency, if she remembered correctly.
"Sounds good. How about around eleven o'clock?"
Penny looked at the clock. That would only give her 20 minutes to get ready and get there. "What if we make it 11:30 instead?"
"Sure. Congratulations, Penny." He hung up.
Penny jumped up and started shoving aside hangers in her closet with determination. She needed to find something comfortable, something that showed off what great shape she was in, something classy. Actually, she had no idea what kind of part it was. Maybe there were space hookers on this show? Or hard-drinking fighter pilots? In the end she threw three different changes of clothes on the bed – hopefully Wil could help her decide on the best look.
She rushed over to the bathroom to put on her make-up, and then stopped after applying foundation to only one side of her face. What if she was going for an alien part, and she had to wear prosthetics? After a moment, she shrugged. If Jeri Ryan could pull it off and still look hot, so could she.
Penny opened the door to the comic shop with a grin on her face and hope in her heart. Just as she hoped, the pilot was the exact same one she hadn't been able to read for before, just a different part. The agency had seemed very hopeful that she would be good for the part, one of the crewmembers who would be part of a vital mission. She would go in for an official audition in a few days.
She just felt like celebrating – this was the closest she had ever come to an actual audition on a real, professional production. It didn't matter if she got the part or not (okay, maybe it did), she felt like her life in L.A. was finally going somewhere. All because of Wil! The old saying, "It's who you know," was so true.
Penny started browsing the racks, hoping she could spot that Power Girl comic book. Maybe she could read a few issues and surprise Wil with taking his advice.
She didn't have to search blindly for long. Stuart's mild voice sounded behind her, startling her with how close it was. "Penny? Another birthday for your nephew coming up?"
She turned toward him. "Oh, Stuart. Thank god. I'm looking for Power Girl. Where do you keep that?"
Stuart frowned slightly. "Hellblazer not a good fit, then?"
"What?" she said, then realized with a laugh what he meant. "No, this is for me! Where do you keep it?"
Stuart's mouth opened and closed a couple of times. "For... you?"
"Yeah, I promised I would give it a try."
He blinked, then shook his head to clear it. "Okay. Okay then, um, over here," he led her to a row of thin booklets, "is where we keep the trades. The trade paperbacks. Several issues collected together, so you don't have to buy all the back issues."
"Oh, that's convenient."
"Yes, it's a good way to catch up, and a lot of people collect their favorite titles this way." He tapped a shelf over to her right. "Here it is. You probably want to start with Volume One of the new run."
"Thanks," she said, and slid the booklet out of the shelf. Lots of pictures of a blonde girl kicking ass, with that costume she remembered. "Tell me, Stuart," she said, pointing to the cutaway cleavage in Power Girl's unitard, "Does she defeat the villains with Super Boob Power?"
He looked embarrassed for a minute, but answered anyway, averting his eyes from the page. "Actually, Peej is really powerful. She's Kryptonian, like Superman."
"Hmm." Penny shrugged and turned another page. "Bet it doesn't hurt, though."
"Penny," Stuart said. "If you don't mind me asking, who did you promise?"
"Oh, Wil. I thought I'd surprise him."
"Wil?" His voice sounded more confused than when she'd first asked him where Power Girl was located.
"Yeah. He talked about it on our first real date, and it sounded pretty decent." She flipped another page. "Though I can't promise him anything."
Penny stopped reading and turned to Stuart. "You know, your friend! Wil Wh–" She realized that there were too many people around, and it wasn't their business. Lowering her voice, she said, "Wil Wheaton. Didn't he tell you?"
Stuart's mouth opened and closed again, this time with a click. "No. No, he absolutely did not tell me." He ran a hand through his curly hair. "He did not."
Penny frowned. "That's weird." Wil's comment about waiting until it was 'real' suddenly came to mind. "He's probably keeping it quiet for now."
Stuart pressed his lips together. "I would say so." He gave her an awkward smile and wave, then turned and walked back to the counter.
Penny wondered at his strange reaction. She knew he'd always had a little crush on her, but after two pretty much disastrous dates she figured he knew they'd never work. He was probably just bummed that a friend, a good friend, was dating Penny now. She turned another page and really started reading.
The next thing she knew, she was about halfway into the book. She put it down, surprised. She was going to have to get more than one, if they had it. But she didn't see any other volumes on the shelf. Penny took it to Stuart, who was standing at the counter, back to the customers and his cell phone to his ear. She placed the Power Girl trade on the counter.
Stuart continued to talk in an urgent-sounding voice. "Listen, it doesn't matter why, I need you to come–" He glanced at Penny and dropped the phone from his ear onto the counter with a clatter.
She pointed to the phone, which had flipped shut. "I didn't mean to startle you. I can wait."
"No, no," he said, not really covering his agitation. "What did you need?"
"I want to get this book. I really liked what I was reading." She had no idea what had him upset, but he didn't seem to be mad at her. "Are there any others after that?"
He took a deep breath. "I think we only have the single issues after that – the trades usually come out a couple months later. Do you want me to see if we have them in stock?"
"If you wouldn't mind. But seriously," she placed her hand gently on his arm, "it can wait until you finish your phone conversation."
He shook his head. "It was over, anyway. They'll call me back." He came out from behind the counter and gestured for her to follow him to the boxes of comics lined in rows on the shop floor. He flipped through one of the longboxes, pulling out a couple of issues and setting them aside. "I guess we don't have issue number 10 here. Do you want me to see if there is anything in the back?"
"Do you mind?"
He glanced at the clock for some reason before answering. "Not at all. Just... wait right here."
She wander over to the counter, idly flipping through the rest of the book, when a flash of light off of a car window caught her attention. She looked outside to see Wil's car pulling into a parking spot. What a nice surprise! She set her books down and started toward the door to greet him.
Before she knew it, Stuart was there in her face, blocking her view of the lot. "Penny, wait. Let me talk to him first."
"Talk to him? Why?"
Stuart shuffled her backward, away from the door and around to the other side of the counter. She'd never seen him this agitated before. "Do you trust me?"
"Yeah, I guess, but–"
"Then trust me now. Hide." With all his might, he tried to press her down.
She stayed put, mouth quirking stubbornly.
He pleaded once more with his eyes, and she frowned. "Fine." She dropped out of sight.
"Hey, Wil," Stuart said, trying to keep his voice light, but Penny could detect a thread of anger nonetheless.
"Hey, Stu. Got my books?"
"Sure." Penny thought he would come behind the counter to dig in the hold boxes, but he simply lifted a stack of books from beside the register.
"What was so urgent that I had to pick them up today?"
Yes, Stuart, what was so urgent? She almost stood up right then, her friendship with Stuart be damned.
"When were you doing to tell me about Penny?" Stuart said in a low, furious voice.
"Tell you what?" Wil scoffed. "So we're having a few laughs. Big deal."
"Penny is my friend. I can't believe you'd do this to her."
"Do to her?" Wil laughed, and it had a different sound than his usual easy-going chuckle. "I've done nothing to her, Stuart. I've made sure not to, in fact. Furthermore, I just got her an audition – something she would never have landed without my connections." His voice sounded strange, too, almost smug. "If anything, I've done her a huge favor."
"Under false pretenses!" Penny had never heard Stuart sound so upset – usually he was completely even-tempered. "She thinks you like her, Wil!"
Like her? What? Penny's stomach dropped. What the hell was this about?
"I do like her, Stuart. I'm not faking that."
"Just everything else."
"I'm not faking how much fun I'm having."
Penny's emotions began to swing wildly between confusion, worry and hurt. She wanted to jump up and demand to know what they were talking about, but the truth was, she was 'hearing' a whole new side to Wil by staying out of sight.
"Fun?" Stuart spat. "You're only having fun because you know how much it tortures him to see her with you."
There was a pause. Then Wil answered, "Okay, maybe."
Now Penny's hurt was beginning to turn to anger. He'd been using her? To get to 'him'? Did that mean Leonard? Maybe, except Leonard seemed to accept that she was dating Wil after the gang's Doctor Who night. Did he mean... Sheldon?
"Wil, if you're really my friend," Stuart pleaded, "you'll break it off with her now. Let her down gently."
"I really am your friend, but I'll do what pleases me." His voice seemed to grow more distant, as if he were walking away.
"What about Anne?" Stuart suddenly called out. "The boys?"
Anne? His ex-wife? There were kids involved? She was almost burning with anger now.
"What about them?" Wil scoffed, and he sounded closer again.
"I'll–I'll tell Anne!" Stuart sounded desperate.
Wil laughed derisively. "She already knows. She thinks it's hilarious."
"She–she let you cheat on her?"
"A few play-acted kisses aren't cheating, Stuart. I would never cheat on Anne; she's my soul mate." He lowered his voice, chuckling, "I mean, not without inviting her to join in."
He and Anne were still married after all? That was it. She was going to get up and give him an Omaha-style ass-kicking. She looked around for something to whack him with, even a thick catalog would do, but she saw nothing. So she twisted her purse strap around her wrist and leapt up.
"Let's see how fun this is for you!"
She swung her purse in a wide arc, but instead of clocking Wil, she clipped the side of Stuart's shoulder, spinning him around to stumble against one of the displays.
Her anger dissipated into worry and she came around the counter in a rush to help him stand. "Stuart, are you okay?"
He rubbed at his shoulder. "Yeah, I'm fine – are you?"
"Yes," she growled, anger back. She looked around the store, but didn't see Wil. "Where is he?"
Stuart looked toward the doorway. "He just left."
She hadn't heard the door chime, dammit! She hefted her purse and swiftly made for the door. Just as she got there, she felt Stuart pull her back. "No, Penny, don't!"
"Why? That asshole deserves a lot worse than the side of my purse!" She pushed on the glass.
His hand tightened on her arm. "Assaulting him is just going to get you into trouble, Penny."
Fuming, she watched Wil's car pull out of its parking spot. "Totally worth it."
"He's a celebrity. Whose side do you think the media is going to take?"
She pounded the glass with a fist as his car drove out of the lot. He had no idea what he had just escaped. Oh, man, she was going to get right in her car and confront him at home. He wouldn't know what hit him. "I don't care, Stuart. He's pure evil." Penny trailed off. "I can't believe I actually agree with Sheldon on something."
Stuart let go of her arm and shuffled his feet awkwardly. "I agree with you, too, Penny. What happened to Sheldon and the guys before, well, that was just funny. This?" He frowned. "Unacceptable."
"It wasn't very funny to the guys, I bet," she said, contemplative. "To Sheldon."
Stuart cocked his head to the side. "Raj didn't seem to mind it very much."
"You know what?" Penny started walking toward the cash register, leaving Stuart to trail after. "You're right. As much as I want to grind his stupid bearded face under the heel of my boots, that's not the way to do this." She set her Power Girl trade on top of the others; there was no reason to read them now. But she had really been enjoying it. She shrugged and pulled a twenty out of her wallet and laid it beside the register to pay for the trade.
Stuart came around to the other side of the counter to ring her up. "What is the way?"
She smiled, a wicked grin splitting her face. "He's not the only one with acting skills."
Sheldon's grin was so smug she could have smacked it off his face. (What? She was tense, and working hard to control the anger bubbling up lately.) "Say it again."
Penny sighed. "You were right."
"I'll never tire of hearing that."
Penny shook her head and sat back against the arm of the sofa. "You already know it, why rub it in?"
"Of course I know it. It's just nice to see you acknowledge it once in a while."
Leonard came and sat in his armchair, a mug of coffee in his hands. "Be glad you can actually go home later so you don't have to hear him gloat."
"I do not gloat!" he protested. "I merely express my correctness."
Leonard and Penny looked at each other. "Gloating."
Howard spoke up from the floor. "Are we going to get planning or what? I've got a date tonight," he bragged. "Unlike some..." He seemed to realize why Penny was dateless too late. "...of you."
"Bernadette could help now that you're dating again," Penny suggested.
"Yes," Sheldon agreed. "She would add an air of realism to the whole enterprise."
Penny nodded. "Yes, the more of our own people in on the plan, the better."
"Agreed," Sheldon said. "Although I would prefer that we were facing him on a field of honor."
"What happened the last time you met him on a 'field of honor,' Sheldon?"
Sheldon's mouth pursed, and he was silent.
Raj scribbled something on a sheet of the planning paper and held it up, helpfully. It read: HE KICKED YOUR ASS.
"Right!" Penny agreed. "Because unlike the way he presents himself online," Penny had been researching Wil the last few hours, the way she should have done from the start, "he has no honor. We have to be just as dishonorable to beat him."
Sheldon looked uncomfortable. "Still, you know how difficult I find it to lie or keep secrets."
Penny patted his arm. "That's why you'll be out of sight, manipulating things from behind the scenes. We just have to make sure the two of you never meet before the day arrives."
"When do you want to do this, Penny?" Leonard asked.
"Let's see. It needs to be after the audition." Penny wasn't going to let her newfound hatred of Wil screw that up. "On one of my days off. How about this Thursday?"
"Anything can happen Thursday?" Howard asked with approval.
"If by 'anything,' you mean, 'the world will see what an ass Wil Wheaton really is,'" Penny smiled with satisfaction, "then yeah."
"Here?" Wil asked, surprised, when Penny directed him to park in the Cheesecake Factory parking lot. "I thought you'd want to get as far away from here as possible on your days off."
"Normally, I would," she said coyly, hiding the text message she had just sent to warn everyone they were arriving, "but I had something special planned for tonight, and this was the easiest place."
He raised an eyebrow as he turned off the ignition. "Something special? Any particular reason?"
"Well..." she said, leaning in to give him a gentle peck on the cheek, "it's been two months since we talked over cappuccino in the bookstore."
"Really?" He looked a little shocked. "Two months?"
Was it because he hadn't expected to continue the charade so long, or because he was having too much fun? Penny wanted to smack the shock out of him; instead, she mimicked his expression. "Can you believe it?"
They walked arm-in-arm to the entrance, where he held the door open for her like a gentleman. She was surprised he hadn't balked at coming in. Most of the places they'd gone to eat were either dark or out of the way (funny how she'd never noticed it before). He must have been counting on not really being recognized in his day-to-day activities. She wondered what he would say if someone did recognize him, and how he would explain away her companionship.
Penny had made reservations in advance, and Bernadette, as planned, was hovering near the hostess stand. "We have your table ready," she told them with a wide smile, plucking the menus out of the holder. "Right this way."
They were seated at a table in full view of all of the tables in their section. Wil looked uncomfortable immediately. "Excuse me," he looked pointedly at her nametag, "Bernadette, is there another table free?"
She looked around, and gestured to all of the packed tables. "No, sorry. There isn't." It was all part of the plan. Bernadette had been manipulating the seating all night and then just stopped waiting on the outer tables once it got close to Penny and Wil's reservation time so that people wouldn't be able to leave. "Do you want to wait for a better one to open up?"
He looked over into the waiting area, which was starting to really fill up. "This is fine." He pulled out Penny's chair, and then sat across from her. He turned to Bernadette as she passed them their menus. "What's good tonight?"
"Well... there's a lovely salmon, and a spinach and artichoke fettuccini, but I actually think the prime rib is the best." Bernadette was nearly bouncing on her toes with excited mischief.
Penny shot her friend a warning look while Wil was scanning the menu, and Bernadette stilled.
She took their drink orders with an over-bright smile and left them alone to decide on their meals. Wil didn't notice anything amiss, thank god.
When Bernadette returned, Wil announced, "I'll have the pasta, I think."
"Excellent choice!" Bernadette enthused. "What about you, Penny?"
The plan would work best if Wil ordered something different. So even though the pasta sounded good to her as well, Penny said, "The salmon."
"Great!" She bounced off toward the kitchen.
"She's in a good mood," Wil commented.
"She's heard you're a good tipper, that's all," Penny told him with a wink.
But of course it was more than that. In the planning phase, Bernadette had heard all the stories about the guys' misadventures with revenge, and she agreed with Penny: the missing ingredient in the boys' plans was a female touch. There was a reason people said, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Bernadette was excited to help out.
Once Bernadette was out of sight, Penny had to trust that everything was proceeding on schedule. She turned back to Wil with a smile. "You know, it's nice to be waited on for a change."
"I bet. So..." He took a drink of his wine. "How do you think the audition went?"
"All right – I really connected with one of the casting directors. The other two? Not so sure."
"Take it from me, you never know on those things." He leaned forward and patted one of her hands – nothing too affectionate, because of their location. "I bet you did great, though."
Their salads came and as they ate, Penny tried to catch a glimpse of the other conspirators. Howard and Raj were in the dining area, incognito. She wasn't sure where they were sitting, and that was good. Bernadette made sure Howard didn't show up in some sort of disguise from the B-movie bin. Penny had just barely managed to convince Raj not to wear a turban. He claimed it would hide the listening devices better.
Leonard was waiting outside, mingling with various people waiting to be seated. Sheldon was manning the kitchen. Or, really, the alley outside the kitchen door, since he wasn't actually allowed in the kitchen – not after his stint as an unpaid busboy.
It was tricky to keep up a normal conversation, but she took her cues from Wil, pretending this was an improv situation. They were both playing roles now – he the concerned boyfriend, she the girl in love. She'd done it so often in real life that it should have been easy.
She wanted to remain emotionally detached from the situation, but the anger simmering just below the surface conflicted with the part she was trying to play. Still, he hadn't caught on yet that she could tell, maybe it was working. Only one way to find out, though.
She slipped her hand into his and squeezed it. "Wil," she said in a low, sultry voice. "since it has been a month, I was wondering..." She slipped off one heel and ran her bare toes across the inside of his pant leg. "...if you're ready yet."
His face began to flush pink as her foot worked its way higher. She caught his eyes, holding them in a sort of dare. How was he going to play this? Boldly, she let the toes inch ever higher.
He caught her foot in one hand, and she let her eyes spring wider in mock-surprise. "Penny," he began.
"Yes, Wil?" Her voice was soft.
"Do you really want to do this here?"
For a moment she was confused. Was he onto her? She decided it didn't matter. Innocently, she asked, "Do what?"
Then, shockingly, he caressed her instep with his fingers. "Let me take you back to your place tonight. You can do a lot more with me than just play footsie."
She closed her eyes and let her mouth drop open slightly. "Yes," she breathed.
He gently let go of her foot, and let it drop to the ground. "But let's finish our meal. It'd be a shame to waste it."
"Of course. I can be good if you can."
Right then, Penny was convinced that if Wil took her back to the apartment building, he was going to find a reason to either break up with her (if he liked her as much as he claimed) or humiliate her in front of the guys (if he followed through on his evil tendencies). But the microphone under the table had picked up enough evidence to stop the charade right now if she wanted.
Still, Penny wanted to see this through. They only had blackmail fodder; soon they would have much more.
Bernadette came with their meals, setting Wil's fettuccine down first, and then Penny's salmon. "Enjoy your dinner!" she chirped, before scurrying off.
Penny took a forkful of her salmon, careful to eat from only one side of the fillet. She kept one eye focused on Wil. He twisted a couple of strands around his own fork and bit down...
He made a face immediately. "What the f–it's ice cold," he said, after barely being able to swallow.
"Really?" she said, though she knew it would be. "Mine's fine. You should send it back." She caught Bernadette's eye and waved her over.
"Is something wrong?" Bernadette asked with a concerned frown. Penny was impressed with how well her friend was doing; maybe she should consider a career in acting instead of microbiology.
"My pasta... it's cold. Like it sat in the refrigerator for a couple hours." He pushed the plate toward her.
"Oh, I'm so sorry – I'll get you a new one."
He forced a pleasant tone. "No problem. Things happen."
Penny set down her fork after Bernadette left, and folded her hands. "Sorry. There must be someone new in the kitchen." There was someone in the kitchen, though he wasn't new, and he wasn't the cook.
He noticed that she wasn't eating. "You don't have to wait for me, Penny."
"No, it's okay." She poked one of her extra forks into the other side of her fillet and lifted a chunk of it toward him. "Or do you want to try some of mine?"
He shrugged. "Might as well. Thanks." He took the fork from her and popped the morsel into his mouth.
Immediately he spit the fish onto his bread plate, grabbing his water glass and guzzling it down, nearly finishing it. "Oh my god!"
"What's wrong, Wil?"
He coughed uncontrollably for thirty seconds before he could speak. "It tasted like it was soaked in lemon juice!"
"What?" She took another taste from the undoctored side of the fillet. With a raised eyebrow, she said, "Tastes fine to me." Then she speared another bite and waved it next to his lips. "Wanna try another bite?"
He leaned away from it so fast she was surprised he didn't overbalance in his chair. "Uh, no, no thanks!"
Penny shrugged and popped it in her mouth. She ate a bit more after that, very slowly. She wasn't completely sure where the good portion ended, anyway. Wil sat on his side on the table, chewing morosely on his bread. Good, Penny thought, his annoyance was starting to break through his polite façade.
Bernadette brought his pasta back, holding it very gingerly. "Here you go. I made sure it was nice and hot before I brought it out."
He managed a thankful smile. "Thanks, Bernadette."
"Would you like to try it to make sure it's all right?"
Carefully, he tried a single strand from the edge of the dish. After a moment, he nodded tersely. "Delicious."
Once Bernadette was gone, he attacked his food with relish. Penny waited until he was really focused on the food to tip a couple of drops from the bottle Leonard had given her into her water glass. She didn't really know what it was, but Leonard assured her it was a suitably nasty solution. Any second now...
With his next bite, Wil gasped in shock and dropped his fork with a clatter to the table. "Holy crap!"
His shout caused all of the diners in the area to go quiet. Penny jumped up and rushed to his side. "What's wrong, Wil?"
Wil sputtered and waved at his mouth. "It's h–hot!" He swiped at his water glass again and threw back the last few ounces.
"Sweetie," she soothed, patting him on the back. "Bernadette said it would be hot."
"Not that kind of hot – spicy hot!" He coughed again, tears beginning to leak from his eyes. "Need... more water...!"
"Here," she said, placing her water glass in his hands.
He drank it quickly, but his expression turned from grateful to alarmed. "I feel ill."
At that moment, Bernadette and several of the other servers were gathering around their table. Bernadette pushed through, holding another glass of water. "Are you all right? Can I get you anything?"
"You," he said, shakily, though his voice held an undercurrent of venom, "can get me nothing."
"Wil," Penny said, grabbing his arm. "It's not Bernadette's fault."
He shook her off. "Then whose fault is–!" He couldn't finish his sentence, clapping a hand over his mouth to prevent throwing up. Everyone in the crowd of concerned servers gave him a wide berth, taking a large step backward.
"Oh no!" Penny shouted. "Get him a–!"
It was too late. Wil vomited noisily, all over his seat. The other diners around them moaned in pity and disgust and turned away. Wil held his stomach and groaned.
"Oh, honey, I had no idea you were sick! I wouldn't have insisted we go out." He mumbled something about how he was fine before, but Penny continued talking over his protests. "Where are your keys? In your pocket?" He nodded weakly, and she fished them out. "I'll take you home." She slipped her arms under his shoulder, and Howard came out of the shadows, unnoticed by Wil, to get the other side.
"No... not home..."
"The hospital, then? Are you in pain?"
Wil simply groaned. The manager finally got wind of the commotion and followed them out the door, profusely apologizing. Penny turned her head back to assure him, "It's not your fault, James, I think he came down with something." They shuffled Wil out the door and on to the sidewalk.
Wil pushed away from her, protesting. "No, I was fine until I–" Another round of vomiting caused him to double over beside the wall. Howard stepped away, out of Wil's immediate sight.
When Wil was down to nothing but dry heaves, he wiped his mouth slowly with his sleeve, and straightened to face Penny. "I am not sick. Where is that friend of yours?"
Penny didn't have time to stop him before he was pushing his way back in the doors, Penny and Howard directly behind. "I want to speak to that manager again!" he growled at the hostess, though in his state of weakness, he looked more deranged than angry. "And our waitress."
"Of course," she said, hurrying to pick up the intercom phone. A call wasn't needed, though. The manager had noticed Wil's reentry, and came over with a concerned frown.
"Wil," she urged, making a show of stopping him before he made a scene.
He ignored her "I want to file a formal complaint against this restaurant," he said, breathing heavily. "I don't think I've ever had food that terrible in my entire life."
"I'm so sorry that the quality of our food was not up to your standards," the manager said, wringing his hands. Bernadette stood just behind him, cringing realistically. Penny felt sorry for him – he wasn't in on the plot, but he would never have agreed to it anyway. It was better this way. The manager went on, "Of course, your meal is on the house," he held out a card toward Wil, "and we can give you a gift certificate, good for another meal at your convenie–"
Wil smacked the manager's hand away contemptuously, all pretense of civility gone. "After tonight, I will never set foot in this place again. I may never eat at any Cheesecake Factory again!"
"Mr. Wheaton," Bernadette pleaded, inching forward, "I'm so sorry, I'm sure everything will be fine next time you return."
Penny could hear a few sounds of startled recognition around them. Wil wasn't a top-tier movie star, but he was working enough lately that many people knew his face – and now that he'd been called by name, even more people were noticing him.
He lifted a shaky finger toward her. "Only if you and everyone else in this hellhole are gone the next time I come in, you stupid cow."
"Wil!" Penny smacked his arm in startled outrage.
She never expected he'd let his anger slip in public; she'd heard the stories from Sheldon, and he was always cool and collected. Wil turned his head and hissed at her, "Shut up, Penny. I will have justice."
That was enough. Her friends and co-workers didn't deserve this, especially those not in on the plan. She placed herself between the manager and Wil, fists planted on hips. "Wil, just how much did you have to drink tonight?" She leaned in to smell him, and though the only thing wafting from him was the sour smell of sickness, it was enough to make her reactions easy. "Oh my god, you reek! Did you start before we even came?"
"Wha–I did not–!" he protested angrily.
"Don't try to deny it." She gestured to Howard, who was hovering out of sight. "Help me get him to the car." She made an apologetic face to her manager and mouthed, "Sorry," as they dragged him out of the lobby again.
Wil struggled against them, though still weakly, as they propelled him down the sidewalk. He finally blearily noticed Howard on the other side of him, and like a snap, jerked away. "Y–You!"
"Don't let him get away!" Penny shouted, and from around the corner of the building, Sheldon and Leonard stepped into view, faces stony. They grabbed him between them easily, Wil still weak from the vomiting.
Wil stilled and looked up at his new captors. "Cooper."
"Wheaton," he affirmed with an almost military nod.
"What is this?" he said, glancing around at all of them, noticing Leonard on his other side, Raj hurrying toward them from the restaurant. "Is this a trap?" He started struggling fiercely again.
Penny didn't bother to answer him. "Get him to the car," she ordered. She opened the lock with Wil's key fob and opened the passenger door. Sheldon and Leonard shoved him down into the seat.
Penny stood before him like an avenging superhero, her team arrayed behind her. "Wil Wheaton. You have been a very bad boy."
He looked up at her, no longer pretending to be the sweet, charming man she'd had that cappuccino with a month ago. "Have I?" He gave her an unrepentant, though slightly nauseated, grin.
"Oh, yes. I know all about how you pretended to be separated from your wife and tried to use me to get to Sheldon to further your little feud. I'm tired of it. As of now, this is over."
He caught Sheldon's eyes and she could almost feel the sparks flying. "I think we're only taking it to the next level, Cooper." Sheldon revved forward slightly at her shoulder.
Penny snapped her fingers in front of Wil's face, making him flinch. "Did I say I was done with you?"
His eyes twinkled with evil amusement. "Oh, sweetheart. I'm certainly done with you." He held out his hand for the car keys, which she still held. "After we settle this in court. I'm sure that there are plenty of charges I can slap you with for drugging and assaulting–"
"Raj." She cut Wil off abruptly. "The recording."
Raj stepped forward and played back Wil's voice: "Let me take you back to your place tonight. You can do a lot more with me than just play footsie."
Wil smirked. "Easily explained away."
Raj produced his digital camera and flipped through the shots of Penny hanging on him in the parking lot, her bare foot halfway up Wil's leg in the restaurant.
"My wife won't care. She knows what I've been up to."
"Does she care if they go to the media?"
His smile faded, but he countered, "I'm just a minor celebrity. I doubt the gossip rags will want–"
"Howard," Penny interrupted again. "The video."
Howard lifted his FlipVideo camera and started to play – first the scene at the table, then the scene in the lobby.
"Would your internet fanbase care about these? I can see them going viral."
Wil's face paled. "What do you want?"
Penny smiled this time, grimly. "What I said before: this feud between you and Sheldon is over. You are not going to bother any of us again, nor Stuart."
His shoulders slumped, relieved. "All right."
"And," she added as he tensed again. "You're going to help me become a regular client at your agency. If you catch wind of anything I might be good for – I'd better hear about it."
He nodded, slow grin beginning on his face. They'd won this time, and it was almost as if Wil liked it.
Penny tossed him his car keys. "Better call Anne. You're in no condition to drive."
She swiveled on her heel and walked away, blonde hair flapping in the breeze. The boys followed her. Raj was parked around the corner and she didn't want to stay in Wil's company any longer than necessary. Just before they turned the corner, Penny's cell phone went off, and she stopped to check it. Wil.
Leonard noticed her pause. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah," she said, waving him on ahead. "I'll catch up in a minute."
She flipped open the phone. "What."
"I just wanted to say: nice acting, Ms. London. You should do fine in this business."
"Thanks, I think. Now lose this number."
He chuckled. "Are you sure? We had a lot of fun, didn't we? I can see that you're even more fun than I first thought." She could almost hear the wink in his voice as he added, "Anne and I have a surprisingly open marriage–"
She looked over her shoulder at Wil in his car, shut the phone with a definitive snap, and turned the corner.
"Having the volume up this high is hardly necessary, Penny," Sheldon complained.
Penny waved frantically at him. "Shhh, you're going to make me miss it!"
"You know perfectly well that we have TiVO. If you do, you can rewind it."
Leonard smirked. "You know she will anyway, over and over."
"I don't blame her," Howard said with a leer. "Just look at the–" A pillow connected with his head, hard.
"Shut UP, all of you!" she shouted, brandishing another pillow. "Anyone else want to test my pitching arm?"
They cringed back, Sheldon clamping his lips, and Leonard air-zipping his own tight. Raj and Howard hid behind the thrown pillow. Silence fell like a blanket on the room, all except the dialogue from the TV.
"But we can't!" The male lieutenant pulled on the female captain's sleeve, drawing her near to him. "We're running out of time. We have to get out of here!"
"That is exactly why we must," the Captain said, her eyes brimming with unsaid emotion. "What if this is the end of the world? What if we never see each other again?"
The lieutenant's face suddenly softened and he stared into her eyes. "Captain..." His eyes closed as their lips drew closer together.
Popping his head up from behind the pillow, Howard murmured, "I like the new casting." Raj clamped a hand over Howard's mouth.
Onscreen, the two began to kiss, their lips moving in greater urgency as the seconds passed. Then the door whooshed open, and Penny's character came through the door in a crewman's uniform, blaster in hand. "Captain!" she cried, then noticed that the two officers were locked in an embrace. "Lieutenant?" Her eyebrow arched under her visor. Then she shouted, more loudly, "The shields are collapsing! We must escape!"
The captain and lieutenant broke apart, breathing heavily, and after a significant look, the captain led the lieutenant out of the room at a run.
Penny's character smiled and shook her head. Then she raced for the door, too late. The room exploded around her in fire and smoke, and she screamed–
The scene went black and the show cut to commercial.
Penny pressed mute and turned to face the guys. "Well?"
There was no response.
Penny sighed. "You can talk now."
They all burst into speech at once, congratulating her for her first television appearance, although Sheldon was mostly criticizing the science of the explosion.
"It's too bad it was a one-off part," Leonard said, and Penny shrugged. This was only the beginning. There were bigger and better parts in her future, she could feel it.
Howard stood and walked over to where Penny sat. With a proud smile, he held up his hand for a high five. "Red shirts, represent!"
Penny smiled in return, smacking his hand back so hard he complained about it for days.