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The Apocalypse Conundrum

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 CHAPTER ONE

 

Crane heard the shrill, high-pitched human scream before he saw the Ubaldai.

He knew the creature was there in the old graveyard: the oppressive atmosphere, the cloying humidity that made it difficult to breathe, the stench of putrid blood.  He pivoted quickly, raising his blazing torch for better visibility, insides dropping with the agony of realizing he was not alone with his prey.

Another terrified scream split the air.

There. There she was, scrabbling across the grass on her back, trying to gain her feet and unable to take her eyes off the horror she had no name for.

What on God’s earth she is doing in the cemetery after dark…. Crane looked from her to the Ubaldai and back again. More than once.

Easily eight feet tall and covered with armor-like crimson-colored scales, the creature advanced, curling fingers with inch-long claws and snarling mouth. Neon green eyes glowed and luminescent liquid shone dripping from sharp fangs in the dark night.

“No!” Crane shouted and threw himself in front of the Ubaldai. An impression of bright brown eyes and a brilliant smile flashed through his mind. Not Miss Penny. He would not let the creature or its acidic saliva get any closer to the vivacious young lady.

“Fft’ai!” he shouted, dodging left to draw all attention to himself.  “Run!” He screamed at Penny.

With the corner of his eye he saw that she did not run, then dismissed her from his thoughts. He waved the torch in the creature’s face and retreated farther into the graveyard. He rumbled the charm-word again, almost under his breath. “Fft’ai.”

Crane backed as slowly as he dared, trying to tempt the creature to follow, ignoring his pounding heart. His gaze catalogued the weak spots in the impenetrable crimson scales: back of the knee joint, armpit, groin, eyes. He wondered how many hits the Ubaldai could take before it succumbed. He longed for another hand, another weapon, an additional angle of attack besides his own. As it used to be. Crane shook his head. No time. For now he must simply chase it away if he could. Vanquishment was often a thing of the past, of partners, of….

He did his best. Sometimes it took more than one battle, but, so far, he’d always won, in the end. But, along the way, he often sacrificed too much. He needed….

He needed Abbie.

He spiked the torch into the ground and pulled his crossbow from the holster at his back. Briefly studied his target. Aimed. The groin shot connected and the Ubaldai stumbled. Crane winced in subconscious, instinctual empathy, forcing himself to take a few more steps away. He needed a better angle at a better target and he would have only one chance.

The creature recovered slightly, taking a long, threatening lurch forward, forestalling the Witness’ maneuver. Crane quickly slammed the crossbow to reload, making himself ignore his restored disadvantage. He had to shoot. Now.

The arrow sailed over the red scaly head. Crane reloaded, but before he could aim again, the Ubaldai swiped a paw through the air, tossing him aside to one hand and his knees. He scrambled away, eyes always on the creature, praying his flight wouldn’t end against a tree or into a hole. The Ubaldai advanced, compelling him to aim from his knees. He panted, feeling a hitch in his side, as he struggled to make the shot. If it didn’t connect….

The air echoed with a different kind of scream this time. Guttural. Furious. Ready to attack. But then the Ubaldai stumbled again, one leg giving way. It collapsed on the ground with an arrow in an eye socket. Tried to get up and fell again. Stopped moving.

Crane supported himself on the nearest tree and gulped lungful’s of the slowly freshening air. Tendrils of smoke leaked out around the edges of the huge, crimson body at his feet. Crane found the strength to be grateful that there would be no traces of it left by morning. Then he straightened, holstered the crossbow, and moved to the torch, pulling it from the ground. He oriented himself and started to trudge back to the edge of the graveyard. The night was not over yet.

He’d gone only about a hundred feet when he saw her again. The blonde was near where he’d left her, now leaning against a large rock, face in hands, and loudly humming something that wasn’t a tune. Crane spiked the torch again and shrugged out of his weapons rig, setting it aside. He crouched in front of the distraught woman and spoke softly, gently. “Miss Penny?” He spoke her name again three times, each more loudly and more firmly. The last time, he gripped her forearm and pulled it from her face. “Miss Penny!”

She stirred and looked up, mucus running from her nose and mascara streaming in lines down her face. Her eyes were empty at first and fear stirred in the pit of his stomach. Then recognition surfaced and she grabbed him around the neck and pulled him against her shuddering body. “Oh my God!

“Oh my God! Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” She cried until her energy ran out and then she just sat there, clutching the back of his coat. He straightened and reached for her arms, disentangling himself. She looked at him. “Crane?” She clutched painfully at his elbows. “What … was that?”

“Miss Penny.” He stood and brought her with him. He pulled his coat off one-armed while he steadied her, then draped it around her shoulders. “Why don’t we go someplace where you can warm up and have something to drink and,” calm yourself down, he thought, “talk?”

She nodded. Crane kicked over the torch into the dirt and stomped out the flame; they were close enough to the street now for ambient light. Penny watched without blinking as he retrieved his crossbow.

Crane led her through the graveyard gate, past the pre-Revolutionary War church, while his mind raced to choose a destination. Choose? There were no choices…. One choice? Any choice. He couldn’t take her to a public venue; she might start remembering … and sobbing. He couldn’t take her to her apartment; that wouldn’t be … proper. He would have to take her to the Archives.

When he’d prevented the destruction of the building last year by having it declared a historical landmark, he’d become custodian. He could come and go as he pleased, let anyone in he wanted. And when Jenny Mills had, perforce, sold her sister’s house, he’d set himself up in a corner with a cot, a hotplate, and a coffee maker.

Crane really didn’t want to take Penny there. He’d always been rather protective of his personal spaces and possessions. But at least he could offer her a warm cover and a cup of coffee.

“What is this place?” she mumbled as he unlocked the door and showed her in. He put her on one of the chairs and went to get a blanket.

“You know I am an archivist.” He stopped to fill the coffee maker with water from a plastic jug, fiddling with coffee grounds. “It is an archive.” No answer. When he turned, he discovered she had risen from the chair and was staring at something on one of the desks.

Hell and damnation.

He’d left his sketch of the Ubaldai on the desktop and forgotten it was there.

Her eyes were large and transfixed and she was breathing too deeply, too quickly. She was going to hyperventilate. He looked desperately around the room. Paper bag. “Bag. Bag. Bag.” Crane grabbed the trashcan, pulled out an Arby’s takeaway bag and ran to her. One arm around her shoulders, he turned her away from the desk. He held the bag to her lips so she could exhale and inhale from it. “Slowly,” he admonished, “slowly.”

She didn’t take his advice right away, but eventually her breathing evened out and she pushed him from her, collapsing in the chair. Silent tears were flowing down her face. When she spoke, her voice was rough. “What is that?”

Wordlessly, he crouched by her chair and offered his handkerchief. He had to say something, explain, rescue her from her shock.  He couldn’t leave her to be one of those in Sleepy Hollow who never got an answer, who were left to nightmares, psychiatrists, or self-medication. Not Miss Penny. No matter what the repercussions.

She looked directly at him as he struggled for words. He lowered his head, stared at the floor, squeezed his eyes shut, then looked back up at her. Opened his mouth and closed it again. Who could be more innocent, more refreshingly hoi polloi than Miss Penny?  How could he possibly find the audacity to change that?

Suddenly, she jumped to her feet, nearly tossing him to the floor. Anger flared as she waved his own handkerchief in his face. “Don’t try to change the subject, mister. You’re not going to convince me I didn’t see that thing. I saw it. You fought it. You stabbed it in the eye and it… it melted. And … and there’s a picture of it!” She motioned violently at the sheet of paper on the desk. “Archivist, my ass!”

He straightened, clutching desperately at the remnants of his procrastination. “Coffee?”

She stiffened, but let him get away with it. “Whiskey.”

“Brandy?”

She nodded. Blew her nose heartily and noisily into his handkerchief. “And the truth.”

In spite of himself, he smiled slightly as he turned to get the bottle.

 

Crane had carefully chosen what to tell her.  He couldn’t deny the evidence of her eyes, especially since she had seen the sketch. He called the Ubaldai by name, showed her a picture in the Bestiary of Nineteenth Century America, paced, and warily tried to evade most of her questions.

He was still pacing, hands clutched at the small of his back, when he sensed she was about to challenge him again. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, making up his mind, straightened, and looked across at her. “Are you familiar with the Book of Revelation?”

She shook her head. “I don’t read many books.”

“You work in a library! How can you possibly—”

Penny dismissed his objection with a wave of her hand. “I can count and I know the alphabet. It’s not rocket science.”

Disgruntled, he stared at her for a moment. Her job probably wasn’t that difficult: reshelving books, running errands, making sure the undergraduates weren’t bussing in the basement stacks. He shook himself back to attention. He was tired and his mind was wandering. “Revelation is part of the Bible,” he explained.

“I haven’t read that since I started playing hooky from Vacation Bible School when I was eight.”

“You read Revelation when you were eight years old?!”

“No!” Penny wrinkled her nose and thought for a moment. “We had The ‘Jesus Calling’ Storybook.”

Was she being deliberately obtuse? He couldn’t tell. “Do you want to hear this?” Crane demanded, hands clutched into fists at his sides.

“Of course!”

“The Book of Revelation—”

“Wait, isn’t that the stuff that crazy people read and drink Kool-Aid and shoot up shopping malls?”

“I suppose.” He rubbed at his temple with a long finger, not understanding the reference, and started again. “The verses have been interpreted in many different ways. They detail the End of Days. The Apocalypse, if you will. One verse also describes the presence of two Witnesses who battle Evil, or the personification of Evil, in an attempt to prevent the Apocalypse.”

“You fight monsters.”

“In essence.”

“In the cemetery.”

“Amongst other places. Usually farther from the center of town.”

“Why you?”

 “I do not really know,” Crane equivocated and smiled slightly. “For my sins, perhaps.”

She pursed her lips and watched him, as if she were waiting for more. When she didn’t get it, she drained her brandy glass and moved on. “Why Sleepy Hollow?”

He shrugged and paced away from her inquisitive look. “Historically, it is the nexus of many supernatural events that we can trace as far back as the Native Americans. The early settlers brought their own belief systems and agendas … fundamentalists, religious fanatics, witches’ covens, Freemasons….”

He pivoted, watching to see if she was absorbing it all. She was mouthing some of the words after him as if she was trying to glean their meaning, but didn’t interrupt. So he continued. “The British who came here to fight in the Revolutionary War, for reasons I will not at this time explain, had to win. They were willing to go to any lengths and summon any sort of beings to that end.  Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers found it necessary to answer the enemy with the same tactics. It did not end there. And so we have inherited thousands of years of warfare between Good and Evil.”

“Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

He blinked. “Pardon?”

“Leonard—He—Never mind.” She flopped a hand in his direction. “Who else?”

Pardon?”

“You said two Witnesses. Who else?”

The pain spiked between his eyes and arrowed down to his heart. He felt light-headed for a moment. “No one. At present.” He turned away. “No one. Just me.”

“Are you okay?” Her voice was soft, concerned.

“Yes,” he whispered, then cleared his throat. “I am fine. Is there anything else you wish to know?”

“Yes. But I don’t know what to ask.”

“You are safe, Miss Penny.” Crane tried to reassure her. “This town is safe. As safe as I can make it. Just do not go strolling through the graveyard after dark anymore.”

“I was not ‘strolling’. I was tired. It was a shortcut to the bus stop.”

He glared at her, pointedly.

“Okay, okay. No more shortcuts. No more ‘strolling’.” She pinned him with her own sharp brown gaze. “No more running with demons at my back.”

“The Ubaldai is not a demon. It….”

“Okay, okay.” Penny stood, pulling his coat from her shoulders and handing it back to him. She spat into his handkerchief and wiped the mascara from her cheeks. He winced, but she didn’t even try to return it.

“Are you all right now?” he asked. “Are you prepared to go home?”

“No. And yessss.”

Crane ran after her before she could get to the door and opened it for her. She stopped before she stepped outside. “Thank you.”

He nodded in acknowledgement, then froze, suspicious. “For what?”

“For being honest with me. I think.” Not enumerating what her doubts might be, she hurried outside. He paused to adjust the collar on his coat and followed her.

“If you please, Miss Penny, I do have a query for you.”

“Yeah?”

“What, precisely, is a ‘buffy’?”

 

Penny hadn’t had anything else to say during the drive to her apartment. Crane had left her to her ruminations, recognizing that she didn’t need any more of his inadequate reassurances. He had stood at her apartment door while she went inside and cleaned up, then watched as she crossed the hall to her fiancé’s door and disappeared inside. Unwilling to abandon Penny just yet, even if she had friends to support her, he had waited there in the hallway. For what, he had been hesitant to speculate.

He still stood there, like a stalker, now unable to keep the consequences of that evening from his thoughts. What was she going to tell Leonard? Was she going to tell him everything? Was she afraid Leonard wouldn’t believe her? Was it fair to put their relationship to a test like this? What would Leonard think? What would he do? What could he do? Would he want to call Crane out, or just punch him in the face?

He stared at the blue door through which Penny had disappeared, then drew in a deep breath and turned away. Four identical doors opened off the hallway, and Crane wondered briefly about the inhabitants behind the other two. What would they think if they found him here, for no demonstrable reason?

He approached the window at the end of the corridor intending to lose himself in the view of a for-once peaceful Sleepy Hollow. But all he could see was his own reflection, reminding him of the decisions of that night.

Crane retreated to the stairwell and settled down on the lower of the steps leading to the fifth floor. He looked down at his feet for a moment, then snapped his back to attention and stared into the air. “Lieutenant, what am I doing?”

Many of the people he and Abbie had encountered who survived contact with otherworldly creatures were law enforcement. Some, they had let in on their secret and taken into what Capt. Reynolds had called “Team Witness.” Others had denied the evidence of their eyes and removed themselves from any involvement.

And now Penny…. But in no way would he invite her to join the battle. She was the person he was meant to fight for, not with.

Crane sighed and stirred, leaning his elbows back on a step behind him. Penny had befriended him shortly after she had started a new job at the Tarrytown University Library. Crane had been working for six months as historian in the rare book archive when she came down to the basement. She had been headed to the employees’ breakroom, but poked her head into his department first. She wanted to know if he ever ate lunch.

“I assure you,” he had said, “I have many ordinary habits.” And immediately regretted his choice of words.

But she had laughed. “I’m Penny. I work upstairs in the stacks. And I haven’t seen you in the lunchroom.”

“Oh, I bring my lunch. I eat it here.” He motioned to his desk.

“That’s a little too ordinary, don’t you think? Why don’t you eat your lunch with me?”

And he had. A couple of times a week, now. In spite of the fact that Crane was now successfully supporting himself, little else in his life had been settled since he had lost Abbie. He was barely managing an existence at the archive, reading and studying to stay ahead of the few demons which had manifested themselves. And making a few new acquaintances, but no new friends. Six months without Abbie, without Miss Jenny, without any of those who had supported him in this new world, and he had not yet begun to reach beyond his closed existence.

Penny was a refreshing addition to his life, fussing over his wedge-like cheese sandwiches and warning him of his addiction to pastry. She’d told him a few stories of her boyfriend and his roommate, but he suspected many of the tales were purposely devised to amuse him. One thing was patently clear—one thing that appealed to Crane and strangely reassured him about his current reality: she was very much in love with her fiancé.

Now, as Crane again shifted his position on the cold, hard stairs, he realized that she had to depend upon Leonard in this. He had to depend upon Leonard — a man he had never met. Leonard was the one who had to be there for Penny. Whatever happened, it was his place, not Crane’s. But Crane wasn’t going anywhere, not yet. He would hear the screams, the arguments, the activity on the other side of the door when Penny finally told her story. He would see Leonard come running out of the apartment to find the man who had done this. Or he would feel the vibrations of the police or the EMTs thundering up the stairs.

Or not. Perhaps the Penny who had asked questions and cracked feeble jokes would remain in control. Perhaps the vibrant, cheerful young woman who had grown to be important to him would triumph.

“God help us all,” he pled.

After a half hour of silence and the same thoughts tumbling around in his brain again and again, he pulled a slim book from a deep pocket in the lining of his jacket. His journal. If his mind was to be troubled by the evening's events, he might as well put them into words as he had the time. He retrieved the stub of a pencil as well, and opened the pages to the end of his last ruminations.

Just as he was delineating what he had revealed to Penny about Biblical Witnesses, Crane heard a muffled scream. He froze. There was another, somewhat louder, longer scream. Voices raised, footsteps, more voices. A light suddenly showed under the door. More silence, then strident tones that were loud enough to hear, but not understand. Silence.

Crane stood, straining his ears for any sound, ready to hide further up the stairs if necessary. He stood like that for nearly forty-five minutes. Then the light went out. Against his better judgment, he put his ear to the door. Voices, fading. Nothing. He let out a heavy sigh. And began to pace.

When the sun peeked over the horizon, Crane left.

 

 

Ichabod Crane should have been a happy man. He was in the rare books archive at Tarrytown, unpacking a new shipment the buyers had purchased from Dreweatts and Bloomsbury. It was the sort of thing he usually reveled in. But his thoughts were scattered, and, if it had not been for his eidetic memory, he would have quite forgotten each of the titles he had read from the fragile spines.

He should also have been happy that he had vanquished another evil creature several nights before, without the aid and support of Miss Jenny or Master Corbin or Miss Sophie or Agent Reynolds or … or the Lieutenant … Abbie….

Abbie was gone.

Jenny was traveling the world searching for artifacts and arcane knowledge which might help in his own endeavors. Because Jenny couldn’t bear to live in the town where she had finally been happy with Joe and looking forward to … everything…. And, he forced himself to add, she couldn’t look Crane in the eyes and not remember how her sister had died.

Abbie was dead.

The surviving Mills sister was also looking for any sign of the new Witness. Crane couldn’t leave Sleepy Hollow, the Ubaldai had proven that once again. He had thought, perhaps the Witness might come to him, but … not yet.

Perhaps not ever.

After he’d had some promising initial contact with Sophie and Reynolds, the FBI had officially washed their hands of him, preferring Not To Know. Sophie could not actively help any longer, but she had on occasion contacted him about anomalies and abnormalities which had come to the attention of the FBI and the local police. She wouldn’t tell him how she acquired the knowledge, although he did guess her methods weren’t exactly regulation. His own police scanner produced less satisfactory results, but he persevered.

Badly, he had to admit. For even though he had vanquished the Ubaldai, the experience had ultimately been a fiasco. Crane looked down at his hand where he had unconsciously crumpled the shipping inventory. He tossed the paper onto the table, without thinking to straighten it out, and paced away, hands in fists, pressing his fingernails into his palms.

His acquaintanceship with Penny was one of the things he treasured in his new life. She was bright, fresh, and normal. And now she had been introduced to his tainted world. Just like Zoe.

During that long night in the hallway, he had come to accept that the reasons for his confession were not altogether for Penny’s peace of mind. Actually, he had made the most feeble of excuses for selfishly wishing someone knew more about him than his predilection for doughnut holes. The opportunity had been presented to him by Fate and he had grasped it to his bosom, unthinking, with both hands.

But he had since had time to think.

What was he going to do? Keep her at arm’s length? Put her out of his life altogether? Try to explain again? “You probably won’t have a choice, you fool,” he admonished himself. Penny hadn’t been to work for the last three days—he had checked.

He paced again. He couldn’t settle. He couldn’t think about the newly-arrived books. He couldn’t think.

“Crane!”

He startled. No…. He turned.

The woman from his thoughts came running across the room and stopped in front of him. Although she was making the effort to smile, she looked him up and down as if she were upset with him for something. “You look … rough.”

“I—” He frowned. Penny had dark spots under her eyes and a little too much makeup. Her hair was limp and a certain spark was gone from her demeanor. “You do not— How are you? What — ?”

A voice from the hallway overrode his turmoil. “Penny!”

“In here!” she called over her shoulder. Then she froze her lips like a ventriloquist as she still managed to whisper, “Go along with anything you hear.”

“What—?”

A man appeared at the door, dressed in a t-shirt with a jellyfish on it and one of those jackets with all the pockets. He had dark hair and black-rimmed glasses and was a few inches shorter than the blonde woman. She stepped over to the newcomer and took his arm. “Crane, this is my fiancé, Dr. Leonard Hofstadter. Leonard, this is Ichabod Crane.”

The man grinned widely and offered his hand. “Gee, and I thought my mother hated me.”

Crane’s handshake was not nearly as assertive as it normally was. “P-pardon?”

Penny threw an annoyed look at her boyfriend, then made the effort to smile at Crane again. “Leonard just wanted to meet you and say ‘thanks’.”

“For,” Crane asked weakly. She didn’t. She couldn’t have. Surely she knew better. He’d told her not to tell anyone. “What purpose?”

Leonard seemed oblivious to the undercurrent in the room. He put his arm over Penny’s shoulder. “She was so brave, I didn’t realize anything was wrong. Until she started screaming in the middle of the night and woke herself up. And me.” His voice trailed off. “And … and Sheldon.”

“My sincerest apologies.” Crane looked back and forth between the two, searching his mind for something to say. They didn’t look like they were ready to lynch him, but sometimes he wasn’t the best at reading people. “Perhaps I should have—”

Penny interrupted again, apparently determined not to let Crane explain himself or even finish a thought. “Oh, don’t be sorry for waking up Sheldon. He deserves it after all those disaster drills at two a.m.”

Disaster … drills….

Leonard brightened again. “So she told me all about it and she calmed down and I wanted to thank you myself.”

“Pray, let me express—”

“No—!” Penny shouted.

Crane drew himself up to his fullest height. “Are going to allow me to speak?”

“No. Leonard knows how much the memories upset me. I don’t really want to think about that … that….”

Crane froze.

“That mugger.” Leonard and Penny finished together.

Crane let out his breath. Finally. Mugger.

Penny continued, with a look at Crane that practically drilled through him. “I mean, neither of us really saw him that well, with that dark hoodie and the scarf covering the bottom of his face and how dark it was and how he ran away so fast after you punched him in the eye. And we couldn’t call the cops ’cause there was really nothing to tell.”

“Of course. I wounded him in the eye.” Crane drawled sarcastically, so relieved as to be almost giddy. “And we could not ‘call the cops’.”

Penny laid her hand on Leonard’s chest and squeezed his shoulder. “See, sweetie? I told you he’d be all modest.”

Leonard put out his hand again. “Well, I just wanted to see you … Ich … Ichabod. I’ve got to get to work.”

“Crane.” The shake was much more satisfactory this time. “My friends call me Crane.”

“Great.” Leonard turned to Penny, wiggled his eyebrows, and tilted his head toward the other man. “Don’t forget.” He kissed her briefly on the cheek and left, waving.

Crane was finally free to talk. “Are you really all right?”

“I’m getting there. Leonard’s being really supportive.” She shrugged. “I’m sorry about the story, but I had to say something.”

“It’s fine. It’s good. I am exceedingly penitent for your nightmares.”

Her eyes watered and she reached out to the table to support herself. He tried to take her elbow, but she waved him off. “I’m okay.”

“I would not have left you alone...” Did not leave you alone, he thought. “But—”

“I told you I was all right that night.” She straightened her shoulders. “And I’m really all right now.”

Penny wiped at her nose with the back of her hand. Crane pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to her.

“Leonard’s going to wonder why I have a collection of these.” She dabbed at her eyes so as not to smear her makeup. “But I’ll never tell.”

 “What can I do?”

She finished with her nose and tucked the bit of cloth into her pocket. “Come to dinner.”

He was shocked into rudeness. “What?”

“Come to dinner.”

“That is not necessary.” Crane took a step back, to recover his personal space.

“Leonard wants to say ‘thank you’. We both do. And,” suddenly she couldn’t look at him again, “I need to be normal. I need you to be normal. I want to think of you as the nice guy I met at work, not… some….”

“I accept … the invitation.” He interrupted, afraid to hear what she thought of him now. If she could put aside her fears to save their friendship, he would embrace the opportunity.

Her smile returned, this time genuinely. “Just come by the apartment. Leonard’s apartment. Informal. Hair down. Feet up. Pizza?”

“I do enjoy pizza, but let us refrain from being carried away.”

She snickered. “Maybe not. Keep your feet on the floor if you need to. Friday night. Seven?”

“It will be my pleasure.” He bowed.

 

 

Crane didn’t even glance at the elevator before he headed for the stairs; he knew it would not have been repaired in the five days since he had been here. Penny had told him the contraption had been nonfunctional since before she had moved into the building. He wasn’t quite sure he trusted elevators, anyway. It was, he justified his reticence, just another poor excuse to keep the people in this century from getting proper exercise.

Penny was closing the door to her own apartment, carrying an empty platter, as Crane arrived on the fourth floor. “Hey, Crane.” She waved the platter and shrugged. “The boys don’t have a hell of a lot of dishes.”

“Miss Penny.” He nodded, wondering what place the oversized plate would have in the serving of pizza.

She pointed to the bottle carrier in his hand. “Is that wine? Thank you. I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough.”

 “I am unaware of the proper sort to imbibe with pizza. So I brought two bottles. I thought ale might be preferable, but not everyone likes Samuel Adams.” Hah, he couldn’t resist the thought. Truer words were never spoken. He pulled his mind back to the present and glanced up at the door they were standing beside. “Although, I must confess, the odor is not evocative of Italian cuisine.”

Her eyes clouded over for a telling split second, then she grinned. “Oh, no. Raj was offended at the idea of having takeout, so he said he’d cook.” She opened the door and stood aside, but he motioned for her to go first.

“Raj?” he inquired.

But Penny either didn’t hear or ignored him as she charged past. He sniffed. Salmon. And garlic. And onions. And tomatoes… and….

…And the room was full of people. Seven including Penny, most of them sitting on a couch and odd chairs in an arrangement facing the television. So much for casual – he knew he should have worn his good coat, his best shirt. He smiled stiffly and hurried after Penny to the kitchen counter.

Crane was not a stranger to social situations. He had attended many soirees with British aristocrats and army officers, as well as American gentry and businessmen. He had no problem with such men and ladies, or with fellow soldiers and freedom fighters. He had thought he could hold his own with Penny and her gentleman friend. But what in creation was he to discuss with a roomful of modern young people?

Relieved of the wine, he looked across the counter at a dark-skinned man wearing an oven mitt.

“Crane,” Penny piped up, “this is Rajesh Koothrappali. Raj, Ichabod Crane.”

Crane bowed his head in his usual greeting. Raj looked surprised, then smiled widely and bobbed his head as well. “Namaste.”

Ehrmm. “Mr. Koothrappali. I am at your service.”

Penny said, “Raj works in the Physics Department at Tarrytown. He has a doctorate in astrophysics.”

Dr. Koothrappali. My apologies.”

Raj shook his head, still smiling. “Not at all. Several of us here have acquired doctorates. It used to bother Penny—”

“You wish!” she protested.

“But you are the man of the hour this evening.”

“On the contrary,” Crane gestured to the food on the counter, “I believe that anyone who volunteers to prepare dinner is the man of the hour.”

“Do you cook…” Raj flipped a brief glance at Penny, “Crane?”

“I have been known to prepare an excellent baked marrow pudding.”

“Sounds old-fashioned.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Hey, Penny,” a voice came from the direction of the couch, “bring him over here before they start hugging each other and singing ‘Kum-ba-ya’.”

“Howard!” Penny scolded.

“Howie!” Another feminine, but high-pitched voice echoed.

Crane felt Penny touch his arm to urge him across the room. He smiled at Raj. “I look forward to your Salmon….”

“Sarciado.” Raj gave another little bow and waved his wooden spoon.

“C’mon.” Penny led him to the couch. “Crane, the loudmouth is Howard Wolowitz.”

He bowed. And guessed. Rajesh had said they all had doctorates but Penny, and Crane knew how closely most held their honoraries. “Dr. —”

The short, dark-haired young man with a rather large nose froze in his chair. “Mister. Thank you.”

“Oh, bazinga, Howard.” A tall, thin man seated on the couch snorted inelegantly. “Good shot, Crane.”

“Sheldon!” Leonard was sitting among the group, next to the man who had spoken. “What did we talk about?”

Crane floundered. “I sincerely beg your pardon. I had no intention—”

Penny stepped in to save him. “Howard is an engineer in the Physics Department. He invents gadgets for the government.”

Howard was apparently not mollified. His demeanor was unyielding as he stiffly explained. “I helped design the Mars Rover. I designed the telescope for the International Space Station. And I installed it. In person. In space.”

“You have been in space?” Crane’s interest was instant and obvious. “How remarkable! You mean like The Right Stuff?”

A loud chorus of groans came from the entire room.

Exactly like that.” Howard ignored them, perking up, apparently forgetting any slights to his person as he answered Crane. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done! Let me tell you—”

“Careful, Howard,” Raj mimicked from the kitchen. “Or you’ll start hugging yourself and singing ‘Rocket Man’.”

“Okay, people, listen up!” Penny shouted. “I invited Crane here to thank him for saving my life. So anybody who can’t behave themselves can leave right now.”

“Sorry, Penny.” Raj and Howard intoned immediately.

Her eyes went to Sheldon. “I live here!” he protested.

Leonard shrugged to his girlfriend. “I think that’s all you’re gonna get, honey. Sorry, Crane.”

Crane stood helplessly at attention, fingers flying, attempting to regain his equilibrium. He really was interested in the idea of space flight, but right now he was growing a headache. He struggled to smile at Howard. “I would love to speak of it later.”

“And this,” Penny overrode the moment, “is Dr. Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz.”

The woman sitting beside Howard was blonde, buxom, and petite—at least as short as the Lieutenant or perhaps a few inches shorter. “Yeah. I’m married to the putz.” Her voice came out surprisingly shrill and nasal. Then she offered her hand and a brilliant grin. “Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Crane,” she cooed.

He took her hand and bowed, almost touching his lips to it. “As am I, Dr. … W…w…?” He cast a glance out of the corner of his eye at Penny, who nodded encouragingly. “Wolowitz.”

“Bernadette,” the slight woman insisted.

“Are you a physician?”

“Oh, no, I have a doctorate in microbiology.”

“Indeed.”

Penny rescued him again. “Bernadette studies germs and develops medicines and does drug tests and stuff.”

Bernadette wrinkled her nose at Penny. “Good try,” she said drily.

Crane smiled, gallantly trying to rescue his hostess in turn. “I am sure we will have the opportunity to discuss your work at some point.”

“Oh?” Bernadette’s voice was sharp. “I thought you were a librarian.”

Just a librarian, Crane heard in his inner ear, and felt a sudden empathy for Howard. “I am an archivist, yes. But I have a voracious curiosity about almost any developments in this century.” He caught himself. “Or any other century.” He shrugged. “Because my main concentration is history.”

The woman sitting beside Bernadette spoke up. “Is that why you dress like that?”

“Partly.” Crane shifted his attention to field his least-favorite question, as everyone else’s eyes focused on the young woman. She wore glasses, long brown hair, a long skirt, and a sweater. “I also find it comfortable.”

She defended herself to the group who were all looking at her now. “What? Everybody else was thinking it.” She leaned forward as if to deliver a deep confidence to Crane. “I like it.”

“Thank you, Miss — ”

“Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler.”

Another doctor. She offered her hand, not to be shaken, but with her palm to the floor, inviting the kiss he had nearly bestowed on Bernadette. She beamed at him expectantly. He obliged.

“See, Sheldon.” Amy addressed the tall man sitting next to her, showing her hand to him. “That’s the way you do it.”

Penny broke in again. “Amy’s a neurobiologist. And our resident romantic.”

“Hey!” For some reason, Raj took exception to that description.

“Hey!” Sheldon echoed, pulling away from Amy’s hand. “Do you know how many germs are on his mouth?”

You could kiss my hand.”

“Do you know how many germs are on your hand?”

“And this,” Penny’s voice topped the argument, “is — ”

Crane bowed, remembering some of the stories he had heard at lunches and determining to get the best of this exchange at least. “Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Your reputation precedes you.”

“Of course it does.” Sheldon agreed, but not gracefully. “But I’ve got a bone to pick with you about your reputation, buddy.”

Crane drew back. “Pardon?”

“I mean, you hardly saved her life, no matter what she says. At the most, you saved her purse. She’s the Mistress of Hyperbole.”

“Did Sheldon just insult me?” Penny asked Leonard. Leonard ignored the question, keeping his eye on his roommate.

Sheldon continued. “You couldn’t even keep your hands on the mugger. You let him get away. What good is that? I’ll be looking over my shoulder every time I go outside!”

“Sheldon!” Leonard exclaimed. “You’re never outside. You make me drive you everywhere you go. You think exercise is a walk down the street in a video game and a breath of fresh air is poking your head into the hallway!”

“But I’ll know he’s there. I’ll have to run to get to the car.”

Howard leaned forward. “Hey, even muggers on the loose would be worth it to see you run.”

Sheldon threw Howard a withering look. “Howard—”

“Who wants wine?” Penny shouted.

Leonard cleared his throat. Bernadette shifted on the couch. Howard rolled his eyes. Amy studied her fingernails. Sheldon announced, “I’ll have a Diet Coke.”

“You don’t have to worry about the two dollar Thunderbird they’re selling at the corner gas station. Crane brought this.”

“I’ll have some.” Bernadette said immediately.

“Me, too.”

“I’ll help.” Leonard stood up.

“I’ll get it, sweetie. Just clear off the coffee table.”

Leonard grabbed a laptop computer and a box of DVD’s from the table and gestured at the chair he had just vacated. “Sit here, Crane. Best seat in the house.”

“I beg to differ,” Sheldon started in, but as Crane sat down his attention followed the two people in the kitchen.

Raj leaned over to Penny as she walked to the counter, his whisper louder than he realized. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

“You were parading him around like the Queen Mother. Usually we just point and say ‘that’s him, that’s him, that’s her, no quiz later’.”

She posed with her hands on her hips. “Yeah, you do that at Comic Con. Not your living room.” She reached for the wine and a corkscrew from a drawer. “Anyway, I thought it might give them something to talk about besides Batman and Donkey Kong.”

Crane made a move to stand again, but Leonard stopped him. “Penny can handle the cork. She’s a pro.”

“Everyone can pour their own,” Raj interjected. “Dinner is served.”

Hands full with flotsam from the coffee table, Leonard stopped and motioned to Crane. “Go ahead.”

“The ladies should go first.”

“Of course.” Leonard’s smile disappeared. “My bad. Amy? Bernadette?

The ladies dished out salmon, rice, and asparagus as Raj waited expectantly. They were examining the wine label when Sheldon peered into a pan of food. “What’s in it?”

“I know everyone’s food allergies, Sheldon,” Raj pointed out peevishly. “No one is going to die tonight.”

“Yes, but will I like it?”

“Let’s see ….” Raj pursed his lips. “I know. Why don’t you try it?”

“That seems an unreasonable way to determine an outcome without committing myself beforehand.”

“Sheldon,” Amy muttered, “consider it an experiment to determine your toleration levels.”

Penny had filled a plate and was shoving it at him. “Here. No one will make you eat it if you don’t want it.”

Sheldon took his dinner and went to the refrigerator, pulling out a can of Diet Coke. “Did you know that salmon are anadromous? That means they can live in both fresh water and salt water.”

Crane couldn’t help drilling the ungracious Sheldon with a look. “That’s how they are able to swim upriver and spawn.”

“Some salmon travel up to 3,500 miles to spawn,” Sheldon countered.

Crane parried. “They do not eat while they are returning to the place of their birth but live off their body fat.”

“Boys!” Penny raised her voice. “We’re trying to eat here.”

“Pardon.” Crane felt his face warming. “My apologies.” He bowed slightly and took a glass of wine from Penny. Then he nodded at Raj encouragingly and spooned out his own food.

Sheldon huffed. “Well, excuse me for trying to educate the masses.”

They were all huddled in the kitchen; it was cozy but not conducive to dining. Crane looked around the apartment for a table. Penny said, “Just go sit in the easy chair.”

Everyone sat in the same arrangement as before. Leonard settled on the floor on one side, Raj on the other. Crane briefly tried to sort out the etiquette, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Everyone was relaxed, concentrating on their food.

The Lieutenant and he used to sit on the floor sometimes, when they ate in the living room. Feet up and hair down. Of course. He smiled. “The Salmon Sarciado is excellent,” Crane said. “My compliments.”

“Thank you!” Raj beamed. “These hooligans wouldn’t know haute cuisine if it bit them on the—” Amy glared “—nose.”

“But you’ve never made us lobster,” Howard quipped, imitating the claws with his fingers. He looked around the room to find no one laughing. “Which would … bite us….” He made the pincer gesture again. “On the nose.” He subsided.

The sound of silverware halted any talk for a couple of minutes. When Crane saw Sheldon fixing him with curious looks, he tried to direct the conversation away from himself. “So, Dr. Koothrappali, what is your native country?”

“India. I am from New Delhi. My parents still live there.”

“Do you not cook from the cuisine of India?”

Raj announced baldly. “I hate Indian food.”

Okay. Crane tried again. “How long have you been in America? You seem to have a much better grasp on the vernacular than I.”

That comment produced undue mirth from Howard’s direction. Raj made a valiant effort to ignore him.

“Oh. I’ve been here about eight years, but we spoke English at home.” His expression turned sour. “And Howard can at all times be counted on to correct my language and pronunciation.”

Howard smiled. “Always my pleasure, Raj.”

“How long have you been in this country, Crane?” Amy broke in.

“I have been here a little over three years. Perhaps I, also, can rely on Howard.”

“That’s not—” Amy started, but was interrupted by a strange chortle from Sheldon.

“Another Howard bazinga. You’re good, Crane.”

“Pardon?”

Bernadette squeezed Howard’s knee and he closed the mouth that he was just opening. Bernadette smiled sweetly. “Do you live in Tarrytown around the university?”

“No, I live in Sleepy Hollow.”

“Ooooh, not those townhouses on Rockland.” Bernadette’s eyes went wide. “Those are gorgeous.”

“No. No, closer to the middle of town, across from the police department.”

Crane saw Penny’s eyes jerk up from her plate and narrow on him. She knew exactly where the Archives were. Now she knew he was living there. The very definition of creepy. Good, Crane.

Bernadette wrinkled her nose in thought. “I don’t remember any apartments there…”

Penny spoke up, brightly. “So, what do you do when you’re not at the university? In your spare time.”

“I read and collect books.”

“Something different than your job,” she commented drily.

Crane knew why she had redirected the discussion, but he felt a pang of disloyalty at her barb. “I also enjoy television, music, local history. Oh, yes, and Alien Invasion.”

“You play video games?” Leonard grinned and his eyebrows rose.

Crane backpedaled quickly. The ladies didn’t look happy. The Lieutenant, after seeing him introduced him to the phenomenon, had disapproved of the hours he would sometimes spend at the console. “Not all of them. I like Alien Invasion because I can practice my shooting on something besides other people or supernatural monsters or zombies.” He shrugged. “I am not sure why everyone is so fond of zombies.”

“Well, if you want to shoot things—” Sheldon jumped up and dodged all the feet to get to the hallway.

“Sheldon, sweetie,” Penny stopped him, “we’re not here right now to play video games.”

Sheldon froze. Penny continued watching him. He rocked his weight onto his front foot as if to keep going.

“No.”

He straightened and froze. Then rocked again. “Sheldon.” Penny pointed to the empty spot on the couch. “Sit.”

Sheldon pouted like a chastised child and threw himself onto the couch. The room grew silent as they recovered from the tantrum.

“Oh.” Sheldon suddenly sat up as if nothing had happened. “If you watch television, you must know Star Trek. Which one is your favorite?”

“Pardon?” The abrupt change of subject took Crane aback.

Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, or Star Trek: Enterprise,” he intoned. “I won’t ask about CBS All Access because no one knows anything about that yet.”

Raj bounced in his spot on the floor. “Except for Nathan Fillion.”

Leonard smiled across at him. “Yeah, isn’t that great?”

“That’s just a rumor,” Howard pointed out.

“I’ll hold my judgments until the actual premiere.” Sheldon shook his head. “If we’ve learned anything, it’s not to anticipate.” He again fixed Crane with his stare. “Well?”

Crane had lost track of the question. “Pardon?”

Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, or Star Trek: Enterprise. And if you say Voyager,” he gestured, “there is the door.”

Crane looked over at the door and back at Sheldon. “Pardon?”

Sheldon sighed impatiently. “Star Trek: The Original Series, Star –

“No, I don’t need the list again. It’s all rather startling, space travel, is it not?” He looked to Howard, but Sheldon clucked his tongue. “I do rather like the balding gentleman. Captain Picard. He reminds me of” Crane stopped himself and hoped Sheldon wouldn’t notice. He didn’t.

“Well, that took long enough. Like pulling teeth. Okay, you can stay.” But his quiz wasn’t over. “What’s your favorite movie?”

“Sheldon,” Leonard admonished.

“No,” Amy said. “I want to know, too.”

“That can be a rather daunting task, can’t it? Picking one from them all?” Crane thought for a minute. “The Lion in Winter, I believe.”

“Oh. Okay.” Sheldon seemed to lose interest in the interrogation.

Crane defended his choice to Amy, who was still listening. “The usage of language is so refreshing compared to most modern speech.” He faltered, looking around the room to see the rest of them watching him with varying degrees of pique. “In movies,” he amended quickly, yet drew himself up to meet anyone who might challenge him. No one did. “I am also fascinated by the way they weave history into popular entertainment, poetic indulgence aside.”

Amy generously brushed past his faux pas. “Shakespeare did that all the time,” she suggested.

“Of course, but he often twisted history to appease the crown. I doubt that Hollywood has a stake in maligning the character of Henry II.”

“But they are interested in making it as dramatic and histrionic as possible.”

While Crane was considering that, Howard said, “Iron Man.”

Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Raj volunteered.

“But your girl Sandy B. wasn’t in that one.” Howard pointed out.

“She should have been.”

“Back up. Why Iron Man?” Sheldon objected. “Why not….”

 

Crane felt as if he were sinking in some sort of verbal mire. The conversation went back and forth until his neck got sore. It seemed like some sort of game whose rules he was not privy to. Sometimes he got the answers right, sometimes he got them wrong. Desperate for a distraction, he looked into his wine glass and saw only the dregs looking back. He really shouldn’t ask for more without being offered, but Penny had said casual. She was in the kitchen, rinsing and stacking dishes by the sink, so he went to stand beside her. “I can help with that if you like.”

“No. Thanks. I’m going to leave the rest.”

He waggled his glass at her. “Is there any more wine?”

“Oh.” She wrinkled her nose and nodded to the two empty bottles sitting by their carrier. “Sorry. It goes fast when four people turn into eight.” She crossed to the refrigerator and examined the insides. “I can offer you …. Eh. Just the stuff from the gas station.”

He raised an eyebrow, his glass still in the air. She shrugged, opened the green bottle and poured.  Crane took a sip, and, before he could temper his reaction, his eyes widened in shock.

“Look, you don’t need that.” Penny took the glass and set it on the counter. He made a grab for it, but her reflexes were faster than his. She poked him twice on the chest. “You’re doing fine.”

Disgruntled, he looked down at the offending finger, then fixed her with a look. “So why does the phrase ‘baptism of fire’ come to mind?”

Her answering look was sheepish. “I didn’t mean all this. But I had to include Sheldon. And then he mentioned it last night and everybody just invited themselves. I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry. I am being churlish. I am complimented that you wanted me to meet your friends.”

“They’re a tough audience. You are doing fine,” Penny assured him again. “Just one thing. Try not to say ‘pardon’ so much. It makes you sound weird.”

Crane drew himself up, embarrassed at the thought of seeming “weird”. “What am I supposed to say, ‘explain yourself, you idiot’?” He clipped off the last sound with the tip of his tongue.

“That would probably be okay with this bunch.” She smiled slightly and turned back to dry her hands. Crane watched her for a moment.

He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “You are not as jovial as you would wish everyone to believe.”

“I’m not sure what that means.” She tried to put him off. “Something to do with Santa Claus?”

“You are still thinking about the other night. You are still afraid. Every time you look at me.” He sighed deeply. “I knew this would happen. It’s all right, you know. I can leave.”

“No!” Penny shouted, then lowered her voice as everyone looked over. “No, listen. Like you said, it’s only been a couple days. I’m still working on getting over it.” She reached for the dishrag and started picking at the edges as though she wanted to unravel it. “I talked it over with Leonard. Well, as much as I could. And I have to do this my way. It isn’t the monster, it’s the idea of monsters. Knowing there are more of them. All over town.” Penny threw the rag at the counter and turned to him. “Having you around makes me feel better.”

The explanation somehow disappointed him. “Keep your enemies closer,” he muttered.

Her expression was confused. Then upset. “Not an enemy. I like you. I want you to be a friend.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I … need … a friend. But—”perhaps not seven of them, he thought.

“Hey, I seem to attract weird people.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” He raised an eyebrow.

“If the shoe fits….” She poked his chest again and turned to join the others.

He lifted his wine from the counter and, without thinking, drank. He made a face because she wasn’t looking and followed her. “But next time I am bringing more than two bottles.”