Word Count: ~8100
Summary: It takes a photoshoot and a new (conniving and very perceptive) addition to the gang for it to happen, but hey, who's complaining?
Notes: amy never happened and lenny is a no no. howie and bernie are happily married. raj and stuart are happy too \o/ also, set around the end of season 5, maybe. this features alice from the good guy fluctuation. i hope elffriend26 enjoys it! this is actually my first time writing for this fandom so /o\
also at AO3
"Don't take too long, Sheldon."
Sheldon sighs, rolling his eyes. "Penny, how many times do I have to tell you? Picking which comic books I should buy is a delicate process."
"Yeah, well, who's the one with the car?" Penny says, turning off the engine.
"Is that a threat?" Sheldon narrows his eyes. His arms are crossed, looking every bit unhappy and suspicious as he usually does when Penny drives him places. She's never going to understand why, she thinks, especially since he'd be at the mercy of bus bacteria without her.
"Of course it is, sweetie," she replies, her smile wide. She likes messing with Sheldon. It doesn't help that Sheldon, for all his wit and intelligence, does not fare well when it comes to other people and remaining within what's socially acceptable. He's a mess, and his friends call him crazy. Penny agrees, in a way, but she likes to think that he's misunderstood. It's why she's a lot more patient with Sheldon than the others.
"Thirty minutes, that's all I'm gonna give you," Penny says, with a finality that makes Sheldon keep his mouth shut despite the countless protests he's probably nursing. Instead, he rushes out of the car and into the comic book store because he knows that Penny won't change her mind.
"Good boy," she says, her eyes crinkling.
Penny follows him inside, and when she sees that he's thumbing through the new arrivals, she nods to herself and stands by a rack of comic books by the door. She looks at the line of comic books, the different superheroes and their exaggerated musculature, their fierce faces, and determined gazes. She picks one up and skims through it with slight interest. It's a Captain America comic, and she knows a bit from the movie franchise, so it isn't confusing when she sees the Red Skull or when she reads words like herr doktor.
She's a few pages into the comic when someone taps her shoulder.
"Hey, um. I don't usually strike up a conversation here unless someone has a comic I really want, but then I see another girl in this kind of place and I thought I should make an exception." Penny's torn between amusement and confusion but she manages to shake hands with the brunette in front of her. "My name's Alice."
"Penny. So," Penny cocks her head to the side, smiling, "comic enthusiast?"
"Why, yes I am. Artist, too," Alice chuckles. "I used to make comic books based on my life but things are on a low right now."
"Oh, you're lucky, actually. My life is like a roller coaster these days."
"At least you're getting more excitement than I am. Hey, I could draw you. For a comic, I mean. If you're okay with that." Alice looks hopeful, and Penny can't find it in herself to say no, even though she barely knows this girl.
"Sure, why not," she says, smiling warmly as she puts the Captain America comic back in its place.
"Cool! Call me when you're free," Alice all but squeaks when she takes out a pen and writes down her number on Penny’s palm, obviously eager. "So, I'm guessing you're not into comic books as I am. Which one are you, the friend or the girlfriend?"
"Ah, just a friend," Penny's eyes find Sheldon, who's arguing with a gangly teenager over an action figure. (She has learned not to call them dolls.) "I got stuck with driving duty."
"Hm," Alice scrunches her nose, "he looks familiar. Who is he?"
"His name's Sheldon. He lives in the apartment across mine, rooms with his friend, Leonard," Penny explains.
"Oh. Oh, okay. Shit." Alice grabs Penny's arm, her eyes wide as she stares at Sheldon. "I know why he's familiar. His roommate, Leonard? I went on a date with him once, and let me tell you, it did not end well."
Penny snorts, flushing when she realizes it might have been offending. "Sorry, but what did he do this time?"
"Well, we were making out on my couch--which wasn't even that nice, by the way--and then he tells me he has a girlfriend. Just like that!" Alice huffs indignantly. "I still can't believe I had him pegged as a good guy."
"Don't feel bad, sweetie," Peggy says, squeezing Alice's hand in understanding. "I know exactly how you feel."
"What, he had an almost affair with you too?" Alice jokes.
"No, but, he was moving a bit too fast for me. Romantically, speaking, not sexually." Penny's eyes narrow in thought. "Actually, no, he always was too quick in the bedroom, if you know what I mean."
Alice laughs. "I like you. You're fun."
Before Penny can reply, Sheldon's at her side, holding a bag as big as his torso. "Penny, I'm ready to go," he says pointedly.
"And with three minutes to spare," Penny says, nodding appreciatively. She turns to Alice. "You know, we're having pizza. Or the gang is having pizza while you and I are gonna steal away a box and have some wine in my apartment, if you want."
"I'd like that," Alice beams, linking arms with Penny. "I won't mind if you wanna hang out with your friends, though. Leonard may be a bastard but that doesn't mean I can't give the others a chance."
Penny doesn't bother defending Leonard. Everyone's a bastard at some point in his life, and she can't deny that what Leonard did was wrong. No matter what he says about resisting temptation and stopping himself before things got out of hand, he still should not have called Alice, knowing what things would lead to. Besides, Alice seems like a nice girl. She's frank, has a sense of humor, definitely easy to strike a conversation with. So Penny glances over her shoulder, to Sheldon standing with a bored expression on his face, and says, "C'mon, sweetie. Let's take you home."
"White or red?"
"Red wine, please," Alice says from the couch. She's holding a slice of pepperoni pizza in her hand, looking every bit polite even though she's probably starving, from the sound of her stomach rumbling. Penny hastens, gently puts down the wine glasses on the table, and flops unceremoniously next to Alice.
"I was thinking maybe we could watch a movie," Penny says, pouring wine for the both of them.
Alice hums approvingly, taking a sip from her glass, and says, "Sure. What do you have?"
Penny scrunches her nose in thought. "Well, I have the Star Trek movies."
Alice raises an eyebrow. "Reboot?"
"Reboot and original. Sheldon made me buy a whole set of the old ones." Penny shrugs. "They're okay. I like them."
"What else do you have?"
"Oh! I have all the recent Marvel movies. We could watch Captain America." Penny wriggles her eyebrows. "I've never really understood all the shit with the Red Skull."
"Better late than never," Alice agrees. "You know, I actually wouldn't have pegged you as a Marvel sort of girl."
"I like movies better than comic books." Penny ignores the glint in Alice's eyes that mean for now. "Besides Batman and Superman, there aren't a lot of movies with the Justice League."
"And it helps that both Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are hot."
They laugh. "That too."
"You're missing out on a lot, though. I swear, if you start reading, you will never stop. And you won't even have to spend money. I know a lot of people interested in comic books who only download off the internet."
Penny purses her lips. Alice is pulling off the whole needy puppy look pretty well. "Oh, all right. Give me all you've got. After we watch the movie."
"Yay! I promise I won't turn you into a mindless geek," Alice says, giving Penny a short hug. "Well, maybe a sexy, mindless geek. All the guys are into that."
"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?" Penny narrows her eyes, remembering when she got into Age of Conan. It definitely wasn't one of the best phases in her life, even counting her entire relationship with Kurt or the boy in sixth grade who wouldn't stop telling her to put her junior rodeo skills to use and ride him.
"Maybe," Alice says, her smile smug, "but worth it, in the end. I promise."
Penny rolls her eyes. "All right, all right."
They end up watching Thor after Captain America, and then both of the Iron Man movies after that. Penny has fun, surprisingly. Alice doesn't explain anything to her unless she asks, and when she does, she doesn't feel stupid. Not even once does she feel like she never should have asked, or that she wants to run to her room, wrap herself in her blankets, and never show her face again. It's refreshing, especially since she spends most of her time with geniuses like Sheldon and Leonard.
"I still don't think Odin is a good parent. And I still don't like that Bucky died. Ironman is awesome, though, and Pepper Potts is even more awesome," Penny concludes, turning off her TV.
"Yes to the first one. Odin is a dick. To the second, I think that it's safe to tell you that if you like Bucky that much, you'll like the comic books. And do I even need to say anything about the third?"
Penny meets Alice's palm with her own in a mandatory high five. They talked about it in between movies. Alice is going to introduce Penny to the world of comic books while Penny is going to be her model for her comic book. It didn't seem like a fair bargain since Alice is going to give more than take, so they decided to add high fives, weekly trips to the comic book store, and free food for Alice to their terms.
"This just made me excited for The Avengers. Watch with me?"
"Of course." Alice beams at her. "We can even hang with your friends. There's no way they're gonna miss that movie."
"I'll ask them," Penny assures. She raises her hands above her head and stretches, sighing as she gets rid of the knots in her back.
"I was thinking, would they be okay with modelling too?" Alice asks. "I mean, it is your life I'm going to base this on."
"Trust me, they'll be kissing your feet, asking you to make them the main character," Penny says, chuckling.
There's a glint of mischief in Alice's eyes when she says, "There are two main characters, and one is you. From the picture you showed me from your Christmas party last year, I think I know who the other one is. Don't tell them that, though."
"Oh? Who is it?"
Penny remembers that party a lot more vividly than she would like. Despite all the alcohol she drank, she still remembers
Alice smirks. "Not telling."
"Oh, come on. I thought we were girlfriends. I thought we were honorary bros or something." Penny gasps theatrically. "Was I wrong? All this time, was I fooled by your comic books and your girl talk?"
"Penny!" Alice slaps her arm, laughing. "Don't be like that. I'm only just thinking about it. I'll have to see the group together for the initial feel just to be sure."
"You'll tell me right away, won't you?"
Alice contemplates telling Penny maybe, tease her some more, but then it's late, and they really should be sleeping right now. She has a dentist's appointment at 8 o' clock tomorrow, and Penny has the morning shift at The Cheesecake Factory. "Right at the moment I start daydreaming about you two fighting crime."
Penny takes that as a definite yes.
Penny knocks on the door of 4A, wondering at the back of her mind, why the usual noises of rowdy argument aren’t resounding throughout the whole floor. Usually, Sheldon and Howard would already be shouting at each other about who's more stupid or more out of his mind.
"Come in," she hears Sheldon say, voice muffled, and she does. She sees Sheldon huddled on the couch, the TV blaring in front of him. The others must have left him on his own again, and against his wishes judging by how obvious his sulking is. His hands are wrapped around his mug, probably a hot beverage. Sheldon never drinks those unless he's upset.
"Hey, Sheldon," Penny says, careful, testing the waters. "What's up?"
Sheldon sinks further into his seat, grumbling indiscernibly. Penny sits beside him, resting a hand on his knee, worried. "I won't understand what you're saying if you mumble like that, sweetie."
"It's Howard and Bernadette's date night. Rajesh is off having his back mutilated by a licensed," Sheldon makes quotation marks in the air, rolling his eyes, "massage therapist."
Penny stares at him expectantly, not missing the fact that he failed to mention Leonard. "And?"
"There is nothing more to tell." Sheldon crosses his arms, pointedly staring at the screen. It's on Animal Planet, and some footage of a rare species of fish being killed is playing. Sheldon winces.
"Sheldon," Penny sighs, turning off the television and ignoring his cries of protest, "where's Leonard?"
"I don't know, nor do I care."
"Sheldon." Penny bumps her shoulder against his. "Come on."
There's a silence, where Sheldon tries to keep it together and Penny waits for everything to fall apart. "He's off at some pedestrian science convention. It doesn't matter."
"Pedestrian," Penny repeats, swallowing the chuckle in her throat. Of all things, jealousy does not become Sheldon. It's cute when he tries to hide it, but it almost always ends in disaster. "Don't worry, Leonard will come to his senses soon enough."
"As he should," he says, with a finality that means he never wants to speak of this again unless Penny wants her wifi and food privileges to be revoked.
Penny suppresses the urge to ruffle Sheldon's hair affectionately. Instead, she picks up the remote on the table, opens the television, and sets herself to surfing the channels. "Let's find something better to watch, yeah?"
Sheldon makes a noise between a groan and a sigh, exasperated. "I refuse to watch something as dull as Jersey Shore."
"Don't be silly, Sheldon. There's always Geordie Shore," Penny remarks, tone bright and cheerful. She's kidding, of course, and Sheldon sees that when Penny settles on a marathon run of Game of Thrones on HBO. They fall into an easy, comfortable silence, with Penny's head leaning on Sheldon's shoulder. He lets her, and Penny likes to think that it's because he needs her, and that he trusts her enough to let her see it, even if only in silence.
Penny repays him as best as she can, and in the only way she can. She lets him be at peace, even for a little while.
They end up sleeping on the couch in the middle of a Christmas special of Doctor Who. At least, Penny does. When she wakes up, it's the break of dawn and she's alone. There's a blanket covering her and a pillow under her head, fluffed just the way she likes it. A smile finds its way onto her face when she registers the smell of eggs and bacon in the air.
Penny gets up slowly, fighting a yawn while she stretches. She hums contentedly when she hears several pops from her lower back and her neck, feeling the immediate relief that comes with. "What time is it?" she asks, despite the risk that Sheldon's only going to answer her with a sarcastic remark. He doesn't.
"Half past eight," he replies, just as he finishes setting the table. There are two plates on the table which means that Leonard didn't come home last night. Penny knows not to bring it up.
"Then I have an hour left before we leave," Penny says, nodding to herself. It's more than enough.
Sheldon studies at her, but he doesn't reply. Penny pretends not to notice. Instead, she plops down on a seat and begins to wolf down her food.
"Penny, please remember to chew before you swallow," Sheldon chides. Penny rolls her eyes. She isn't going to dignify that with a response.
They're gathered in the living room of 4A. The whole gang is there. The boys are talking about the upcoming Comic Con, while Bernadette and Penny listen, occasionally making quips. It's not so bad, as their nightly dinners go, and it's even amusing how the guys are all but shaking in their excitement.
"Speaking of comic con," Penny says, raising her voice immediately after she sees an opening in the conversation, "Alice, this girl I met at the comic book store, she was wondering if you guys would be interested in modelling for her. She's an artist, and she wants to make this comic book based on us."
They react just as she expects them to, with nothing but excitement and eagerness.
"Is she hot?"
Nothing from Sheldon except a roll of his eyes. Nothing from Raj either, but then that's just the usual.
"Wait, Alice Cooper?" Leonard says, his eyes wide in panic. "Brunette? Pretty? Has piercings?"
"Yep," Penny says, not bothering to say yes, Leonard, the girl you almost cheated on Priya with. She doesn't, however, go as far as forego reassurance. "Don't worry, Leonard. She still hates you but she promised to play nice."
"Oh, you have some history," Howard says, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Nothing happened!" Leonard whines. "Which is actually worse."
Penny throws him a crumpled tissue. "Be nice to her. If you break her heart again, I am going to gut you."
"Penny, don't be so gruesome. We're having dinner," Sheldon tuts.
Penny sits back, relaxing her shoulders. She doesn't stop glaring at Leonard. "Just saying."
"I don't have a girlfriend right now. It would be perfectly fine," Leonard mumbles. Penny ignores him.
"I told her we'd meet her tomorrow when you guys come back from Pinball. She's going to take trial photos us and everything. Just the basics so you won't really have to stay for long," she continues.
Howard looks at Bernadette, holds her hand in his, and positively glows when she nods in approval. His gaze is still on her when he says, "We'll be there."
"I have a date with Stuart at 7 PM so I'll have to leave early. I'll be there, though," Raj says, a cheerful smile in place. No one when bristles when he mentions his dates with Stuart anymore. They've all gone from pleasant surprise to welcoming and happy for their friends. Stuart hasn't integrated himself into the group yet, but it'll come in time, Penny thinks, when both Raj and Stuart are ready.
"If only to immortalize my genius in a comic book, all right," Sheldon says, and Penny accepts it without a word. She can tell it excites him, though, and that he's trying very hard not to show it. He's failing, judging from the tick in his right eye and the brief upturns of his mouth.
"I'm going to end up as the villain in the story, aren't I?" Leonard groans. The silence that meets his question is a definite yes, but he doesn't really feel like he has a choice anyway. "Fine. I'll be there."
Penny grins. This is going to be fun.
Alice, Bernadette, and Penny are in the living room of 4A, waiting for the boys to get back from Paintball. Bernadette and Alice are getting along pretty well, Penny's glad to say. They've found common ground in the subtle art (or so they say) of knowing when to raise your voice or not, depending on which is going to make men do their bidding. Penny makes the occasional quip because, come on, she's had more than her fair share of men in her life, and usually, they're the ones who go crazy over her.
It used to make Penny feel like she was special, like she was the queen of the world. Now, it feels different. She feels different. She doesn't want to be in a relationship where, in the end, she only really used someone for her own interests. She doesn't want to be the girl who's selfish and nothing more. She wants to be someone who can give as much as she can take, but sadly, she doesn't think she's found the right person for that yet.
Leonard was the only one who came even close. Penny thought that Leonard could be the one. She gave him a chance and she learned to love him. The problem was, she didn't love him enough. Penny doesn't regret telling him no, though. She doesn't regret cutting herself off from a relationship she knows won't amount to anything more than just dating and sex and physicality. She wants something real, and despite how bad it might sound, she won't be held down by a relationship that's just okay.
As Penny listens to Alice and Bernadette talking, she can't help but smile, because these are women who feel the same thing. Alice won't settle for anyone who would only lie and lie and lie to her. Bernadette didn't judge Howard, gave him a chance, helped him become someone who didn't need to have the attention of every single girl in the city. They're the best friends Penny could ever hope for.
"We are never hiding out in the cabin again."
The girls stop their chatter when the guys walk in, bags of spoiled clothes slung over their shoulders. They're arguing about paintball strategy, just like they always do after a game.
"Hot chocolate?" Penny asks, eyeing the hunch of their shoulders and the sour expressions on their faces. She doesn't need to ask how the game went, when it's so plain in their body language.
"Yes, please," they chorus.
Penny sets herself to preparing their drinks, listening to Alice introduce herself to the guys. She explains the whole process, what she wants them to do, the places she wants to use as a setting, how much of their time it's going to take. It's all fairly simple, and Alice is hard to say no to, so everyone agrees to a photoshoot the next day. Today, the guys decide, they just want to stay indoors and rest.
"What's the story, anyway?" Leonard asks, just as Penny sets down a tray of mugs on the table.
"Oh, it's about a group of friends. They all seem normal. They have jobs and social circles. They watch movies. They play paintball. The thing is, every single one of them has a secret superhero life. The only reason they don't notice how they're all making up excuses to leave so they can respond to trouble in the city, is because they're all trying to get away. There are six people in the group, and I thought that's a lot of ground to cover. That's why this comic book is going to be centered around Isa Hudner."
"Oh, what powers do we have?" Sheldon says excitedly, his eyes twinkling.
"Huh, I'm not really sure yet. I'm gonna have to see you guys in action before I actually decide on your powers. I think there's going to be shape-shifting, super durability, and telepathy somewhere in there, though," Alice replies, glancing fondly at Penny and Bernadette.
"Where are we going to have the photoshoot tomorrow?" Howard asks.
"Oh, I actually wanted to have it outdoors, you know, to see you guys in the real world. It's okay if you just want an indoor shoot, though. I'm gonna need pictures of you guys just hanging out anyway." Alice smiles, and Penny knows that she means it.
"I'm okay with both," she says, and the others follow, nodding along to her words. Penny beams. "It's settled then. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day."
"Yes. Yes, it is," Alice agrees, and there's a glint in her eyes that Penny can't place. She pushes the thought away, because this is probably just Alice and her mischief again. It isn't questionable, hasn't shown itself just out of the blue. And so, Penny ignores it.
Saturday, at 8:15 in the evening, is laundry night. It's something that Sheldon and Penny do, just the two of them. They never really talk much, and if they do, it's about mundane things and maybe whatever bet's going on with the gang. That doesn't stop Penny from feeling the most relaxed since the previous week, doesn't mean she can't look forward to the quiet, comfortable silences between two good friends who need some time away from physics equations or history papers.
They focus on the gentle whirring of the washing machines, focus on the repetitive task of folding their clothes, focus on the simplicity and the banality of it all. They never break the silence unless it's important, and this, Penny thinks, is important.
"Sheldon, what's wrong?" she asks, pursing her lips. Sheldon has been nothing but gloomy and grumpy. There's a seemingly permanent crease between his eyebrows and downturn of his mouth. He's been staring into the air, with his eyes void of their usual wonder. Instead, he just looks frustrated.
"Oh, nothing you'd understand," Sheldon says, tone clipped. "Quantum physics and all that."
Penny stares pointedly at him, knowing she doesn't have to say anything to prompt him, to make him feel the least bit doubtful about hiding away his non work-related problems from her.
"Oh, all right," he says, making the mistake of looking Penny in the eye. "It's Leonard."
"What about Leonard?" Penny says softly, leaning closer towards Sheldon in the hopes that somehow, he'll feel better, comforted by her presence.
"He's been acting different ever since he and Priya broke up. He always snaps at me, and when we talk, he barely says anything that makes sense. Even though I prefer to keep to myself, I am bothered that Leonard has taken to spending every night out of the apartment, probably sleeping like a log in some harlot's house," Sheldon says, voice louder than when he started talking. Penny's surprised he hasn't thrown his laundry basket to the other side of the room in irritation. Then again, Sheldon has never been one for action or for violence. He fights with his words, stabs with a well-argued point, twists with his unquestionable intelligence.
"He's just in a low point, sweetie. He's going to move on soon enough. He's gonna find some other girl to antagonize and then everything's gonna go back to normal," Penny says, because this is what she does. She takes care of Sheldon. "Just give some time to sort himself out."
Sheldon stops, stops folding, stops wringing his fingers, stops so he can think. "I still don't like it," he says eventually, but there's little bite in his words.
"No one likes seeing a friend do crazy shit, Sheldon, but it happens."
Sheldon considers this for a moment, while Penny tries not to think it's her he's considering.
"I suppose it does."
They have the outdoor shoot first. It's nine in the morning, and they all look like they want nothing more than to lie down and sleep. The boys, sans Sheldon, played Wii until three in the morning. The girls decided to have a sleepover at Penny's, drinking and gossiping until pretty much the same time. Sheldon was the only one who slept early, opting for a good night's sleep. Now, everyone but him is regretting the previous night.
"Come on, people. This photoshoot can't wait any longer," Sheldon says irritable, glancing over his shoulder at the others, all their heads hung in drowsiness.
"It can if the artist says so," Alice mumbles under her breath. Penny slaps her shoulder lightly, hiding a smile.
"Okay, so here's how it's gonna happen. Group shots first. Then by threes, and then individual shots," Alice says once they've spread a blanket over the grass and settled themselves comfortably. She takes on a serious, professional tone, and Penny doesn't doubt that this is going to turn out well. "Raj, Howard, and Bernadette in one group, and Penny, Leonard, and Sheldon in the other. Got it?"
"Yes," they chorus, and so they get to work. They're at Alice's backyard, because hey, that's why she buys from Starbucks and has designer hippie clothes even though she doesn't have a job, she's filthy rich. Or, well, her parents are filthy rich. She's just their princess, or something. Penny doesn't really mind or care, but the outdoor bar and pool are definite pros.
They don't have a lot of trouble with the group shots. After a few awkward photos, Alice rolls her eyes and tells them to stop acting like they're being scrutinized, and start talking and laughing like they always do whenever they're gathered in the living room of 4A. It takes a while, but eventually, they're burning through a whole plethora of topics, laughing and teasing each other, only mildly aware of the bright flashes of light from the camera. They don't even notice how much time has passed until Alice tells them that they probably have enough for the whole comic book by now.
They rush towards her, giddy and excited, gathering around the camera, and Alice shows them everything. There's a shot where Howard are Bernadette have their hands intertwined, bodies close together. There's a shot of Raj making a silly face at the others because they called him a killjoy about that time when he and Howard went to pick up hippie chicks at the farmer's market, and he all but scrammed the moment a girl laid eyes on him. It wasn't his best moments. There's a shot of Leonard, red in the face because of that story where his mom kissed Sheldon and it was all very disturbing for everyone. There's a shot of Sheldon looking indignant because someone just sassed Leonard Nimoy's rendition of If I Had a Hammer and no one does that to Spock. There's a shot of Raj and Penny high fiving because they won an argument about the ultimate bra for date night.
Penny loves all the shots, and she makes sure Alice is made aware, but she has a favorite. In it, Howard is lying down, his head is on Bernie's lap. Leonard is grinning, looking younger than ever, and more carefree than usual. Raj has a small smile on his face, half his attention on the story Sheldon is telling, half on his phone, reading a text from Stuart. Sheldon has that childlike smile on his face, in the middle of telling them about the time the boys managed to prank some unknowing bunch of ewoks. And Penny, she's sitting beside him, a hand on his arm, trying not to laugh because, really, it isn't even the punchline yet.
Alice has them go on the triples shots next. She makes into a kind of contest, where the group who takes the best shots in the least amount of time wins paninis along with their venti cappucinos. Everyone secretly whines about Alice's crankiness after a late night and several glasses of wine, but at least she's bribing them with expensive coffee and food. Still, Penny makes sure to remember to never let Alice have a hangover ever again.
This time, Alice gives them props and a new location. For Raj, Bernadette, and Howard, they go to the pool. Penny glares at them the whole time. Leonard's torn between envy and hesitation because there might be something in the water he's allergic to. Sheldon doesn't want to bathe in something so communal. Nonetheless, Alice promises that everyone's gonna get the chance to take a dip later once they're done. After about half an hour, when Raj starts to complain about his skin getting all wrinkly, Alice lets up and tells them they can dry themselves off now.
Then, she huddles the other three along to her garage where she makes them wait outside while she takes out a car for them to use. Sheldon calls dibs on shotgun. Penny and Leonard speculate about what kind of car Alice is going to let them use. Sports car, maybe? Most definitely? What else would a rich girl have? Well, apparently, Alice's hippie lifestyle goes beyond her clothes and hobbies, because when she drives out of her garage, it's with a red, vintage Mercedes Benz. Really, holy cow and sweet baby jesus is all they're able to say because it's definitely a beauty.
They're careful with it, of course. They take some photos on the driveway, but after that they have to drive it. Penny and Leonard want to do it, of course, and yet they both want to let the other go first. They don't want to be responsible for breaking something so pretty and expensive, but eventually Alice manages to get Penny to drive. They take the car around the neighborhood, and Alice takes a few shots whenever they pass by. Penny enjoys it, enjoys the wind in her hair, the music blaring from the car's speakers, the bit of debate Leonard and Sheldon are having about Picard (again). Eventually she drives back to the house and parks out front. Alice gives them milkshakes and promises of cream puffs once they get inside.
"I think I actually want to stop with this for now," Alice says. They've settled around a table, drinking milkshakes, eating biscuits, and lounging around. "This'll be enough for me to get a general idea. I'll let you guys know the details in a week or so."
"Good for me," Raj says, shrugging.
"Can we go swim now?" Penny asks, hopeful. Despite her tan, she doesn't actually like the heat of the sun. If it weren't for the promise of a vacation, summer would be her least favorite season. So a few minutes under the sun's harsh rays when she drove the Mercedes really didn't do wonders for her. It's near sunset now, thankfully, and a night swim definitely won't hurt.
"Sure," Alice says, grinning. "If you need extra clothes or towels, we probably have some upstairs."
Penny, Bernadette, Raj, and Howard are all for the pool, of course, and it doesn't take much coaxing for Leonard to join them but Sheldon won't budge. No matter how much they try to talk him into it, or how much they try to splash him with pool water, Sheldon doesn't let up. He stays in a table, reading something on his iPad. Leonard says it must be an article but Howard thinks Sheldon's either reading conspiracy theories or metas about the DC Comics. Bernadette almost sides with Leonard but when they see Sheldon laugh out of the blue, she's convinced he's just looking at pictures of cats. Penny's inclined to agree.
They decide to have a chicken fight. Howard and Bernadette are an automatic team, apparently, so that leaves Raj, Penny, and Leonard.
"Raj, come on, let's see who goes in," Leonard says, shaking off the water on his arms, trying hard to look intimidating.
"What? Why does Penny get an automatic pass?" Raj asks, confused.
"She's a girl. It's gonna be easier to carry her," Leonard says, like it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"That's not fair! Every time my family plays chicken fight, it's always mummy who carries daddy and Priya who carries me," Raj says, visibly upset.
Leonard looks like he wants to argue but Penny speaks up before he can. "Raj is right. Even you can be the fighter, for all we know."
They settle it with a good old round of three-way rock paper scissors. Both Raj and Leonard play rocks. Unfortunately, Penny plays scissors, and just like that, she's out of the chicken fight. She high fives Raj and pats Leonard's arm in apology before she gets out of the pool.
"Hey, Sheldon," she says, sitting beside him. She peers curiously at his iPad. "What are you doing?"
"Hm. Bats," Sheldon answers. He's absorbed in what he's reading, and no matter how ridiculous it is how Sheldon's so serious about it, it's not a laughing matter. It's charming, Penny thinks, in a Sheldon kind of way, and that isn't bad. No matter how much the boys tease Sheldon, and no matter how much she thinks she might go mad from all of his antics and his being socially inept, she has always thought him charming. Ever since that first day in her apartment, that first time seeing him and Leonard standing at her door, seeing his whiteboard filled with things that, while Penny couldn't understand them, were obviously amazing--well, she's always admired him, always had that little part of her heart that warms up even when Sheldon's blabbering off inappropriately.
"Penny," Sheldon says, and Penny finds herself looking up from where she was staring at his hands to meet his eyes. "Did you know that bats have a much, much quicker metabolism than we do? They can digest bananas, mangoes, and berries in just 20 minutes. I bet a lot of girls would be falling all over themselves to have that."
Some people might take that as an offensive remark but Penny sees it for what it is--a conclusion based on observation. She knows he's not implying that she's not as slim as she thinks, or that she's just another one of those girls he couldn't care less about. She matters. Even though sometimes she still feels like she doesn't deserve to be friends with someone as smart, as incredible as Sheldon, and even though Sheldon, not knowing what's socially acceptable, pushes her away, she knows he appreciates her. She likes to think it's because she genuinely likes him and wants to be friends with him, and she hopes she's right.
"No," she replies eventually, a fond smile playing on her lips, her voice soft, barely heard over the shouts and giggles coming from the pool. "What else have you got?"
Penny drags her chair closer to Sheldon's and when he sets the iPad on the table, she doesn't hesitate to lean in closer so they can read off it together. It doesn't even cross her mind until they've perused no less than a dozen websites on bats, and later, beavers, that Sheldon hasn't recoiled from her closeness. It sends a wave of glee throughout Penny's body, and really, no one can blame her for being so happy about it or wanting to see how far she can push. So when Sheldon doesn't complain when she wraps a hand around his arm and leans her head on his shoulder, well, not even Leonard, Howard, and their teasing can bring her down from her high.
"So," Alice says, sounding every bit serious despite her coy smile. "I've got all the basics down. Plus, I brought a few panels from the first volume with me. They're kinda weird right now, since they're not yet done, but I thought you guys would want to take a look anyway."
There's a flurry of excitement when Alice takes out a folder and places it on the table. She sits back with a self-satisfied smirk on her face, watching the others huddle around the table. The contents of the folder garner different kinds of reactions, all of which make Alice snort.
"Oh, that's so pretty," from Bernadette.
"Does that cardigan make me look fat?" from Raj.
"Oh, pyrokinesis!" from Leonard.
"Am I really that short?" from Howard.
"Interesting," from Sheldon.
Penny all but tackles Alice, hugging her tight. "You're awesome, okay? Thank you."
Alice laughs. "Don't say that, my ego's might just burst."
"Well, you deserve it," Penny says, beaming.
"Don't think you're all getting away from me, by the way," Alice says, attempting to sound threatening even though she still ends up sounding like she's only teasing. "Sometimes, I might ask you guys to do extra photos for blocking and all that art shit you don't really need to know about."
"No problem," Penny says, patting Alice's knee.
"We're free during weekends," Leonard says, shrugging.
"Good," Alice says, her smile turning sly. "Because I kinda need Penny and Sheldon tomorrow."
Penny sits up straighter, eyes wide with curiosity. "Where?"
"You get to pick," Alice says.
"Oh, can we go on a train?" Sheldon says, excitement and hope obvious in his eyes. Alice hesitates, looks at Penny who only nods, a fond look on her face.
"Sure, why not?" Alice says. She looks like she's torn between snorting and having her eyebrows knit together in confusion, which results in a constipated sort of expression that makes Penny worry. She doesn't get an explanation, though, not until they're safe in 4B.
"You're awfully fond of Sheldon, aren't you? A bit too much, I think."
Straightforward as always, then. Penny starts, almost drops the plate of spaghetti she's holding, "I'm sorry?"
"You like him. You like him," Alice says, and she doesn't even sound like she's asking.
"What," Penny says, her voice high enough to be a squeak, " are you talking about?"
"Or at least you see him as a really, really close friend which means you're totally blind to how you like him and would rather have him between your legs than rattling on about String Theory." Alice wiggles her eyebrows suggestively, as if the things she's spouting aren't enough.
Penny's jaw is slack, and it takes her all to say, "Why am I friends with you?"
"The real question, darling, is why you tolerate me," Alice corrects gently. "The answer to which is because I bribe you with my art, plus, my intuition beats Bernadette's and that's saying something. Which reminds me, it's up to you whether you're going to listen to me about this thing with Sheldon but, you know, this is your love life on the line."
"Oh, all right," Penny says, because otherwise, Alice is going to spend the rest of the night dropping subtle (in Alice's opinion, anyway, which means painfully obvious for the rest of the world) hints about the issue. "Hit me."
"Do you like Sheldon? Or, are you at least attracted to him?" Alice asks, tentative.
Penny thinks back to her first day in 4B, a memory so familiar that she feels like she's relived it a thousand times, and she only feels a slight flash of hesitation when she answers, "Okay. Yes, maybe."
"Are you only realizing that now or has this been going on for a while?" Alice asks, perking up.
"Well, since," forever, "that day we met. I didn't think much on it, especially when he started talking."
Alice laughs. "Yes, I can understand that. But, I mean, is that the only reason you didn't do anything about it?"
Penny thinks about it for a moment, expression grim. "I guess, you know, it was overwhelming. I moved in across a pair of scientists. I could tell Leonard was crazy about me and now I'm ashamed to say I used that to my advantage. Sheldon, though, he's always had his wits. He didn't try hard to get my attention. He helped me because Leonard wanted to get in my pants and they were friends. I've always appreciated that."
"And now?" Alice prompts gently.
"And now, we're friends. We're really close friends, and honestly, I'd call him my bestfriend if Leonard wasn't already his. He's gotten used to me. He doesn't shy away from my touches because he knows I'm a tactile person and because I'm his friend. I appreciate that, and I definitely don't want to risk that."
Just as Penny says it, she realizes just how true her words are.
"Oh, Penny." Alice hugs her tightly. "Honey, did you ever think of it in another way? What if that means you're more than welcome to try?"
"Sheldon doesn't do physical stuff, Alice. He recoils at the thought of swapping bacteria along with spit," Penny says, her smile sad.
"Doesn't mean he's not willing to try," Alice says, standing her ground. It sparks a hope in Penny, one that she quickly pushes down away no no no. "And think about it this way, if he's really your friend, then, in time, he'll find a way to forgive and forget."
It takes a while, but finally, finally, Penny lifts her eyes from the spot on the rug she's been staring at for the past few minutes, and says, "All right. I'll tell him."
"Okay, just get settled and I'll be snapping away every few minutes or so."
Penny nods, shifting her weight from one foot to another. She's nervous, all tense and clamped up because thanks to her talk with Alice last night, she can't think about anything or anyone other than Sheldon. It doesn't help that he's standing beside her, jumpy because finally he's on a train again. Add that to the way his hand is on her upper arm, squeezing every now and then because of his excitement, well, she doesn't know how she's going to survive this trip.
"You want the seat beside the window?" she asks him, mustering a polite smile.
"Oh, yes. I was just about to call dibs," Sheldon replies, his glee unmistakable.
They sit down, their sides pressed against each other since that's all their space allows. Alice got them one of the smaller compartments, and Penny thinks she means for this to happen. She could've afforded any compartment, any train in the world, and yet she picked this one. Penny resists the urge to roll her eyes. Alice is way too clever and resourceful for her own good.
They don't talk for a while. Sheldon stares at the passing view through the window, and Penny watches Sheldon. Alice leaves eventually, and Penny finds herself relaxing. Some of the awkwardness seeps out of her, tension leaving the set of her shoulders. Her expression softens, her jaw slacks a bit as she wonders how long she's blinded herself to how beautiful Sheldon looks when he lets go, when he's relaxed and himself and hasn't a worry in the world. She wants to touch him, wants to run a cautious hand in his hair, wants to feel how soft his skin is or how thin his lips are. She wants to hug him and revel in the fact that he's letting her hug him. She wants to kiss him and see what he's going to do about it.
"Sheldon," she says, her voice sounding foreign to her ears, "is it okay if I share something with you?"
His eyes shift back into focus when he looks at her. "Of course, Penny."
"I'm not," Penny starts, shaky, "I mean you don't need to do anything about it. I just wanted to tell you that I think I like you, more than a friend should. I'm probably on the verge of falling in love with you." Penny sucks in a breath. The look on Sheldon's face is unreadable. Is she doing it all wrong? "I just wanted to put it out there. I'm your friend. I will always be your friend but I want us to be more. That doesn't mean we have to be, though. I'll understand if you say no."
Penny hangs her head low. She doesn't want to see the look in Sheldon's eyes, doesn't want to face reality, doesn't want to know if she was right to be scared.
"Oh, Penny," she hears, and Sheldon's voice is so soft and pleasant that her heart quivers, "is that why you haven't called me sweetie even once today?"
Penny chokes up the laugh that bubbles up her throat. She didn't even realize. "I'm sorry."
"Why are you apologizing?" Sheldon asks, placing a tentative hand on her nape, patting her soothingly. "You haven't done anything wrong. I," he pauses, struggles with what he wants to say, "your confession was not in vain."
"I'm not sure what you mean?" Penny admits, chuckling despite her nerves. "I don't. I don't wanna hope."
"Penny, I find that I'm much more comfortable with you than anyone else in my life. For all my claims of being a genius, I could never explain to myself why that is. Now, I realize, it might be because I was looking for answers in the wrong place--in my mind instead of in my heart." Sheldon leans closer, and Penny's breath hitches. "I'm not sure if I can make you as happy as you deserve to be, Penny, but if you want to try, then I am, too."
Penny hugs him, and he hugs back. If Sheldon were any other boy, they'd be making out on the floor of the compartment by now. But he isn't, and she isn't the same girl that ran away from home to be with a boy. If she's gonna try this with Sheldon, she's going to do it the right way. She's going to give Sheldon what he deserves--patience, understanding, and hopefully, someday, more.