This must be what going insane feels like, Penny thought. She stared, slack-jawed, up into her lanky neighbor's face. Intense blue eyes met her gaze in a serious manner.
"You want to come with me... on my ski trip? Do you even know how to ski?" she asked incredulously, imagining Sheldon tumbling down the mountainside, windmilling arms and skis all tangled together.
"Don't be ridiculous," he scoffed. "I have absolutely no interest in pointless physical exertion. I have recently been dabbling in meteorology for fun in my spare time, and I wish to accompany you to take precise measurements of meteorological phenomena in the Lake Tahoe region." Seeing her hesitate, he added, "I would, of course, be willing to compensate you for my portion of the travel expenses and accommodations."
She bit her lip, thinking hard. If Sheldon did come along, the cost of the cabin she and her friends were renting would be divided five ways, instead of four. That would mean she would only have to pay... well, it would be a lot less, she decided, giving up on the math.
"Promise me you won't try to explain your experiments to any of my friends, and you've got yourself a deal," she said with a grin.
Driving to Lake Tahoe with Sheldon as a passenger wasn't as bad as Penny had anticipated. Sheldon filled the time quoting what he considered to be "fun facts" and only once pointed out that her check engine light was on. They had been driving for a few hours when she finally put her finger on what had always bothered her about the check engine light issue.
"Sheldon, why haven't you ever asked me why I don't get my car looked at?" she asked.
He stole a cautious glance at her. "Perhaps you don't have the money to get your car repaired."
Her eyes snapped over to his face, where she caught sight of a slight twitch below his left eye. Just as awareness dawned on her, he yelped in alarm. "Eyes on the road, Penny!"
She quickly guided the car back into the correct lane. Really, he was such a stick in the mud, she thought. It wasn't even like there were any other cars coming towards them.
"You know, don't you?" she accused, keeping her eyes straight ahead.
"Of course, I do. I know everything," he retorted smugly. "How could anyone not notice that approximately every six months, you smell like motor oil, usually on a clement Sunday afternoon? Besides, I haven't forgotten that your father showed you how to take apart and reassemble a tractor engine. It isn't a great leap of logic to assume that you're capable of maintaining an automobile engine, especially an older model such as yours which contains fewer computerized components."
"So you knew all along that the check engine light was on-"
"Because you change your own oil and perform other routine maintenance on your vehicle? I suspected as much, although I am uncertain why you simply don't fix the check engine light as well."
"There's nothing wrong with the light, Sheldon," she growled, still annoyed. "The car is programmed to make the light come on so you'll take it to the dealership, when all it really needs is an oil change. There's some sequence of buttons to push that will make it turn off. I've just never cared enough to fork out the twenty bucks to buy the manual so I can turn the warning light off. I could probably find that information out online if I wanted, but I don't need to. This car's my baby." She patted the dashboard affectionately. "We've been together since Nebraska. I take care of her, and she takes care of me."
Sheldon apparently decided to ignore the incongruity of assigning gender to a non-sentient hunk of metal and plastic. "Penny, you believe that the check engine light is illuminated merely because you have not entered the automated sequence to turn it off. But the light could also be warning of some other problem with the engine. You may call this car your baby, but the truth is that it may very well be a high-speed death trap. My concern is that a more serious problem might arise, and then the system which was designed to alert you of a malfunction would fail, being circumvented by you for the sake of a few dollars or a few minutes of your time."
Penny considered for a moment. In his own weird and slightly offensive manner, he was saying he cared about her. "Oh. I guess I never thought about it that way," she said at last."Okay, sweetie, when we get home, I'll look it up and fix the check engine light."
"Good," he replied with satisfaction.
"Good?" she echoed. "What do you mean by that?"
"As my only female friend, I have taken great pains to accommodate you into my routine. It would be a considerable inconvenience if something were to happen to you," he replied seriously.
Penny smiled at how he expressed himself but thanked him anyway. Yeah, he was a whackadoodle, she thought, but once you started to understand him, he really wasn't that bad.
They were almost to their destination when Penny's phone rang. Whoever was on the other end did most of the talking. Penny said "uh-huh" fourteen times before she finally said, "No, it's fine, really. You just do whatever you need to." Once she was off the phone however, her polite facade faded. She scowled and tossed her phone down none too gently.
"You appear to be upset," Sheldon ventured.
"Got it in one, Sherlock," Penny growled. "That was my friend Tracy. She just got dumped by her boyfriend Mike, so she doesn't feel like coming, and obviously he won't be either. That leaves just you, me and Kayla sharing the cabin." She huffed in frustration and her grip tightened on the steering wheel.
"I'm no expert in these matters, but you appear to be unhappy about this development. Am I correct?" he asked.
She glanced at him, surprised. "Yeah, actually, you're right. I don't think Tracy's going to pay for her part of the cabin rental if she's not there. Ditto for Mike. Plus if it's just the three of us, it makes things awkward. I don't want Kayla to think I'm trying to set her up with you. She's not much of a skier either, so I'll probably be hitting the slopes alone, which isn't much fun."
"At the risk of being punched in the throat, I must say I don't believe you would lack for partners-for coitus or otherwise-if you wished companionship."
She scowled at him but fell silent for a moment. After a while, she sighed and said, "The problem is, ever since I met you guys, it's changed something in me. I don't mind hooking up with a guy just because he's hot, but when I think about dating, I can't just go by hotness anymore. Now I wonder if he's smart, and if he can pay his bills and stuff. It sucks," she concluded, wrinkling up her nose.
"That actually sounds like a fairly sound decision-making process," Sheldon said.
Penny whipped her head around and stared at him until he again yelped, "Eyes on the road! Eyes on the road!"
"I can't believe it. Was that actually a compliment, Dr. Cooper?" she stammered after she swerved back into her lane. Fortunately, there were no other cars near them.
"What do you know? I suppose it was," he said, sounding as surprised as she was.
Penny grinned for a moment, but then her smile faded as she thought about what Sheldon had said. "Sound decision making... I know that's what makes sense to you. No offense, sweetie, but when it comes to my love life, that's not what I want. I don't want to settle just because some guy is nice and makes good money. I want romance, passion... I want to be crazy in love."
"You also want to be an actress," he pointed out.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" she scowled. "Are you telling me to give up on my dreams?"
"Absolutely not. I have first-hand experience that you are a talented thespian. What I am actually suggesting is that you apply yourself. You act as if someone will just come along and hand you your dream job, or that you will meet the love of your life in a chance encounter at some tawdry discotheque. Not only are both of those scenarios highly unlikely, but their occurrence would not align well with your current lifestyle and habits. You are undisciplined and careless. You drink too much and spend all your money on useless frivolities. Such an opportunity would be wasted on you."
He continued in this vein for several minutes, while Penny uncharacteristically kept silent. Finally, she pulled over and put the car in park. She turned to Sheldon, who wrapped up his impromptu speech with, "You may think I find it easy to criticize you, but in truth, I don't understand why you choose to live your life this way. I may not express my feelings well, but I'm giving you my advice because I see where your life is headed, and I don't want to watch you ruin it. Please consider that I speak out of friendship and not malice before you decide to make me walk the rest of the way." He ended with a bit of a squeak.
She rolled her eyes at him. "I stopped because we're here, Sheldon." She opened her car door and got out, only to duck down and poke her head back through the opening. "You've always been honest with me, sweetie, and yeah, sometimes the truth hurts. It seems like you don't care how it affects people when you speak your mind. But the other side of that is that I never have to wonder if you're just telling me what I want to hear." She took a deep breath. "There's no one else in my life that I can trust like that. So I guess what I'm saying is... thanks for being my friend, you whackadoodle."
Sheldon actually sat still for several minutes in the car while Penny unloaded their luggage. He felt confused and... something else. He had always been under the impression that people in his life tolerated him. He was used to rolled eyes and muttered imprecations. His own mother had once seriously doubted his sanity. For someone to not only accept him but actually see something positive in his behavior was so startling, it was like a revelation. His reverie was interrupted by a sharp rapping on the window. Blond ponytails tumbled into view as Penny leaned down.
"Aren't you coming inside? It's freezing out here."
Yet again, she was taking care of him. Sheldon filed that fact away carefully in his new analysis of his friend as he got out of the car. Shouldering his overnight bag, which Penny had dumped on the front porch, he entered the cabin. The space was rustic, but adequate for his needs. The four bedrooms were sparsely furnished, which suited him just fine. He chose the sole room which contained two twin-sized beds, since that was the size he was used to sleeping in. While Penny saw the absence of her friends as a disadvantage, he saw it as a benefit. He was planning to use one of the other rooms to organize his equipment and set up a space to work. After unpacking his few clothes and toiletries, he went out into the living room to figure out where the best seating area was. He liked to have his own spot, even if the situation was only temporary. It made him feel more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.
Penny informed him it would be rude of them to not be there when Kayla arrived, so they sat in companionable silence on the sofa, leafing through magazines. Sheldon was reading the New England Journal of Science and Medicine (a little light reading for his vacation), and Penny was leafing through some fashion magazine in a desultory manner. She had tried the TV first, but some storm system was wreaking havoc with the reception. After a while, she looked up at him.
"Hey, look at us. You with your magazine, me with mine… we're like an old married couple," she teased with a grin.
"If we were married, the wife would bring tea and cookies," Sheldon replied.
"I don't have any tea and cookies."
"A good wife would go to the store," he snipped without looking up from his reading.
Penny sighed and tossed her magazine down onto the coffee table. "Yeah, I'm hungry too. It's getting late, and Kayla still hasn't gotten back to me." She checked her phone again for what seemed the hundredth time. "Let's just go get dinner. We can leave her a note."
"It's Friday night," Sheldon said. "Dinner should be pizza with sausage, pepperoni and light olives. I've found two restaurants within a five mile radius that have satisfactory customer reviews."
"We can do that, as long as you promise not to ask to inspect their kitchen."
"Or we can just order takeout. I hear there's a good Indian place nearby," she said with a shrug, fighting to keep the grin off her face. Sometimes it was just way too much fun to mess with Sheldon and his precious schedule.
He stared at her. "You wouldn't," he uttered in tones of loathing.
She stepped close until she was staring up into his face. "Try me," she dared.
He held her gaze for several seconds before looking away. "Fine. You win, but if we get food poisoning, it's all on you."
"Great! Let's go!" Penny cried gleefully as she dashed off to get her coat. With a sigh, he followed. He couldn't understand how Penny managed to win so many of their disagreements. In a strange way, it reminded him of his mother. She also had no more than an average IQ, yet she was never at a disadvantage in an argument with him. As he stared bemusedly at Penny's retreating back, he wondered if he had been underestimating her.