Faint voices from within apartment 4A filtered through the door, as Amy stood on the other side, fist poised to knock. She imagined the guys discussing gaming strategy, or perhaps Sheldon was coaching them on how to behave around her. He expressed fear that Howard or Raj would say something inappropriate in her presence, and though she assured him she could handle it, he appeared unconvinced.
Seeing bits of her boyfriend's apartment on Skype made her long to see it all in person, so why was she so hesitant? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "You can do this," she muttered to herself.
"You're Amy, right?"
Amy jumped at the voice. How had she not heard footsteps come right up to her? A blonde woman in yoga pants and a tank top was looking at her expectantly. She tugged on her skirt and cleared her throat. "That's correct. May I ask how you know who I am?"
"Your superhero t-shirt is kind of a giveaway."
Amy looked down at her attire then back at the woman. "I still don't understand how you know my name."
"Sheldon talks about you all the time."
The blonde chuckled. "Yes, and let me tell you, it's a relief after all that science jibber jabber he used to bore me with. Now he can't stop telling everyone about the gaming tournament you're planning together and how much he admires you for running a comic book store while going to school to follow your true calling."
Amy tilted her head. Just how involved was Sheldon with his neighbors that this woman knew all about her? "I'm sorry, who are you?"
"I'm Penny, Leonard's fiancée."
"Oh, of course! Sheldon told me you live across the hall. I apologize for not coming to that conclusion sooner. My mind has been a little foggy lately from lack of sleep. It's nice to meet you."
Penny accepted the hand Amy reached out. "You too."
"I don't know what else Sheldon's told you about me, but he's told me a little about you too."
"I'm sure he has," Penny replied wryly.
Amy tugged on her skirt again and averted her eyes. She shouldn't have said anything. All she knew about her boyfriend's neighbor was the impending separation of the roommates once the couple got married, and that's not a conversation she wished to get involved in. "So, um, I should probably let him know I'm here. Are you on your way out?"
The blonde's ponytail whipped from side to side as she shook her head. "I wish. Leonard begged me to join you and the guys for that Ka game."
"Ka'a," Amy corrected. "Mystic Warlords of Ka'a."
Penny shrugged. "Ka, Ka'a, same difference."
Amy opened her mouth, but before she could respond, a door chain rattled, and she was face to face with a wild-eyed Sheldon.
"Amy, I was about to go looking for you. I thought you got lost." He peered around her and frowned. "I should have known Penny was behind this. Did she engage you in some tedious conversation about her latest shoe purchase?"
"Hey!" Penny squealed. "There's more to me than fashion talk."
Sheldon blocked the doorway, arms crossed over his chest. "If by that you mean stealing my roommate, then I wholeheartedly agree."
"For the millionth time, I didn't steal Leonard from you. We're getting married, and married people don't live with their crazy roommate."
"It's literally impossible you could have told me a million times. It took you 5.12 seconds to state your case. There are 86,400 seconds in a day…"
"Sheldon, it's just an expression…"
Sheldon continued his calculations. "...and that's assuming you did nothing but repeat yourself continually 24 hours a day. Therefore, you didn't even come close to one million times. Including today, it's only 15."
Amy beamed. "That's impressive!"
"Don't encourage him."
Sheldon glared at his neighbor. "Let's see you try to do math in your head. We'll start with something easy. What's 73 times 8765?"
"Out of my way, Sheldon. I'm here to see Leonard, not fall for your little tricks."
"I will after you admit you can't do it."
Amy squirmed as they continued to argue. She knew Sheldon was upset, and she supported him, but Penny had a point too. She and Leonard would soon be starting a new life together, just the two of them. As difficult as the transition would be for her boyfriend, he would learn to embrace the change, just as he had when Stuart's store burned. As the argument escalated to insults, she made a difficult decision. "Maybe I should go."
Sheldon caught her wrist as she turned away. "Amy, wait!"
"Yeah, don't leave me alone with the guys. Sheldon and I will put our differences aside for tonight, right Sheldon?"
The theoretical physicist pursed his lips. "Fine. Just for tonight I will not bring up the fact that you're a homewrecker."
"Sheldon," the blonde warned.
He rolled his eyes. "Alright. We'll call a temporary truce." Sheldon reluctantly shook Penny's outstretched hand then immediately pulled a travel-sized bottle of Purell from his pocket.
Amy followed her boyfriend into the place he called home. Her eyes roamed over the brown faux leather couch where Raj and Howard were seated and the adjacent chair occupied by Leonard.
"Gentlemen, you remember my girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler."
She was welcomed by a chorus of greetings and shyly waved back with a quiet, "hi." Instead of heading to the seating area, she took her time soaking up every detail in the room, starting with the physics literature perfectly stacked in the bookshelves to the superhero figurines keeping watch on top.
"The comic books are in my bedroom," Sheldon revealed, as if reading her mind.
"I'd love to see your collection."
"Get ready to be dazzled by my impeccable organizational skills." He grabbed her hand and gently pulled her toward what she assumed were the bedrooms.
"You and your girlfriend can canoodle afterward. I promised Bernadette I'd be home by 9."
"There will be no canoodling, Howard. I merely want to show her my comic book collection."
"Is that what the kids are calling it these days?" The engineer teased.
Amy reddened, thinking back to Cody's comment about her being ravished. She was no expert when it came to relationships of any kind and didn't know how to respond.
Penny glared down at him. "Howard, you've made Amy uncomfortable. Let's just sit down, eat, and get the game over with."
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"I will take you on a tour later," Sheldon promised. Standing in front of the couch, he frowned. "Raj, floor!" He instructed, with a point of his finger.
Raj sent him an incredulous look."Really? You're making the Indian guy sit on the floor? That's racist, dude."
"It has nothing to do with race. I could just as easily have asked Howard. On second thought, that would be more preferable. He's been known to get handsy with the ladies, and I don't want to subject Amy to that. Howard, floor!"
"Sheldon, I don't want to cause a rift between you and your friends," Amy murmured. "I'll take the floor."
"You're a new guest, so that is unacceptable. Besides, it will be difficult for me to explain the game if we're not seated next to each other."
"I'll move," Raj volunteered.
Amy smiled at him gratefully, though it made her a little uncomfortable that she was the reason they had to make other accommodations. Howard scooted closer to the edge, freeing up the middle cushion, but she was more focused on the other action. Leonard gave his fiancée a peck on the cheek before digging into his takeout container. It was sweet, and Amy couldn't help but wonder when the chocolate kisses she received from her partner would progress to something a little more intimate.
Sheldon patted the empty spot. "Amy, your food is getting cold."
Everyone was already enjoying the aromatic delicacies, and her stomach growled in response. Reaching for an unopened container, she quickly drew her arm back. "I didn't mean to just grab at it. Is this one mine?"
"It is," Leonard affirmed. "That one is your mee krob, and the other is your chicken satay. I wasn't sure what sauces you like, so I asked for three different kinds."
"That's very thoughtful. Thank you, Leonard."
Amy stabbed a bit of mee krob with a plastic fork and chewed throughfully. "Wow! This is even better than the one from the Thai restaurant across the street from my shop. Just don't tell the owners, or they might stop bringing me free rice."
"And we can't have you starve. You need to supplement those peanut butter sandwiches when I'm not around."
A warm feeling spread throughout Amy's body. Her boyfriend was always looking out for her best interests. "Sheldon, you worry too much."
"Someone needs to look out for you."
"Awww, Sheldon that's the nicest thing I've ever heard you tell anyone," Penny gushed.
"I tell people nice things all the time. Just last week I commended Mrs. Gunderson on her horticulture skills."
Amy dabbed her lips with a paper napkin. "Who's Mrs. Gunderson?"
"She's the neighbor who lives directly below me and Leonard. You must have seen the plant she keeps outside her apartment."
"It's nice that you know your neighbors. I'm hardly ever home, so I haven't had the chance to socialize with any of mine. I don't even know the name of the lady next door to me."
"Sheldon tells us you're super busy. We're glad you could find time to join us today."
"Thanks, Leonard. I don't remember the last time I took a night off."
"And what a night it will be! Brace yourself for an evening full of magic and whimsy," Sheldon declared.
"I sense you aren't excited for the game?" Amy asked Penny when she saw her wrinkled nose.
Sheldon snorted. "That's an understatement."
"I'm more of a blackjack and poker kinda girl. Are you actually into this? Blink twice if Sheldon's forcing you to play against your will."
"I appreciate your concern, but it's a common misconception that females are uninterested in comic books and role playing games. While it's true the majority of my customers are male, I do see girls and teens, and even some women, shopping. In fact, there is a single mother with two young girls who brings them in once a month. They all leave the store with bags of comics and smiles on their faces."
"Is the woman pretty?" Raj asked. "You know what? It doesn't matter. I'm interested even if she's a 7. Can you hook us up?"
"You'll have to excuse my horny friend," Howard apologized. "He hasn't had sex in seven months."
"Gentlemen, please. My girlfriend has more important things to do than playing matchmaker. Even if she was willing, doing so would violate the proprietor/customer code of honor."
Amy rested her hand on his knee. "That's not a thing, Sheldon. And, Raj, I don't know enough about her or you to feel comfortable setting you up. I'm sorry."
"I understand. Maybe I can just happen to be there when she comes in."
For the first time in her life, Amy felt part of a group. They talked, they laughed, they ate - even the little arguments were all in good fun. When the containers were empty, the roommates cleared off the table, declining her offer to help. Watching them was almost like witnessing a choreographed dance the way they moved through the tiny kitchen area, each performing their duties without tripping over the other. It was obvious they had a lot of practice, and a wave of sadness came over her as she thought about Leonard's eventual move.
With the counters and sink just as spotless as they'd been when she arrived, the guys disappeared into the back rooms, emerging moments later with the gaming cards. Sheldon presented her with two stacks to choose from.
"Does one stack hold an advantage over the other?"
"Every one is a winner and also a loser. It's the player's strategy that determines the outcome."
Amy randomly chose the one on her left and peeked at the bottom card.
"Isn't there a no peeking rule?" Penny asked.
Amy quickly set her cards face down on the table. "I… I don't know. Sorry."
Sheldon glared at his neighbor. "There is no such rule. Besides, it doesn't matter who sees the cards. We're going to start off with a lesson on the basic rules of the game. I will teach Amy how to build the perfect desk, discuss what each color symbolizes, and how to summon creatures and spells. Penny, I advise you to pay close attention as well."
The future Mrs. Hofstadter groaned. "This is just as boring as I remember, and we haven't even started. Bernadette was smart not to come."
"Your wife doesn't enjoy the game either?" Amy asked.
"She said she would rather gouge her eyes out with a screwdriver than play some dopey nerd game."
"Damn, I wish I had thought of that," Penny muttered.
Leonard slung his arm over her shoulders and planted a kiss on top of her head. "It's only for a couple hours. Remember our deal."
Penny sighed. "Can it be Saturday already?" She filled the group in on their upcoming trip to the beach, which Leonard reluctantly agreed to in exchange for her playing "that Ka game."
"Leonard's apprehension is well founded. The deadly UV rays reflecting off the water alone are enough to keep me away, not to mention the dangerous marine life, children kicking sand, and teenagers with guitars." Sheldon shuddered.
"I don't care for the beach either," Amy admitted, "I've lived in California all my life and have still never put my foot in the ocean."
"Nor have I," Sheldon confessed.
"Wow!" Penny exclaimed You two are made for each other. Sheldon, do not let her get away."
He smiled at his girlfriend. "Never."
Amy returned his smile. He was always handsome, but when the corners of his mouth turned up and his eyes sparkled, it made her swoon.
Howard rolled his eyes. "Either quit with the eye coitus or get a room,"
Amy felt her cheeks flush. She almost forgot they were not alone. The cards in her hand provided the perfect escape from their looks.
Clearing his throat, Sheldon focused on the entire group. "Let's get started. The first step to any strategy card game is building the perfect deck from the cards you own. You will need a variety of artifact, creature, enchantment, land, and spell cards. When you're first learning the game, I recommend an even balance of each type. Also pay special attention to how much mana each card is worth. Mana is..."
"Bored!" Penny whined. "Leonard, I release you from your commitment to come to the beach if you let me go home."
"Penny, you can't leave. We're playing in teams," Sheldon reminded her, but his words fell on deaf ears.
"If you're really that unhappy, I can be my own team," Leonard offered. "You have fun doing something you love. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Thank you, Sweetie." Penny threw her cards on the table and hopped off the chair. "It was nice to meet you, Amy," she called over her shoulder.
"You too. Perhaps we'll meet again under different circumstances."
"I'm sure we will." With a little finger wave at the group, she bolted out the door.
"Leonard, have you forgotten we're playing in pairs? Pairs as in groups of two?"
"I know what a pair is, Sheldon."
"Then how do you expect to play when you willingly let your partner leave?"
"This isn't an actual competition. Tonight is about teaching Amy the game."
Amy's eyes volleyed between the two men. It was all her fault. Had she not joined them, the four friends would already be playing, Penny wouldn't have been bored, and she… would be home alone with her neurology textbook.
"I'm sorry my presence caused this. I don't want to come between best friends."
"Amy, you have nothing to be sorry for. I invited you, not only to become better acquainted with the game, but also to introduce you to a new environment where you can add a little fun into your life. Penny's unanticipated departure has nothing to do with you."
Howard rolled his eyes. "Really? Penny leaving wasn't anticipated? We all know she would rather be doing almost anything but play Mystic Warlords of Ka'a."
"I wanted Amy's first visit to go perfectly. If Penny cared at all, she would have suffered in silence."
Amy squeezed her boyfriend's hand. "I'm not offended at all. She's not interested in the game, and that's okay. You can't force someone to do something they don't want to do. Maybe we can plan an activity we all can enjoy. And that includes your wife, Howard. I'm dying to meet her."
"You're really not upset?"
"I'm really not."
She could see the struggle within him, trying to decide if she was being truthful or merely not wanting to cause a scene. In the end, he decided to let the unanticipated setback go.
"Alright, now where were we?"
"You were telling me I need a good balance of each card type."
"Yes, of course."
As her boyfriend continued explaining the basics, Amy sneaked a peek at the other guys. To her surprise, they didn't appear bored or frustrated over the delay. They kept busy quietly discussing strategy.
Thirty minutes later, they were ready to begin the practice round. Amy studied the cards in her hand. "I'm sorry, could you explain the difference between the spell cards and the enchantment cards again?" Sheldon set his deck face down on the table and leaned over his girlfriend. He was so close she could feel his body heat, and that nearness was making it difficult to concentrate on his words.
"Raj played a creature card. You can use either one in this case…" Sheldon trailed off. "Amy, are you alright? You look a little flush."
"What? I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"You can use either a spell card or an enchantment card on Raj's two-headed tiger."
She plucked a spell card from her deck. Sheldon made a disapproving sound. She slipped it back and tried another but received the same reaction. "What do you suggest?"
Sheldon patiently explained that the cards she chose would deal little damage to Raj's tiger. "Your best move is to attack with the gelatinous sphere."
After hearing a detailed explanation why that particular card was her best move, Amy played it and was rewarded with her boyfriend's crooked smile. The game was more of a learning curve than she expected, but after another two matches, she was able to make informed decisions on her own.
Howard leaned back and stretched. "As much as I would love to stay so you can beat team Koothrowitz yet again, I need to keep my promise to Bernie."
Raj shook Amy's hand. "Good game. You sure creamed us during that last round, but it was fun."
"Yes, it was quite enjoyable. Thank you for putting up with me while I got the hang of it."
"We all had to learn at some point. Besides, the more the merrier," Leonard affirmed.
"Thank you. I really appreciate everyone's help. I feel a lot more confident about my knowledge of the game now. Will you all be stopping by on Sunday for the tournament?"
After promising to be there, Howard and Raj bid farewell to Leonard and the couple, and Amy grabbed her purse. "I should get home too. Thank you both again for letting me join you."
"First let me take you on that tour of my comic book collection."
"Raincheck? I'm sorry, but if I don't leave now, I may fall asleep at the wheel."
"Perhaps I should call you a taxi."
"I'll be fine." She yawned, and the look on his face grew more concerned. "Don't worry. It's not that far."
"I'll walk you to your car. If you appear to be too tired to drive, I insist on calling a cab."
"Fair enough. Goodnight, Leonard! Thank you again for your hospitality."
Side by side the couple descended the staircase. When they reached her car, Sheldon peered at her face. "Are you sure you'll be okay driving home?"
She stifled a yawn. "I am. Thank you for tonight. Not only did I familiarize myself with the game, I really enjoyed hanging out with your friends."
"Good, because I was thinking of making Ka'a night a weekly event. We usually alternate between that and Klingon Boggle, but that would put Leonard, Raj, and I at an unfair advantage."
"Weekly might be a bit much with my studies and it being my day to catch up with groceries and housework, but monthly could work."
"Very well, I dub the third Monday of the month Mystic Warlords of Ka'a Day."
Amy grinned. "Monday is Ka'a night, Thursday is pizza night, Friday is vintage video games and Chinese food night, and Saturday is laundry night. Am I forgetting anything?"
"Just that you need your rest."
"Are you getting rid of me?" Amy pouted.
"Never. I'm just concerned for your safety. Oh, just one last thing before you go." Sheldon patted his waist. "Drat!"
"In my haste, I failed to grab my jacket."
"You're cold? I thought it felt pretty balmy."
"It's not that. I filled my pockets with kisses, and now I'll have to run upstairs so you don't leave without one."
"Sheldon, it's okay. You can make it up to me tomorrow."
"It's not that simple. Our tradition dictates that I give you a kiss each time we see each other, but I don't want you to fall asleep before you get home. This is a sticky wicket."
"A hug is just fine."
"A hug is not a kiss. Hmmmmm…" She could almost see the wheels spinning in his head, but it wasn't long before the metaphorical lightbulb went off. "I think I have a solution." Closing the gap between them, he wrapped his arms around her waist. Then to her surprise, he pressed his lips to her forehead.
"Oh!" She exclaimed, a shiver coursing through her body.
"Did you suddenly get cold? I hope you aren't catching a fever."
"N...No, it's from surprise and contentment. I could get used to those kisses." He planted his lips on her forehead again and held her tight against his chest, so tight that she could hear his heart pounding in time with hers. If only she could stay in those arms forever, but before she was ready, he took a half step back.
"Next time I'll be better prepared," he promised.
"Now it's customary for you to also give me a forehead kiss, but I'll never say no to the chocolate kisses."
"Good because I still have 348."
Before getting into her car, she threw herself into his arms one last time. While his warm hands caressed her back, she breathed in his tantalizing baby powder scent.
As Amy backed out of the parking space, she watched Sheldon through the rearview mirror until he disappeared from sight but not out of mind. It had been an enjoyable and productive evening, and she was already looking forward to their next game night four weeks from now.
At the first stoplight, she touched the spot that still tingled from her boyfriend's lips. From chocolate kisses to forehead kisses. Others might consider it a platonic gesture, but she knew better. It was just the next step to what would come.