A/N: So this is it! To everyone who has favorited, alerted, reviewed, and read, thank you so much! Huge thanks also go to HyperCaz, this story's beta. I've had a wonderful time working on this story, partly because I've never had instant feedback like this on anything I've written before. I hope you enjoyed it!
Penny gasped as her feet hit the ground and her legs buckled, sending her careening into the wall. She blinked hard, trying to get her bearings. For a frantic second she thought she hadn't moved at all, but as her head cleared Penny realized where she was—an alley a few blocks away from the new homeless shelter.
She let her legs fold, and slid down the wall to sit on the pavement, loosening her death grip on Billy's ray gun. She hadn't just moved in space: the sun was at a different angle—the too-bright light of spring had replaced the dull glow of autumn, and she could hear traffic twenty feet away on the road. Penny was back in the city, and four months back in time.
Penny let herself sit for a moment, then struggled back to her feet, leaning against the brickwork for support. She'd gotten good at blocking out memories over the last few months, but there were tears prickling at the corners of her eyes and she couldn't quiet convince herself they were just a side effect of the time travel.
Come on. Her first few steps were wobbly, but by the time she reached the sidewalk she was walking steadily.
She turned too quickly and almost lost her balance.
"Hourglass?" The dark haired woman was standing by the curb, and it almost looked like she'd been waiting for her.
"You're going to need this." Hourglass picked up a paper bag and handed it to Penny. "It would be—complicated—if your past self recognized you."
Penny took the sack. "Did you—?"
"Did I follow you from the future? No." She noticed the look on Penny's face, and smiled unapologetically. "Sorry, but we're short on time, and you're taking too long to finish your sentences."
"But if you're not the future you—"
"I still know what's going to happen in this timeline. Good luck, Penny. When it's over, I'd like to hear how this happened."
Penny nodded mutely.
"Aren't you curious about what's in the bag?"
Penny had had her share of surprises in depressingly ordinary grocery bags, but she opened it anyway. Inside was a change of clothes, a cheap acrylic wig, and a pair of sunglasses.
"You're remembering these?"
"I saw a woman wearing these glasses in the audience—" Penny shoved everything back into the sack, trying to rationalize what she'd seen. "But she didn't look anything like me—"
Hourglass nodded. "Your brain would have done whatever it could to deny that you were actually there twice."
"Oh." All she wanted was to go back to a normal world, one where her biggest questions were what she wanted for dinner, and if she should go ahead and get that top at Goodwill even though it was seven dollars. "Okay, I'm going to go," she said.
"Good. You don't have much time. You know what you need to do?"
Penny knew exactly what she had to do. She nodded, suddenly very aware of the weight of the ray gun in her pocket.
"Very well then."
Penny didn't look back as she walked away. There was a small restaurant a block away from the new homeless shelter that she'd gone to often back when she'd still worked there. They recognized her, and let her change in their bathroom. For them, she'd last come in the day before.
The chairs were set up when she got to the hall. Penny could see herself on the stage, talking with the guy setting up the microphone. She ducked her head and let the straight black hair cover her face.
Captain Hammer was there too, posing for publicity shots with a reporter. How could she not have realized what a jerk he was then? After he'd come back to life, Penny had actually started to care about him far more than she would have expected—he'd been like a new man. She was slightly embarrassed she'd fallen for this version.
She had a vague memory of where she'd sat. It felt odd sitting in the middle of an almost empty room, but if memory served she already had, and anyway, the hall would be filled soon. It was disorienting, remembering what was going to happen as it did, and Penny wondered if that was partly why time travel wasn't as popular as it could have been.
She waited. Hammer's Groupies arrived, and sat next to her, giggling and whispering. She'd run into them once outside Hammer's house; they hadn't been very nice to her. The rest of the seats filled, and Penny fidgeted and traced the outline of the ray gun.
She wondered what Billy was doing. Was he already under the cloth covering the statue? The unknown was starting to worry her—what was going to happen once she disabled the Freeze Ray? Would Billy be arrested? Would the ELE kill him if he failed? She'd already seen him die once. She didn't want to watch it again.
Then it started. The lights dimmed, and the Mayor began to give his achingly dull and sycophantic speech. Penny found it far more interesting to watch the past version of herself on the stage. She was already looking uncomfortable, which made the older Penny smile. You don't even know how bad it's going to get, honey.
Hammer's speech was even worse. Penny had remembered that it was bad, but this— She didn't blame Past-Penny for leaving halfway through. It hurt that Captain Hammer didn't even notice though—that was something Past-Penny hadn't seen.
Penny waved her arms and sang along with Hammer's rousing-inspirational-blatantly offensive-something, but she was just waiting for the moment when—
And then Billy was there—no, not Billy, Dr. Horrible. Penny craned her neck to watch him as he stalked up and down the narrow aisle between the seats. He seemed so innocent, so righteously angry. She wanted to help him, to tell him that Hammer didn't matter, that surely he didn't need to join the ELE to make a difference, but she knew he wouldn't want to hear that, even from her. Things didn't have neat fairy-tale endings in real life.
She ran with the crowd when he started firing, remembering how Past-Penny had hidden behind the chairs. The dual-memory thing was starting to get really distracting—she could only barely distinguish between what happened and what was happening now.
"No sign of Penny, good. I would give anything not to have her see—"
This was it. He'd gone still and calm, but Penny could see the tension in his shoulders. He didn't want to do this, he didn't want to kill, but he knew he had to prove he was as evil as he said he was. Penny was in the tangled mess of people by the door. She fought her way free, and pulled the ray gun out of her pocket.
"It's gonna be bloody, head up Billy Buddy, there's no time for mercy—"
What was Past-Penny doing? Penny could see her across the room, rising to her feet, her eyes full of horror and betrayal, mouth echoing Billy's words. Penny shook her head. She didn't have time for this. This was it. She aimed the gun at the Freeze Ray—it was now or never—
"Here goes no mercy!"
Billy hesitated, and Penny fired. It didn't make a noise, or even any visible effect, but she could feel the recoil, and the Freeze Ray whined down, the blue light that had soaked the hall fading.
"That's not a good sound—"
Then the moment of shocked stillness was broken as Captain Hammer unfroze and knocked Billy across the room. The next few seconds passed in a confused jumble that Penny only barely comprehended. The door were finally open, and she was caught in the crowd and pulled outside.
Behind her, she heard the unmistakable sound of the Death Ray exploding, and a millisecond later she felt the echo of an impact like she'd been punched in the stomach. She doubled over and fell to the ground, unnoticed. She was alone in front of the doors now. She lifted her head slightly, trying to see what was happening in the hall.
Past-Penny was slumped against the wall, and Billy was kneeling beside her. Captain Hammer was nowhere in sight. It was odd—Penny could feel the shrapnel in her stomach and chest, but the sensation was still—disconnected. She knew she was dying back in the hall, and she didn't even have the strength to keep her head up. There was a roaring in her ears, and she'd lost feeling in her arms and legs. Then darkness overwhelmed her vision.
Someone was dragging her away. Penny opened her eyes, and tried to focus.
"You're a lot heavier then you look, you know." She knew that voice, with its clipped accent.
Hourglass half-carried her over to a tree and let Penny slide to the ground with her back against it. She recognized where they were now—the park where she'd gone with Hammer all that time ago. The other woman knelt on the grass next to her so she could look Penny in the eye.
"You shouldn't be here."
"Umf?" Penny asked. Actual words were still too difficult to form.
"You should have vanished when you disabled the Freeze Ray. The choices that brought you here weren't made, and this version of you shouldn't even exist." Hourglass frowned. "Not to mention that you're now dead."
"I'm dead?" Great, something else for the list of 'things no one should have to hear'.
Hourglass stood. "The time machine you used must have malfunctioned, kept an illegal copy. You're a pirated version of yourself."
Penny tried to stand too, and didn't make it. She decided she really wanted to sit for a few more minutes. "I'm alive though, aren't it? Even if the other me is dead?"
"Sort of. You shouldn't exist, Penny. You're a mistake, a glitch. Your very presence is going to mess up the timelines. I'm sorry, but it's true."
"He's going to be admitted to the ELE tonight. The papers are saying he killed you, and he's not denying it."
Penny ran a hand through her hair. The wig had fallen off somewhere and the sunglasses were gone, but she still felt like a stranger in her own body. She didn't want to believe what Hourglass was saying, but she knew it was true.
"I should find him, maybe I can still convince him not to join—"
"No." Hourglass swooped down on her with surprising vengeance. "Penny, you can't go anywhere near him, do you understand? You can't see anyone from your previous life under any circumstances. It would cause a paradox of a magnitude I wouldn't like to imagine, and could destroy everything."
That sounded a bit dramatic, and Penny said so.
Hourglass snorted. "And you're willing to find out if I'm right?"
Penny wasn't, not quite. "Then what do I do?"
"Get as far from here as possible. You're a ghost, Penny, and you're going to have to act like one from now on."
Just a ghost… What had she actually accomplished? Billy was still going to join the ELE and Dr. Horrible was going to take over the world. Past-Penny was dead, and Present/Future-Penny knew that Billy would blame himself for her death, and go even deeper into the darkness that he'd created for himself. And what was she? An echo, the afterimage on the TV screen right before it goes dark. A ghost.
Night had fallen. Penny was waiting on the sidewalk a few houses down from Billy's apartment. She knew what she was doing was risky, but she couldn't bear to leave without one last moment of being Penny, before she became—whoever she was going to be now. Hourglass had said she could stay the night in her house, but that the next morning she was going to have to leave. Penny was fine with that. All she wanted was one glimpse—there.
A long black car pulled up in front of Billy's apartment and stopped. Billy and Moist got out, and walked up the front door. As she'd feared, the white labcoat was now blood red. Maybe some things just couldn't be changed. For a second, she thought Billy had seen her—he froze on the doorstep, looking right at her, disbelief on his face. Then he shook his head slightly, and walked inside. The door shut behind him.
Penny stood there for a long moment, still watching the apartment, half-hoping Billy would come back out, and knowing she couldn't ever speak to him. She was a ghost now, she was going to have to get used to it. Penny was dead, but she was still alive, and that was something.
Dreams are easy to achieve… The moment she looked away, the old Penny would really be gone. If hope is all I'm hoping to be… She knew what was out there now, and if an ordinary life was really out of the question—Penny smiled. Perhaps she could still settle for the extraordinary. So keep your head up… She turned and started walking.