How It Happened
(or, How Penny and Sheldon Went From Friends, to Enemies, to Something More in Under 24 Hours)
It all started on what should have been a sleepy Saturday morning, when Penny's alarm went off at fifteen to seven. She groaned and swore and tried to go back to sleep, but when that proved impossible, she staggered over (still groaning and swearing) to the coffeemaker. She stumbled into the bathroom to wash her face. The cool water against her skin felt wonderful, but not quite wonderful enough for her to forget that it was freakishly early on her favorite day to sleep in.
She collapsed on the couch with her coffee and her laptop. Penny brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes as she scanned her inbox. "Crap, crap, and more crap," she murmured, checking off the boxes and deleting the messages. She opened a new tab and looked at her Facebook news feed, her eyes automatically searching for a  in her inbox. That director still hadn't gotten back to her. She sighed, and resigned herself to stalking some of her ex-boyfriends. It was always refreshing to see how much of a downgrade their new flings were.
Penny had gotten sidetracked with trying to figure out if an old friend of hers was really pregnant when the sound came. She could have sworn she heard the door across the hall opening, which, okay, was not so unusual. Sheldon was up at six or so every morning (she was sure he knew exactly when), and Leonard usually got up pretty early unless he'd been partying the night before (which was pretty rare). They didn't usually leave the apartment at 7:13, though.
Knock knock knock. "Penny."
What had she done to deserve this morning?
Knock knock knock. "Pe—"
"I'm sleeping!" she called back.
There was a slight pause. "Penny," Sheldon said knowingly, through the door. "If you were asleep, explain to me who was on Facebook? Unless your account has been hacked, which would not be altogether unsurprising. I've told you on multiple occasions that you should use a higher-security password—"
She opened the door and glared up at him. As usual, he'd donned two shirts (that she could see—she really wouldn't be surprised if he wore more): plain black long-sleeved, pushed up nearly to his elbows, and his Green Lantern shirt. She tried not to look at his eye-searingly ugly plaid pants. The thing that most caught her attention, however, was what he was holding, which seemed to be a plate with paper towels draped over it.
"Did you forget my eleven o'clock rule?" she asked, feeling somewhat sassy. She jutted both her hip and her jaw out as she challenged him.
He cleared his throat, and she could tell that he would have covered it if not for the object in his hands. "I do not forget anything, and I brought you a peace offering in hopes that you might consider a temporary relaxation of that rule." Sheldon held out the plate. "It's breakfast."
Penny took it from him, lifting the cover. Underneath was an array of breakfast foods: bacon, eggs, a pancake smothered in syrup, buttered toast, and a few strawberries. She looked up at him, shocked. He mistook her confusion for displeasure. "I can make something else. I was unaware of what breakfast foods you preferred, and my research on typical Nebraskan fare was inconclusive."
"No, no, this is fine." She took the plate over to her tiny table. He watched her nervously before sitting down across from her. "Didn't you make some for yourself?" she asked, suddenly feeling a little guilty.
Sheldon shook his head. "I always eat cereal on Saturday mornings."
"Well...thank you," she said awkwardly. There was no doubt in her mind that he wanted something from her, but until he came out with it, the whole situation just felt weird. The man had cooked breakfast for her, and they hadn't even slept together! It felt so...intimate. Still, that wasn't going to put her off her food. Penny took a forkful of eggs into her mouth and was transported into heaven. "This is so good!" she exclaimed, swallowing. "Why don't you cook breakfast every morning?"
"I don't find it to be worth the effort, and I prefer to consume a good portion of my required fiber in the morning," he replied stiffly, relaxing slightly to show a small smile. "Thank you."
Penny ate at a fairly rapid pace, wanting to get as much of it down as possible before he said whatever he was going to say. She was down to half a slice of bacon and the toast when he came out with it.
"Penny, I have a favor to ask of you." He paused. "Also, you have syrup in the corner of your mouth."
She took the napkin he offered and removed the offending syrup. "Did you kill somebody, sweetie? Because I would totally help you lose the body if you keep making me breakfast like that."
Sheldon looked taken aback. "I did not murder any one, Penny, although I will keep your offer in mind. Why must you jump to such conclusions?"
Penny laughed. "Well, you made me breakfast," she said slowly, trying to explain what that meant to her in terms he could understand. "It's kind of my...Kryptonite."
He blinked. "Are you implying that this meal is the radioactive remains of the planet you once called home?"
"Or that by consuming it, you will become powerless?"
"I just meant that it's my weakness, Sheldon," she sighed.
"Then why didn't you just say so?" He shook his head slowly.
Penny finished her bacon and unclenched her fists before asking, "Okay, what's the favor?"
Sheldon did his best to smile, but it only looked painful. "I would appreciate it if you would give me a ride to and from the comic book store. It should not be a long trip, and I am aware that you do not work today."
"No problem," she said, meaning it. Sure, if he'd woken her up for this, she would have been angry enough to whoop his plaid-clad booty, but what the hey. She was already up, and he'd definitely made sure that she'd owed him one. Penny threw the napkin away as she asked, "Just for curiosity's sake, uh, why can't Leonard take you?"
Sheldon, who was wiping down the table, frowned. "He has an optometrist appointment this morning, and I am not welcome to come with him. Apparently, he finds it 'rude' and 'off-putting' when I attempt to explain how he could optimize his procedure." He shrugged; she tried not to laugh.
She ran a hand through her hair. She could probably get away without washing it. "Well, just give me time to get dressed, okay?"
"I considered that factor when rationing our time," he said absently, settling onto her couch. Okay. If he wanted to stay in the apartment, that was fine. Better than her having to go over and face Leonard—she really didn't feel like dealing with the guilt-inducing puppy-dog looks that morning.
Penny took her time choosing a cute outfit. Sure, she was only going to the comic book store, but she was still single and the geeky guys had been pretty good to her. At least she'd make them want her (oh, who was she kidding, they would want her even if she wore a Care Bear snuggie to the store). It was strangely comforting to know that Sheldon had planned for her prep time.
She settled on a pair of black short-shorts and a well-fitting (but not too snug) white blouse. Her hair went into low, sweet pigtails. Penny inspected herself in the mirror. Something was missing. Back to the bedroom, picking up a cute belt, skinny and green, for the shorts. She winked at the mirror. The small splash of color lit up the outfit and brought out the green in her eyes. She did her makeup quickly and bounced back into the living room.
Sheldon was flipping through an issue of Vogue. He looked up at her. "The grammatical errors in this publication are abundant," he commented mildly. "Are you ready?"
She nodded, and off they went. He chattered all the way down about how Stuart had called him, and that they had just gotten in a vintage "The Flash" coffee pot. "You don't drink coffee," she pointed out. He stared at her blankly.
When Penny started the car, she glanced at the fuel gauge. She dug her fingernails into her skin and glared at the thing. "Sheldon, we're going to have to stop and get gas. Sorry."
He closed his eyes briefly. "I have nothing else to do today, so I suppose that will be acceptable. There is, after all, no way around it (unless you are in possession of a time machine, but that could lead to a paradoxical situation)—"
"Yes, it could," she said loudly, hoping that would discourage him from expounding. To her surprise, it actually worked. He was silent almost all the way to the gas station.
"You buy your gas from this station?" Sheldon asked.
"Obviously," she muttered. "Why?"
"Leonard prefers the station across the street. In your mind, why is this one superior? State your reasons."
Penny looked at him. "Why do you care?" she asked slowly.
He tilted his head. "Leonard is not an exceptional scientist, while you are not a scientist at all. It is possible that you may have processed data that he has not. He is woefully unobservant, you know."
"Can I think about it and get back to you?" she said, in a tired voice. Sheldon considered this as she parked.
"Yes, that would be acceptable."
Penny filled the car up, leaving the keys in the ignition as she walked across to the actual store. It'd have to be cash today—her new credit card wasn't in yet. As soon as she opened the door, she froze.
Two well-built men with guns were leveling the weapons at the man behind the counter. At her entrance, one nudged the other and switched his aim to her. "Don't move and we won't hurt you," he said gruffly. The other man had a garbage bag filled, she guessed, with money. The register drawer lay empty on the counter. If they already had the money, why were they still here?
The man who was not pointing the gun at her drew closer to the man at the counter, muttering something. The attendant seemed extremely reluctant, but at another gun jab handed over something small. Penny squinted, trying to make out what it was. Definitely wasn't jewelry, but other than that, she had no clue.
The first man was talking to her, she suddenly realized, and Penny snapped to attention. She was a major fan of her life and didn't want to lose it because she happened to go to the wrong gas station. "That your car out there?" He had a slight Southern accent.
"There's a man in the front seat. You know him?"
"He's my...neighbor," she said awkwardly.
"All right, missy. You're a pretty thing, aren't you?" he said, as if only now noticing. "This is what we're gonna do. We're gonna walk over to that car. You and your gentleman friend are going to get into the back seat, so you can't go get help, y'understand. We're gonna drive to a couple other places and do some stuff you won't know about, so no use feeling guilty. We'll drop you off where you won't know where you are, but you'll have your phones and wallets and all that. By the time you get back to where you belong, we should be long gone. You won't be hurt, we'll get away. That is, assumin' you don't give us any trouble."
"Oh, we won't," she assured him sweetly. Time to play dumb. "That's awfully considerate of you."
"No use hurtin' people when we don't need to. Just leaves a trail, you see," he added confidentially. "Start walking."
The man held the gun on her as they walked, but his grip on her arm was loose. If Sheldon hadn't been in the car and the other man hadn't been behind them, she probably could have gotten away. She gritted her teeth. Sheldon started as soon as he caught sight of her, his blue eyes wide with panic. She refused to feel sorry for him—it was his fault they were in this mess. Even breakfast wasn't enough to make up for having a gun jammed to her head.
"Out of the car," the man ordered, and Sheldon complied, muttering something under his breath, though whether it was swears or equations, she couldn't tell. The second man, whom she assumed was the leader, came around the car.
They were seated in the back. The criminals stuffed the garbage bag in the trunk; Penny did not see the small thing reappear. The chatty man rode in the passenger seat, while the leader drove. Sheldon was glaring at her, and she pointedly ignored him. If he thought all of this was her fault, well, he could just think again. If she'd had her way, she'd be at home watching a friggin' chick flick on her day off, not on this stupid trip that had quickly turned dangerous.
She tapped her fingers on the seat, and suddenly noticed wood peeking out from underneath the passenger's seat. Of course! Penny wasn't stupid—she knew that the city could be dangerous, especially for a single girl whose family was hundreds of miles away. She kept a baseball bat in the car, instead of a gun, because it was less trouble. The men had taken her purse, but she had the gas receipt still shoved in her pocket, and she'd bet her boots that Sheldon had a pen in one of his pockets. She mimed this to him, and though he still looked irritated, he passed her a plain black ballpoint. Penny sucked in air quickly and hid the paper and pen behind her until she was sure of her plan.
There was no way that she could take them both out. The only way she could get one of them would be with the element of surprise. She was strong, but she was at a bit of a disadvantage. Sheldon was staring out the window, and she wanted to slap him for being so oblivious. What happened to understanding everything and planning for every alternative? He was brilliant, there was no denying that (she barely understood half of the things he said, after all), but the man had absolutely no common sense.
The car turned. They were in a driveway, now. She peeked out the window. "We're just stoppin' to pick up something," the talkative one told her. She nodded, although he probably couldn't see her. The driver started to turn the car off, and the other man stopped him. "It's awful hot. Leave it on, I need some air in here."
The first man said something she couldn't make out, but she wasn't paying attention any more. She was scribbling on the paper as furiously as possible without making a racket.
SHELDON - MY SIGNAL GET URSELF IN THE DRIVER SEAT N GET US OUTTA HERE. DONT QUESTION IT JUST DO IT.
She slipped it to him, and he glanced at it, eyes scanning quickly. He frowned. Penny ran her finger over the last part and gave him a significant look. He shook his head and placed a finger below where she'd written "urself".
Penny had never wanted to punch him more.
She slid her hand underneath the passenger's seat and extracted the bat, thanking a power somewhere that it came out without a fight. She took off her seat belt and scooted into the middle seat. Sheldon made a quiet noise of protest; she ignored him. As she'd expected, the man turned around. "What's going—"
The bat made a satisfying clunk as it connected with his head. He fell back immediately, and Penny launched herself into the passenger seat. "Now!" she said to Sheldon, who was already moving easily into the driver's seat. She heard his seat belt click as she pushed the man's unconscious body out of the door.
"Okay, we don't have a lot of time," she said, as he backed up. "They'll come running out of that house any minute and put two and two together. Probably come after us in that truck. You're gonna have to book it, babe."
"I don't know if I can," he replied weakly, shifting into drive. She glanced behind them, and sure enough, two figures were climbing into the black truck. She cursed loudly. They were going about twenty.
"Sheldon! Drive like you're in a video game!" she ordered.
He looked at her seriously, and she could almost see something clicking in his eyes. "Fasten your seat belt," Sheldon muttered, and slammed on the gas so hard that she almost hit her face on the dashboard. She buckled quickly, staring at him in awe.
Penny had never seen him quite like this, but she figured this was how he looked when she was kicking his butt at Halo. He was driving like a maniac, switching lanes irresponsibly, going—she was actually a little scared to look at the speedometer. For the first time, she was kind of grateful for his craziness, but (she reminded herself), she still didn't forgive him for getting them into this mess in the first place.
Sheldon weaved in and out of traffic. She checked the rear-view. The black truck was keeping up pretty well. "Is this something you do often in Nebraska?" the man next to her asked.
"Is this something you do often in Texas?" she shot back.
"Not me personally, but one...perhaps. Are they following us closely?"
"Yeah. Can you go any faster?"
He snorted. "Can I go any faster," he repeated smugly, pressing the gas down even more. Several people honked at him as he flew past them, but he barely seemed to notice.
"They're still on us," she reported.
For some freakish reason, Sheldon was grinning. "Kaylee, how do you feel about pulling a Crazy Ivan?"
Oh, God, he had completely lost it.
"The correct response is, 'Always wanted to try one'. And here we go."
By the time she figured out that he was quoting something, she had a different reason to be convinced that he was off his rocker. They were on a packed road, a good way from a stop or any sort of turn. Suddenly, however, Sheldon turned on a pin, nearly hitting about a dozen other cars, and sped into the other direction. "You see," he said as soon as they had turned, "a car does not have rotating engines. The quote was just too good to pass up, anyway. Are they still behind us?"
"No, looks like they decided to be sane and turn at the light," she said, still short of breath. "We've got a couple of minutes to lose them."
"Alrighty," he returned almost cheerfully, turning onto a side street and pulling up to the next stop.
Penny bit her lip. "Turn right."
"We will be turning left," Sheldon informed her, making that turn.
"Well, I had a good feeling about turning right." She didn't mean it to come out sounding so harsh, but there was a definite bite to her words.
He made another turn. She wondered absently if he had some kind of plan or if it was random. Who was she kidding? Sheldon never did things without order. It was just that the order was usually flipping crazy. "Perhaps if you would have had a 'good feeling' about purchasing gas before this morning, we would not be in this predicament," he said. She could hear the anger in his voice, the way that he slightly over-pronounced every syllable, spitting them out. For the first time, she realized that she was shaking.
"Maybe if you'd had a good feeling about being a normal human being, we wouldn't be in this 'predicament'! If you would just learn to drive your own self places, I'm sure that everything in your life would be just...just hunky-dory! You'd never forget to buy gas, or mess up your takeout order, or forget which night is Pizza Night. Maybe you just should be all of your own company and leave me the hell alone, since you're so perfect."
A hush followed her words. Penny was filled with a sense of shame. It wasn't exactly that she hadn't meant it, but she probably shouldn't have said it. She knew that Sheldon was more delicate than he seemed. He was a real person, even though you might forget that sometimes. She chanced a look at him. His eyes were on the road, and he wasn't twitching. Well, he was barely twitching.
"That sounds like an acceptable alternative," he said quietly. "I am aware that I do not truly require the presence of others."
Oops, there went that guilt. "Yes, you do," she said, matching his volume. "Don't lie to yourself."
"I..." His voice cracked. "I am a highly advanced being, Penny. I require little external motivation. I am self-sufficient in most respects, and will take into consideration your criticism regarding my shortcomings. In other words, I am capable of taking care of myself, and thus do not need other people."
"You know that's bull."
Sheldon twitched more, now. "I am aware of no such thing."
Penny looked at her hands, tightly clasped. They were still shaking. Her anger had faded, leaving a sort of dull pain. She was scared, still, though no ominous black truck was behind them. "What should we do now?" she asked quietly, more to herself than to her companion.
"Do you happen to be familiar with a good place to lighten our load?"
"Dump the money," he elaborated, looking at her now. He was driving almost normally, now, no longer speeding but not overly cautious, either. He just over-thought it, like everything else. She must have been traumatized, because she almost thought that was endearing.
She shrugged. "I don't even know where we are."
He looked out the window. "Neither do I," he admitted after a second. "I was attempting to keep up, but I'm afraid that my memory functions were rather impaired. Do you have a GPS?"
"Waste of money," Penny said. "I think I've got a map around here, somewhere."
"That will do, I suppose."
She opened the glove compartment, and out tumbled an odd sort of flash drive. Intuitively, she recognized it as the small, important object. "This was the thing he got from the attendant."
Sheldon glanced at it. "Fascinating but probably unimportant."
"I don't know," she said slowly. "They didn't care about the money, I think they were just kind of getting it for the heck of it. This is what they were after."
"Please tell me you don't mean to keep it."
"You're not gonna tell me what to do, Sheldon Cooper. I have a bad feeling about letting them have this, it's...important, somehow." She realized the truth of her words only as she said them. He looked at her and sighed.
"Obstinate woman. Very well, but I am in no way liable for this. Were I not driving, you would be required to sign paperwork about your obvious mistake. At the very least, hide it somewhere on your person," he told her. She hadn't expected him to give in this easily. Perhaps they should get into mortal danger more often.
A few months ago, she'd been giving some girl coworker, barely past childhood, a ride back. The kid hadn't lasted long at the Cheesecake Factory. Her boyfriend had broken up with her that day, and Penny felt terrible for her, so she offered to help. While she'd been in the car, the girl had taken off the necklace she wore all the time, just a simple chain with a class ring on it. "I don't want to be reminded of him," she'd mumbled. "Can I throw it out the window?"
"Just put it in the glove compartment," Penny had said charitably, knowing that these kind of breakups were usually temporary. She'd never seen the girl again.
She fished the necklace out of the compartment and slid the ring off easily, replacing it with the flash drive. Holding her pigtails with one hand, she slipped the necklace on with the other. The flash drive was low enough that it would be invisible to anybody not standing over her, and if the criminals happened to be that close, she was pretty much screwed, anyway.
"Sheldon, honey, stop the car."
"Why? What would be the purpose—"
"Just do it!" she insisted. He rolled his eyes and pulled over in front of a dingy little house. It was obvious that the residents were not well-off, but had made attempts at creating a home. There were chairs out front, and some potted plants that weren't entirely dying. It was perfect. "Okay, look. We have to dump the money, right? We can't take it back to the station, and I don't even think I want to. I have a feeling that man there was part of this." She rushed on before Sheldon could put in his two cents. "These people obviously need the money. I don't know how much is even in that bag, but it has to help, right?"
It was normal that she couldn't understand Sheldon's words, but as far as his emotions, he was usually an open book. As she said those words, however, there was something in his eyes she couldn't place. It was like he was somewhere far away, but it wasn't quite the dreamy look he got when thinking about any of the abstract concepts he loved. It was more melancholy.
He cleared his throat. "You would give this money...to these people? Even though you don't know them?"
Penny nodded. "It feels...right, you know?"
He was looking down. "Yes. I understand."
She reached out for the handle of the door as he opened the trunk. Sheldon, still steadily focused on the ground, said, "Penny, I think that you are...very kind for thinking to give the money to these people."
Penny smiled at him. "Thank you," she said, meaning it. "Now let's give random people some money before somebody calls the cops on us!"
After depositing the bag on the doorstep (she insisted on ringing the doorbell), they bolted back to the car, Penny sliding easily into the passenger seat without a thought. She laughed, driving off, so much that she thought her lungs would burst. Sheldon laughed too, so there they were, doubled over together as they drove away, rejoicing in the sheer joy and adrenaline of it all. She'd never heard him laugh quite like that—it was still breathy and odd, but definitely real and just an absolutely happy sound. Her last remnants of anger melted away.
"That was strangely enjoyable," he said, still laughing a little bit.
She smiled at him sweetly. "Maybe you should do random acts of kindness more often."
Sheldon considered this. "Perhaps I could schedule that for Sunday afternoons. My mother would certainly approve—not that I require her approval," he added hastily. The day was turning into a pretty one, as far as the weather went, and Penny hid her smile by pretending to look out the window.
"You know," she said, "they're not really random if you schedule them, Sheldon."
"The title does not specify which part is random, but I would assume it would be the act itself, not the timing. Therefore, I could perform random acts of kindness at a set time."
Penny tried to find a hole in this logic, but other than the fact that it was insane, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Her stomach growled. "I'm hungry, Sheldon," she whined. "Do you have any food with you?"
He kept his eyes on the road. "There are emergency supplies in my bag, but I would prefer if you do not consume them. They are intended for an apocalypse scenario. Additionally, I doubt that you will find them to your liking."
"Then can we stop and eat?"
It was a good thing the street was deserted, because Sheldon stopped in the middle of the road so that he could stare at her. "Penny. Have you forgotten our original objective?"
"To...make it out alive?" she guessed wryly.
"To reach the comic book store," he corrected. "Some other aficionado of The Flash could have already purchased the coffee pot with my name on it! Obviously, I am speaking figuratively. If my name was actually on it, I doubt that they would want it, unless their name is the same as mine. We then get into the question of 'which part of the name', for Sheldon itself is fairly common, Sheldon Lee less so, and the odds of another Dr. Sheldon Lee Cooper entering a small comic book store in Pasadena are infinitesimal."
"Sweetie, unless you've figured it out, we still have no clue where we are, and I apparently lost my map. How long were we in the car before they stopped?"
"Approximately twenty-six minutes."
"Okay, so there's that, and then the high-speed car chase, now the side streets...there is no telling when we'll get back, so can we just stop before I starve to death?" She looked at him. He frowned.
"Naturally, I would stop if I believed that you were really in danger. However, unless you burn calories at a superhuman rate, the breakfast I made should certainly sustain you for quite a while before you die of starvation," he said stiffly.
Penny smirked at him. "Did you see what I did to that guy with the baseball bat?"
He glared at her. "Your reliance on threats of physical violence deeply disturbs me. If your need is that great, I suppose we can find a suitable restaurant." Sheldon made a left turn, and they found themselves on a larger road again. He smiled smugly. "Ah, yes, I was correct. As expected."
She sighed, both in relief and frustration. There were plenty of restaurants on the horizon (mostly fast food), but how many of them would be Sheldon-approved?
"Starbucks would be acceptable," Sheldon said. Surprised, she glanced at him, but there was no trace of irony on his useful features. Of course there wasn't—he wouldn't understand the concept. "They generally have wonderful health scores."
"You don't drink coffee," she replied, for the second time that day.
"Don't they have tea?"
"As I said, acceptable." He turned into the parking lot, and parked, but instead of opening his door, he reached into the back seat and pulled out his phone. When they had been "apprehended", the criminals had put their belongings in the trunk. Penny supposed that the nice treatment was just another incentive for them not to rat out the thieves, but it wasn't going to work for her.
"What are you doing?" she asked, leaning over Sheldon's shoulder.
She expected him to flinch, but he only gestured to the screen. "Checking the health rating. Currently, it is 100. Satisfactory." Sheldon slipped the phone into his pocket and opened the door.
She came around the car to follow him to the entrance. "If 100 is satisfactory, I'd hate to hear what anything below that is."
He didn't reply, just strode with purpose to the door. She smiled slightly. He could say whatever he wanted, but he was obviously hungry, too. They ordered, and sat on a comfy little love seat that obviously reminded him of the couch back at 4A. Penny was glad for the extra caffeine getting into her system, and Sheldon seemed content with his tea and sandwich. For a while, they were fairly quiet.
"Penny," Sheldon said, out of the blue. "I request that you drive us back to Pasadena. I am not entirely comfortable with the traffic of the larger cities, and I can operate the GPS on my phone while you drive."
She didn't have anything against it (although it was kind of nice for him to drive her around, instead of vice versa), so she nodded. "Of course, sweetie." He gave her a small smile, and she grinned right back.
Penny had been driving for about twenty minutes when some idiot pulled in front of her at the last second, and she nearly rear-ended him. She honked the horn furiously and screamed an obscenity before remembering that her windows were up. Sheldon was looking at her, cringing from the sound, and she felt blood rush to her cheeks in embarrassment.
"Penny, I do not mean to alarm you," he said carefully, "but I believe our problems may be greater than a couple of admittedly poor drivers. There is a black truck behind us, exactly matched in detail to the one that we escaped earlier. It seems as if they have 'picked up our trail' again, if you will."
For an extended second, the only sound was the hum of the motor and the sound of the tires on the pavement beneath them. Then she spoke again. "Sheldon, are there any malls nearby?"
She felt his eyes on her, but she didn't turn. "Yes," he said simply. "Would you like their locations?"
Hey, would you look at that. Trust. "You bet I would," she growled. They were gonna lose these criminals, and lose 'em good. As Sheldon rattled off the directions, Penny thought of her plan. Oh, yes. Things could work out quite nicely.
The black truck dropped off as they entered the mall parking lot; obviously, they didn't want to make their presence known. Penny found a decent parking spot and opened her door. Sheldon came around and stood by her. "It should be relatively easy to rid ourselves of the criminals in this densely populated space, but I imagine they will harm your car."
She smiled at him. "I'm leaving it unlocked, giving them no reason to trash it. They shouldn't steal it, and it's not nice enough to be an upgrade for anybody here."
"Very astute, Penny," he said, obviously pleased. His blue eyes glimmered; she felt uncomfortable, for some reason, and looked away.
"Okay, Moonpie, we're gonna need to hold hands. We don't need to lose each other, and besides, acting like a couple will make anything we do seem less suspicious. Can you deal?" She looked back at him, the spell broken. He nodded.
"As long as you disinfect." Sheldon pushed a bottle into her hands, and she dealt herself an extra-large amount, to be sure he would think it was enough. She rubbed her hands together fervently, before slipping her hand into his, threading their fingers together carefully.
His warmth always surprised her, maybe because he seemed so inhuman at times. Right now, he was definitely one hundred percent human, as they walked along to the entrance. She felt safe, and not just because she'd reckoned the criminals would check the car before her necklace. Penny looked up at his face, and nearly gasped. She had to force her legs to keep moving. "Sheldon, are you—blushing?"
"I do not blush. Blushing is for lesser being," he said, sounding just so stuffy and Sheldon that she would have believed him if not for the undeniable redness tinting his cheeks. Well, that, and the fact that he didn't meet her eyes as he said it.
"There's no need to be embarrassed, sweetie," she replied, genuinely touched. "I think it's...cute."
He choked and pulled away, although he still held her hand firmly. "Cute? Penny, I am—"'
"Too loud, honey," she said in a sugary tone, as the people clustered around the entrance gawked at the pair. "It's okay to seem shy, but at least act like you want to be here with me, okay?"
Sheldon nodded, and they stepped into the mall. The air-conditioning felt wonderful—Penny hadn't realized how overheated she had become until that moment. She smiled automatically, somewhat dazed.
"I assume that we will procure disguises?"
Oh, there was the old Sheldon. His blush had faded. She sighed. "Yeah, I think that's a good idea. They'll be in here after us pretty soon."
He pulled her toward the elevator. "We should purchase these disguises on the third floor, as it is the highest. Knowing that we have just entered the building, they will probably search on the first two floors before ascending. By that time, we will be unrecognizable."
"Unrecognizable?" Penny had been thinking maybe a couple of hats. "What kind of disguises are we talking about?"
Sheldon put a finger to his lips, and indicated the nearby people waiting for the elevator. She nodded tersely. They filed into the elevator, still holding hands. Penny fought the urge to kick the uppity eleven-year-old girl whispering to her friends about the man in the ugly pants. He didn't appear to notice at all.
"We should split up," Sheldon said as they left the elevator.
She shook her head fervently. "Hon, I've seen my fair share of movies. That never ends well."
"We run the risk of being caught if we both have to approve the clothing choices. We can reunite in front of those restrooms, as we will need to change our clothes. I can assure you that I will pick clothes that I would never wear. I trust you will do the same...?" He raised his eyebrows at her. She glared at him, but nodded, and thus parted they their ways.
If her life hadn't been in danger, Penny would have been in heaven. She loved shopping for cute little things, and Sanrio seemed to be calling her name. She would look so adorable in that headband. No. She shook her head to clear her thoughts, and looked in the other direction. Hmm, a sports store...
Sheldon had a large black bag in his hand when she returned. A wave of guilt swept over her. Had she taken too long? There had been a bit of a line at Claire's, but she had seen her pièce de résistance in the window. "Did I keep you waiting?" she asked casually, swinging her bags in one hand. People were around, after all.
He regarded her with an indecipherable expression. "I have only been here for approximately sixty-eight seconds. Are you prepared?"
"Sure, babe," she said loudly, because those people that were around probably thought they were total freaks. Well, they were half right. They walked into the restroom area, and she dashed into the women's room to change.
The handicapped stall was open, so she snatched it up unrepentantly. She shimmied out of her shorts and top, throwing them on the floor before thinking twice and shoving them into her purse. Going for nondescript, she'd picked out grey sweatpants and a halfway cute baby blue tee. Not exactly what she'd normally buy, but they weren't completely ugly, and she had to admit that they were super comfortable. Penny kicked off her heels, depressed that those would have to go permanently. She'd thought about keeping them, but they were the worst for running, and, well, lives in danger and all that. Some knockoff Nike type of sneakers took their place. She fished in the other bag and retrieved the purple-rimmed reading glasses. Penny was a teensy bit farsighted, so they shouldn't screw with her vision too much, she reasoned, slipping them on. She'd bought the weakest they had, so things didn't get too much more blurry.
She pulled out her pigtails and did her hair up in a messy high ponytail. For good measure, she flushed the toilet, to seem a little less suspicious. Slipping out of the stall, she checked the coast before dumping the heels and the bags in the trash can. She inspected herself in the mirror. Yep, she was definitely rocking the "Smart-Chick-On-Her-Day-Off" thing. Penny made a show of washing her hands, then walked out into the hall.
This time, it was Sheldon who kept her waiting. He emerged a minute after she, and she flashed back to suit shopping with him when he came out awkwardly, looking like he didn't know what to do with this new version of himself. True to his word, he didn't look much like himself: his dark jeans were snug, his Vans were bright, and he wore only a single black T-shirt. Okay, with a TARDIS on it, but still. He'd even added the nice touch of a black wristband. It worked for him (all those scene hipster guys were skinny and tall, after all), but there was one thing missing. Penny reached up and mussed his hair. He glared and nearly corrected it, but her look gave him pause. "Thank you," he said, obviously forcing the words out.
"You're welcome, sweetie," she replied cheerfully, taking his hand again. She leaned up and whispered in his ear, "Remember to act like a couple."
He whispered back, "I can hardly act like a couple. I can, however, act like half of a couple, that is, as your boyfriend. I could be whispering sweet nothings in your ear, for all the other occupants know."
She giggled, and the flirty tone in it wasn't entirely fake. Yes, Sheldon drove her up the wall, and sometimes she thought he was a complete lunatic, but he could be so disarmingly cute at times. Especially now, with his hair all messy, and his lovely forearms in full view.
The plan was to just stroll into the elevator, ride it down, and get the heck outta Dodge, but when they walked out into the rest of the mall, Penny's stomach sunk. She'd know those men anywhere, even if one didn't appear to be nursing a big bump on his head. They were also on the third floor, but across from the bathrooms, far enough that it was likely they hadn't caught sight of Penny and Sheldon yet. She played her fingers along his arm. "They're here," she said quietly, smiling as she did so. Nothing to see here, folks, just another couple. People brushed by them, and Sheldon moved over to a bench nearby, taking Penny with him.
His blue eyes cut to the side, and then back to her. "Had you prepared a plan of action for this possibility?" he asked, and she wasn't sure if he meant it or not. Penny did have a plan, however, and one that seemed increasingly appealing. So she took the bull by the horns. She leaned over, took his face in her hands, and kissed him.
Again, his warmth surprised her, as well as the softness of his lips. Hesitantly, his arms moved from their limp position at his side, and snaked around her waist, bringing her closer. He wasn't the best kisser in the world (she doubted he'd had much practice), but he wasn't bad, and the fact that it was him made her heart feel like it would burst. The last thing she wanted to admit to herself was that she had a certified crush on Sheldon Cooper, but apparently that was unavoidable. Trying not to get in too deep with the kiss (and wanting to check if the criminals were still there), she pulled back. He'd closed his eyes, and she had a feeling it wasn't just because of social protocol. A small smile crossed her lips, and as she scanned the mall, the smile grew larger.
"The coast is clear!" she whispered joyfully, but Sheldon didn't reply verbally. He simply moved forward and kissed her again.
That was pretty much the last thing she'd been expecting. He was still kissing her carefully, but obviously willfully, deliberately. Penny knew that she needed to break the kiss, but she couldn't bear it, especially when his hand came up to cup the side of her face. She felt like a teenager again, throwing herself entirely into a guy. If she'd suspected that he could ever come to this, she never would have wasted her time with Leonard.
Finally, he pulled away, obviously more out of lack of air than anything else. "Sheldon," she said, a little surprised at how breathless she sounded. "What—"
"I like kissing you," he replied sleepily, eyes heavily lidded.
Well, that was good enough for her. She recaptured his lips.
Penny had lost track of how long they'd been kissing. She was in a sort of dazed trance, only knowing the Sheldon-scent of clean (and now, new clothes). Unlike most of the guys she'd dated, there was no urgency in his kiss. He wasn't worried about getting to the "next level" so he could brag to his buddies. It was mostly a closed-mouth kiss, and she kind of liked it. Taking it slow was a nice change.
"'Scuse me, break it up," a deep voice said, and she opened her eyes before breaking away. A security guard, looking somewhat abashed. "No public displays of affection in the mall. Against policy."
Penny opened her mouth to apologize, but the brilliant mind of Dr. Sheldon Cooper had apparently been shut down by her kiss (she had to admit, she was a bit flattered), and the next thing she knew, his lips were on hers again. She pushed him off, but too late—the security guy was already calling them troublemakers, and saying they'd have to come with him. She took Sheldon's hand and followed the security guy ("Tom", according to his name tag) down the stairs, and into a hallway on the second floor. He led them into a small room with a few chairs, and told them to sit. "Just have to issue the official warning, I'll be back in a minute." He shut the door behind him, but Penny noticed that it didn't lock.
Sheldon was obviously back to normal, and didn't quite meet her eyes when he said, "I believe that, as he probably does not literally mean sixty seconds, we can escape within the time frame. Prolonging our stay could increase the chances of the criminals discovering us."
She wanted to point out that he had done quite a lot of prolonging their stay, but she kept her mouth shut and nodded tersely. They stood up and inched to the door. There was no window, so they'd just have to hope. Penny opened the door gingerly and peeped out. She signaled Sheldon with an "OK" sign made behind her back, and they crept out into the hallway. His hand found hers and they made a break for it, dashing down the stairs (better than waiting for the elevator), and out the door. They sprinted on to the car, and Penny thought they had it made when somebody grabbed her shoulders.
She squirmed in the man's strong grip. "I got her!" he yelled, and she recognized him as the second, chatty man. An engine revved—the truck, of course, coming around the corner. Sheldon turned, and his blue eyes widened at the sight of her. She wondered if he would leave, almost wanted him to, although she'd be mad as heck if he did. No matter how much violent sci-fi he watched or video games he played, he just wasn't up to this kind of action.
He stopped, though, and gave the men a glare, one much worse than she'd ever received from him. "Let her go," he said, nearly growling.
The man scoffed and pulled off her necklace, holding it above her head as he released her shoulders. "Listen, I don't want any trouble. You an' your dumb blonde girlfriend can go, as long as we got this. Kind of important, see."
A scene flashed through Penny's mind, something she'd caught when stopping by 4A for something. It'd been playing on their television, and she'd thought it was kind of clever. "Dumb blonde?" she squeaked, giving Sheldon a quick but significant look. "You want to say that to my face?"
"Well, honey, you gotta know that you ain't the brightest," he said, turning obediently toward her. Sheldon had taken the cue and was standing behind the man. In rapid motion, he kicked the guy's legs, grabbed the necklace, and bolted, Penny close behind.
"You only said that so that I could get behind him," Sheldon said breathlessly, climbing into the car. She nodded, smiling.
"Hey, I pick up some stuff! Speaking of which, I think I might know...how to lose the truck for good." There was nobody parked across from them, so she drove right through. Penny bit her lip and made a sharp turn. The truck followed easily, but she'd end that pretty quickly.
Penny pulled into the traffic, ignoring the honks. She remembered that the right lane ended up ahead, so she stayed in it. The truck was a bit behind them, but they weaved until the criminals were following closely. Sheldon was gripping the door for dear life—evidently, he could dish it out, but couldn't take it. She accelerated.
RIGHT LANE ENDS, blared the sign. Even faster. She sent up a quick prayer, but she kept her eyes open. She wished she could see the looks on the men's faces. Checking the rear view quickly, she confirmed that the black truck was right behind them. The reason the right lane ended was because of a narrow bridge a few yards away, and that made her smile all the more.
"Sheldon, if we kept driving until the lane ended and then tried to stop, we'd crash into the bridge or end up in the mud pit below it, right?"
"Yes, the momentum of the car would make it impossible to stop before that happened. Please tell me that you are not considering a car wreck." She could imagine his face as he said that, and her stomach did a little leap.
"Not unless this doesn't work," she said to herself.
She hit the brakes and slid neatly into the lane, almost side-swiping a Chevy as she did so. Still, it was a clean run, and she watched with satisfaction as the truck, too bulky to follow, lost paint on the side of the bridge before sinking into the mire below.
They were both breathing heavily. "Penny..." Sheldon said finally, his voice almost squeaking. "I do not believe that type of driving is generally taught in Driver's Education, even in Nebraska."
"Yeah," she agreed, wiping the sweat off her brow. "It's not."
"Are you a Terminator?"
Penny laughed. "What?"
Sheldon looked at her seriously. "Are you a cybernetic organism created by Skynet with the purpose of destroying humanity?"
"No, Sheldon, I'm not a Terminator. I used to date a stunt driver," she explained. "Like I said, I pick up some stuff."
"I am impressed," he pronounced. She smiled.
"I noticed that you're pretty good on picking up stuff, yourself," she said, her voice laden with innuendo. "I mean, kissing, wow. Are you a Terminator?"
She expected him to correct her and point out that at no point in the franchise was it suggested that Terminators were more effective kissers than humans. Instead, he smirked. "No, Penny. I'm a physicist."
It didn't take long for them to get back to Pasadena, and the car ride was mostly uneventful. When Penny parked, she put a hand on Sheldon's arm to keep him from opening his door.
"Sweetie, there are a couple of things we need to talk about," she said carefully.
"Hit me," he replied, the words sounding foreign on his lips. His lips...not quite the thought she needed to have right then. She cleared her throat.
"Um, okay, first, what are we going to tell the others?"
Sheldon looked aghast. "Are you suggesting that we lie?"
"Are you suggesting that we tell the truth?" She arched an eyebrow.
He appeared to consider this. "No, I was just confirming the data. Very well. We will have to construct an elaborate lie, or else they might find us out. Perhaps—"
"Uh, why don't we just be really, really vague about it?" Penny suggested. "Play it mysterious. Like, you know, you guys with the night the heat went out."
His face darkened. "We do not talk about that night."
"Exactly. And, second...thank you for saving me." She leaned in and kissed him briefly. As tempting as the idea of a make-out session was, this day had been crazy enough. She needed to chill for awhile, take a long shower, try to feel normal again.
"You are welcome," he said, getting out of the car. They began to walk into the building and up the stairs. It was strange, how little things here had changed. Penny felt like she was an entirely different person than when she'd left that morning, and she could tell that Sheldon was different, too, whether he knew it or not. It seemed like, at the very least, the elevator should have been fixed while they were gone.
"Penny," Sheldon said, studying the walls, "I would like to alter our relationship paradigm."
Oh, God, she was too tired to decipher. "What do you mean, sweetie?" Penny asked, trying to sound chipper.
He stopped on the stairs and looked at her. His hair was still messy, and even though he was obviously tired, he looked pretty delectable. "I would like for you to be my girlfriend. I had no plans to enter into an amorous relationship with any woman, especially before I have been awarded my Nobel prize, but nonetheless, I find that it is a necessity. My attraction to you has been undeniable for some time, and the events of today have confirmed to me that if ever I face trouble, I would like to have you by my side. Additionally, I find that your safety is of mounting importance to me, so by the same token, I desire to be with you in your danger, even though I would much prefer to be safe at 0, 0, 0, 0. I would rather enter into a relationship by a written contract, but I am led to understand that verbal contracts are the norm, and you have expressed to me your distaste of written contracts."
She blinked, sure that she'd lost half of the point he was trying to make, but equally sure that she had the gist. "So, just checking, you want to date me?"
"I would love to be your girlfriend," she said, realizing that truth as she told him. Maybe Penny of earlier today would have said no, but Sheldon of earlier today wouldn't have asked. She felt that it was right.
They were on the fourth floor before Sheldon paused again, in front of their apartments. "Penny, are you aware that the kiss was originally a method of agreeing to a contract? In ancient times, it was equivalent to our modern handshake."
"That's fascinating." She meant it, and as his lips closed around hers and her hands reached around his neck, she knew that she had made the right decision. Maybe that day hadn't been so cursed after all.
End Notes: I don't think that there exists a piece of merchandise such as a coffee pot with The Flash on it, sadly. If you don't get the Firefly references...stop reading this and go watch Firefly. The TARDIS shirt does, obviously, exist (probably in several variations). All of the locations outside of Pasadena, except parts of the second car chase, are real, because I do my (pointless) research. Yes, the disguises are made of fanservice. Sue me. Some of this story is not grammatically correct, because if you think that Penny's thoughts are completely coherent, you've probably been watching the wrong show. As far as when this is set, the timeline probably works best when you keep it vague. Major cookies for anybody who noticed that their clothes match at the beginning of the story.
EDIT: Some people have noticed that they never find out what's on the flash drive. This is rather an error on my part. I chose to omit it, because covering their trip to the police and any subsequent communication would have, in my opinion, ruined the flow of the story. I tried to write it, and it just came out messy. I will tell you that they did take it in, and it was important, and that's all that was going to be in the story, anyway. I had a backstory written for all of the elements, but it shan't be revealed, so you can make up what you will. Apologies for my shortcomings as an author.