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The Ghost and the Actress

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Penny wondered what to do with herself now with the funeral a week behind her. Kurt hadn’t been the best husband. Not the worst, but the cheating broke her heart. Even with that he didn’t deserve to get run over by a drunk driver. She was left at a loss for what to do. The acting was finally getting a few small theater roles but she didn’t have the energy to talk to her agent these days. She looked around their L.A apartment and she knew it was a great place but it was too expensive for her alone but worse it reminded her of Kurt and everything that went with him.

Penny picked up her phone and called her friend, Bernadette. ‘Hey, Bernie, how are you doing?’

‘Great, but I should be asking you that. The funeral was just last week. How are you holding up?’ Bernie didn’t know how she’d feel in Penny’s shoes even as a single girl.

‘Better than I let on, we weren’t in the best of places, but he didn’t deserve worse than a divorce. I miss him but I’m not dying here.’ Penny did want the memories to fade some and a change of scenery would do that. ‘How do you feel about visiting a couple of realtors with me? I can’t really afford this place and I want to look around at some new places this weekend.’

‘That sounds like a great step, honey, I get off before lunch, meet at 11, at the Cheese Cake Factory, OK?’

Penny drove over to meet Bernadette at her part time job in Pasadena. She had met Bernie there when a cast party had decided the restaurant was close enough to their theater and big enough to handle the first night celebration. Bernie had been wonderful with a bunch of overexcited actors and stage crew and they’d been friends ever since. Penny hoped Bernie would have a few ideas on cheap places to rent.

They were having pretty poor luck and were almost ready to call it quits. The last place wasn’t looking promising when the guy in a Beatle’s haircut and leisure suit leaped from behind his desk and greeted them. ‘Enchante, mademoiselles, Howard Wolowitz at your service.’

Bernadette jumped in front of her friend to take this one for the team. ‘Hi there, tiger, sit!’

Penny grinned at Howard’s abrupt step backwards. Bernadette could be a shock to much larger guys when she went into her defensive angry badger mode. ‘We came to look for someplace quiet.’

Bernadette filled in some more qualifications. ‘And, we’d like it for access to Caltech and getting to LA.’

The three went through several books of properties when Penny found a place in the area of JPL, Los Robles Cottage. Howard looked like he was getting sick. ‘You don’t want that place.’

‘Why not? It looks great, look Bernie.’ Penny and Bernadette read in disbelief, two bedrooms, three bathrooms, kitchen, livingroom, master study, library. The price was what they couldn’t believe, two thousand a month.’

Bernadette’s skepticism dripped poisonously. ‘How much spent plutonium is under that joint?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the property, it’s all in perfect condition. It’s just its history. Folks don’t like to stay there?’

Penny was feeling some of Bernadette’s wariness. ‘Why not, is there an outlaw biker gang running a meth factory next door?’

‘No, the last owner died. They say he committed suicide. The place has been troubled ever since. His family in Texas keeps the place for his sake so they aren’t looking for money from it.’ Howard seemed to be holding something back but Penny wanted to see the place.

Bernadette rolled her eyes. ‘Ghosts, that’s why it’s so cheap? Come on, there really is an outlaw biker gang cooking meth next door, like Penny said?’

Penny felt excited. She loved psychics and spirits so a haunted house would be great. ‘Come on Bernie, if it is haunted we could talk to the spirit world. That would be so cool!’

Bernie rolled her eyes but she knew Penny wouldn’t give up if her heart was set on the place. ‘Let’s go take a look at it but when the toxic waste under it turns you into a zombie mutant, don’t blame me.’

Howard just sighed and prayed the place would be quiet long enough to get these girls in and out before something crazy happened. ‘I got the keys here, let’s drive up there.’

+++

The road up to the Los Robles Cottage was quiet and the cottage was alone on a bluff overlooking the canyon. It was odd such a nice piece of real estate hadn’t been developed. The cottage was two stories and was clear of trees in case of fires but the trend of the canyon kept the cottage in the shade for most of the day except for the sunset which now cast the home in a beautiful rose color. Penny felt like she was coming home just looking at it.

‘We’re gonna get murdered up here, aren’t we? There’s some crazy cult living in the hills. That’s why this place is so cheap, isn’t it, Howard?’ Bernadette was sure there had to be something beyond silly ghost stories to make a place like this so cheap.

‘No, but we really shouldn’t be here, now, it’s laundry night.’ Howard knew how bad this place could get on that night.

Penny practically ran to the door. ‘Come on, it’s beautiful here and the view is gorgeous.’

‘Yeah, I wish I could sell the place but the family won’t budge and no one wants to live here so let’s say we looked and it was awful and leave?’ Howard started back for the cars but Bernadette grabbed his arm.

‘Not so fast, mop-top, let us in and show us around.’ Howard winced at the grip on the small woman and wondered which was worse, disappointing her or bothering him inside.

The girls walked in quickly peaking around the first floor in excitement. The living room was on the left as they went in and a dining room was opposite on the right. It was decorated with a dozen different models and comic book characters. The dining room connected to the kitchen which went across the back of the house. Between the dining room and kitchen was a small equipment room for the kitchen equipment and crockery and dishware for the dining room. It led to a pantry that opened into the kitchen. The far side of the kitchen had the downstairs bathroom on the corridor that went into the living room. The library was set off the living room and was well stocked with physics and math texts as well as science fiction novels but the whole room was strangely without sign of dust. Bernadette was suspicious of that. ‘Are there squatters here, Howard?’

‘No, no one at all, it’s just a low dust area, I guess.’ Howard was getting more nervous as the time got later to six o’clock. He always did his laundry at six. ‘We ought to get going. There’s nothing really to see. Hey, where’s Penny?’

Penny had gone up to the second floor. One bedroom was in the back extending over the kitchen at the top of the stairs and led to a good sized bathroom with doors to the bedroom and the hallway. The bedroom was attached to a small sitting room which had a spiral staircase that went down to the library on the first floor. She went around the main staircase to the front room and found the master study. ‘Holy smokes!’ The room was half library with white boards that were filled with math like she’d only seen in movies. The other side had models, video games, and comic books and a large TV. The study had a bathroom door to the left that was bigger than the one over the kitchen with a full length tub that looked like a swimming pool to Penny. The bedroom was opposite and was furnished with a full queen sized bed. The study had a balcony that was glass enclosed with French windows and a telescope stand. Penny could stay here for the rest of her life. A large leather wing chair sat in the near center facing the TV at an angle so one could just as easily look out the balcony windows. Penny sat down and the chair was luxuriously comfortable, all she needed was her Hello Kitty comforter and she would be set for the night as far as she was concerned. She closed her eyes feeling like she was already at home.

‘Oh, dear lord!’

Penny looked around for the man’s voice she heard. ‘Howard, is that you out there?’ Penny looked around the second floor but she didn’t find anyone. She looked again in the back bedroom and came back out to find Bernadette coming up the stairs.

'Bernie, did Howard come up here?

'No, I left him downstairs in the living room to find you. Why?'

'It's nothing. You've got to see this place up here.' Penny guessed she might have imagined the voice or maybe just heard Howard downstairs while she was daydreaming.

They looked around the second floor together and flipped a coin for the front room. Bernadette gritted her teeth when Penny won. ‘Look at it this way, you’re going for a PhD. That library downstairs will make a better working office for you than up here and you can use the living room for more space of your own. Besides, we can share tub time anytime. Heck, that thing is big enough for the both of us, together.’

Bernadette laughed at that. ‘Don’t say that around Howard, I think it would give him a heart attack he’s so jumpy. Where is that little ball of stress, anyway?’ Penny and Bernadette started and grabbed each other when they heard Howard scream downstairs.

‘It wasn’t my fault! I’m sorry! I told them not to come! Ahhh!’ The girls heard running from the direction of the library and then the front door slammed. They went to the balcony and saw Howard jump into his car and drive madly away.

Penny and Bernadette took down two funny looking sword things from the study walls and walked cautiously downstairs. They thought someone must have scared off Howard and now they were alone with a mad person in the house. They looked all around and found no one. When they searched the basement all they found was a washing machine running. It was all very bizarre because there was an inch of dust around the machine but there were no footprints.

‘Are you sure you want to move in here, Penny?’ Bernadette was a little nervous about Howard running off and finding the washing machine running like that.

Penny huffed in in frustration. ‘Howard kept telling us this place was troubled but I didn’t see anything upstairs, did you see anything before this?’ Penny pointed to the washing.

‘No, no I didn’t.’

‘See, I’ll bet it was just Howard. He kept trying to make us nervous about the place. Once he was alone, he probably started the machine somehow, then did the screaming act and ran off so we’d be too scared to take the place.’ Penny shook her head. ‘I don’t scare that easy.’

+++

Penny and Bernadette signed the papers on Los Robles cottage and moved in the following weekend. Bernadette started to like the plan Penny had to divide the house. She loved Penny but she had seen how much chaos she could create. Having the study area upstairs would confine her nesting and she wouldn’t be wandering everywhere when she was running her lines. They mopped, and brushed, and vacuumed for hours and by the end they felt very much at home. Bernadette found a small delicate patio table and chairs in the basement that would make a lovely place to have tea on the patio outside the downstairs library. It confirmed the place for Bernie the moment she sat down with her tea. Penny was just as happy when she had her Care Bears lined up where those comics had been. She went out on her balcony and saw Bernie lounging on her patio set. ‘Don’t you look like a happy cat?’

‘I am very happy. You were right about the setup, this is heaven.’

‘When you finish your tea, could you come up here?’ Penny looked through the old comics and wondered if she should throw them out but when Bernadette came up stairs after her tea she suggested they try to bring them to a comic shop near Caltech and sell them. They looked old but very carefully kept.

‘The geeks will spend crazy money on stuff like this.’ Bernie looked through the books carefully but with little recognition. She knew the main characters by look, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, but that was it.

Penny knew a couple others from going to the Marvel movies but she didn’t know anything about the characters beyond the films. ‘Let’s call the shop later and see if they might be interested in looking at some of these?’

Bernie liked the idea and looked up the name of the place she had in mind, ‘The Comic Center of Pasadena’ but it was closed looking at the clock. The housemates put off the comic issue for the night and decided to have a moved in dinner.

Penny got some wine to celebrate their successful move into the cottage and they went upstairs to open it in the study after their dinner and relax on the balcony. They stopped in the doorway of the study when they found the comics on the shelves and the Care Bears in the boxes they’d put the comics in.

‘How did that happen?’ Bernie was feeling nervous. Neither one of them had been away from each other long enough to move all the stuff.

‘I don’t know but I am too happy to care. Maybe, Howard was here playing a ghostly practical joke like the washing machine?’ Penny was bothered by that possibility but she wasn’t going to be scared by some jumpy real estate guy with a phobia for quaint cottages.

'That would be creepy besides I suppose we shouldn't be selling the stuff.'

'I guess so I didn't think that idea through very well. We should ask Howard about some of this stuff and if it's valuable so it can get put away safely.'

They watched an old comedy on the TV in the study while they enjoyed their wine, ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and they laughed themselves silly trying to imitate Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T Justice. They washed up and found the tub really was big enough for the both of them to sit in comfortably. Penny and Bernadette high fived the excellent choice to ignore jumpy Howard’s attempts to scare them off.

'Bernie's right about the comics but they're still going off the shelves.' Penny decided she wanted her Care Bears back in place after Bernie went to bed. She switched them once again for the comics and went to sleep. Around 2am, Penny was woken by the grumbling voice of a man in the study. ‘What sort of vandals are those two harpies to treat a superlative comic collection in such way?’

Penny picked up her baseball bat that she always slept near and crept into the study. She saw a tall man in the moonlit room tossing her Care Bears into an empty box. She swung for the knees to put him down but she hit one of the spaceship models on the lower shelf, instead. It shattered impressively.

‘My classic series Galactica! What kind of insane she-devil are you?’

Penny wasn’t taking any more chances. ‘I’ll give you a she-devil, you asshole!’ She swung for the guy’s head to put him down but the bat swung through his head and Penny spun wildly connecting with nothing until another model exploded on contact.

‘The Enterprise, Kirk’s USS Enterprise, NCC 1701, have you no sense of cultural heritage, you, philistine Amazon?’

Penny looked astonished. She saw the bat actually go through the guy. She poked the bat into his chest but it passed through his body. ‘Holy smokes, you're a real ghost.’

‘If I wasn’t, I would have been with the way you tried killing me with that bat.’ Sheldon clenched his hands in outrage at the damage this lunatic woman had done to his precious models.

‘What did you think would happen sneaking into a woman’s room! And don’t get me started on trying to throw away my Care Bears, creep!’ Penny was angry at the dust and dirt she could make out on her Funshine Bear.

‘Madam, this is my room in my home. You are the intruder here.’ Sheldon glowered and his ghostly aura glowed blue and fiery.

Penny marched right through Sheldon and grabbed another model off the shelf by the TV. ‘Wanna see how many pieces this thing can turn into in MY home?’ Penny wound up and got ready to toss the model in the air for her swing.

‘No, not the Serenity! Stop this madness!’ Sheldon backed off from the angry woman. She clearly wasn’t going to be scared off by ghostly tactics. Penny lowered the model but she kept the bat ready.

‘I don’t know who you are miss, but those models, this room, They’re all I have. I am a ghost and they are all I have left in this world and I don’t want to lose any more.’ Sheldon looked sadly at the broken toys. ‘Another part of me gone from the world.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Penny put the model back on the shelf. ‘But, you scared me to death. Bernie and I are alone here and I don’t have much more than what’s in this room.' Penny plopped down on the wing chair from the post adrenaline shakes. 'My cheating husband is dead and most of our money disappeared into the funeral and paying off credit cards. I can only afford to live here because Bernie went in halfsies with me.’

Penny shivered in the wing chair, the adrenalin rush turning her cold now that she was calming down. ‘Jesus, you scared me to death. Who are you, anyway?’

‘I am Sheldon Lee Cooper, and who are you?’ Sheldon looked at the broken models. ‘And what are you going to do about vandalizing my property?’

‘I’m Penny Queen and my friend is Bernadette Rostenkowski. And that’s what you get for scaring women alone, don’t push me, sweetie, or I’ll find a way to make this bat hurt. I’ll bet my psychic can give me a few ideas.’

‘Psychics? They are nothing but superstitious fiddlesticks for gullible minds.’ Sheldon felt his word was authoritative on the matter.

Penny snorted. ‘Says the ghost? Which fiddle should I stick that opinion in, Sheldon? I’m going to bed. Put my Care Bears back, clean and in order the way you found them, or I will draw a little smiley face in one of your comics somewhere. Penny marched back to bed irritated with Sheldon and his antics. ‘Since when does a ghost need space ship models?’ Penny sat down on her bed and thought about the sad face he had and what he said about another part of himself gone and felt a little guilty. She thought a trip to that comic shop might be worth it.

Chapter Text

Penny woke up the next morning and wandered out towards the bathroom and noticed her Care Bears back in place and all amazingly clean. She had never seen Funshine look better. She made up her mind to go visit the comic shop today after she went to the rehearsals her agent, Sharon, had gotten for her. The final rehearsal for a new show called ‘The Coven’ had been the oddest because the role was for a small recurring part of a witch but she’d spent more time doing fight choreography than running lines. She didn’t give it too much thought so long as she got some kind of job. After the rehearsal she drove over to the comic shop. Penny walked into the store Bernie had looked up last night. She looked around at the bewildering and colorful displays and had no idea where to go first so she shouted out for a clerk.

‘Hi, a little help here.’

Everyone in the room froze and stared in amazement. Penny smiled in confusion. She’d seen rooms freeze in comedies plenty of times but she had never seen it happen in real life.

A man in a red cardigan sweater and receding hairline to compliment a nervous face hurried his way up to Penny. “Hi, I’m Stuart, the owner of The Comic Center, are you lost?

Penny thought he seemed nice but a bit jumpy. ‘No, I came to buy some toys for a friend. Some models got broken last night and I wanted to get him some new ones.’

Stuart looked around at the store wondering what kind of models a girl that looked like a model could want. ‘She’s a girl; you’ve all seen one, get back to shopping.’ He looked at the model displays not sure what to suggest. ‘Does your friend want something from comics, movies, TV shows, or some kind of crossover?’

Penny had no idea what the Galaxy thing was but she did recognize the Star Trek thing. ‘One of them was Kirk’s Enterprise and he said some numbers and another model was some ship called Galaxy or something.’

Stuart nodded, ‘Did he, maybe, say Galactica instead of Galaxy?’

‘Yeah, that was it; he said it was a classic series model.’ Penny was relieved Stuart seemed to know what the ships were because she was sure she’d never find the right ones in all this stuff in the store.

They walked over to the TV models and discussed the various ships and Penny guessed Sheldon would want whatever was most like the first in line among the many variations. They came with a hefty price tag for toys but it was a lot less than some of the shoes she’d bought in the past and she did break his models she thought a bit resigned.

‘Do you live around here, Penny? The store does have a club discount if you are going to come back here regularly.’ That was a fib; Stuart just hoped Penny would come back regularly.

‘I just moved to Pasadena with my friend Bernadette. We moved into Los Robles Cottage a few days ago.’ Penny was thinking of getting a couple of comics since Sheldon probably only had the ones in the house.

‘You moved into Sheldon’s old place?’ Stuart was surprised at the coincidence.

‘Did you know Sheldon? Well, there are a lot of comics and models in the house so I guess he came here a lot.’ It made sense since this store was close to Caltech.

‘Yeah, he spent a lot, not always an easy customer, but a regular one. He liked things very orderly and on time.’ Stuart sighed at the quandary. Sheldon was a pain a lot of the time but he was loyal as a customer and a loyal friend.

‘I’ll say that for the order. He is a neat freak.’ Penny had argued with Sheldon enough to agree with Stuart’s assessment.

‘Did you know Sheldon, Penny?’ Stuart caught the way Penny talked about Sheldon like she knew him.

‘No, I didn’t but the cottage is filled with his stuff. It’s pretty easy to guess. They say he killed himself; that’s so sad.’ Penny remembered how Sheldon had looked at the broken models and she felt guilty again for breaking them.

‘I remember that’s what the obituaries said but that’s hard to believe. Sheldon was a lot of things, most of them weird, but he would never kill himself. I still can’t believe that.’

Penny and Stuart talked a few minutes more about Sheldon and what he used to shop for in the store. In the end, Penny found a few of Sheldon’s favorite comic book choices and added them to the models.

Stuart finished boxing up the models and bagging the comics. ‘Is there anything else?’

Penny looked around at the shop Sheldon must have come to religiously. ‘No, that’s it but I might be back.’

Stuart walked Penny to the door. ‘I hope so. It was nice to talk about Sheldon again. A lot of folks don’t, I hope you like it up there at Los Robles, Penny.’

‘Thanks, Stuart, sweetie, and thanks for the help.’

Stuart watched Penny all the way to her car still not believing a girl like that was in his store. ‘Best day ever.’

+++

Penny parked in the driveway happy to be home. She checked her phone when it rang a text message. The casting director wanted her to come back for a second speaking rehearsal for ‘The Coven’ and had an attachment with script pages for the scenes they wanted to see her do. The news gave her a lift if only so she could cover the credit card bill for the models she bought. She texted back that she was ready whenever they wanted her and send her the time and whatever she needed for the rehearsal. She got in the door and heard Bernadette cursing in the kitchen about the washing machine. Penny put the box down in the dining room and found Bernie in the kitchen almost in tears from frustration. Bernie tossed the laundry basket on the floor and seemed ready to pull her hair out.

‘Pink, every white thing I own is pink! Penny, this whole day has been a nightmare of shit and this is the icing on the cake. I know there wasn’t anything colored when I put those clothes in the machine. God, tell me I’m not going nuts!’

Penny wrapped her friend in a hug; she had a pretty good idea of the source of the problem. ‘What happened today, Bernie?’

‘What didn’t happen? I made breakfast and the coffee maker overflowed from water left in the pot I’m sure was empty. I got locked out twice when I went out to do some yard work. Three different pizza places thought I wanted delivery, and now this. Maybe this place is haunted or that little twerp Howard is trying to make us think it is somehow?’ Bernie hugged Penny hard glad to have someone to vent this day with. ‘Please, tell me you had a better day. Let there be some light, today.’

Penny pulled out a chair for Bernie at the table and got them both a soda from the refrigerator. ‘I got a second rehearsal and some sample scenes for it. I don’t want to jinx this saying more but yeah me.’

‘Congratulations, honey, that’s huge! That is something to celebrate, cheers!’ Bernadette was happy for Penny but the day was too much to let go of. ‘I wish I could celebrate more but you wouldn’t believe this place when you’re out.’

Penny growled at the likely cause. ‘Maybe, the place is troubled by something? I have a few tricks from my psychic that might do a little cleansing of the aura here.’

Bernie looked skeptically at her New Age inclined friend. ‘I don’t buy that stuff but I am ready to try anything at this point, even a priest to do an exorcism. Were you trying some cleansing last night? I heard some banging around.’

Penny smiled and gave Bernadette’s hand a squeeze. ‘Sorry, I couldn’t sleep and got watching the TV a little loud. Anyway, we can look into exorcists later but maybe something closer to home would be better. I know Sheldon’s family wants to keep this place the way he had it but I don’t think they’d mind if we moved some stuff. How about we put some of the downstairs crap in the living room and library into the cellar? It’s time we make it look like ours and let the house know who lives here.’

Bernadette and Penny jumped a bit when they heard metallic bang from the cellar. ‘No, not my work clothes!’ Bernadette ran for the cellar. Penny guessed she had struck a nerve and got the box in the living room and headed up to her room.

She barged into the study and put the box on the wing chair. ‘Sheldon Lee Cooper, show your sorry ethereal ass, right now or I’m gonna go rodeo on your entire model collection!'

The angry ghost hunter swung around at the contemptuous snort behind her. ‘Is violence your whole way of solving things, Penny?’

Penny ground her teeth and clenched her fists in outrage for her abused friend downstairs. ‘Don’t give me that anti-violence crap, Sheldon. You’ve been making Bernie miserable all day.’

Sheldon tried to look innocent but the twitching around the eyes gave him away. ‘Well, I am sure I don’t know what you are talking about.’

Penny growled at the obvious lie. ‘Look here, mister, I felt sorry for you last night, but if this is how you are going to act I will personally get rid of every stick of sci-fi crap in the whole house.’

Sheldon got a fire in his eyes at the threat. ‘I know very well you cannot do such a thing. My mommy wants the place untouched as a memorial to her genius son.’

‘Well, maybe she’d like a few mementos mailed to her, especially after she finds out about the vandals that got in here and trashed most of them!’ Penny got a hold of the Serenity model that had brought Sheldon up short the night before.

Sheldon backed off a bit. ‘You wouldn’t dare do such a thing.’ He looked nervously at Penny; he knew he couldn’t really scare her so his options were limited. ‘Please, I won’t bother Bernadette anymore,’

Penny held his eyes for a few seconds and decided to give Sheldon a break for now. ‘Good. If we have to live here together, this can’t be all about you, Sheldon. You’re dead and we’re not and we have to live here with some peace. I want to make this work for all of us but we can’t be tip toeing around you. Let’s make a deal here. I’ll keep this stuff up here,’ Penny waved around the study, ‘and Bernadette and I are going to make the downstairs more our house and put your things in the cellar.’

‘But, Penny, I want my Doctor Who memorabilia in the living room. It’s the best spot to display my collection of sonic screwdrivers.’ Sheldon cast about desperate to keep change from happening.

‘Sweetie, if this is going to work, there has to be compromise. If you want some things from downstairs they can come up here.’ She saw Sheldon’s smile and knew what he had in mind, everything. ‘But, whatever comes up, one or more things here go down, and if you can’t compromise they are going to be gone to Texas.’

Sheldon got close to Penny trying to stare her down with his height and ghostly aura. The room was bathed in an unearthly blue for a few seconds from which Sheldon had seen everyone run screaming from the house. His mojo wasn’t close to working on Penny. ‘Fine!’

Sheldon was a master of sulking if anyone was so far as Penny could see by the way he stood with his shoulders slumped in the balcony entrance. It had to be hard to have unwanted people move into your house even if you were a ghost. Maybe, more so, because you had to know the real world had left you behind. She wanted to hug him; he looked like a lost little boy. Little boys love toys, she thought. ‘Hey, Moonpie, I got you something, today.’

‘Penny, only my Meemaw calls me Moonpie. What did you get me?’ Sheldon came back over to Penny looking a little happier.

‘Who’s Meemaw?’ Penny was curious about Sheldon’s background.

‘She’s my grandmother in Texas. She was the only one who really understood what it was like for me growing up in Galveston. I have an IQ of 187 and I was doing college level work before I was 10. It was hell growing up in Texas and she was the only one who could really understand how I felt.’

Penny could feel for that. She used to have a close relationship like that with her dad until she started getting breasts then he didn’t know how to handle a girl. ‘I can understand being different. I was rebuilding tractors at age 12 but my dad lost interest in me when I started growing out.’ Penny cupped her breasts which made Sheldon jump like a cat.

‘Penny, I don’t need my study turned into a bordello.’ Sheldon waved at where Penny was holding her hands and looked as blushing as a ghost could get.

‘Excuse me? Is Sheldon Lee Cooper nervous around girls?’ Penny asked coquettishly. She laughed at the gulp and run to the balcony Sheldon did. She joined him out on the balcony. ‘I’m sorry Sheldon, but seriously, my dad got just about as nervous you are. I still went hunting with him, won rodeo completions, anything to get him close like we used to be but he just spent more time on my little brother no matter how useless he acted. I wish I had someone like your Meemaw. She sounds nice.’

‘I wish I had a dad like yours. At least he just got nervous with you. My dad was a red-neck who couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t like football, hunting, and bourbon. I had three strikes on me before I was born.’ Sheldon stared off down the valley remembering his days growing up in Texas with little fondness.

Penny thought about the conversation with Stuart and talking with Sheldon now, it really didn’t seem like he’d be the type to kill himself. ‘Sheldon, this might be a personal question, you being a ghost, I don’t know if it’s rude, but they say you killed yourself. Stuart at the comic shop doesn’t believe it and listening to you, I can’t say I do either.’

‘Kill myself? I was murdered!’ Sheldon glared at a passing bird flying by outside.

‘What? Didn’t the police investigate or anything?’ Penny was shocked no one guessed there was foul play.

‘Ha! Even a team of incompetents from one of the CSI shows would have put the feathers together and known it wasn’t suicide.’ Sheldon huffed in derision.

‘Feathers? What are you talking about, Sheldon?’ Penny couldn’t imagine what feathers would have to do with a murder unless Sheldon was suffocated with a feather pillow.

‘A wretched blue jay flew in here while I was working on a problem and landed on that white board!’ Sheldon pointed at the board near the balcony. ‘I panicked and ran onto the balcony but I overbalanced on the railing and fell over and broke my neck. It was murder most fowl!’

Penny looked open mouthed and struggled not to laugh but she couldn’t help it she started laughing. When Sheldon started spluttering in outrage it only made Penny laugh harder. ‘Oh god, I’m sorry Sheldon but that was not what I expected when you said murder. You know, if there were two crows you’d have had a double murder.’

Penny started laughing again and Sheldon had to laugh to at that joke. After they settled down from the laughter Sheldon wanted to know what Penny had gotten for him. They went back to the box and Penny got out the two models. Sheldon’s eyes gleamed in delight.

‘Galactica and Enterprise! And they are the deluxe editions with running lights and operating hanger bays. Oh, this is wonderful!’ Sheldon opened the boxes and started going over the models like a jeweler with the rarest gemstones. Penny couldn’t help a feeling of warmth towards the simple joy in every movement Sheldon made going over the models.

‘I got you these to go with the models, sweetie. I talked with Stuart about some of the comics you used to buy in the store and I got these for you, too.’ Penny held out the set of five books she bought. Sheldon came over and looked like he was going to cry if ghosts could cry.

‘Penny, I haven’t seen a new comic since-‘ He took the comics reverently. He had no idea what to say or do. ‘I wish I could hug you, I don’t have any words to say.’ He looked at the girl from Nebraska and he felt something he hadn’t really felt since the last time he saw his Meemaw. He put the comics down on the desk and he vanished before he could start crying.

Penny smiled and sighed hoping things would start getting better. She put the models on the shelves where the broken ones had been and put the new comics on the comic boxes so Sheldon could sort his new comics.

The next morning Penny came downstairs to find French toast, sausages, strawberries and the rest of a very superbly made breakfast in the kitchen. Bernadette came down not long after, the smell of delicious cooking having reached her upstairs from her balcony over the kitchen. They were surprised to find Bernadette’s laundry basket by the cellar door with the contents all white, clean, and folded. ‘You’re welcome, Sheldon.’ Penny whispered to the ceiling.

Chapter Text

Life settled into a happy routine at Los Robles cottage. The chaos of the past week seemed to be behind the two housemates. Bernadette was getting on with her PhD work between Cheese Cake factory shifts and Penny was on tenterhooks over her auditioning for The Coven. She’d done scene rehearsals with a few of the main cast along with several other actresses up for the part. They didn’t have any more disasters in the cottage so Bernadette began to hope whatever New Age whammy Penny had done last weekend had worked. She opened her room’s balcony to get some fresh air when she heard Penny screaming in the kitchen. Bernadette flew downstairs to find out what happened. She guessed the cottage was acting up again. If it was, she was going to kill Howard.

Bernie charged into the kitchen. ‘What’s happened, Penny?’

Penny grabbed her smaller friend up in a bear hug and spun her around the kitchen floor. ‘I got it! I got the part, Bernie! I got the part!’

‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I knew you could do it, Penny, I knew it!’ Bernadette and Penny laughed and danced and hugged in glee after the long slog this move had been from the start. They both hoped this was the start of bigger things. ‘So, what happens now, big time TV star?’

Penny leaned back against the sink not sure she could stand up she was so happy. ‘I have to go to the studio, today. I need to go for wardrobe fittings, make up tests, some test promo photos for my character. This is so huge. It’s only 10 episodes in the season but they could go for more if the character is popular.’ Penny started crying and she felt embarrassed she couldn’t stop.

Bernadette hugged her again. ‘You should take a long shower and let this sink in before you drive out to this new job. I’ll make us breakfast, get going superstar.’

‘Thank you, Bernie, I love you.’ Penny kissed her dear friend and ran up to put herself together.

Penny came back down a while later to pancakes and coffee and the girls talked about what was up for the day.

‘Most of the day is the studio for me but I might try to stop by my psychic for a reading, afterwards. How about you, Bernie?’ Penny wanted to see what her psychic had to say about handling a ghost.

‘I’m going to do some writing on the PhD most of the day since I don’t have a shift at the Factory, today. Later, I want to stop by Howard’s office. I still want to know what he knows about this place.’

Penny and Bernadette cleaned up after breakfast and Penny went upstairs to her room to get dressed for the day. She saw Sheldon in the wing chair reading his new comics. ‘What up, buttercup?’

‘What’s up, you left out the verb to be, Penny.’ Sheldon put his comic book aside to see what made Penny sound so happy.

‘To be or not to be, that is the question, and the answer is I be getting the part in The Coven, muffin.’ Penny laughed at Sheldon’s eye roll and went into her bedroom to dress.

‘Assaults on Shakespeare and English at large, congratulations, Penny. I have no idea what The Coven is, though.’

Penny looked surprised at that. ‘It’s the show about witches that I’ve been working on for more than a week to get a part in. I was doing lines in here last night while you were working on whatever that is on those white boards. They look like some crazy magic spells, whatever they say.’ Penny hadn’t given the boards a lot of thought since she had moved into the cottage.

‘A TV show about paranormal claptrap is hardly something I would follow, Penny.’ Sheldon didn’t catch on to the hole in that statement but Penny did.

‘A ghost is telling me witches are claptrap?’ Penny smirked at the way Sheldon held some fantastic fiction like spaceships sacred but others about witches claptrap.

‘At least, you have empirical evidence that ghosts exist.’ Sheldon felt his word must be conclusive on the matter.

‘Well, buttercup, until I met you, I had no evidence ghosts existed, how does that mean witches don’t?’ Penny was curious why Sheldon always needed to be right no matter what.

‘It doesn’t mean that they don’t only that you have no proof that they do.’

‘Well, honey, I am playing a witch, so they do.’ Penny smiled to herself and came back out into the study.

‘You are playing a fictional witch. A real one could cast a spell and make something happen.’ Sheldon felt that should put an end to the matter.

‘I’ll bet I can cast a spell and make you say ‘I believe in witches’, Sheldon.’ Penny smirked and walked over to the chair and picked up one of Sheldon’s comics.

‘Twaddle, my dear, utter twaddle.’ Sheldon gasped out a laugh at the silly idea of Penny casting spells.

Penny waved her hands in an intricate pattern and intoned ‘Hocus, pocus, and comics new, today is new comic day and only if witches be true shall Sheldon get books that be new.’ Penny laughed at the twitches in Sheldon’s face.

‘I believe in witches, and you are the wickedest witch of them all, Penny.’ Sheldon grumbled his unwillingness overcome by the offer of comics. He cursed his weakness.

‘So, you never said what you were working on, Sheldon.’ Penny waved at the boards. ‘I have never seen anything like this stuff. It looks like something a wizard or a mad scientist would write.’

‘It is an attempt at a proof on String Theory. It is what I was working on when I died. I had come back from the arctic with empirical proof but it turned out I had made a vast mechanical error. I have never been able to discover what that mechanical error could have been. Its resolution would help me settle where the theory is at fault if I could discover whether that mechanical error was real or not.’ Sheldon still felt the foolishness of announcing he had proof of his theory. It should have been sound. He had checked everything too many times to be wrong.

‘I wish I could help you, Sheldon but I can listen if you want to talk about your problem. I’m good at listening. I gotta go now, see ya, honey.’ Penny rushed out the door with a quick wave and hurried down to her car.

+++

Penny’s drive to the studio was going well. Even the heavy traffic wasn’t bothering her since she could concentrate more on rerunning her lines in her mind while rolling through the slow moving crawl she was in.

‘Penny, your engine light is on.’

Penny almost hit the roof of the car from shock. ‘Jesus, Sheldon! What are you doing here? How are you here?’

Sheldon looked at Penny in surprise. ‘You said you were a good listener and that we could talk about my work.’

Penny looked at Sheldon and wanted to strangle him right now. ‘So, you decided to give me a heart attack to do it after I’m dead?’

‘Eyes on the road, Penny, I’m not endangered by traffic accidents but I still have no wish to be in one.’ Sheldon couldn’t imagine why passenger safety should be any different to drivers even if the passengers were part of the afterlife.

‘Because this is all about you, you scared me to death, Sheldon. How are you even out of the house? Aren’t ghosts supposed to stay put?’

Sheldon looked around at the sights outside fascinated to see the outside world once again. ‘I wanted to test a hypothesis. You are correct that I am limited to the house and surrounding grounds. I postulated that you, and Bernadette, now being part of the house I might be able to accompany you since I would still be with a living part of the house. Of course, I was correct.’

‘Congratulations, Mr. Science. Next time, tell me when you’re coming, don’t just pop up like that and never scare Bernie like that.’ Penny drove for a few minutes getting used to the idea Sheldon could travel and decided he could make himself useful. ‘Sheldon, you can help me right now by reading my scenes with me.’ She handed him the pages in question. ‘I’m first two scenes today in rehearsal before filming next week and you can make yourself useful.’

‘It would be more useful to have your engine serviced.’ Sheldon pointed to the blinking light.

‘Focus, Sheldon, I need money for a garage and that won’t happen if I screw up this job, now read.’ Penny couldn’t believe how easily Sheldon got under her skin. She wondered why that didn’t bother her.

+++

Penny drove up to the studio security and gave the guard her sign in information and charmed him with asking to take a selfie picture with her. ‘Come on, it’s my first day as a real TV actor and you’re the first person I met today so come on, please?

The old guard, Darius Green, had seen a lot of excited actors on their first day. Sometimes, they turned into entitled nightmares later but that first day was always special with every one of them. They snapped a few pictures and Penny went off feeling as happy with the photos as an Emmy award. This day was really happening.

‘Do you plan to take pictures with everyone we meet, Penny?’

‘Don’t be a buzzkill, Sheldon. You invited yourself, besides what if someone sees you?’

‘No one can see me unless I wish it. Right now, only you can see or hear me. I would like to see this show of yours and see you as this Kaley Jenkins character.’

Sheldon was surprisingly quiet through the day. The great amount of technical support that went into making a TV show was something he had only seen pictures of on the Net or on various online videos. The scale of operation a show needed in real life made quite an impression since he could better appreciate what must have gone on in the making of his own favorite series. He particularly enjoyed watching the makeup people working and the special effects people preparing the sets for the explosive charges being used in an upcoming fight scene to be filmed later in the afternoon.

‘What’s the gist, physicist?’

Sheldon turned and saw a brunette woman in tight leather and knee high boots wearing dark glasses actually addressing him. She looked very imposing with the long deadly looking sais she was carrying. ‘What, are you, can you see me?’ Sheldon’s shocked expression made Penny chuckle.

‘Of course, I can see you, Sheldon, you said only I could.’

Sheldon was taken aback. The costuming, makeup, and body language had all confused him. ‘Great Caesar’s ghost, I never would have recognized you, Penny.’

‘That’s the idea, but my character is supposed to be in disguise for the first couple of episodes so they have to sew me into this get up.’ Penny wasn’t crazy about the fit. She wouldn’t be able to eat a thing without showing it in costume.

‘How are you supposed to be a witch when you look more like an escapee from Xena, Warrior Princess?’

‘It’s part of the role, there is a lot of action and fighting demons and vampires and stuff with my character to go along with the spells.’ Penny and Sheldon walked along to the set where the promo pictures were going to be taken for her character. The show’s director came up to say hi to Penny while they were talking.

‘Hi, Penny Queen, is it? I’m Craig Zisk and I’ll be directing this episode. Who were you talking to; I like to keep phones and stuff offset unless it’s really an emergency.’ Craig sounded friendly and the phone rule made sense so scenes didn’t get ruined. Penny had seen enough scenes ruined by audience, actors, and stage hand phones to complain about it.

Penny glanced at Sheldon. ‘I was preparing for the scene. I like to imagine Kaley has an invisible familiar she talks to. He’s kind of a sarcastic pain in the ass with an ego the size of Texas.’ She laughed at Sheldon’s eye roll and affronted harrumph.

Craig laughed at that. ‘Oh god, you’re all method aren’t you?’

'I just want to give you the best I can do for your episode, Craig.'

The rest of the day went well and Penny got to meet the main cast and crew during the whole day. It was a whirl of theatrical chaos that she adored and even Sheldon seemed to be enjoying the day in spite of being a silent observer for most of it. They left with a final picture with Darius who was still on gate duty and drove off to The Comic Shop to get Sheldon’s long awaited new comics.

+++

Bernadette had a productive day on her PhD work and shut down her computer satisfied with the day’s work. She left a note in the kitchen that she was off to Howard’s and said there was a bottle of champagne in the fridge to congratulate her on her first working day. Bernadette wrote a card to go with the wine. She drove down to Howard’s office because she still had some questions about the house and the odd goings on. Even though they had stopped since last weekend, she still wondered if it was the little mop-top. She walked in to find Howard grumbling over some paperwork but he brightened considerably when he saw one of his latest clients.

‘Enchante, Ms. Rostenkowski!’

‘Stow it, tiger, I’m here to talk about the house.’ Bernie thought Howard was kind of cute but he was too desperate to get anywhere with a woman, especially dressed and styled the way he was.

‘Oh, have there been any problems at the cottage? I did try to warn you off the place.’ Howard didn’t want to see the two girls dealing with him. Howard had never seen Sheldon’ ghost but he was sure that’s who was scaring everyone off.

‘Problems? We spent almost every day fixing something, saving something, or replacing something until last weekend. I was even wondering if you knew anything about that, Howie.’ Bernadette’s voice took on a very hard edge that made Howard imagine unpleasant results if Bernie didn’t get the answers she wanted.

‘Yeah, I expected that. Everyone who tries living there says the same thing and most don’t make it through the night, there. I’ve tried getting the family to sell it so it can get demolished. Maybe that would make him go away.’ Howard hated Los Robles Cottage because it reminded him of his old life before this crappy job.

Bernadette got very suspicious on that note. ‘What do you mean make him go away?’

Howard wished he had kept his mouth shut but he could see Bernadette wouldn’t be going away without answers. ‘I’m sorry you’ve been having a hard time up there. I close up around now so let me buy you dinner to apologize for your trouble and tell you about him?’

They found a small Chinese restaurant near Howard’s office and ordered up some Szechuan chicken and eggrolls to share while they talked.

‘You know the place was owned by Sheldon Cooper. He was a physicist at Caltech. He was a genius, an IQ that could embarrass a supercomputer but he was also a wacko for having things just his way. We were friends for a long time but…’ Howard wasn’t really sure how to start this story but Bernadette gave him a starting point.

‘Why was a super genius physicist pals with a real estate agent, did you go to school together?’ So far this wasn’t much Bernadette didn’t know already.

‘No, we didn’t but we did work together. I used to be an engineer at Caltech and an astronaut before I had to start doing this job that I am useless at.’ Howard didn’t want to sound so pathetic in front of Bernadette but he couldn’t help remembering how much he’d lost since Sheldon died.

‘Come on, an astronaut? You look more like a Keebler Elf.’ Bernadette was sure Howard was pulling her leg.

‘Oh, no, it’s all true.’ Howard pulled out his wallet and showed Bernadette a picture of himself on the International Space Station. ‘I loved that job more than anything.’

‘What happened and what does Sheldon have to do with it?’ Bernadette couldn’t believe this harmless looking guy in the cheap suit across from her did such dangerous work going up into space.

‘That started up in the arctic. I went up there with him and some other guys from Caltech to help, friends of ours. Sheldon had some experiments to do up there to prove one of his ideas on String Theory. It didn’t work out. He made some big claims but the results turned out to be mistakes and it almost ruined his reputation and his career. They say that’s why he killed himself. It’s why I quit Caltech. I felt guilty about what happened to Sheldon.’ Howard wasn’t feeling hungry anymore. There was a lot more to tell but he had no way to tell it believably and even the short version of the arctic story ate at him.

‘I’m sorry that happened to you, Howard, and to your friend. So, what, you think he’s haunting the cottage because of that arctic thing?’ Howard’s sincerity was beginning to move Bernadette a little.

‘That’s what I’ve always thought. The place was a favorite hangout once upon a time but now, no one goes there anymore, until you got there. Maybe, Sheldon likes you, Bernadette?’ Howard chuckled at the idea of Sheldon liking anyone.

‘If his ghost is in that house, he sure had a funny way of showing it.’ Bernadette was still sore about the laundry even if it had gotten mysteriously repaired of its pink nightmare moment. ‘You don’t look very hungry anymore, Howard. I’m sorry I blamed you for the strange things up at Los Robles. How about you let me buy you a drink to apologize?’

Howard perked up at the offer. ‘Sure, I’d like that.’ Now, he had to make sure his mother didn’t call in the middle of everything.

Chapter Text

A month into The Coven’s first season, Penny and Bernadette were curled up on the small sofa Penny had bought for the study. Her first appearance on the show was finally going to air and they had champagne to celebrate the occasion. Like any theater, show time was more nerve wracking than any rehearsal or filming work. The filming for this episode had been done weeks ago but now everyone would see the finished product. The main cast of witches and their battles, natural and supernatural, had been a hit so far so Penny didn’t want to be the dud of the show.

‘This is almost as bad as first night at the theater. At least I don’t have to hear the audience getting bored.’ Penny couldn’t help feeling the stage fright that went with the first night.

Bernadette gave Penny a hug. ‘Come on; don’t get yourself down like that. You’ll be great. I heard you practicing enough up here. You sounded brilliant.’

‘I’m not; I just don’t want to jinx it even if my psychic said it would be a game changer for me.’

Bernadette was amazed at the amount of physical fighting that went into a show about witches. She had expected something more sedate but Penny’s part was more like watching Blade or Xena. ‘Isn’t some of that dangerous?’

Penny shrugged. ‘Not as much as it looks on TV but there are some tricky parts if you’re not careful. Still, there was nothing as hard as trick riding in a rodeo, and not nearly as dangerous. At least, the stunt people don’t try to kick you or trample you if you fall on your ass.’

They talked about the show and the behind the scenes gossip for a while until Penny’s phone rang. It was Mary Livingstone, the show's social media director. The show’s websites were being bombarded with praise for the show and for Penny’s character, Kaley. She wanted Penny to come in next week to do a special interview session to go up online with some background about her work and some questions about working on the show. She sent an attachment with interview questions for Penny to discuss in the planned video. Penny was over the moon by this point and the anxiety of a couple of hours ago was long forgotten.

After Penny hung up Bernie chided Penny for her nerves. ‘See, I told you it would work out.’

‘Yeah, so did my psychic, but now, I can feel it’s real.’ Penny poured them another glass of champagne. ‘What about your new show, Bernie?’

‘What new show?’

‘The Bernie and Howie show, you’ve gone out every Friday for the last month. When are you going to introduce us?’

‘Howie is so sweet, but we always meet in town. He’s still scared this place is haunted.’ Bernadette looked around at the white boards and their math that she could follow a bit of. She noticed it kept changing and seemed to be correct. She wouldn’t have pegged Penny for an interest in higher mathematics.

‘He doesn’t have to be afraid of the house. Nothing has happened in over a month, now, I’m sure he’ll be fine.’ Penny put extra emphasis on the last since Sheldon was likely listening in on the conversation having said he was interested in tonight’s show.

Bernadette looked around at all the paraphernalia in the room that had belonged to the former owner. ‘He doesn’t want to take any chances. He thinks Sheldon doesn’t like him.’ Bernadette thought that was silly but looking around at the study, Bernie did wonder why Penny kept so much of Sheldon’s stuff up here.

‘Has Howard seen Sheldon? Have you?’ Penny thought she was the only one Sheldon showed himself to.

Bernie shook her head and took a sip of her champagne. ‘No, he’s just reaching about Sheldon. I think he feels kind of responsible for Sheldon’s death. They used to work together, you know.’

‘They did, how?’ Penny couldn’t imagine Sheldon selling real estate.

‘Howard used to be an astronaut and an engineer at Caltech and he worked with Sheldon. He quit after some experiment in the arctic went wrong and Sheldon killed himself over it. Howard feels like he’s to blame in some way, I guess.’

‘An astronaut, our nervous little house agent? Wow, I never would have thought of that kind of job for him.’ Penny wanted to ask Sheldon about Howard. She never would have taken the nervous little real estate guy for some kind of science wiz. First, she hoped she could help him and Bernie feel a bit better. ‘Howard has nothing to blame himself for. No one was here when Sheldon died. The fall could have just as well been an accident. I’ve met some of his old friends at the comic store; none of them believe it could have been suicide either.

‘That’s what I keep trying to get across to him, but I guess he takes losing friends pretty hard, especially like that.’

Bernadette looked around the study at all of Sheldon’s odd collection of stuff. ‘Speaking of hard to take, how do you take living with so much of Sheldon’s stuff? This place looks like you’ve moved in together.’

‘I didn’t want to change everything in the house. Besides, some of it is kind of cool. There’s plenty of stuff to give me ideas for scene practice and some of the comic stories are kind of fun.’

‘Oh, yeah?’ Bernadette was skeptical of that.

They chatted about a number of the books in Sheldon’s collection and Bernadette found a couple of titles that Howard had mentioned on their dates. She thought she’d read up on some of the stories he’d talked about and surprise him with a few comic book questions and chat on their next night out. She said good night to Penny and went down the hall for a little comic book reading before bed.

+++

Sheldon appeared a few minutes after Bernadette left for bed. ‘Congratulations, the show was not too tedious and your action scenes were worthy of Wonder Woman or Xena.’

‘Thank you for not saying I punch like a girl, Sheldon.’

‘You are a girl, Penny, how could you not punch like one? Unless, you thought I meant to insult you? I assure you, I wasn’t. My sister, Missy, can punch like a pro-boxer when she gets riled up.’

Penny sighed a bit contrite; her nerves were still making her look for the worst over her performance. Thank you, sweetie, I’m sorry I sounded snappish. Waiting for the reviews is the worst part of acting. It makes me pretty ornery a lot of times. By the way, did you know Bernadette has been dating Howard?’

‘Yes, that was rather a surprise. I have been looking at some of her biochemistry work. It is really quite impressive. I can’t imagine what she finds to be stimulating in the mind of a lowly M.A.’

Penny let the insult slide since she didn’t want to get side tracked from what Bernie had said about Howard feeling some responsibility for Sheldon’s death. ‘Bernie said you and Howard worked together and that you guys had some trouble with that arctic experiment you told me about. She said he feels guilty for your death.’

‘Yes, he was there with me and Rajesh Koothrippali and Leonard Hofstadter. I can’t imagine what he would feel guilty for. Besides, you know the real facts of my demise by winged assassins.’ Sheldon made some changes on one of his boards. ‘Howard is likely feeling misplaced guilt due to the belief that my death was a suicide. I am sure if he had the facts he would no longer blame himself.

‘Sheldon, you can’t let him keep blaming himself.’

‘Penny, there is little I can do if he won’t come here and we agreed I would only appear to you so it’s all a rather moot issue. Besides, I would still be no closer to solving what went wrong in the arctic. That would give us both some peace.’

Penny came closer to Sheldon and the board he was working on. ‘I keep wondering about this stringy stuff you keep working on. I was thinking about it the other day at work because of a scene we were doing.’

‘A show about kung-fu witches is tackling String Theory? What’s next, Kim Kardashian demonstrates cutting edge alternative energy resources?’

Penny gritted her teeth in frustration at Sheldon’s obliviousness. ‘Nice attempt at empathy, Moonpie.’

‘Only my Meemaw calls me Moonpie, but what interest could your show have in quantum mechanics?’

‘That’s the point. There was a scene with a scientist guy who was trying to explain how witches were impossible and couldn’t exist. He was using math like yours to explain power and entropy and stuff like that. I was wondering if the math he was using was correct or if it was just faked for the scene.’

Sheldon sighed at the memory of the amount of fake math he’d seen on the screen over the years. ‘It was very likely faked. Math in genre media is often just cut and pasted from any source that has the right look. I once saw Planck’s Constant used to explain the atmospheric power of a hurricane.’

Penny nodded in sympathy. She had seen Sheldon pouring over the math on these boards many times and his dedication to the work had grown on her, not to mention his arms and hands looked kind of hot when she was watching him work. ‘I guessed so. It made me want to be able to read this stuff. I used to like math until I started thinking guys didn’t like smart girls back in high school.’

‘That is a crime, Penny. You obviously had a natural talent for math and mechanical engineering growing up. It is a shame it was never nurtured.’ Sheldon was impressed by Penny’s talents as a young girl. He was equally impressed by her facility with such things around the house. He sometimes wished she might have lived in Galveston when he was a child there. He was sure she would have been a kindred soul.

‘Yeah, that too, but I never finished college. That school was too boring on top of everything else.’

Sheldon could well imagine Penny’s community college. 'Unsurprising in such a backwater, I remember the sort of places my mother took me to around Galveston. I would have gotten a superior education from watching reruns of ‘Mr. Wizard’ than going to such a place.’

Penny looked at the board for a while and back to Sheldon. ‘I was thinking of transferring the credits I had in Nebraska to UCLA and finishing up my B.A there. I might even try to add a double major with physics so I can make heads or tails of this stuff you do.’

Sheldon wasn’t sure if a B.A. in physics would ever make heads or tails of his work but it would be gratifying to have someone to talk science with. ‘I would be happy to offer my assistance as a tutor. It would be a welcome relief from the babble I have to spout trying to speak like a sorcerer when we rehearse your scenes together.’

Penny rolled her eyes at that after having listened to plenty of Sheldon’s ridiculous Star Trek technobabble. ‘Well, one witch’s ‘Book of Shadows’ is another geek’s explanation of warp theory.’

Sheldon wanted to argue the point but he had to admit the validity of Penny’s assessment. He was often surprised at her turns of logic at unexpected moments. It was one of her most fascinating characteristics to him. ‘Fair point, for a liberal arts major.’

+++

The year ahead on the show went great for the series and it had won three Emmys at the end of the season including one for Penny as best supporting actress. The increasing fame did bring paparazzi and fans around Los Robles Cottage. Their presence was a nuisance to Sheldon who caused quite a few accidents and unexplained occurrences. The odd coincidences around Penny’s home didn’t go unnoticed by fans of the show. The fan sites had a growing set of theories about Penny and her character on The Coven. Among the theories were several she found funny. It was said Penny was hired because she was a real witch. Her house was cursed and she was a sentinel for some kind of hellmouth. Her personal favorite, the series was meant to hide the existence of real witches and what they were up to and Penny and the show were some kind of disinformation campaign.

There were downsides. Penny felt more confined to the house recently. Bernadette and Penny had come to love the idyllic privacy of the wooded hills around the cottage but now there were often fans and photographers looking to get pictures of Penny and even Bernadette. There were more than a few rumors about their living together in the same house from the bottom feeding tabloids.

‘Hey there, teddy bear, how’s the String Theory coming along?’

‘This is not my work; it is actually an amusing attempt to explain the physics of a world where powers like your Coven are a real occurrence.’ Sheldon had become something of a closet fan of the show, especially whenever Penny was on. They had both been overjoyed when she became a regular for the show in the next season.

‘You can do that? How would you make magic work?’ Penny didn’t think Sheldon had that much interest in magic or witches.

‘You can’t make magic work in the real world, but you can postulate how magic might work in the world of your show assuming the show is consistent in the use of magic within its universe. For instance, this equation is explaining the telekinetic powers your character possesses.’ Sheldon pointed out the long set of equations that explained how Kaley could make things fly about on the show.

Penny walked over to the board and recognized some of the parts from her physics classes, now. She still couldn’t read the stuff but she felt happier that she could pick out some of the bits and pieces. ‘Isn’t that the Planck’s Constant that bothers you in so many TV shows?’

‘Very good, yes it is. To cause movement, there has to be energy transference. I speculated the witches on the show were altering reality at a quantum level rather than exerting biological energy to cause change in the world around them.’

Penny thought she got what Sheldon was saying. ‘You’re saying the telekinesis isn’t really moving something; it’s making the something be somewhere else?’

‘That would be one way to express it, yes.’ Sheldon was surprised at Penny’s growing familiarity with mathematics in spite of complaining how hard it was. It seemed, like her mechanical ability, she had an intuitive grasp of mathematics which was inhibited more by her lack of self-confidence than by any lack of ability.

‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ Penny felt happy Sheldon had put this much thought into her show. She knew the fans spent a lot of time working out the rules of magic and how the spells and everything worked but she had never seen anyone try to actually explain it with real science and math. ‘I’m finishing up the B.A. work in Theater this year and I should have the physics one done next year if the load isn’t too much while working on the show. It kind of feels like being a real witch being able to understand some of the stuff on your boards.’

Sheldon gave some thought to that idea. ‘I believe it is better than that since you have an understanding of how the universe really works, Penny, and you have shown an excellent aptitude for it when you are not selling your ability short.’

Penny smiled and felt a little shy at the praise from Sheldon of all people. Thanks, sweetie, that means a lot to me. But right now, I need to get some running time in. Work and school is making a mush of my head and I need to get out for a run. I just hope the paths are clear. Last time, those two photographers scared the crap out of me when they popped out of the trees. I miss the old quiet around here. Even Bernie is getting bothered by it.’ That reminded Penny of something she wanted to talk about with Sheldon. Howard had proposed to Bernadette last weekend and she had accepted.

‘Sheldon, we talked about appearing only to me and leaving Bernie alone but there might be some changes coming along.’

‘What kind of changes?’ Sheldon looked at Penny walking out to the balcony and followed her over there.

Penny scanned the countryside looking for people around and hoping for a quiet jog this evening. ‘Howard proposed to Bernadette and she said yes. Bernie and I were talking and she would like to have Howard come live here. The Cottage has plenty of room for three people and you could, maybe, talk to Howard about the arctic and all, get his mind off of blaming himself.’

Sheldon didn’t like change but he had come to find comfort in both women in the house and wanted them both to stay here. Bernadette’s work made an entertaining change from the physics and related science reading he usually did and her work was quite innovative. Penny had become irreplaceable to him so some compromise seemed needed. ‘I think you may be right and it would not be disagreeable to have some male company to relieve me from the endless chatter about shoes and Cosmo’s Most Eligible Bachelors.

‘Thanks, Sheldon. I was thinking we could start slow, maybe, this weekend we could introduce you to Bernadette, first?’ Penny hoped Bernadette was over the start of their living here; she could hold a grudge like no one’s business. ‘Get ready to do some apologizing. I’m not sure she’s over the laundry thing, yet.’

Penny changed into her running clothes and headed downstairs. She met Bernadette on her way out and told her she’d be back from her run in about an hour.

The early evening air was refreshing tonight and the road way was mercifully quiet until she got around the bend and passed a van she knew well from several locations. The photographer driving, Micky, was well known by the whole cast, now, for his persistence to get the perfect candid photo of all the lead actors of the series. She slowed down and waved to him to catch up and asked if she could just have a quiet run tonight and he could come back tomorrow and get a few shots when she was out jogging then. He was nice enough to agree and they set on a time and location near the Cottage for some photos of her warming up for her run.

Penny jogged on a bit further and screamed when she got tackled from behind and pulled off the road.

‘Come on, what are you screaming for? You knew we were meeting here.’

Penny had met one of any actor’s nightmares, a stalker. Her head went to rodeo practice and more than a few fights growing up instead of talking to the nut. She stomped down hard on his foot then dropped to her knees which let her slip out of his arms unexpectedly. She rolled forward and ran a few paces to pick up a heavy branch she saw on the ground.

He was thin and had receding hair and was wearing a green jacket and blue jeans. The guy was non-descript but the knife he pulled out looked far more disturbing. ‘That hurt. What are you hitting me for? You’ve been watching for me for weeks. Your powers should know we are soul mates, Kaley. That is your real name, anyway.’

‘Dude, you have made a serious mistake so why don’t you just jog away and leave me alone.’ Penny hoped he would do that but she wasn’t expecting it.

‘Go away? We’re going away together, Kaley!’

He charged at Penny and she used the branch to bat away the knife and swung up into the guy’s diaphragm taking the wind out of him. A third swing hard at his right knee broke the branch and took him off his feet. The guy screamed in pain.

‘God, I think you broke my knee, what did you do that for? I love you!’ The guy struggled to his feet. He limped from the pain but his leg didn’t seem broken. Penny just hoped he was injured enough for her to run away.

‘Back off, pal. I am not a TV character, I am Penny Queen and if you don’t get lost I will put you somewhere permanently you will not like.’ Penny brandished the unbroken half of the branch ready to fight if she had to and she very much wished she didn’t have to.

The guy started to look at her afraid all of a sudden and began to limp backwards. ‘What are you? What the hell are you?’ He turned and tried to run but his injured leg made him trip and he hit his head hard on a tree root on the ground and knocked himself out.

Penny looked around wondering what he was talking about when she saw her hand with the branch was glowing brilliant fiery blue. She looked at herself and saw she was bathed in the ghostly aura Sheldon would project when he was trying to put a real scare on people. She realized Sheldon was here and let her legs give out from under her.

‘Oh god, Sheldon, thank god you got here.’ Penny hugged herself trying to stop the shakes that she was rocking with.

‘I saw a familiar van passing the house and thought one of those press people might have disturbed your run. I didn’t expect to find a lunatic. You handled him masterfully.’

Penny got out her phone and dialed 911 and reported the situation. They advised her, if it seemed safe, to get the man’s ID but to head home as quickly as possible regardless. She felt too shaken to really move very much. She had never felt this scared from anything in her rodeo days from trick riding to getting thrown or trampled. Horses really weren’t out to stalk and kill you, after all. When she felt calm enough she used the guy’s jacket and belt to make a simple hogtie that would slow him down if he came to before the police got there.

‘I wish I didn’t have to master him at all. Just, don’t talk right now, sweetie, I really wish the cops were here. God, I can’t stop shaking.’ Penny shivered in the evening air and Sheldon felt terrible all he could do was stand unable to really give any comfort to his friend. The police arrived about fifteen minutes later with an ambulance. Penny saw the cruiser’s search light checking the sides of the road as it came along and she stepped out onto the road to flag them down. They secured the prisoner and took a few basic details of what happened from Penny while the EMTs gave her a quick examination to see if she was feeling alright. While the EMTs were checking her over the police officers got the stalker up and brought him to the cruiser. He started screaming that Penny was a real witch and they should be arresting her.

The officers got Penny safely in the car and they helped the EMTs confine the lunatic to a stretcher and deliver him sedated in the ambulance to a sanitarium for review after they logged the arrest. They took Penny home after the ambulance drove off. The officer driving, Patrolman Sawyer, helped Penny out of the car when they got back to the cottage. ‘I guess you’re pretty shaken up. Are you sure you don’t want to go to a hospital and get checked out Ms. Queen?’

Penny shook her head negative, she really just wanted to get home and lock her door. ‘I’m OK, nothing a hot bath and a glass of wine won’t help fix. I am so glad you guys got here so fast, thanks.’

‘I’m glad everything turned out alright. We’ll come by tomorrow to get a full interview about tonight, if that’s alright with you, ma’am.’

Penny agreed and waved good bye to the police. She locked the door and turned around into Bernie running down the stairs and hugging her. ‘What were the police bringing you home for? Is everything alright?’

Penny started crying as soon as she felt Bernie’s arms around her. ‘No, it’s not, there was a nut out there waiting for me and I had to fight him off and I don’t want you to stop holding me.’

Bernie went back upstairs with Penny and helped her draw a hot bath and got her a glass of wine. She listened to Penny’s story and talked about some of her own bad experiences. After her bath, Penny got her bedclothes on and went to bed. ‘How are you doing, Penny? Would you like some company, tonight?’

‘Please, that would be good.’ Bernadette slipped into bed with her friend and hugged her gently. They slept together for the rest of the week while Penny got her calm back into herself.

Sheldon stood out on the balcony and wondered about his two friends and what they had put up with all their lives. He had listened to their stories and was shocked by how many awful things they heard and saw from men expecting their attention and hating them for not getting it or not getting it the way they wanted. He knew about bullies. He had faced enough of them growing up but none of them had come after him because he was a guy. And, he didn’t have any real harassment after puberty unlike his two friends. He had felt a bit hurt when Penny had asked him not to talk in the woods but after hearing their stories he thought he understood a little why she didn’t want to listen to a guy talking to her just then.

Chapter Text

Penny made a quick road to feeling better having Bernadette in the house. They both met Micky when he stopped by for the promised photographs the next day. He appeared just in time to meet the police who were taking Penny’s statement at the time. He’d been shocked at how close he had been to the near tragedy and was going to take a rain check on the photo session after answering a few questions about what he had seen last night. Penny wanted to do something anyway and had Micky come with her and the investigating officers to get some pictures of the area and her after the ordeal. The attack had scared the hell out of her last night but Penny was determined her attacker wasn’t going to scare living out of her today. The police were reluctant to see the crime scene turned into a photo opportunity but Micky saw a news opportunity and bigger possibilities if he compromised a bit and he and Penny settled only he could get pictures of her and the scene and Penny would try to let the story lie as much as possible until the trial.

Howard even came by to say hello when Bernadette told him about the attack and he came see how she was doing which surprised both girls. He was still nervous about the house even though Penny and Bernadette assured him everything was perfectly fine. Penny wondered where Sheldon was through that visit. Howard and Bernadette were going out for dinner and they asked Penny if she wanted to come with them but she said she wanted to stay home. Penny was really wondering where Sheldon had gotten to. The house had been particularly busy today but he hadn’t shown up in any fashion.

Bernadette paused at the front door with some worry about leaving Penny alone after a long day of police and all the talking about last night. ‘You sure you don’t want to come? I could even ask Howard to stay for dinner here. I think he’d do that for the sake of everything you’ve been through, honey.’

Penny was warmed by the concern but she did feel safe having Sheldon here. She hoped he was here somewhere, anyway. ’I’ll be fine, go have fun.’

‘OK, but we’ll make an early night of it, anyway. I’ll be back around 9, OK?’

Penny shook her head because she didn’t want that nut to start overshadowing their lives but she was grateful to know Bernadette and Howard were there for her. ‘Alright, but don’t be afraid to paint the town a bit. I wouldn’t mind a call to say hello, though.’

‘I’ll do that.’ Bernadette and Penny shared a good bye hug and Penny waved them off on their date.

Penny locked the door and turned some of the downstairs lights down and got herself some lavender tea in the kitchen. She checked the downstairs locks just in case while the water boiled for tea. She saw no sign of her ghostly friend downstairs and she really wanted to find out where Sheldon had gotten himself to so she headed up to the study with her drink. She went out onto the balcony and sipped her tea and enjoyed the smell of the evening countryside. ‘Sheldon, honey, everyone is gone now, where have you gone to?’

‘I haven’t gone anywhere; I just thought you wanted some quiet time after last night.’ Sheldon appeared by his precious white board but he wasn’t sure what to talk about. He was still thinking about what Bernadette and Penny had talked about last night and by why Penny might have wanted him to not talk to her last night in the woods. ‘I wasn’t sure how much you wanted a man around the house after last night.’

Penny sighed and smiled a bit. ‘Oh, honey, why would you think that? This is your house, too, Sheldon.’ Penny sat in the wing chair under the Hello Kitty comforter she had for lounging with a good movie and put her tea down on the side table.

Sheldon sat on the sofa and wished he could articulate his feelings as easily as he could mathematics. ‘I was listening to you and Bernadette last night and it was a lot to think about.’

Penny seemed shocked for a second. ‘You were listening in the bathroom? What were you doing in there with us?’

‘Of course, I wasn’t in the bathroom. I am simply aware of the house, especially these rooms since they were the most mine, the place I felt most attached to. The first day you came, I wasn’t really aware you were here until you sat in that chair.’

‘Yeah, I remember hearing a guy’s voice; I thought it was Howard walking around up here.’ Penny remembered that first day and how comfortable she felt up here even with all the wacky stuff around. ‘So, how come you scared Howard instead of me or Bernie?’

‘He brought you both here and you seemed to like it here.’ Sheldon hadn’t really stopped to think why he’d never done anything to Penny to scare her away other than pack up her Care Bears.

‘I do like it here. It feels like I’ve always lived here. I don’t think it would have felt the same without your stuff here, though. So, why did you think I wouldn’t want you around?’

‘Perhaps, I misunderstood your asking me not to talk out in the woods? When you were speaking with Bernadette it sounded like you were exasperated to have men around. I recalled my experience with bullies and abusers growing up but it rather paled to what you and Bernadette described by comparison.’

Penny moved over to the sofa to sit next to her friend. ‘Oh, I couldn’t listen to anyone after that nut got knocked out. I was in too much shock to want anything besides silence. I’m sorry if you thought I didn’t want you around, I didn’t mean that at all, sweetie. Your showing up took all the fight out of him with that glowing trick. And, you’ve helped me with the physics and science stuff, run lines with me for hours; you’ve been one of my best friends. You are exasperating when you get into your finicky just so phases but you are one of the best guys I have ever known, Sheldon.’

Sheldon levitated Penny’s comforter over to the sofa for her. ‘Thank you, Penny, and I have enjoyed your company here greatly. It is odd that I didn’t notice your presence in the house that first day until you came in here. I normally notice such things before people even get in the house. Perhaps, my subconscious was telling me I was here alone too long?’

‘Oh, that’s so sweet, Moonpie. But, that makes me wonder, why are you here? What got you haunting the cottage?’ Penny had read through her books for stuff about ghosts and talked to her psychic. Her psychic had said it was usually some life trauma that kept a spirit bound to a location, something unfinished in life.

‘Penny, only my Meemaw calls me Moonpie. I really am not sure. My work, the arctic question, bringing my murderers to justice, take your pick; I really am not absolutely certain but I do believe some local feral cats may have avenged me.’

‘I was talking to my psychic a little while ago and she said unfinished work or quests can be something that holds spirits to the Earth, maybe this is all about your theories and the arctic thing you can’t solve?’

Sheldon scoffed at the suggestion. ‘Psychics, they are a most ridiculous source for suggestions. Which spirits told her that idea?’

Penny rolled her eyes at Sheldon’s myopic awareness. He still saw himself as a real scientist in a world without the supernatural. ‘I don’t know, but not ones that told her the existence of spirits was ridiculous, I’ll bet.’ Penny smiled at the frustration in Sheldon’s glare after that retort. ‘Look, you’ve been obsessed with that one thing ever since we moved in. It seems like you don’t think of much else besides scaring folks away, Sheldon.’

‘I have always valued my privacy, Penny, even when I was alive. Also, I am bound to the house and property so there was little else to occupy me before you came and made it possible for me to get outside. I never thought anything would bring me to think of it until you came and vandalized my models. You got me thinking of something besides my home and my work.’ Sheldon looked at the new models and comics Penny had bought for him. She was a breath of fresh air that he wondered if he would have appreciated if he had met her when he was alive.

‘Maybe, it’s not the work that needs settling; maybe it’s your ties to the people around it? Tell me about the arctic again. I remember Howard went, so tell me about the other guys, too.’ Penny thought whatever Howard’s guilty feelings were about everything it all kept coming back to whatever happened up north.

Sheldon looked out the balcony doors and recalled the expedition once again. He outlined what the experiment was and got back into the science of what he was trying to prove.

Penny shook her head in rejection. ‘No honey, you’ve told me about the science stuff. You’ve been over that stuff more times than I can count just while Bernie and I have been here. No, tell me about the people, why were they there for you and how were you set there with them?’

Sheldon couldn’t imagine what Penny was getting at since it did nothing to address the magnitude of what he was trying to discover or the depths the failure brought him to. ‘Howard, Raj, and Leonard were there because they were my friends. They were the people I trusted most to help me succeed in my project. Howard is quite good as an engineer in spite of having only an M.A. and it’s criminal he doesn’t apply himself further. Raj really understood my work the best of the group. His grasp of the theory and what I needed to succeed was far ahead of the other two. Sometimes, I wish he had come here since he might have been able to untangle this question with me. He was somewhat more focused on Leonard, though. Leonard is an experimental physicist. He’s not as profound as he imagines himself but he is a competent engineer when it comes to creating the machinery needed to test a theory. Unfortunately, he spent far more of his time bemoaning his inability to pursue his new found relationship with Priya.’

Penny snapped a glance at the new name and its association with a new found relationship. ‘Who was Priya?’

Sheldon groaned at the memory of Leonard’s whining for months up in the arctic and his frequent bouts with Raj. ‘Priya is Raj’s sister. She is a lawyer who had moved into the LA area from India to work at an international law firm on their Asian business law interests. Raj introduced her to us about a month before we left for the arctic. Leonard and Priya started dating 12 days before we left. Twelve days where Leonard had no work focus and was a constant source of distress with his arguing with Raj who didn’t approve of their dating. Raj is quite protective of his sister and felt Leonard wasn’t suitable boyfriend material. I was inclined to agree with Raj since Leonard’s focus is easily distracted by any pretty girl no matter whether he is in a relationship or not. That has put an end to more than one past relationship of his.’

‘How did Howard feel about all this Priya talk?’

‘Howard and Raj have been best friends for ages. I believe he felt caught in the middle. He wanted to support Leonard as a friend but he, too, was aware of Leonard’s shortcomings so he was reluctant to counter Raj’s objections to their dating. It was soon after we returned that Raj decided to take a job at a rather prestigious university back home in India with his parent's assistance. They are somewhat wealthy. I believe he took the failure of the experiment quite personally even though he was not affected by the fallout. Howard’s story you have some familiarity with.’

Penny was thinking about a lot, and especially about Priya. Besides the experiment, she was the one thing in this story that tied all four guys together and she tied them together before the experiment. Men bringing about disaster in pursuit of a woman was a theme in drama as old as time, just ask Helen and Paris. ‘Sheldon, I really think we should talk to Howard. I think his guilt might be deeper than just your death. He left his job and so did Raj right after you came back.’

Sheldon nodded. ‘Yes, the experiment was touted to have proven my theory but turned out to be unrepeatable and therefore unsupportable.’

Penny frowned. ‘Yeah, that’s what happened but I don’t think that was the cause of all this. What happened with Leonard when he came back?’

‘I am unsure. He seldom came here after he first met Priya. When we returned from the arctic I saw nothing of him at all except when we were in meetings with President Siebert and Professor Gablehauser over the embarrassment of my early release of results. Leonard was far more concerned to renew his pursuit of Raj’s sister.’

‘So, Leonard didn’t really face any consequences at all from this, just you, Raj, and Howard?’ Penny had watched enough Sherlock and Miss Marple, always look for who benefits most from the crime.

‘Why would he face any consequences, he didn’t release any false data?’ Sheldon had no idea where Penny was going with this.

‘Yes, why would he face any? Haven’t you ever thought about how much Priya is tied up in all this, Sheldon?’

Sheldon looked at Penny and gasped out a laugh. ‘Whatever for, she was in California and had no way to affect the experiment apart from listening to Leonard’s talking in his sleep about her? That’s a memory I wish I could forget.’

‘Sheldon, sweetie, you talk a lot about quantum entanglements in your work but I think you have missed a very obvious one in your arctic data. We really should introduce you to Howard and Bernadette.’

Chapter Text

Penny wanted to introduce Sheldon to Bernie and Howard but Sheldon had grown comfortable with the current status quo. Penny was really the only one he really felt comfortable with and he had no desire to reconnect with the living.

‘Sheldon, that’s just going to make all of this harder, don’t you want to find out what really happened in the arctic?’

‘Of course I do, Penny, but you are more than capable of getting to the bottom of this. If you are right about Leonard, it will be up to the living to bring him to justice. I can hardly appear before the entire university board, after all.’ Sheldon wished the solution was as simple as Penny put forth but he didn’t think his presence could really help. Also, he was a little scared of Bernadette. Sheldon still sometimes heard her dark mutterings on laundry night about what she'd do to the gremlins that almost ruined her clothes.

Penny frowned in exasperation. ‘How am I supposed to convince Howard to talk more about the arctic? Bernie has been trying for more than a year to get him to open up about what happened and he won’t budge.’

Sheldon had considered that and got out some old journals. ‘These are my log entries for the weeks between the arctic and my death. There are also some files on my old laptop. I am sure there are sufficient materials there for you to derive the same conclusions which you arrived at through my story.’

Penny glanced through the logs Sheldon kept. The minutiae he could concern himself with astounded Penny but it was very clearly written and easy to find much of what Sheldon had told her. She looked through the laptop files for a few minutes when Sheldon produced his work computer for her. ‘OK, I may be able to use the journals just as well, but I want you to be there, too. Even if they can’t see or hear you, you can still tell me if what Howard says sounds like we are on the right track and he’s not just feeling guilty about your death.’

Around a quarter to nine, Bernadette called to tell Penny she was going to a late movie with Howard unless Penny was feeling nervous home alone. Penny said she was alright but she did ask if Howard would stop by, tomorrow. She thought they could have a chat about the wedding and Howard moving in. They could decide how things might need to shift around to make room for Howard’s stuff in the house.

When Bernadette and Howard got back from their movie it was a bit after eleven-thirty. They could see the lights on in Penny’s rooms. Bernadette hoped Penny wasn’t feeling nervous home alone. Penny had sounded fine when she called earlier but feelings can change alone at night in a quiet house. Bernadette made sure Howard would come by tomorrow morning to talk about the wedding and stuff and kissed him good night. She got out of the car and waved him off and went inside to see how Penny was doing.

The first floor being dark except for the hall light, Bernie headed up to Penny’s rooms. She was about to knock when she heard what sounded like Penny having an animated chat and then breaking up in laughter. She knocked on the study door and poked her head in. ‘Hey, honey, what are you still doing up?’

'Hi Bernie! I guess I lost track of time chatting. How was your night?’ Penny only realized then Bernadette couldn’t see Sheldon standing by his comics where he had been reading.

‘Chatting? Who were you chatting with?’ Bernadette was feeling a little concerned that Penny was talking so animatedly to herself.

Sheldon popped up Age of Conan on his open laptop and suggested Penny go with it.

‘Oh, just some Age of Conan people online, some of them are pretty funny when they get in character.’

Bernadette grinned at the game site on the laptop. She didn’t get why Penny liked that game so much but at least she hadn’t been freaking out being home alone or having some kind of stress attack after the other night.

‘How was the evening with Howard? I hope you didn’t rush back here just for me?’ Penny didn't want Bernadette to think she had to rush back home early just for her.

Bernadette looked at her watch. ‘It’s almost midnight, dearie. You do get lost in that game, don’t you?’

‘I suppose so. There’s a player, Sheldor, who is a lot of fun to play and chat with online even if he’s a little slow sometimes on the quests.’ Penny grinned at Sheldon. He was still put out by how quickly Penny had mastered the game.

‘Oh, sweet Mary, Mother of God, no, not an online romance? Who knows what kind of weirdo is on the other end?' Bernadette was only half serious but Penny had been out of the dating game for quite a bit. She figured Penny was still figuring that out after having been in a poor marriage with her old Nebraska flame that brought her out to California.

‘Don’t!’ Penny whispered to Sheldon when he started to try something ghostly on Bernadette.

Sheldon pulled back and looked affronted. ‘I am not crazy or weird. My mother had me tested.’ Sheldon walked out onto the balcony in a huff.

‘Don’t what? I’m not saying you’re going to try and find this Sheldor, honey. I do wonder, sometimes, why you don’t go out on a date once in a while. I know you’ve got to be pretty busy with your show and trying to do your classes but it wouldn’t hurt you to get out of this museum of geek culture once in a while.’

Penny shook her head and smiled at her old friend. ‘I’m sorry, Bernie. Maybe, I was playing that game too long, tonight. I was kind of staying in my QueenP character there for a second. You are right, there are no online romances in sight for me, trust me.’ Penny looked out to the balcony where Sheldon was watching the moon. ‘I just don’t have any real interest in dating. You remember that last jerk I came home with?’

Bernadette chuckled at the memory of the naked actor running and screaming through the house and out the front door. The police had picked him up still going at a dead run over a mile away. ‘I still want to know what you did to scare him like that. I can’t say he didn’t deserve it, though.’

‘Me, too.’ Penny looked fondly at Sheldon while she remembered that night and being so furious with him ruining her date until he showed her the phone with its images Zane had managed to secretly take of her in the shower. Fortunately, nothing had been sent from the phone before Sheldon had stepped in to put a stop to Zane's filming. ‘I like to think the right guy is somewhere out that balcony door. I’m just not in any hurry to go back on the dating train right now.’

Bernadette was glad to hear the old happy Penny voice slowly coming back. ‘You know, Howard and I stopped by the comic shop, this evening. He wanted to pick up some of his books. They were all talking down there about the news. The attack on you has hit a lot of the stations and the guys at the store were all worried and asking about you. The news reported how you fought him off and all but everyone wanted to know you were alright.’

‘That’s so sweet. Maybe, I’ll stop by tomorrow after Howard comes by. Did you ask him if he would come over?’

‘I did and he really didn’t want to but he will come. This place still gives him the creeps but he does want to see you are getting better.’

‘Great, I would really like to talk about how we can make this place a little more comfortable for the three of us. Also, I was reading some of Sheldon’s old journals and logs. I was kind of hoping to talk to Howard about the arctic. Sheldon was puzzling a lot over that and it really doesn’t sound like the stuff someone suicidal would write. It makes me think Howard is wrong about Sheldon killing himself. It might help take some of the guilt off his shoulders over all that?’

Bernadette scowled a bit in frustration over that. She had tried to get Howard to open up over that but he had never said much more than what he’d said on their first date at that Chinese restaurant. ‘I hope you can get him to talk about it. It would make things so much better if you could take some of that weight off of him. That arctic business is really what’s eating him up and making him miserable enough to stay in a job he hates so much. Anything that would help would be a godsend.’

‘Well, let’s see if we can’t lighten his load together, tomorrow? Let’s get ready for bed, bunky, I’m exhausted.’ Penny insisted Bernadette use the big tub for the trouble of being her stress pillow for another night if she didn’t mind.

Penny went downstairs and made them both some lavender tea and brought Bernadette’s to her in the tub where she was singing an old Polish lullaby in her bubble bath. After that, Penny went out on the balcony where Sheldon was still watching the moon.

‘What’s the matter, Casper?’ Penny sipped her tea and grinned at Sheldon’s growl. He hated being compared to any media made ghost.

‘Besides, your pitiful attempts at pop culture based torture? I guess I wonder like Bernadette why you don’t try dating again.’ Sheldon hadn’t really liked any of Penny’s dates but it had really only been that Zane fellow that had ever been a problem. He certainly didn’t want to see Penny fencing out the world because of a bad apple or two.

Penny sighed. ‘What for? I did the marriage thing and that with someone I thought would be the love of my life.’ Penny remembered how excited she had been leaving Nebraska with Kurt. They had gotten married on the way west in Las Vegas and Penny had believed she’d found the perfect future. Four years of marriage and Kurt's cheating on her broke her heart like she didn’t think possible. Even his death didn’t hurt half as much; his death had made her feel more cheated of getting some kind of justice for her heartbreak than anything else. ‘None of the guys I have dated since I moved here have ever made me feel anything special. I get more satisfaction out of my box of toys these days than any of the guys I’ve been out with.’

Sheldon snorted at that. He had no idea what the box Penny had under the bed was until he peaked inside. He had been more shocked than the night he found his sister Missy sneaking into the house one night with a boyfriend from high school. ‘I would like to see you happy just as Bernadette does, Penny.’

Penny looked up at the moon with Sheldon and at the spectral color of the land around the house in the moonlight. The bright glow on the trees across from the balcony reminded her of the ghostly aura he used to scare unwanted people off but that aura had never bothered her from the start. In the similar light of the Moon, the blueish glow lighting the country side made her feel dreamy and contented.

‘I am happy here with you and Bernadette, and Howard, soon. It’s like having a family again. I visit my folks at Christmas but Nebraska really isn’t home anymore.’ Penny looked back inside at the whiteboards and script outlines and science projects scattered among the models and comics and Care Bears and games. ‘I’m happy right here doing what I am doing, Sheldon. I’m happy doing what we are doing together, Moonpie.’ Penny smiled at Sheldon and strolled off to take her shower and get ready for bed.

‘Only my Meemaw calls me Moonpie, Penny.’ Sheldon told her once again. He turned back to look at the moonlit world outside. ‘But, I don’t mind so much if it makes you happy to do so.’

Chapter Text

Howard showed up around 10am. Bernadette let him in when he rang the front door bell. ‘Good morning, Howie! How are you, sweetheart?’

He looked like the house was going to bite him when he came through the door. ‘Fine, I hope you and Penny are good, today. Are you sure it’s OK to be here?’

Bernadette glanced around quickly. ‘Sure, we’re fine but why wouldn’t it be OK, here?’ The house had been quiet for so long Bernie had almost forgotten how rough the early weeks had been. She brought Howard into the living room and asked if he wanted coffee or something. She went to get him his drink and called up the stairs to let Penny know Howard was here. Penny called back and asked Bernie if she’d mind getting her a coffee along with theirs.

Upstairs, Penny put some place markers in Sheldon’s logs on passages that put together her theory about Priya being the central catalyst to the arctic disaster and Sheldon’s death. She also tabbed the laptop files she wanted to show Howard and went downstairs to chat.

‘Good morning, Howard!’ Penny found Howard looking around skittishly. She smirked when he jumped at her voice.

‘Hi, Penny, you look great. I’m glad you’re OK.’

‘I am, and Bernadette’s a big help. I don’t think I’d be half as good without her. I’m sorry if worrying about me cut your date short last night.’ Penny sat on an easy chair by the sofa so Bernie and Howard could sit together. ‘I hope you’re not nervous about the house? There’s no trouble here, anymore.

That was mostly true. Sheldon still felt the laundry should be available to him on Saturday at 6pm so he could keep his favorite superhero T-Shirts in fresh, clean condition. Penny had to apologize profusely to Bernadette the first time he’d dumped one of her loads for his JLA shirts to be washed on time. Godiva chocolates were a friendship saver that weekend.

Howard was happy to see Penny looked well after everything. ‘That’s great. I hope there won’t be any more crazy guys up here.’

Penny shrugged and sighed. ‘Me, too, but I’m kind of glad the house has the reputation it does. It keeps folks at a bit of a distance.’

Bernadette came in from the kitchen with a tray of coffee and cranberry muffins for everyone. ‘Are you talking about the house, again, Howard? Sometimes I see more ghost hunters around than fans but Penny’s right about the reputation. We do get fans of the show a lot but I think some of them come around to see if she really is a witch more than to see an actress.’

They chatted for a while about the wedding plans and using the house for a close family reception before the wedding. Sheldon popped in at the sound of that. ‘Penny, if you think I am going to put up with my home being turned into a music hall, you’ve lost your collective minds.’

‘Oh, Sheldon-‘ Penny looked abashed at her friends staring at her addressing an empty chair by the window. ‘Sorry, I mean, Sheldon’s family is very protective of the property. We really should keep anything focused on these downstairs rooms and outside. Maybe we could make a small outdoor pavilion for it?’

‘That sounds nice, don’t you think, Bernie?’ Howard wasn’t sure the house would like any more people in it than it currently did.

‘Come on, you don’t think the house will start acting up, do you guys?’ Bernadette was keen to use the house to save some money on the wedding but she didn’t want any freaky accidents to ruin the day, either.

Penny walked over to the window and chair she’d talked in the direction of. ‘I don’t think there will be any real problems for your wedding.’ Sheldon looked scared into a ghost’s version of the next life from the look on Penny’s face as she got closer to him.

‘I wouldn’t think of ruining Bernadette’s wedding, Penny, but I do wish you could keep everything outdoors as much as possible.’

Penny relented a bit on Sheldon with a smile and turned back to the sofa. 'What do you think of the pavilion, guys?'

‘It would make clean up a lot easier but the set up would be such a nuisance.’ Bernadette was wondering if some kind reception hall would be better, after all.

‘Set up is easy; I could design something and build it with my eyes closed.’ Howard was eager to get to do anything that was building something instead of trying to sell stuff.

Penny threw her support behind Howard. ‘Handy marrying an engineer, isn’t it, Bernie? And there are plenty of folks I know from work who do carpentry and electrical work on the side. Builders are no problem, especially if it’s a temporary structure.’

The idea was growing on Sheldon. If Howard moved in as planned there was likely to be an increase in some form of party activity or other. ‘I would suggest you look into zoning requirements and plan the design with intent to create a permanent structure. It would make it much easier to host various functions such as family affairs like this or job related events with your career, Penny.’

Penny agreed with that thought. ‘Howard, do you think we could make it something permanent for parties and things?’

‘Yeah, that would be great for the wedding, Howie, could you build it in time?’ Bernadette was growing eager for this.

‘Build it in time, sure, that’s no problem, but getting the zoning and building permits done before the wedding would probably nix that.’

Bernadette was disappointed by that but the long term made it all sound like a good idea. They chatted for a while about Howard moving in and Bernadette thought about all that stuff in the cellar that had been upstairs. ‘All that outdoor building talk reminded me of Sheldon’s stuff downstairs. How about doing some kind of playroom downstairs, Howard? You have a lot of sci-fi stuff; too, you could make a place to have it out and make a collectors heaven downstairs.’

Sheldon started to get his finicky face on. ‘Penny, my mommy doesn’t want my stuff disturbed and I, certainly, don’t!’

Howard and Bernadette both noticed how cold the room had gotten all of a sudden. Howard began to fidget thinking the house was going to attack like he’d been expecting all along.

‘I think, that’s a great idea, Bernie, you can have your own Man-cave, Howard. Comics, movies, maybe a home theater, something with a larger screen than the TVs up here. Firefly on the big screen in your own home. I think we could tinker that together, don’t you?' Penny hoped Sheldon could be enticed with the idea of his favorite series life sized for viewing.

‘Yeah, that would be great, I’d like to have my collections out somewhere but I don’t want to turn your house upside down.’ Howard had noticed the absence of all the collectables downstairs. He was guessing the girls wouldn’t be crazy to have another set of geek things everywhere.

The room started to feel comfortable again after the chill. Penny could tell Sheldon was warming to the idea of a real collector’s room downstairs. ‘Howard does have some fine pieces that wouldn’t look unwell with my superior collection.’

Penny rolled her eyes at the likely diplomatic disputes ahead with her ghostly friend. ‘Just make sure the stuff is well labeled so it doesn’t get confused with Sheldon’s stuff if the family wants to sell his things or something.’

They chatted some more about the wedding and moving in as well as the projects for the basement and the pavilion. They took a look around the basement and Howard took a few measurements to get a general idea of what might be done to fix it up. They also went back outside to look at using the yard area for an outdoor reception. Howard seemed to be getting comfortable with the idea of moving in with all the talk about rebuilding. Penny suggested a look around upstairs as well to see what they might want to do there. Bernadette’s bedroom was a good size and its walk in closet space was generous enough for the two of them. Sheldon had planned the room around having his Meemaw, sister, or mother all together come along. Along with the sitting room, it made a comfortable home space for Bernadette and Howard.

Penny felt Howard seemed pretty OK with the house so she wanted to bring up the arctic business. ‘Howard, I’d like you to look at something in my study.’ Penny started down the hall to her rooms with Bernadette but they stopped when they didn’t hear Howard coming along.

‘In there, are you sure that’s alright? Sheldon never let anyone in there.’ Howard had almost never seen the rooms. Sheldon kept them strictly to himself when he was alive and after his death, Howard seldom got the chance to get anyone to the second floor much less to Sheldon’s old rooms.

Bernadette took his hand and coaxed him along. ‘Of course it’s fine, Penny and I are in there all the time. Come on, Howie.’

‘Couldn’t we just go downstairs and get some more coffee?’ Howard was getting more anxious by the second.

Penny tried to get him to see the bigger picture. ‘Howard, you are planning to move in here with Bernadette. You can’t be jumping out of your skin every second. It will be alright.’

‘Penny, you never knew Sheldon, he was intense on stuff like his room.’

Penny smiled and just shook her head. ‘I want to know about one thing, or I should say one person, and I think that person is at the bottom of the house’s troubles and yours.’

‘What do you mean?’ Howard and Bernadette were both wondering who Penny might know that could be that important.

‘Priya.’ Bernadette had never heard the name before but she felt Howard clench her hand and the look of shock on his face told her that name did mean something to him.

‘Howie, who is Priya?’ Bernadette wanted to know who this person was that seemed to shock her fiancé so badly.

‘Priya is the sister of one of Howard’s friends, Rajesh Koothrappali. She got involved with another friend of Howard’s, Leonard Hofstadter. All together with Sheldon, they make up what went wrong in the arctic and I think Howard knows a great deal more that I would like to know for Sheldon’s sake and for his own peace of mind.’

‘Guys, there’s nothing to know, really, I should go.’ Howard tried to get his hand free from Bernadette but she had a death grip on his hand.

‘Howard, you do know something. You are going to talk, buster. You’ve been half crazy with guilt over this house and losing your job ever since I met you and it can’t go on like this. You run out that door, Howard, and you can kiss this marriage good bye because it won’t survive the weight of that guilt going on.’ Bernadette pulled him towards the study door and Howard looked at the entrance like a gallows.

‘Why don’t you ask Penny? It sounds like she knows everything.’ Howard wished he hadn’t come here. Right now, Penny seemed scarier than the house ever did.

‘Howard, I want to help you, both of you, but all I have are theories right now, I need facts. You have those facts and they will weigh you down every day you try to hide from them. Bernie is right, a marriage cannot survive on secrets.’ Penny walked into the study where she saw Sheldon standing in the balcony doorway. He looked shocked that Penny’s theory of what went wrong in the arctic seemed to be a viable explanation for everything.

Penny sat in the wing chair and Bernadette and Howard sat on the sofa. Howard looked at the journals on the table by Penny’s hand and recognized the titles. Sheldon had kept them meticulously up in the arctic. ‘I guess you put all that together from the journals? Sheldon, yeah, Sheldon never would have thought of Priya as a cause of anything. He was always straight up science. Emotions just never came into anything for him. At least that’s what he always said.’

Penny picked up one of the journals and leafed through it. ‘I have theories, like I said, but take me through the facts. Priya came to LA to join a law firm, Raj introduced you all to her. Leonard started dating her a couple of weeks before you left. The journals say Leonard was more focused on her than the experiment. Raj spent a lot of his time arguing with Leonard over Priya and was also not as helpful as he might have been as a result. I know you supported Raj over Leonard because he was less than faithful when it came to relationships. While you were up there, the team found the proof of Sheldon’s theories that he was looking for but when you came back that proof was refuted because it couldn’t be replicated. It was assumed something electronic or mechanical must have interfered with the detection equipment but Sheldon could never figure out what. It led to a public disgrace for him. You and Raj left Caltech, and Leonard is still there or was when Sheldon died. One dead, two disgraced or at least removed from their jobs, and one sitting like nothing happened. What can you fill in for me?’

Penny looked like one of Agatha Christie’s detectives about to send a criminal to the gallows from Howard’s perspective. He glanced at Bernadette and he didn’t feel a lot more warmth there at the moment. ‘I was psyched when we got back. It would have been huge. Raj wasn’t so excited and he wanted Sheldon to hold off on any announcements. Leonard backed Sheldon because he just wanted to get back to LA and Priya. I thought Raj and Leonard must have settled on him dating Priya because he didn’t argue about it anymore. Sheldon made his announcement as soon as he could but in the week it took us to get back from Point Barrow the experiment was looking suspect. When we got back to Caltech, people were asking uncomfortable questions about the validity of the work and things went downhill from there.’

Howard asked if he could get some water and Bernadette got him a glass. He held it nervously while he drank. ‘I guess the journals talk about all that?’ Penny nodded and Howard went on. ‘During all of it Raj came over to my place. He told me he made a deal with Leonard. Leonard had sabotaged the results somehow to give positive results so they could get back. He told Raj he could prove to Priya it was Raj’s idea so he could get back and keep him and Priya from dating. He knew that would stop him more than a job threat. Raj almost worships Priya so he just tried to keep Sheldon from publishing anything. I tried confronting Leonard but he just said he could open up the sabotage and blame the whole thing on me just as easily as opening a can of tuna. That’s when it hit me how Leonard had sabotaged the results. He had some kind of electric can opener, no idea why at the time other than laziness but I guessed it gave off a frequency that made hits on the detector. He built those detectors so he should have known that was possible right from the start. Maybe, it was his plan before we even left so he could get back to Priya?’

Howard could feel the room getting eerily cold all the while he was speaking but he kept on. ‘Raj and I went to tell Sheldon. We thought he might be able to think of something but we found him dead outside there, under that balcony. We didn’t know what to do. We both thought he might have killed himself over the failure. It was like the world fell apart around us. Raj didn’t want to lose Priya but without the can opener and Leonard’s data we had nothing but our word against his. I left Caltech because of it but the stigma of being part of Sheldon’s team stuck with me because I wouldn’t distance myself from it. Raj went back home for pretty much the same reasons. Leonard married Priya and I haven’t seen either of them since the funeral. neither has Raj or his family, I don't think.’

Penny looked over at Sheldon and saw the outrage and disbelief painted on his face. He never accepted Penny’s theory because he and the guys were friends and scientists. He never counted on emotions like jealousy and envy and spite coming in to disturb his world of pristine math and science. Penny was crying and walked over to the window to be near her friend. ‘I’m sorry, Sheldon. I’m sorry I was right.’

‘Never be sorry about confirming a theory with solid evidence, Penny. You never betrayed anyone and neither did Howard or Raj. I never would have thought of it, never. I understand why you didn’t want to hear anything that night.’ Sheldon disappeared looking like the dead.

Bernadette was shocked by the story. She knew what claiming success on faulty results could do to a career but to have those faulty results come from sabotage was like sacrilege. ‘Jesus, Howard, how have you lived with this?’

‘Guys, let’s get out of here. There’s a little too much past in here, please?’ Howard didn’t know where he wanted to go except away from so much of Sheldon’s stuff. Right now, it just reminded him of that day outside when everything went wrong.

Bernadette and Howard went downstairs to get some more coffee in the kitchen while Penny stayed in the study to put away Sheldon’s logs in their secure safe. She picked up Sheldon's laptop with its notes and Penny's ideas about the arctic to bring downstairs to get more details about everything. The way to get to Leonard went through Priya. She hoped Howard still kept in contact with Raj. He sounded like someone that needed some absolution from this mess just as much as Howard did. The more she heard of Leonard, he sounded even worse than Kurt. At least he supported her career instead of sabotaging it, if nothing else. She suspected Priya might be less in Leonard's camp than Howard and Raj suspected by this time if he was anything like the guys had described him being.

Penny sat down in the wing chair and hugged herself and thought about the day she found out Kurt had been cheating on her. Sheldon’s face had held that same heartbreak she had felt burning her understanding of the world away. She didn’t really grasp the career implications that hit Sheldon like Bernadette did but she knew about the betrayal of someone that you thought was your best friend in life. She and Sheldon had both thought they were on the brink of all their dreams coming true. Then, the people they trusted most had tossed away their love and trust and had tossed them aside like broken toys. It wasn’t fair and Penny knew she could never get justice for Kurt cheating on her but she was sure she could get some for Sheldon and maybe that would be a little like justice for her heartbreak, too.

Chapter Text

Penny found Howard and Bernadette in the kitchen. Howard was still shaken up by telling what he knew about Sheldon and the arctic but he was talking more openly. He had needed to be able to tell someone about it. He and Raj had seldom talked much about that day they found Sheldon dead and it had eaten at them both over the years. Howard seemed to have found a little relief from the admission upstairs. Penny chatted with Howard a bit more about Leonard, his likes and dislikes, places he hung out but she really wanted to know more about Priya. She didn’t expect Howard to be able to tell her much since he hadn’t kept in touch with Leonard or Priya since the funeral. She assumed Raj would be able to tell her more, at least about Priya, so she asked Howard to arrange a Skype meeting so they could talk about the arctic if Raj was up for it. Penny was hoping Raj would want to unburden himself as much as Howard seemed to.

After talking with Howard and Bernadette, Penny wanted to go to the comic store. She wanted to thank them for their concern after the attack and to get some little pick me up for Sheldon though she could imagine it wouldn’t feel all that lightening to him right away. On the drive she took a few calls about the upcoming season of The Coven from the publicists. They wanted to schedule some promo interviews for the show. She also got a call from the police asking if she could come for some interviews and the DA’s office wanted to schedule a time to discuss the case. Penny started to wish she could disappear like Sheldon by the time she got to the store.

The shop was quiet with only a few regulars looking through the back issues. Penny had taken to coming on these quiet off days for Sheldon’s comics. He had been keen on resuming new comic day with her but when he saw Penny encounter the number of fans that could intervene in her progress he understood her preference to come when she could make a quiet entrance and exit.

‘Hey, Stuart, how are you doing?’ Penny was happy the place was just the regulars. She didn’t really feel up to dealing with fans quite yet.

‘Penny, it’s great to see you!’ Stuart came over to greet her. Lonely Larry and Captain Sweatpants came over too to wish her well after the story came out.

‘Thanks guys, I’m glad to see you guys too after everything. Howard came by and told me you asked about me so I had to come down and thank you all.’ Penny gave each a hug and they all sat around for a bit in Stuart’s couch section.

They all wanted to know what happened but Penny said a lot of it was still part of the police investigation so she didn’t want to go into details. ‘Basically, the guy was a nut. He thought I was really Kaley Jenkins and a witch. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel you’re weird because you guys are Pasadena's finest. That guy was honest to goodness wacko.’

Stuart wondered if the show brought a lot of that stuff. ‘Do you get many folks thinking the show and cast are real?’

‘I guess it’s a little like some of your shows. We are getting some who really get into figuring out the details. Most of them just have fun with it like you guys, but there are just some who are looking for a rabbit hole to go down.’

Captain Sweatpants nodded at that. ‘I met some like that at the last San Diego Comic Con; they were two guys getting intense on some of the Cosplayers with pictures and hands. Security had to kick them out twice. They finally had to have them arrested.’

Stuart wanted to keep the conversation from going downhill in case Penny was uncomfortable dwelling on crazy fans. ‘I saw on the show’s website that they have a comic book coming out next month. Is there any chance you could come down to promote it?’

Penny shrugged and looked hopeful. ‘They have Comic Con stuff ready to go. The cast are going to some conventions soon but I’m going to have to skip that because of the nut and the court stuff over the case. We’ll all be at San Diego for the new season but if you call the marketing folks they can probably set you up with something. I can call them, too, and say I’d be willing to come down for a signing or two. Some of the other cast might as well.’

They chatted for a few minutes more and then Penny picked up a few comics Sheldon had on order. She gave the guys another thank you hug and started out on her way. She gave Stuart the contact information for Mary Livingstone so he could look into doing a store promotion. She also sent a private text to Mary throwing her enthusiasm behind the idea. She got back home to find Howard and Bernadette had left a note that they’d gone out for a walk to get some air and would be back to go out for dinner around 6 if Penny wanted to come with them. She decided to stay home after they came in from their walk and let them have some more private time.

‘We don’t mind the company, Penny, you should come.’ Howard seemed a little less nervous about the house but neither he nor Bernadette could figure why she felt so at home there, especially up in her study.

‘No, that’s alright. I have to look over some promo materials for the show and Stuart wants to do some kind of signing thing for the new comic about the series that’s coming out. That will keep me busy for a while, you guys go have fun.’

Howard went out to start up the car and Bernadette wanted to make sure Penny wasn’t just staying in for them. ‘We don’t mind you coming, Penny, it’s not really like a date. I think Howard is just happy he can talk about the arctic with someone. He and Raj don’t really think back on it, I guess. It brings up stuff they felt they couldn’t do anything about. You know, Howard texted Raj and we got a text back on the walk and he’s up for that Skype call this weekend. I think he might need to talk about this just as much as Howard.’

Penny was relieved Howard was opening up more. It would be better for both him and Bernadette. ‘I’m fine here, I have plenty to do. You guys go have a good time and don’t let him think about Sheldon dying. I’ve read enough of the journals and stuff. He wasn’t anywhere near suicidal. I am sure whatever happened was just a freak accident. He’s got nothing to blame himself for. Talking about it might just get him thinking better for himself. I’m sure Sheldon wouldn’t want him wallowing in guilt.’

Bernadette agreed with that but she was still concerned for Penny. ‘Thanks, I’ll tell him but you should think about getting out of here, too. You keep talking about Sheldon like he’s here and alive sometimes. It’s kind of weird.’

Penny laughed a bit at that and shrugged. ‘I guess I got kind of caught up in playing detective and going through Sheldon’s stuff. I’m sure I won’t be so stuck on being here and dwelling on Sheldon when the show gets started back up.’ She gave Bernadette a hug and reminded her Howard was waiting outside. ‘He may be feeling a little better but I guess he’d like to get away from the house. At least for tonight.’

Penny gave Bernadette another hug good bye and went upstairs after she left. She got out a bottle of wine from the small wine cabinet she and Bernie had bought for the upstairs and poured herself a Zinfandel and went out on the balcony.

‘Are you calling it a day, Penny?’ Sheldon had been waiting for some quiet in the house before talking to Penny. The confirmation of Penny’s theory was so very altering to his understanding of everything he was finding it hard to put into words.

‘It’s been a hell of a day for everyone, especially Howard and you. How are you doing, Moonpie?’

Sheldon sighed and looked pale. ‘Only Meemaw calls me that but right now, I’m glad to hear it from you. I wish I could hear her say it because I feel like I was seven again after surviving another day of bullies. I just can’t believe it.’

Penny led them back in and stretched out on the sofa under her Hello Kitty comforter with her wine and Sheldon sat in the wing chair. ‘How did you and Leonard meet? Were you just work friends?’

Sheldon shook his head. ‘No, actually, we were roommates for a long time. We used to live down on N. Los Robles Ave. in an apartment down there. When I saw this place for sale, I named it after the old apartment and Leonard even lived here for a while in Bernadette’s room. He didn’t really like living outside town like this so he moved back to the old building.’

‘Did you guys get along as roommates?’ Penny was curious why Leonard would have sabotaged Sheldon and if it was only because of Priya.

‘I had thought so, before now, but he wasn’t always an easy roommate.’ Sheldon looked at Penny with some hauteur when she snorted her wine in a mixed cough and chuckle after that observation. ‘Was that display indicative that I am less than accommodating, Penny?’

‘Oh, no, you’re a peach. I’m sure it was all him.’ Penny rolled her eyes and took another careful sip of her wine.

‘As you should be.’ Sheldon just didn’t catch sarcasm so he went on with his tale. ‘We did quite a bit together along with Howard and Raj. Leonard seemed happy with our roommate status but he did often chafe against our roommate agreement; mostly, when it involved his never ending quest for coitus whenever an attractive woman was in sight. He was positively an embarrassment when he met my sister, Missy.’

Sheldon walked over to his fire safe and opened it to take out a photo album. ‘I have never shared this with you, Penny, it is my family album. This is Missy, we are twins.’

Penny looked at the strikingly beautiful dark haired woman. She wondered if she was a genius like Sheldon. ‘Is she a scientist like you?’

‘Good heavens, no, one would never guess we were related by intellect, though she is far more intelligent than our older brother, George.’ Sheldon took Penny through the pictures and sounded happy to recall them until he came across a picture that had Leonard in it. It was from a time that his Meemaw had come to visit in Pasadena. One of the reasons Sheldon wanted this house was because he hoped he could take care of her if she wanted to give up tending her own house. Now, though, the picture just brought back bad memories and Sheldon removed it from the album.

‘Was that a happy picture, Sheldon? Happy before all this came out from Howard?’

Sheldon looked at the photo and thought about his Meemaw and that week she’d spent with him and Leonard. ‘It was at the time but it doesn’t make me feel happy at the moment.’

‘Yeah, I get that. I couldn’t get rid of a lot of Kurt stuff fast enough but be sure throwing things out are what you want. Wait a minute.’ Penny went in the bedroom and brought back her own album. Sheldon was surprised to see a number of pictures of Kurt in Nebraska and when they first moved to California. ‘I don’t look at these much, it does still hurt, but we did have good days, too. Don’t let what Leonard did ruin all those good memories, even the ones he was part of. He threw them away but that doesn’t mean you have to, too. I guess it’s like those models I broke, don’t let the breaking make you love the memories less.’

Sheldon considered Penny’s advice. ‘Yes, but you weren’t trying to hurt me that night, you were trying to protect yourself from an unknown intruder so far as you knew. And, you weren’t a friend lashing out just because I was in the way of your pursuit of a paramour.’

‘That’s true but I kept some of those Kurt pictures because we weren’t always bad. Funny thing, this is the first time I’ve looked at those pictures since I moved in here. Life moves on, Sheldon, and there is always something new. Don’t let the good parts of the past with Leonard be ruined by the bad later. That just closes off your heart when someone new comes along.’ Penny put the albums in Sheldon’s fire safe and got back on the couch.

‘I’m dead, Penny, so there really isn’t anything new coming into my life.’ Sheldon looked forlorn at Penny only then realizing how much he wished he was alive again so he could deal with Leonard.

‘Come on, Sheldor!’ Penny sat up on the couch. She wasn’t going to let Sheldon mope any more than Bernie was going to let Howard brood over Leonard. ‘Look what we’ve done together. I am getting my degrees in school thanks to you, you were practically an acting couch for my part on the show, and now we are getting to real answers to what went wrong in the arctic. We are not going to let death put a stop to Sheldor and QueenP, are you?’

Sheldon smiled a little lighter at Penny’s enthusiasm. He wished he had known her when he was alive. Meemaw would have loved meeting her. ‘You are an incorrigible influence, Penny, but yes, we won’t let death stop us.’

+++

Penny and Sheldon spent much of the week discussing the arctic and Leonard in light of the revelations from Howard. Penny was stunned at the scale of effect on Sheldon’s life that was made by the false data. That it was created by sabotage she could understand why Bernadette felt almost betrayed by the event herself. Being a scientist, too, Bernie was especially sensitive to the integrity of the work. She felt very upset for Howard since that betrayal had sent his whole career into a tailspin and landed him in a job he had no gift for trying to make ends meet. On a better note for Penny and especially Bernadette, opening up about everything did make Howard a lot less jumpy and more comfortable coming to the house. He threw himself into planning the pavilion for the wedding and the collectors room in the basement with glee. It wasn’t building spacecraft but it was designing and building stuff which is what he loved most.

When the weekend came around for the skype call with Raj, they set up the call in the library at 8am because of the time difference, 8pm in India. Howard asked to talk to Raj first before he introduced Penny and Bernadette. He explained about Raj’s anxieties and he wanted to make sure this call wouldn’t get fouled up in mistranslation, so to speak.

‘Hey Raj, good to see you again! What is happening with you?’ Howard hadn’t talked to Raj in a couple of weeks so he did want to get in a little catch up chat before jumping into a return to the arctic.

‘Dude, it is so good you called, today. I just got engaged to an old neighborhood friend, Lalita Gupta.’ Raj gave Howard a quick rundown on his sometime nemesis from his childhood who had since become a dentist and much less combative with Rajesh.

‘Congratulations, man, I got engaged not too long ago, myself, and her name is Bernadette Rostenkowski. Actually, I’m calling from her place. She and a friend are living in, you won’t believe this-‘

Howard was cut off by Raj’s shocked exclamation. He'd recognized the room Howard was speaking from. ‘Howard, is your fiancé living in Sheldon’s old house?’

Howard nodded in equal amazement. ‘Yeah, it shocked me when she and her friend Penny wanted to rent the place. Remember all the stories about it being haunted? I even saw some scary stuff. Bernadette said her friend Penny had done some kind of New Age magic on the place and all the weird creepy stuff just stopped happening. At least, it stopped happening in the house at any rate.’

‘That’s some magic after all the stories you told me. Is Penny some kind of witch or something?’

Howard had to laugh at the irony of the question. ‘No, but she plays one on TV. She’s Penny Queen from ‘The Coven’.’

‘What? Oh, man, Lalita is going to be so mad she isn’t here for this call. That’s one of her favorite shows. We have to schedule another call when she’s here, man, she’d love to say hi to Kaley.’

Howard looked over at Penny and she smiled and whispered it would be fine so Howard told Raj to set up a time when they could all sit down for a chat. ‘I guess you don’t have as many anxieties talking to pretty girls anymore, then?’

‘Well, it’s easier to talk than before because Lalita makes me feel so much better about everything that I don’t feel so tongue tied anymore.’

Howard was happy Raj sounded like he was doing well after everything that happened from the arctic fallout. ‘Speaking of talking to girls then how would you like to say hello to Bernadette and Penny? They really wanted to talk to you, especially Penny. Like we talked about earlier, she’s taken a real interest in what happened to Sheldon and she wanted to talk to you a bit about what happened and about Priya.’

Raj looked pretty conflicted for a second between wanting to meet both Howard’s fiancé and the famous TV star and his insecurities over the arctic and with the separation from Priya. Penny wanted to take this slow so she whispered to Bernadette to take the first round and talk to Raj about the engagement and all. She thought it would be better to chat about some more upbeat stuff before jumping into heavier issues.

Bernadette and Howard had a happy chat with Raj over their dating and engagement tales and Bernadette was eager to get to know Raj’s fiancé by the end of their chat. After a little more light hearted conversation, Bernadette moved the talk into the arctic issue. She was eager to help Howard get this stuff behind him and she wanted to get the unfair smearing of Sheldon’s work cleaned up because she felt professionally insulted by the sabotage as well as personally invested by the effect it all had on Howard. She called Penny over and Raj almost had a return to his anxiety laden silence from coming face to face with the actress he’d seen on TV so many times thanks to his fiancé.

Penny took it slow by starting off with finding out about Lalita. Raj brought over a picture of Lalita for Penny and all to see. Sheldon took that moment to make his presence known. ‘Oh, dear Lord, Raj is marrying Princess Panchali!’

‘Princess Panchali?’ Penny looked a bit abashed at blurting that out from surprise at Sheldon’s sudden appearance.

‘She’s a character from an Indian Folktale that I loved as a child, my mother used to read it to me when I was sick.’ Penny nodded at Sheldon’s explanation and excused her exclamation to Raj by telling him about the folk tale.

‘Really, I will have to look the story up after this. Lalita will love that Penny Queen compared her to an Indian Princess.’ Raj hadn’t heard the folk tale but he had always been more interested in science fiction as a child than romantic folk tales.

‘Speaking of tales, you know Howard told us about Leonard and his sabotage. I’m sorry all that had to involve your sister, too. I don’t expect talking to Leonard to do any good, especially after all this time, but have you ever talked to Priya about it?’ Penny was wondering if Raj had ever told Priya about the arctic in any way.

‘No, I haven’t. I have hardly spoken to her since I came back to India. I don’t know why but she has been drifting away from us all over the years since she married Leonard.’ Raj’s sadness from missing his sister was very clear in his voice.

‘Haven’t you wanted to try?’

‘Sure, but she’s a lawyer, and she hates any feeling someone is pushing her in a direction she doesn’t want to go. She would need proof and that would mean more than just my say so or Howard’s. She would want real evidence but so would I in her shoes.’ Raj sounded defeated over that fact like he’d mulled it daily for years.

Penny could understand that reason. If someone had come out of the blue and told her Kurt had been cheating on her before she had gotten any proof she would never have taken it seriously. She guessed Priya might be even harder to convince without the solid evidence a lawyer’s mind is used to demanding. ‘Do you think she’s been drifting away because she felt some kind of pressure from your family, maybe about her marriage? Howard has told us you really didn’t want to see her get involved with Leonard.’

Raj wrung his hands a bit and looked like he was trying to figure something too knotty to explain in words. ‘Yeah, I was against it because I didn’t think Leonard could be faithful to her. She just put that down to typical jealous brother nonsense. It didn’t help that my parents didn’t like her dating someone who was not Indian. That was exactly the kind of pressure she would always balk against. I am sure she doesn’t want to hear any lectures on that score but I don’t think our parents care about that anymore after all this time. They just want to hear from her and so would I. Sheldon died over the arctic failure but in some ways it feels like Priya did, too.’

Penny and Raj talked for a while longer about Priya and she suggested his sister would probably really want to hear about his marriage.

‘I guess she would, she used to help Lalita beat me up. She would have found our engagement all so very funny. I’d love to hear her laugh about it.’

‘You should try to get in touch with her and tell her then, better yet, make part of a honeymoon trip here and meet her. Is she still friends with Lalita? Penny hoped the two women had kept in touch.

‘I don’t think they talked much after Priya moved to the UK to study law but I think they would enjoy hearing from each other. It might feel less like family pressure to Priya if it were Lalita reaching out?’ The conversation was cut short by Lalita arriving and seeing the face on screen in a skype chat.

‘Rajesh Koothrappali! How could you have a conversation with my favorite actress and not tell me?’ Lalita came into frame and looked aghast. ‘Oh, ah, I’m so sorry Ms Queen, god, I love your show, what is Raj doing talking to you?’

Penny grinned at the familiar fan struck reaction and gave a short explanation of what was going on. Lalita was shocked by the whole story but she was quite ready to help out her fiancé and her old friend bridge the past. When Raj suggested taking some of their honeymoon time to go to the US and help out meeting Priya she agreed quickly. The chance to help out family was very important to her and so was the chance to meet a favorite actress in person. Sheldon was delighted the image of a fairy tale princess was going to be staying in his home in the coming months when plans were more settled.

Chapter Text

The work on the pavilion and the collector’s room got started in earnest. Since the pavilion was temporary, its work went very quickly. The basement work went quite a bit longer because Bernadette wanted to fix up a proper laundry room and a downstairs workshop and office for Howard and all his tools and equipment.

Sheldon took a particular interest in following the work downstairs and he was impressed by how well Penny could handle the wiring and woodwork. Howard was even more impressed that Penny hardly ever checked the blue prints he made. When he asked her about a particularly complex section he was stunned that she could rattle off the many measurements and pieces involved after having glanced at the design in the morning for little more than a minute. Penny just rolled her eyes at that and let Howard get back to work on the pavilion outside where Bernadette had a few suggestions.

Sheldon was equally curious about that capacity ever since Penny had moved in. ‘Penny, have you ever paid much attention to plans when you build something?’

‘Sure, I pay attention to the plans; I read those, didn’t I?’ Penny went on with the wiring work while talking to Sheldon.

‘I would say you casually glanced at them rather than read them. Have you ever looked at a set of plans more than once or twice?’

‘What for, Sheldon, plans like that show you what to do pretty easy if they’re made well.’

Penny finished off the work she was doing and started putting the electrical tools away in the box with surprising neatness in Sheldon’s opinion considering her usual offhand way with things. ‘Was that tractor you built as a child done as easily as this job?’

‘I guess so, I never thought about it. What’s so special about it? It’s not like it’s hard to follow a manual or do you think a girl can’t handle something like that?’

Sheldon shook his head in quick denial. ‘Oh, no, actually, I find most people rather daunted by a set of blueprints or manuals for assembly but not you. I have noticed that you tend to downplay your intelligence, Penny, yet when you are focused on an interest or a task you desire to complete well, you show an extraordinary capacity for memory and ability to apply that knowledge.’

‘It never seemed so special but it used to make my mom crazy I spent so much time on stuff like this as a kid. She thought it was stuff for guys. I guess a lot of the guys I knew felt the same. Even Kurt used to get bugged when I tried to help him with stuff like this.’ Penny shrugged feeling a little resigned with that.

Sheldon felt concerned that Penny had learned to hide her intelligence under a dumb blonde blanket. ‘Penny, you really should not let such feelings from guys make you suppress your natural abilities. You are capable of far more than just putting a play room together. You have a natural gift for mathematics and engineering that you have neglected because you have sought to let others feel superior to you due to a social convention that girls shouldn’t excel at those things.’

Penny thought about what Sheldon had said and she had to admit there was a lot of truth to what he said. She had even taken advantage of being the pretty airhead more than a few times to get guys to do things for her that she could have done faster and better herself. ‘You think I should stop playing the ditz so often?’

Sheldon smiled and looked at the nearly finished collector’s room. ‘Look around, Howard guessed it would take two to three days to finish the electrical work that you managed in half a day. You finished your theater degree and are close to completing your physics degree both within three years combining your community college time and your UCLA time while being employed full time as a successful award winning actress. It’s quite natural to not notice your own abilities as being other than natural but from an outside perspective your mind is brilliant, Penny, compared to most anyone. I think it is a shame life made you feel you ever had to play the ditz at all much less to please others.’

Penny put the tool case back in the tool cabinet and brushed her hands along its cover remembering the first time she ever got to use one. She’d been five and her father was working on the family car. He taught her all the tool names while he worked so she could hand them to him. She had loved the tools and working with her father. She got her dress so filthy her mother complained for days about having to throw it out. Penny hadn’t cared until the next time when her dad told her not to help because she shouldn’t get her new dress covered in grease and oil again. She’d hated that dress after that. She couldn’t help tearing up over what Sheldon said.

Sheldon felt confused when he heard Penny sniffing and wiping her eyes. ‘I am sorry, Penny, have I upset you?’

‘No, sweetie, not at all, that was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, Sheldon. Thank you.’

Sheldon watched Penny go up the cellar steps just as mystified by human emotions now as he was when he was alive but he was glad he had made Penny feel happy even if the crying confused him.

+++

At the end of the month, Howard and Bernadette had their wedding. Penny was Maid of Honor for the ceremony and she had a wonderful time for the most part. There were the usual drunken relatives that stayed too long and drank too much but Sheldon made a superb invisible bouncer. Her biggest enjoyment was helping Elizabeth Mailloux, the intern from the studio, do the filming of the wedding and the reception afterwards. She was a film student working over the summer on film jobs as part of her course work on directing and production. Penny scandalized Bernadette when she changed out of her bridesmaid dress into black jeans and Sheldon’s old Green Lantern t-shirt to help Elizabeth after the opening dance sets at the reception. She was surprised when Howard stepped in to play peacemaker.

‘It’s OK, Bernie, Penny is having a good time, let her be.’

Bernadette rolled her eyes and looked at the bride’s maids. ‘How do you think it looks when my Maid of Honor is dressed like a roadie from a rock concert?’

‘Well, most folks are acting surprised she isn’t some kind of Hollywood diva upstaging everything. Come on, if she was dressed up, everyone would be paying more attention to ‘Penny Queen, TV Star’ than the real star of this wedding, you.’

Bernadette punched Howard. ‘Stop acting so sweet, smart, and romantic, Romeo, but I guess you are right. I just thought, you know, weddings, maybe she’d find someone?’

Howard watched Penny and Elizabeth going over one of the fancier cameras for night photography. ‘After watching the way she handled building the basement, I think she already has. Look at her with Elizabeth; she’s had more fun learning about that equipment than she’s had all day. She’s into anything new, anything that’s unknown. It’s like she doesn’t know the words back down when there’s something unexpected or new.’

‘How do you mean?’ Bernadette really didn’t understand Penny sometimes. It wasn’t just the New Age stuff, it was the sports, and the acting, and the physics, and the building. Every time she thought she understood Penny something unexpected blossomed, especially since they’d moved here to the cottage.

‘Starting with moving here? No one wanted to come near this place, she took over and nothing bizarre has happened since. I would be terrified after that attack she went through but she hardly missed a day to go out jogging after that. She has gone into the arctic stuff and she’s got Raj and me believing we might be able to do something to fix that mess. She loves a challenge more than anything else. I’ve seen some of her home movies of her rodeo riding and trick riding, have you ever watched that stuff? You’d have to be crazy to try some of the stunts she did in those competitions.’

‘I guess, it’s just I’d like to see her find someone and be happy.’ Bernadette wondered if Penny was really just hung up on Kurt after all these years in spite of the infidelity.

‘I’d say she looks pretty happy.’

Sheldon watched Howard and Bernadette go back to the dance floor for another set with some relatives that had flown in for the wedding. He agreed with Howard’s assessment of Penny. It had shocked him that first night when his aura had done nothing to deter Penny when everyone else ran with barely the slightest ghostly flicker. She could be so very fearless but he did feel for Bernadette’s point. He understood Penny’s growing devotion to her work and various side projects. He had been similarly devoted to his own interests in life but he also knew Penny’s natural affectionate nature. She hadn’t been on a date since Zane had been here over a year ago. He would never have considered that a problem before he’d gotten to know Penny. He had never thought of dating when he was alive but he’d learned the value of social contact from his actress mentor in emotional interaction. He hoped she really was happy.

Penny took over hosting duties after Howard and Bernadette left for the airport and the South Pacific. They were spending a week in the Maldives and they promised to come back in spite of work. The activities wound down rather quicker than most weddings when Sheldon started making his presence felt among the lingering guests. Penny let him have his way so long as he didn’t go overboard. She was ready to call it a night herself. She let the caterers have their pick of the bar and food and split a bottle of champagne with Elizabeth while they went back over the footage taken during the day. It was close to 2am when the last of the people left and Penny could get to bed. She got out of her bra, sneakers, and pants and dove onto the bed and fell asleep as soon as she hit the pillow.

+++

Penny stared at the large statue in the middle of the vast granite and marble square. He was riding a horse and holding a flag over his head. Opposite was another statue of an antique soldier on a horse facing this one. At the far side of the square beyond the statues was a large palace that had numerous people arriving in horse drawn carriages. The entire square was lit by torches and gas lamps. The women exiting the carriages were dressed in sumptuous gowns and jewels while the men were dressed in tuxedos or quaint military uniforms. Penny thought the plaza looked familiar but she couldn’t place it anywhere she had ever been to. She looked closer at the plaque at on the statue’s pedestal. It described the military garbed horse rider as Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen. ‘Who the heck are you?’

‘He is the third son of Emperor Leopold II, Penny, and one of Austria’s most famous and successful field marshals. The other rider is Prince Eugene of Savoy.’ Sheldon stood next to Penny dressed in a nineteenth century style tuxedo and Penny finally noticed she was dressed in a red satin gown with golden filigree lace at the shoulders and neck. She was wearing a diamond bracelet and black pearl necklace. Sheldon held up a hand mirror where she saw her hair done up in a French chignon with an elegant emerald and pearl studded tiara gracing her forehead.

‘Sheldon, where are we and how are we here?’ Penny was feeling astonished by the clothes so she almost fainted when Sheldon took her hand and guided them toward the palace everyone was entering.

‘This is the Hofburg in Vienna. I came here for a celebration when I was living in Europe and teaching in Germany. I took some license with the period since I have always loved the ambience of fin de Siecle Vienna.’

‘Can we travel anywhere like this?’ Penny had believed Sheldon was confined to the house.

‘We haven’t traveled anywhere, really.’ Sheldon took Penny’s hand and they walked towards the palace steps.

‘Sheldon how can you be holding my hand? I can feel it; I mean really feel your hand.’

‘You are at home sleeping, Penny, and we are in a dream. A ghost can feel very real in the mind, that’s how I can seem so scary to people. They are not just seeing something they are feeling it in their deepest mind.’

Penny had often wondered why Sheldon’s light show was so scary to people. ‘So, how come your ghost thing never scared me?’

Sheldon had contemplated that from the first night he’d tried frightening Penny after she’d destroyed the Galactica and Enterprise. ‘I do not know, perhaps you are just too fearless?’

Penny laughed at that idea. ‘Hardly, I get scared by plenty of things, Sheldon, maybe you didn’t really want to scare me?’

Sheldon considered that with the torchlight making Penny’s hair shimmer in their light. ‘Perhaps, you are right; I do very much enjoy your presence.’ Sheldon walked them towards the people alighting from the carriages. ‘You did not get to dance very much at Bernadette’s wedding reception so I thought you might enjoy being invited to waltz. Where better to do that than Austria?’

‘You can waltz? I never expected a whack-a-doodle physicist would know how to ballroom dance.’ Penny was amazed to think of Sheldon on the dance floor.

‘Penny, you are not far from wrong to think I do not care for dancing. However, I am from Texas. In the South, pre-adolescent children are forced through a process called cotillion, which indoctrinates them with all the social graces and dance skills needed to function in 18th century Vienna. While, ordinarily, I would not care for such events, I would very much enjoy seeing you happy, tonight, so let us waltz.’ Sheldon offered his arm to Penny and they walked up the stairs to the Hofburg entrance. A grand looking guard inspected the invitation Sheldon handed him and he directed the couple to the introduction line. They were announced to the hall as Dr. Sheldon Lee Cooper of Galveston, Texas and Ms. Penelope Queen of Omaha, Nebraska.

Penny stood amazed under the crystal chandeliers that hung above the dance floor. The ceiling must have been fifty feet above them and the ceiling paintings were so glorious Penny felt she could look at them for days. There was a warm golden hue from the candle light that danced among the crystals of the chandeliers that made the gold work around the hall seem alive. Sheldon bowed and offered his hand to the opening sounds of the Vienna Blood Waltz. The evening whirled in a melody of crystal and candle and music that swam through Penny’s heart and soul. ‘Are you happy, Penny?’

‘Happy, I’m ecstatic, Sheldon, how couldn’t I be happy here?’

‘But, are you happy in Pasadena, Penny?’

Penny thought about Sheldon’s question while the dancers twirled about the floor to the tempo of the music. ‘Happiness has been a lot like Zeno’s Paradox for me, the half way point is always ahead of you and you can never get to the end. I kept expecting being things for guys to make me happy and it never did. You just let me be me, and that has made me happier than I can ever remember.’

Sheldon smiled and held Penny close and they whirled along to the waltz beneath the vaulted ceiling of the ancient Hofburg.

+++

In the morning, Penny woke up and began humming the Blood Waltz and stretched out on the bed. She had the house to herself so didn’t bother to dress but put on a pair of thick stockings and went online to search up the waltz from last night. She danced around the house like a fool to the stirring music. She got to the closing crescendo and landed in a wide split that had Sheldon appear in a state of shock.

‘Penny, are you alright?’

‘Sure, why wouldn’t I be, Sheldon?’ Penny wondered why Sheldon sounded so upset.

‘How are your legs doing that without injury?’ Sheldon had only seen circus performers doing maneuvers like Penny was doing.

‘This is nothing much, I used to be more flexible when I was back in Nebraska trick riding. I should take some yoga classes or something, though, maybe you could join me?’

Sheldon just shook his head. ‘Even dead, I could never bend like that, Gumby.’

Penny started to retort when the phone rang. She got up and answered the call. It was Mary Livinstone calling about setting up Stuart’s store for a comic signing. She had set up this coming Wednesday for the comic signing and she wanted to find out if Penny could be there along with her co-star Jason. He played the Coven’s main antagonist, the vampire Cristoph, and Mary and Stuart both felt having Kaley along with the popular villain would be a big draw to the store and raise interest in the comic book serialization of the show. Soon after she hung up there was a call from the DA’s office that her attacker, Jonas Twill was going to be arraigned on Monday and she needed to be present for the reading of the charges. Penny had a very mixed set of feelings after those two phone calls.

‘Would it help if I came with you to the court, Penny?’ Sheldon made a point of asking to accompany Penny when she traveled outside. Mostly, he went to work with her when she wanted to keep rehearsing some difficult scene and of course for Comic Book day.

‘Yeah, that would be a big help. I knew this day was coming but I could use the support.’ Penny was happy she didn’t have to see the guy without some kind of family with her. ‘How do you feel about Wednesday comics? That’s going to be longer because of the signing and all and it might be crowded given the advertising Stuart’s been doing for it?’

‘I am loath to miss shopping for my comics but the crowd is apt to be off putting. I should like to avoid the crowd. Perhaps, we can go for comics on some day following, possibly Friday?’ Sheldon assumed Penny would be comfortable at a fan event.

‘That’s no problem, and the studio provides security for the day so Jason and I will be fine. Friday would be a good day to go together. I’d like to find out how Stuart felt about the day after it’s all over.’

Penny and Sheldon spent the remainder of the weekend on some physics homework Penny was doing for an intercession class and played several rounds of Halo. During the game, Sheldon mentioned he had learned to use a bow from his father which prompted Penny to want to buy a hunting bow to Sheldon’s surprise. Penny had loved bow hunting back in Nebraska and she wanted to get back into practice, even if it was just target practice. They spent Sunday afternoon visiting various sporting goods supply stores until Penny found a bow she liked. The shop she bought hers from also had a practice range and club that Penny was happy to join. Sheldon couldn’t wait to see Bernadette’s reaction to this latest development.

+++

The arraignment on Monday went very quickly, quickly downhill. Penny met the DA and went over what would happen when they got into the courtroom. He didn’t expect Penny to be speaking since this was just supposed to be the reading of the charges and taking formal note of the accused’s plea. There had been considerable discussion over Jonas’s mental state because he had an insistence that Penny was really Kaley Jenkins and that she was an actual witch. The DA was prepared to see Jonas committed to long term psychiatric holding.

The DA and Penny got to their seats in the courtroom where they soon rose for the judge on Jonas’s trial. Jonas entered the courtroom seeming calm until saw Penny and began screaming that she was an evil witch that was here to steal and eat everyone’s souls. He leaped at Penny abruptly surprising the courthouse guards but he fell back when he saw the blue fire igniting in her eyes.

‘See? She’s a witch! Can’t you see her eyes? She’s going to steal all our souls and send us all to hell!’

‘Thank you, Sheldon.’ Penny whispered in relief that he had come with her.

‘You’re welcome. I trust we have seen the last of him.’ Sheldon shuddered at how close Jonas had come to Penny in spite of the court officers present. He watched the officers trying to contain the thrashing fanatic and was shocked at seeing it take four large men to hold him down.

‘Me, too, sweetie, me too.’ Penny waited to see if there was any more to do but she wished to get as far away from Jonas and this room as possible at the moment.

The guards finally corralled Jonas and dragged him out of the courtroom. The lawyers and the judge came to the conclusion that Jonas was unfit to stand trial and he was quickly committed to long term psychiatric care and incarceration. That was one relief for Penny but the tabloid press had quite a field day with The Witch and the Madman. Penny rolled her eyes at the questions thrown at her outside the courtroom and handed everything off to the lawyers. She was grateful Sheldon was with her to subtly put a scare into the reporters who couldn’t explain to their angry editors why they had let such a prime story simply walk through them and away without a picture or interview. That, too, along with Jonas’s outburst in court fueled more than a few rumors about Penny and her character among the fans on the Internet.

+++

Wednesday went considerably better. Penny drove down to the comic store a bit early and met Stuart. He was busy with setting up the area for signing and Jason came in soon after Penny did. Stuart had set up his back office for the actors to wait in while the event started under way. Penny found Stuart’s copy of Age of Conan and introduced her co-star to the game. They were having a very enjoyable time and were eager to keep their enthusiasm going when they went out to meet the fans. Everyone was having a good time and there were several very impressive cosplayers in the mix. Penny suggested an impromptu acting event for the cosplayers to perform some well-known scenes from the show which she and Jason would judge. The showdown between witch and vampire in the season finale was deemed the best performed by a couple from Brazil who were fans of the show on vacation in California for their anniversary.

The games, events, and signings made a long and exhausting day for Penny and Jason and while an actor has to take the schmooze that goes with the job it’s always a relief to take the happy face off at the end of the day. They both collapsed in Stuart’s office with some beers he’d gotten for them and toasted a successful day. They relaxed over their beers while the store slowly emptied out except for the few regulars who were used to seeing Penny around so one more actor from the show wasn’t overwhelming. Jason was delighted when his husband finally showed up to drive them home. Stuart had no idea Jason was married much less gay which had Penny laughing and slightly embarrassed for her co-star’s sake.

‘Stuart, don’t ever look at the part as some idea of who the actor is.’

‘You’re right, Penny, I’m sorry, Jason, I see you and I think of Cristoph and he’s just so cool.’

‘See that, Paul, I’m not cool anymore, what’s it all for?’

He sounded sincere and sad to Stuart which threw him off. Stuart went into an anxiety fit thinking he was ruining the day but Penny just laughed and smacked Jason along with Paul. ‘Don’t be a dope, Jason, or I won’t drive you home.’

Penny agreed with Paul and nudged Stuart in the ribs with her elbow. ‘Jason loves winding people up, pay attention to him and he’ll have you thinking Cristoph is Mother Teresa by the end.’

The four were laughing and chatting freely about the day soon after Stuart started feeling more relaxed around having two stars in his store. Jason and Paul left after a while and Penny picked up Sheldon’s comics. She started out when a familiar short guy with glasses walked into the store. He almost fell over his own feet looking at Penny.

‘Hi’ Leonard had come to pick up his comics but he never expected to see a woman so beautiful right before his eyes.

‘Hi’ Penny recognized the short glasses wearing man and she was glad Sheldon hadn’t come. She thought he wouldn't have held back from doing something extreme. She was having trouble working to refrain from extreme action.

‘Hi’ Leonard held out his hand to greet the dreamy girl in front of him but Captain Sweatpants came up to interrupt. Penny was happy he did.

‘I can help you to your car; I think the security has left so I don’t mind walking with you.’

‘Thanks, Toby, I’m sorry, what’s your name?’ Penny wanted to keep the initiative before she left.

‘Leonard, hi.’ Leonard seemed to be having trouble with handling more than single syllables.

‘Hi, well, the event is over so, I’m sorry but I have to go. Do you come to Stuart’s shop often, Leonard?’ Penny hoped this wasn’t a one-time thing.

‘Sure, all the time, do you come here much? What’s your name, by the way?’ Leonard looked confused when Stuart and Captain Sweatpants started laughing until they pointed at a large stand up poster. Leonard turned white and choked when he realized he was speaking to the Penny Queen of The Coven. ‘You’re her?’

Penny grinned and looked at her hands. ‘The last time I checked, yeah.’

‘Hi’ Leonard slipped back into monosyllables.

‘Hi’ Penny was finding Leonard’s inability to talk a bit odd even by excited fan standards.

‘Hi, uh… maybe we could get coffee sometime?’ Leonard started finding his voice again.

‘That’s so sweet but we don’t even know each other and I need to go. Good night, Stuart thanks for letting Jason and me use your office. Nice meeting you, Leonard’ Penny saw the recognition of her co-star dawn in Leonard’s eyes with his glance at the matching poster across from hers. She left Leonard to ponder what he missed today. She got out her phone once she was out the door and sent a text to Stuart asking him to keep any information about her to a minimum saying it was because she didn’t know who Leonard was. Stuart texted back that he understood thinking Penny was worried about crazy stalker fans.

‘Is everything OK, Penny?’ Toby was curious about Penny’s sudden burst of texting.

‘I was just texting Stuart to keep it quiet about my coming to the store like I do. That Leonard guy was a little creepy.’

Toby nodded and guessed Penny had to be kind of stand offish meeting people out of the blue like that. ‘Yeah, Leonard used to come around more but since he got married he hardly comes around more than once a month or so. He gets kind of flustered when he meets any pretty girl. It’s too bad, too, his wife is really sweet and everything, but Leonard has a wandering eye.’

Penny and Toby chatted a bit about Leonard and Toby offered to tell the other guys to be cool about her to Leonard if he started asking questions about her. Toby didn’t think Leonard would be a nut like Jonas but he didn’t care for guys who couldn’t be straight with girlfriends or wives. Penny thanked him for walking her to her car and everything and went home happy Sheldon didn’t have to run into Leonard like she had. She wasn’t sure if she would have bothered stopping Sheldon from doing something more than bad to his former roommate.

Penny drove back to the house thinking about Leonard still coming around the comic book shop. Toby had said he really didn’t come there often which Penny could well believe. She’d never seen him in the couple of years she’d been there with or for Sheldon but he’d been quick to claim he was there all the time. He also got out the innocuous coffee invitation which set another alarm bell off because she knew he was still married. Now, she had Toby noting Leonard’s wandering eye along with the same observation from other folks that had known him considerably longer. She wondered if Priya had learned of it. In spite of movies and books saying wives always know, a lot of spouses don’t for any number of reasons.

Penny had never caught on to Kurt because she was so busy becoming an actress and Kurt had always been very supportive. It was only at the end that she realized he was using that support to cover his philandering. Penny wondered if Priya might be the same, too busy as a lawyer to notice what was happening. On the other hand, she might know and be too embarrassed to say anything to her family. Penny didn’t think there was any kind of open relationship since the guys had told her about Leonard’s jealous streak. That was what set off the whole arctic fiasco to begin with. Leonard couldn’t handle Priya might find someone else while they were doing Sheldon’s experiments. ‘Proof, she’s going to need proof.’ Penny thought about how to reach past Priya’s lawyer disposition to Raj’s sister inside.

She got home and took a shower after the long afternoon of playing for a live crowd. It was still early, only seven-thirty, so she got out a new Cosmo and opened it to the crossword puzzle.

‘Oh, Lord, what purpose does it serve to retain so much banal pop culture trivia, Penny?’ Sheldon found Cosmo one of the most perplexing of Penny’s interests.

‘It’s relaxing, Sheldon, there’s nothing to think about which is nice after a day of thinking. I could ask why you like Klingon Boggle so much.’

‘Klingon Boggle, while based somewhat in pop culture, has the challenge of needing to speak a language. What use is there to knowing actors and their favorite drinks for summer?’

‘You never know when you might run into one and embarrass yourself in front of your friends, just ask Leonard.’

Sheldon looked at Penny in shock. ‘You met Leonard Hofstadter, today?’

‘Um hmm.’ Penny went on with the crossword while she told Sheldon about the day at the comic shop. ‘Leonard came in after the event was over. I don’t think he even knew who I was until he read the posters, besides he was too busy being tongue tied to say much.’

‘Yes, that is his typical reaction to meeting any attractive woman. When he met Priya, he started jabbering about curry being a laxative and beneficial to a clean colon.’ Sheldon laughed along with Penny at that memory.

‘Did you confront him at all?’

‘No, sweetie, it was a surprise to me, too. I was leaving and I just ran into him at the door to the comic shop. He tried inviting me to coffee in one of the lamest pickup lines I have ever heard.’

Sheldon growled in frustration. ‘I wish I had gone with you instead of humoring my distaste for crowds.’

Penny sighed and felt different. ‘No, you’d have done something and I wouldn’t be able to blame you but we aren’t going to be able to scare the proof out of Leonard. He has nothing to gain from cooperating. No, our best bet is to talk to Priya. Raj and Lalita will be here in a few more weeks. We don’t want to spook the game, Sheldon.’

Chapter Text

Penny spent the next couple of days going over some promotional materials for the upcoming season of The Coven. The study desk was covered in notes on the new season and questions to and from the writers about character arcs. The showrunners also wanted to do some early cast photos for the summer comic con conventions.

The show let Penny cut back her showings because they had supposed she might be needed to testify in the case of Jonas Twill. Even though that had settled faster than anyone expected, they still didn’t want her to push herself if she was uncomfortable with large scale appearances so soon after the trial. Penny called back to Mary that she was still keen on the San Diego Comic Con but she’d like to stick with some smaller events closer to home this summer. They talked about the event Penny did with Jason at Stuart’s shop. It turned out fairly popular and some of the local comic chains had contacted Mary about setting up something similar for them. Several of the cast who wanted to stay around the area expressed interest in being available and Penny threw her availability in to do some more local appearances.

After talking to Mary, Penny wanted to find out how Stuart and the store were doing. He answered the phone and asked her to hold on. The store sounded busy from the commotion over the line.

‘Hello, The Comic Center of Pasadena, how can I help you?’

Penny was glad to hear Stuart sounded happy at any rate. ‘Hi Stuart, it’s Penny, you sound busy for a Friday.’

‘Hey, Penny, yeah, we are, and a lot of them are asking about your show’s comic, too. We even sold out of all the signed stuff already.’ Stuart asked Penny to hold while he took another customer. He got Denise to take over the register and popped back into his office to take Penny’s call. ‘Hey, Penny, it’s been a good couple of days. We are even putting in another order of books for new customers.’

‘That’s great. Let me know if you’d like Jason and me to sign a few more books or photos.’ Penny was glad the event had worked out for Stuart. She knew the shop was often running on a thin margin like a lot of book sellers.

‘Thanks Penny, hey, I saw on the news that Jonas guy got sent to the psychiatric ward. I guess that’s the end of the case, how are you doing?’ You guys didn’t even mention it but the news made it sound like he tried attacking you again in the courthouse.’

Penny was grateful for the segue. ‘It’s OK; the news makes it sound worse than it really was. He really didn’t get near me because the courthouse guards tackled him like a bunch of linebackers. I worry about the ones that are out there on the loose and not in custody. That reminds me, you remember that strange guy at the end of the night, Leonard I think, has he been around? I was thinking of stopping by the store next week.’

‘Yeah, he stopped in today, he even bought one of the signed comic and picture sets of you. It’s funny because your show really isn’t the kind of thing he usually buys. He’s a straight cape comic kind of guy, usually.’ Stuart hoped Penny wasn’t feeling worried about Leonard after meeting him.

‘Oh, great,’ Penny made that sound unhappy. ‘That’s why I sent you that text after Toby walked me to my car.’

Stuart guessed Penny was jumpy after the stress of the trial and now Leonard following on the heels of it. ‘No one’s said anything about your coming around to the store but not everyone’s a regular here.’

‘It’s cool, Stuart, I just don’t want it advertised that I like to come in there on a regular schedule or anything. Just keep an eye on him.’

Stuart hoped Penny wasn’t feeling scared of Leonard so he tried reassuring her. ‘We will, but try not to worry. He hasn’t come around much for a long time but he really is harmless. He does have an eye for pretty girls so I’m sure he’s just trying to say hi and get a selfie at most.’

Penny kept a note of caution in her voice about Leonard. ‘Thanks, Stuart, it’s nice to know. I just don’t need another stalker, not even the harmless ‘I just want your picture’ kind.’

‘Sure, Penny, we’ll keep an eye out.’

‘Thanks, Stuart, honey, bye.’ Penny hung up and thought about Leonard buying comics he normally wouldn’t buy. It could be just picking up a picture of an actor unexpectedly met, it could be his eye for pretty girls since everyone kept mentioning it, or he could be out to cheat on his wife starting with inviting a total stranger to coffee out of the blue. She wondered if that could work for them. Coffee was harmless but she bet Leonard had no idea how fast and easy the tabloids caught on to a celebrity on a date, especially when it was one who was known to be a grieving widow.

Sheldon appeared on the couch near Penny while she pondered things in the wing chair. He looked concerned for her after her talk with Stuart. ‘I hope you are not feeling afraid about Leonard? As bad as he proved to be at being a friend and fellow scientist, he is by no means a violent type like Jonas Twill.’

Penny smiled at Sheldon. ‘What, sweetie? Oh, Leonard, no I didn’t think he was. Thanks for worrying, but I just wanted Stuart to keep his eyes on him. I’m betting he’s hoping to meet the actress of his new favorite show.’

Sheldon had been privy to Leonard’s tastes for years so he wasn’t convinced of Penny’s assessment. ‘I hardly think Leonard would watch a show like The Coven, meaning no disrespect to you or your co-stars, but he is quite averse to anything supernatural even in his choice of entertainments.’

‘I didn’t suppose he’d be a fan, either, if there wasn’t a chance of meeting one of the hot actresses on the show.’

Sheldon realized all of a sudden that Penny wasn’t concerned about a possible stalker. ‘You were acting with that call to Stuart?’

Penny chuckled a little at Sheldon’s surprise. ‘Only a bit, sweetie, I am worried about Leonard but not for the reasons I told Stuart. I don’t want Leonard to be aware we know about him and the arctic. He doesn’t want Raj or Howard coming forward so he’s probably kept the proof for the reasons Howard and Raj told us, insurance against them. I’m worried that if he gets spooked someone else could come forward he might destroy the evidence so there is no physical proof of what he did.’

Sheldon looked impressed. ‘Penny, you sound like Hercule Poirot.’

‘You think? The critics hated our theater group when we did ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ one summer.’

Sheldon scoffed at the thought. ‘Those critics obviously were a group of ill-educated cretins. You performed brilliantly just now.

‘Thanks, sweetie, we sure could have used the support that night, especially our poor Poirot.’

+++

Penny cleaned up around the house on Saturday, especially Bernadette’s room since she was sure Bernie would probably want to crash as soon as she got in after the long plane flight home. She drove to LAX to pick up the two newlyweds. They made it through customs with barely a fuss and made it home before the afternoon rush hour started.

‘How’s the jet lag, guys?’ Penny seldom had trouble with jet lag but she knew Bernie could be cranky just coming back from the east coast.

‘We didn’t have any trouble in the Maldives but we had other things on our minds at the time. I think we might have more trouble coming back since we have to catch up with the real world again.’ Howard seldom felt the problem after a few space missions. He was almost able to go to sleep or stay up at will.

‘Speak for yourself, tiger, but it was easier in the islands. It was paradise, Penny. You have to go there, sometime.’

‘I want to see all the pictures but I expect you both might really want to rest when we get back to the house.’ Penny asked if they wanted to pick up anything before they got home but both her friends were eager just to get to the end of the vacation trip now that they were so close to home.

Penny helped them carry their bags upstairs. Bernadette cried out in delight when she found a pot of hot lavender tea in a tea cozy by the bed along with sleeping masks and Advil. ‘Oh, honey, how did you manage to have hot tea ready when we got back?’

‘I’m a witch, Bernie, you know that. That’s what half the press keeps running with ever since the trial.’ Penny gave a laugh at the memory of the last batch of supermarket tabloid articles she had seen. She, also, wanted to thank Sheldon later for thinking to heat up the tea.

Bernie looked shocked. ‘Did that happen while we were gone?’

Howard was just as surprised. ‘Jeeze, Penny, I’m sorry we weren’t there for you.’

Penny waved off their concern. ‘It came to almost nothing, you were better off in the Maldives. I was there maybe an hour or two, mostly in the DA’s office drinking coffee. Jonas got committed almost as soon as he walked in the courtroom. He started freaking out about how I was a witch stealing everyone’s souls as soon as he saw me in the courtroom and that was the last of him.’

Bernie came over and hugged Penny. She remembered the week of sleeping with Penny and she could tell when her often all too plucky friend was putting a brave face on things. ‘I’m glad it didn’t last long but I am sorry I wasn’t there, Penny.’

Penny hugged her old friend back and whispered in her ear. ‘I missed you there, too, honey.’ Penny let Bernadette go and poured her some tea. ‘Now, how about you guys have some tea and lie down a bit. I’ll get the tub ready and you can both have a nice long hot bath and get some rest with the whole candle and incense deal?’

‘That sounds perfect, dearie, and maybe a Zinfandel.’ Bernadette drank down a couple of Advil with her tea and put her mask on to start her jet lag recovery program.

‘I’ll get the bath ready for you, Bernie; I’m not feeling any jet lag so I’d probably just stress you out right now.’ Howard started out to the main bathroom in Penny’s rooms.

‘That’s fine, Howie, just take the bags with you and start the laundry before you try locking yourself in the man-cave downstairs.

‘Welcome to married life, Howard.’ Penny laughed at Howard's expression and headed off to get Bernie her wine.

+++

The following week, Penny opened a Skype call from Raj and Lalita.

‘Hey, Penny, are Howard and Bernadette around?’ Raj was eager to find out how Bernadette and Howard were doing after the wedding and honeymoon.

‘Sorry, Raj, they’re both at work right now. The worst part of travel for them is coming back to all the backed up paperwork. Bernadette had been complaining how she almost missed the simplicity of being a waitress, at least there hadn't been reams of paperwork for project proposals.

Raj nodded in understanding. ‘I can believe that. I wanted to tell you all Lalita and I will be getting married in two weeks, it should be Saturday evening around 10pm, your time, and we’ve set up a channel for folks to watch.’

‘That’s great, we don’t want to miss that, you guys, and we’ll all be here. Are you guys still coming this way to visit?’

Raj nodded. ‘Of course, we both want to help with meeting Priya. I was talking to my parents and they were ready to have the wedding in Pasadena if we could get Priya to come.’

‘I wish we could make that happen but we’ll get there, Raj. Speaking of Priya, do you think she knows about Leonard’s roving eye?’ Penny told Raj about the comic event at Stuart’s shop and running into Leonard.

‘I’d be surprised if she didn’t. She can read minds or something. It’s what makes her an amazingly effective lawyer; she can read people like an open book if she talks to them long enough. I don’t think Leonard could keep anything like that from her for very long. I just don’t know what she’d do when she found out.’

‘What do you mean?’ Penny was curious. She had thought about Priya’s possible reactions towards a cheating spouse. She knew damn well what she had wanted to do in that situation.

‘Remember how I said our parents were against the marriage outright? The whole family was against it for different reasons but Priya wouldn’t hear it. Maybe, she was right, especially where our parents’ objections were concerned. She would hate hearing them say ‘We told you so’ regardless. And me and everyone else who told her about Leonard’s cheating to begin with, she’s got a lot of pride in her ability to read people. If she missed something like that, I think she might hate herself too much to admit it with a divorce. She wouldn’t want us to know she’d missed something like that after some of the rows we had. Maybe, if I hadn’t been so vocal against it she might still talk to me.’ Raj looked close to tears remembering everything.

‘Don’t beat yourself up over it, Raj. No one wants to believe their fiancé is a cheater. I would have laughed in my parents’ faces if they’d warned me against Kurt. You did what you thought was right for the best of intentions. If she does know, like you think, she really is going to need you even if she’s too proud to say anything right now. She probably thinks she’s alone in this now because she went against the family to begin with. She’s probably afraid she bit the hand that fed her, so to speak. Don’t give up; she’s far from lost to you all, Raj.’

Raj felt a bit better about things after that bucking up and Penny was happy to tell him to hold on when she heard a car outside. She did a quick check from the balcony and saw it was Howard back home. She told him to come on up because Raj was calling. She said good bye to Raj after Howard came up to the study and asked Raj to say hi to Lalita. She left the two guys alone to catch up on a guy’s eye view of weddings and about Howard’s man-cave he was eager to show off to his old friend.

Penny went down to the kitchen and started to make an early dinner and to have something ready for Bernadette. Bernie was terrible at cooking for herself during the week because she was so focused on work and she got very cranky when she was underfed. Penny was well familiar with this side of her longtime friend and housemate but she wasn’t sure if Howard had yet to meet a 'hangry' Bernadette.

‘That was a very inspiring speech, Penny; I would have thought you had known Priya for years after the way you spoke.’ Sheldon had been listening, of course.

‘That was nothing I hadn’t thought one time or another after Kurt. My parents weren’t happy we eloped but they did like Kurt. Mom was mostly mad because she didn’t get to turn her youngest daughter’s wedding into the Nebraska State Fair. All the same, I didn’t tell them about the cheating until months afterwards because I felt guilty somehow.’ Penny put some leftovers in the stove to warm up.

‘That is ridiculous, why would you feel guilty, or Priya, because your spouses cheated?’ Sheldon compared the situation to the arctic and it sounded like he’d be feeling guilty about Leonard’s sabotage by analogy.

‘I can’t speak for Priya, but I kept wondering what I did wrong, wondering if I pushed him that way, somehow. It is ridiculous, I know, but sometimes at night I’d ask myself that. That was one reason I had to move out of the LA apartment Kurt and I had, it kept those feelings running in my head. When Raj talked about how she might be afraid of proving the family’s warnings right that just sounded like some of the guilty feelings I had.’ Penny sat down at the kitchen table and fidgeted with the salt and pepper shakers.

Sheldon heated up some hot water and added a bit of honey for Penny. ‘You don’t feel like that anymore, do you?’

Penny took the tea grateful for the drink. ‘Hmm? Oh, no, not like those days, no. But, you do put a lot of trust in someone when you marry them. I met Kurt when I was seventeen. We ran away as soon as we were both eighteen and then I was cheated on and then a widow at barely more than twenty-two. It all happened so fast the emotions are hard to separate. I felt anger at the cheating, grief at the death, guilt that I wasn’t good enough, frustration I couldn’t rake him through a divorce court, and yet, part of me still loved the bastard. Sometimes, I felt all of that at once and I just wanted to scream. Once in a while, I still do and I guess talking to Raj brought some of that back to mind. I figure Priya has her own cocktail of mixed up feelings that she’d be hard pressed to separate or explain, too.’

‘That sounds quite bewildering. It is a shame you could not have spoken with my Meemaw. She was quite sagacious in such matters.’

‘You’re not too bad to talk to, either, Sheldon. It does me good to have you around when I need someone to talk to.’ Penny let the hot mug warm her hands and hummed the waltz from their dance to herself.

+++

Two weeks later, the living and the dead of Los Robles Cottage were gathered in the study to watch Raj and Lalita’s wedding. Everyone loved the whole event and Sheldon begged Penny to get a picture of Lalita in her fabulous wedding dress. The kaleidoscope of color and pattern along with the jewelry was mesmerizing and he said she was the living avatar of the mythical Princess Panchali. Raj and Lalita also made a personal skype call when they had a free moment after the main wedding ceremony to thank their friends for watching with their families.

The happy moment was thrown off a bit when Bernadette made a rush to the bathroom and started dry heaving in the dark washroom. Penny followed her in and closed the door. She asked Bernadette how long this had been going on.

‘Just a couple of days, now, I haven’t been able to look… at… breakfast, Oh, Christ.’ Bernadette realized her period should have been kicking in by now. She got up from the toilet and sat on the tub rim.

‘I’ll go run and get a pregnancy test. Do you want to say anything out there, yet?’ Penny sat on the edge of the tub with Bernie and rubbed her back.

‘No, not yet, it’s too soon without a test. I don’t want to break up the wedding fun for a false alarm.’

Penny nodded. ‘Let’s just say you might have picked up a bug at work and I’m going to get something from the pharmacy. You can lie down in my bed while I’m out so we can do the test in here. You can tell Howard you don’t want him catching something from you.’ Penny and Bernadette went out and told everyone their story and wished the wedding couple a happy honeymoon before Bernie went to have a lie down. Penny ran out to get the pregnancy test while Howard checked up on Bernadette.

‘I’ll be fine, Howard, go to bed before you catch something.’

‘I don’t mind waiting for Penny, can I get you something downstairs?’ Howard got an extra blanket from the ottoman under the bedroom window.

‘Thanks, but go to bed, Howard, I’m fine.’ Bernadette was feeling nauseous and upset, now. She really didn’t want Howard catching on to her possible pregnancy.

‘Let me get you some chicken broth down stairs, I’ll be right back.’

The thought of eating even some broth sent Bernie’s stomach into a summersault. ‘No, Howard, Go. To. Bed!’

Howard was surprised at Bernie’s vehemence and he was also starting to feel like the room was getting very cold and spooky. ‘Are you sure you want to lie down in here, Bernadette? This room doesn’t feel right.’

Bernadette’s nerves were getting jangly from the nausea and Howard’s constant talking. ‘Please, go to bed, Howard, Penny will take care of everything, and the room feels fine. Penny and I have both slept in here plenty of times, there’s nothing spooky in here. Now, go to bed, honey.’

Sheldon watched with satisfaction when Howard finally left Bernadette to rest. He felt her unease and he sent a calming thought of relief into Bernadette’s mind that let her drift off to sleep at last.

Howard went downstairs to wait for Penny, and so Bernadette wouldn’t get more worked up. When Penny got back, Howard told her about Bernadette’s snappishness in case she got angry with Penny. Penny just laughed and said she knew what Bernadette could be like when she was sick.

‘You just go to bed, Howard. I’m used to handling Bernadette when she is under the weather. She’s used to hardly ever getting sick so she can take it pretty bad when she comes down with something. Let her rest with me, tonight, I’m sure everything will be better in the morning.’ Penny let Howard lock up downstairs and went up to take care of Bernadette. She locked the study door so they wouldn’t be interrupted and gave Bernadette a gentle caress when she sat on the bed next to her.

‘What’s wrong, Bernie, why are you crying?’ Penny brushed some hair from Bernie’s forehead and felt her temperature.

‘I’m going to be a terrible mother.’ Bernadette had never felt any silly biological clock ticking and the idea of kids had always given her the chills at the best of times.

Penny got a tissue for Bernadette and gave her a kiss. ‘Well, I’ll just be a worse aunt so you won’t seem so bad, and we can both blame Howard for doing this to you.’

Bernadette laughed, sat up, and hugged Penny. ‘What would I do without you, honey?’

They went into the bathroom and used the two tests Penny got just to make sure. They both came up positive. ‘Guess it’s the doctor’s, tomorrow?’ Bernadette felt a little better after the tests and with Penny to help.

They got ready for bed and Bernadette borrowed some of Penny’s pajamas for the night. She wondered why Howard was feeling the house being spooky again. ‘Penny, does it always feel so cozy in here?’

‘Pretty much, why?’

‘Howard was saying it felt spooky in here but after he left it felt like the room kind of liked me being in here. I guess the hormones and mood swings to come are kicking in.’ Bernadette guessed this was another sign of the pregnancy.

Penny guessed Sheldon was involved if there was unexplained spookiness and happiness. She could feel the welcoming air of the room Bernadette was talking about and guessed Sheldon was using his mojo so Bernie wouldn’t feel so sick and she could sleep. ‘I don’t know, I think you were right and the house does like you, and the baby.’

Chapter Text

Penny whistled Strauss’s Voices of Spring while she looked through the mail and separated out the bills and personal letters for everyone and brought her letters along with the bills upstairs to the study. She kept up the tune while she got a duster out and began cleaning the models and Care Bears. She got about three minutes into the waltz when Sheldon appeared.

‘Penny, you know very well how much I detest whistling.’ Sheldon found whistling all the worse since he died because earplugs and sound canceling headphones didn’t work for ghosts.

Penny stopped her rendition and sat on the edge of the desk. ‘Sheldon, why is Bernadette downstairs proving to Howard none of the chairs in the collector’s room are electrified?’

'Because Howard was going to disassemble my Bat’leths and replace the blades with rubber in order to childproof them,’ Sheldon had been concerned for the changes that would come when Bernadette’s pregnancy tests proved positive but he wasn’t unduly worried, ‘Penny, I am sure between Bernadette and you the child will want for nothing with regards to safety and good health. Howard, on the other hand, may need to be ejected out the metaphorical airlock for the child’s wellbeing.’

Penny started in confusion. ‘What are you talking about; Howard can’t wait for the baby?’

‘Indeed, and he is behaving like the engineer his education trained him to be. He is endlessly imagining disasters that may befall the child before they happen. The poor creature will have more neuroses than the cast of a Woody Allen film before it gets to kindergarten.’

Penny snorted at that. 'I didn't take you for a Woody Allen Fan, Sheldon.'

'I'm not, but I am bombarded buy the choices you and Bernadette make daily.'

'We'll try to consider your existential suffering before we binge the Mia Farrow years again.' Penny laughed and sat in the wing chair to look at the letters from Nebraska that had come in the mail. One of her high school friends had become an elementary school teacher. The children were writing about their favorite TV show and a few had said they were fans of Penny and her character. She had written her and asked if she would respond to the students as part of their class project. ‘How is supernatural electroshock therapy supposed to help prevent that, Sheldon?’

‘Penny, Bernadette’s room has a catcher’s net outside the balcony if the toddler gets out there.’

‘What’s wrong with that? It isn’t an unreasonable safety feature?’ Penny thought it was early to go that far but she knew how even the smallest kids would get in the most unlikely places.

‘The net has two back up nets under it, and the balcony now has three different types of motion detectors.’

‘Alright, that’s excessive.’ Penny put the letters down on the side table. ‘Bernie and I will talk to him again but if you go scaring him and he starts freaking out about the house he could move out and Bernie and the baby will be going with him. Do you want them gone, too?’

‘While I would not be averse to having only the two of us here, I would miss Bernadette’s presence and I am intrigued what a child of Wolowitz could turn out to be.’ Sheldon sounded like a mad doctor.

‘This is a baby we’re talking about Sheldon, not a science experiment. Also, I don’t want the baby scared by ghosts so no whacky business with the kid.’ Penny could imagine Sheldon’s stranger quirks coming out and she started to feel a headache.

‘Penny, my childhood showed me all I needed of the abuse that children can suffer from bullies and tormentors. My own siblings were no great help all too often, so I would never allow distress to befall Bernadette’s child.’

Penny felt bad for thinking the worse of her friend. ‘I’m sorry Sheldon; I wasn’t being fair to you there. You have been great with everything and I’m guessing you are the real reason Bernadette sleeps better here these days, aren’t you?’ Bernadette had mentioned the house feeling better several times over the past week since she’d been to the doctor’s and confirmed the results.

‘The child needs optimal conditions for its development, the health of the mother, therefore, requires optimum care. Also, you would be greatly distressed by Bernadette feeling unwell since your friendship is quite close.’

Penny felt happy that Sheldon worried about them both. She knew they could get on his nerves with the way they kept changing the house around, first with the redecorating, then bringing in Howard and then rebuilding rooms, and now a child on the way. ‘Thank you, Sheldon, but you can say if something is bothering you, too. The baby is going to bring in more changes than motion detectors and catcher’s nets. Maybe we can’t accommodate you but I still want to know. Your happiness is important to me, too, Moonpie.’

‘Penny, I’m a ghost, happiness is of very little importance to the dead.’

Penny didn’t want to argue about that by pointing out how he shouldn’t be worried about failed experiments or messy housemates in that case. ‘It may not be important to you, but it is important to me. Losing these models would hurt, I know.’

‘Penny, I told you the first night, everything here is important to me because it is inseparable from me. I value all that is in these rooms, but I would feel more hurt if I lost you.’ Sheldon couldn’t say why that was, ghosts care about the things that anchor them somewhere but Penny was something new. ‘You and Bernadette have been something I had too little of since I left Texas, a family, and they were often no box of peaches. I do not think much of personal happiness, but your happiness, Penny, is very important to me.’

Penny had no idea what to say since Sheldon never really talked about personal feelings and she had to wonder what she felt about him. ‘Thank you, Sheldon, but I can tell you, I can’t feel happy if you’re feeling walked over so, please, talk to me if something is bothering you. That’s what friends do; they take care of each other, like my friend, Judy, here.’ Penny picked up the Nebraska letters. ‘She needs help, sometimes it helps to tell your friends they are needed. People want to be needed, too.’

‘What do you think a ghost would need, Penny?’ Sheldon felt skeptical that there was much that could be needed by the dead.

‘You tell me, Sheldon, I know I need you. I wouldn’t have gone back to school if it wasn’t for you and all this science stuff around. I sure wouldn’t have done the science stuff. I wanted to be things for dad, for Kurt, for friends, but I never wanted to be things for me.’ Penny thought about their conversation when she was wiring up the collector’s room. ‘I got into acting because I wanted to be famous but if there are bad reasons to get into acting that’s probably the worst. I was terrible at first. I’ll say this for Kurt; he pushed me to go back to theater classes. Turned out he was meeting girls in the classes, but, I got to be a better actor, even if I was just taking the classes for him. You were different because you helped me do what I wanted just because I wanted to do it. I needed that, Sheldon, someone to let me be selfish.’

‘Well, then, Penny, I guess I am happy to be needed by you, because I do enjoy seeing that you are happy.’

+++

Penny dropped by the comic store to pick up Sheldon’s books for the week. She, also, signed a couple of comics for fans who happened to be in the store at the time. She wanted to ask Stuart if he could get one of Raj’s favorite Batman comics that he’d mentioned in one of his last Skype calls. Stuart took a look at the inventory of collector’s issues and found a copy and told Penny he’d be a few minutes in back finding it.

‘It’s got a hefty price tag; it’s five hundred dollars.’

Penny’s eyebrows did a high climb. ‘Wow, folks pay that for Batman? A Pair of Manolo Blahnik’s, sure, but Batman? Bernadette said you guys pay some serious money for the stuff. I’m amazed Sheldon lets me touch his books.’ Penny remembered a coffee stain she made on one of Sheldon’s Flash comics that she got curious about. She was almost afraid to ask how much that might be since it was a pretty old book.

‘Yeah, Sheldon was always very strict in how his comics got handled. Collector’s stuff like this, he’d have kittens if it was breathed on. You want me to put it back?’

‘No, I was just surprised, that’s all.’ Penny wondered how Sheldon felt about the coffee stain. She’d have to look and see what issue that was and find out how much it was, at least, for her own conscience. ‘I’m getting it for Raj.’

‘Raj, you don’t mean Raj Koothrapalli, do you?’ Stuart couldn’t believe Raj might be back in the states.

‘Yeah, he’s coming here during his honeymoon travel. He got married last week to an old girlfriend, Lalita Guptra, and they are coming to visit. They’ll be arriving this Saturday.’ Penny could see Stuart was delighted to hear about Raj and his new bride.

‘Married, I can’t believe it. You know he couldn’t talk to girls when he was here at Caltech, and I mean truly could not talk. I guess he learned to say, I do. Give me a minute.’ Stuart did a quick run in back to look at the store’s books and his bank account. When he came back he looked rather satisfied.

‘Hey, Penny, I am so happy for Raj, I’d like to make this issue a wedding present for him, if you don’t mind. I hope I’m not stepping on your present?’

‘No I don’t mind, but are you sure you want to spend the money?’ Penny was happy to let Stuart buy the book for Raj but the money really wasn’t a problem for her being on a successful show.

‘No, I’m fine. The event you and Jason did made a great boost for the store so I can cover the book.’

Penny was glad they were able to help the store enough for Stuart to feel free to make a present like this out of the blue. She remembered how stressed he often looked when she first starting coming in here so it was nice to see him get to breathe easier. ‘Well, then, He and Lalita are coming in Saturday and they should be at the house by 4pm, you should drop by and give him the present yourself. I’m sure he’d love to see you.’

‘Thanks, I’d love to come by and see Raj, it’s been forever since I last saw him.’

Penny and Stuart chatted for a while about Raj and the wedding. Penny asked Stuart about a few more of Raj’s favorites that he might remember and Penny was able to get a couple more books that Stuart felt sure Raj would like. While they were talking Leonard made an appearance to pick up some books. Stuart saw Leonard coming in and gave Penny a heads up and went over to the register to do some paperwork and keep an eye on things.

‘Hi.’ Leonard was still in monosyllables in front of Penny.

‘Hi… Lenny, wasn’t that your name?’ Penny was glad of Stuart’s head’s up so she felt comfortable to chat for a minute.

‘Uh, yeah, my friends call me Leonard, but you can call me Lenny since it is a common nickname for Leonard.’

Penny raised an eyebrow; it was one word or an avalanche with this guy. ‘Oh, I guess we’re not friends since you said it’s your friends that call you Leonard, not Lenny.’

Leonard looked like he had swallowed his tongue. ‘No, no, we’re friends, I mean, we can be friends, my friends don’t call me Leonard, I mean that is they do, but they don’t call me Leonard because they are my friends.’

Penny nodded and looked at Leonard quizzically. ‘Right, well, nice meeting you.’ Penny put some coolness in her voice and went over to the register. Leonard made a run for the door before he could trip over his tongue any further.

‘Wow, I have seen Leonard fall apart in front of a girl but that was a sight.’

‘Yeah, it happens, you saw those fans earlier. I’d be a mess if I ever ran into Meryl Streep. Anyway, I was thinking, maybe you were right about him being harmless, but don’t say anything about me and Sheldon’s place. I like to keep where I live and who I live with quiet so Howard and the rest don’t get sucked into news about me.’

‘Sure, Penny, besides, Leonard pretty much dropped out of everyone’s life after Sheldon’s funeral so I doubt he’s interested in seeing the old gang anymore. Howard still comes in regularly but I don’t think they’ve said two words to each other. Leonard usually takes off faster than he did just now if Howard’s here.’ Stuart wondered what might have happened to make a falling out like that.

‘That does sound weird, has Howard ever told you why?’

‘Not really, he just said it was job stuff and he doesn’t like to talk about it. I guess you know he used to work at Caltech with Leonard?’ Stuart guessed Penny must have known that since Howard was with Penny’s housemate, Bernadette.

‘Yeah, I heard some, I guess if Leonard and everyone at my house have some kind of bad blood; it’s best not to bring up everyone being at my house. He freaks out enough already just standing near me.’ Penny was sure the less Leonard knew about the gathering at the house, the better.

‘Yeah, that makes sense. Like I said before, I think Leonard’s harmless but he hasn’t been much of a friend to Howard or us here at the store so he’ll hear nothing from me.’

‘Thanks, Stuart, and make sure to drop by Saturday. You will love Howard’s new playroom.’ Penny had no doubt the collector’s room was going to be geek heaven this weekend.

Penny started to leave and saw Sheldon over by the model displays. She thanked Stuart again for the help with Raj’s comics and went over to talk with Sheldon. ‘Been following me around, again, and are you the reason Leonard fell apart?’

‘I may have had a hand in that, yes.’ Sheldon had a self-satisfied smirk and swagger.

Penny sighed and smirked at her sidekick. ‘Thanks, I’m glad you didn’t overreact.’

‘I had considered overreacting but I need you to help me fix this disaster. Howard shouldn’t be an estate agent, and Raj could be doing so much more than teaching undergraduate astronomy. We all need you, Penny. I thought it would help if Leonard didn’t get too comfortable around you.’ Sheldon really didn’t want Leonard comfortable around Penny at all, truth be told.

‘Really, who would you be comfortable having around me, Moonpie?’ Penny was sure she heard a jealous note in Sheldon’s voice.

‘Someone who makes you happy and I can assure you, it wouldn’t be Leonard. Simply ask Priya.’

Penny shrugged and smiled lightly. ‘We’ll get him, Sheldon, and believe me, I already know someone who makes me very happy and it isn’t Leonard by any means.’ Penny ushered them both out to the car to go home.

‘Who would that be, Penny, I believe Bernadette would be very relieved to know who this might be as would I?’

Penny laughed and went out to the car. ‘Someone who can waltz, Moonpie.’

They walked across the lot and Penny saw Leonard coming back towards the comic store. ‘Be cool, Sheldon, let me handle this.’

‘Very well, Penny.’ Sheldon was far more busy thinking about the waltzing comment at the moment.

‘Uh, hey Penny, I’m sorry if that sounded kind of weird in there, I don’t know what came over me.’ Leonard hoped he hadn’t made a complete fool of himself.

‘That’s alright; I’ve seen stranger folk, Leonard.’

‘Yeah, I guess there are some strange folk on your show, are you filming that, now?’ Leonard was trying to find something to talk about but this girl frazzled his brain too much to think of anything cool.

‘Not at the moment, but we start shooting again soon.’

Sheldon was getting bored and confused since he had as little idea what Penny was doing with her directionless responses. ‘Is there some point to this, Penny, or are you trying to see if you can give Leonard a seizure?'

Penny chuckled a bit at that which made Leonard feel he was getting somewhere with this seeming ice maiden. ‘So, Penny, are you going somewhere, now?’

‘Yes.’ Penny smiled again knowing Leonard was clearly fishing for a way to ask for a date.

‘Great, ah, well, great.’ Leonard shuffled his feet and looked like a puppy begging for attention. ‘So, how about that coffee, would you like to get one sometime?’

‘Coffee, perhaps, are you married, Leonard?’ Penny had seen the wedding band and she noted how fast Leonard’s hands went into his pockets.

‘No, I mean, I used to be but that didn’t work out.’

‘Oh, that’s too bad, I hope things get better for you. Things can get scary when you are on your own.’ Sheldon assumed the last comment was a hint so he turned up his mojo. Leonard started fidgeting a lot more.

‘Yeah, I guess, are you seeing anyone, Penny?’ Leonard really didn’t know why Penny made him feel so tongue tied. Even Priya didn’t scare him this much when she got angry.

‘Why?’ Penny’s voice took on a distinct coolness that rattled Leonard.

‘Oh, no reason, but I guess you’re busy with the show and all, maybe we’ll run into each other again here, at the comic shop.’ Leonard hurried off for the store without waiting for Penny to respond.

‘That odious toad, did you see how fast he hid that ring, Sheldon?’

‘I did, I hope you meant for me to scare him off like that.’

‘You did perfect, Moonpie. How do you feel about coffee shops and nightclubs?’ Penny sent Stuart a text to say Leonard ran into her in the lot and he acted kind of jumpy so play it cool about her to him.

‘I abhor them.’ Sheldon couldn’t imagine why Penny would ask his opinion on such places.

‘I’m not surprised, but I’ll bet Leonard likes them.’

‘He does, but why would you be interested. Surely, you are not thinking of going to one with him?’

‘Not without my dance partner, Sheldon, and I believe some of our paparazzi friends would be interested to know as well.’ Cheating husbands didn’t like to be recognized. Penny knew that all too well.

+++

Chapter Text

The weekend arrived and Howard went to LAX to pick up Raj and Lalita. The two old friends were almost speechless for the first minute and never stopped talking for a second after that. Lalita didn’t follow half of what they were talking about, jokes and stories of her new husband’s past, but she was happy to see him look and sound so joyful.

They got back to the cottage and everyone got together in the living room down stairs after touring through the house. Sheldon was comically entranced by Lalita which made Penny giggle more than once while they toured through the rooms. She had never seen a ghost trip over his feet before. Sheldon was delighted when Raj gave Bernadette and Penny copies of the wedding album.

Howard got out some champagne and some non-alcoholic sparkling wine he’d gotten for Bernadette and passed the drinks around. He proposed a toast. ‘Welcome back, Raj, and a wonderful marriage to you both, cheers!’

Bernadette got up to make her speech. ‘We have an announcement, too, something we found out the night of your wedding, in the middle of your call, actually. Howard and I are going to have a baby.’

‘No!’ Raj was stunned.

‘Yes.’ Bernadette was surprised by Raj’s reaction.

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘I already had this same conversation with Howard; I’m not going through it again.’

Raj apologized to Bernadette. He was genuinely overjoyed for them both but he had never imagined his pal becoming a father. More drinks were quickly passed around and more toasts were made for the new baby on the way. Stuart arrived in the middle of the toasts and the room was livelier than ever since he had brought his girlfriend, Denise. The welcoming party carried on for a good while and the guys eventually were led by Howard down to the collector’s room. Raj was still amazed by it and Stuart and Denise were speechless.

While they were downstairs, Penny, Bernadette, and Lalita got some coffee and relaxed in the quiet of the living room and talked about Bernie’s baby. Eventually, they got around to marriage and finally Priya and Leonard.
‘He tried hitting on you at the comic shop, did you smack him?’ Bernadette hated the smell of cheating and Lalita was just as averse.

‘No, of course not, I knew what he was so I wasn’t going to act all shocked. Besides, he got too nervous to wait for an answer.’ Penny smiled at Sheldon sitting by the window. ‘I was wondering if Priya knows about Leonard’s habits. Raj thinks she would, do you think so, too, Lalita?’

‘If she’s anything like I remember her, I’d say she knows but I can’t imagine her putting up with it.’

Penny agreed from her point of view, at least. ‘Raj seemed to think Priya might be too embarrassed to do anything because she was pretty much going against the whole family and a lot of her friends back home.’

‘I guess that would bother her a little but Priya was always very independently minded. I think her being wrong about him would bother her more than anything else. What is odd is that I never imagined her marrying anyone, at least no one like Howard and Raj. They are too much like kids with all their games and comic books.’

Bernadette agreed with that, at least. ‘Howard makes me crazy with that stuff, that’s why I’m glad he built that playroom downstairs. This place used to be filled with Star Track stuff.’

Sheldon flinched and growled. ‘Star Trek, woman, how could anyone dislike something so glorious?’

Lalita giggled at Bernadette’s feelings about science fiction decoration. ‘I think it’s Star Trek, Raj has mentioned that a few times.’

‘There, Penny, the Princess Panchalli understands the difference.’

‘I think I’ll make him mention it a few more times before I suggest a playroom like Howard’s.’ Lalita was glad of the hobby for Raj but she did wish it didn’t take up so much of the house.

Sheldon looked aghast. ‘The evil women do, I shall be in the ‘collector’s’ room, Penny.’

Penny looked fondly at Sheldon’s disappearing form and went back to Lalita. ‘I don’t think Priya needs anyone to prove Leonard is cheating, I think she might want something he can’t deny. Lawyers do prefer questions they already know the answers to when they get into court.’

‘What do you mean, honey?’ Bernadette was curious where Penny was going with this.

Penny went over the comic shop encounter again. She knew Leonard’s manipulative side and Lalita was shocked how much so many other people were affected beyond her Raj’s life. She was sure Priya had never known any of that or she would have never married Leonard. She even questioned why Raj ever took Leonard’s threat seriously. Priya hated being pushed around by her family but she liked other people pushing her family around far less.

+++

In the study, Penny got ready for bed and Sheldon appeared looking happy. ‘I had not thought I would ever condone this house to be inundated with so many people.’

‘Have you forgiven Lalita’s Star Trak plans, Sheldon?’ Penny still enjoyed the memory of Sheldon’s exit.

‘That, well, I suppose so since she is woefully under-educated in the world of Gene Roddenberry’s Vision.’

‘Ah, the princess has had her day, Sheldon?’ Penny was too happy about today to tease Sheldon about his hobbies.

‘Not at all, I am simply acknowledging she is not a fan of Star Trek, I am sure Raj will correct the deficiency.’

‘Really, sweetie, like your attempts to correct mine?’

‘Penny, your love of Firefly more than makes up for your ignorance of Star Trek.’

Penny’s response was cut off by a soft knock on the door.

‘Come in!’ She turned to see Lalita open the door. She was carrying some roses.

‘Hi, Penny, did you leave these, they are so beautiful, I asked everyone and no one knew where they came from so I guessed they must be from you. Thank you!’

Penny could tell by Sheldon’s dismay he was the culprit. She glanced at Sheldon and remembered his talking about the Indian princess. Fortunately there were no lotus blossoms around for Sheldon to decorate her hair with. ‘It was said roses were ashamed to bloom in the presence of her ruby lips.’

‘Pardon?’ Lalita was confused by the beautifully romantic phrase.

‘I was reminded of that Indian folk story, Princess Panchali, so I thought you might like them. You and Raj really should be on your honeymoon, still, not revisiting painful old history.’ Penny walked over to the bookshelf and found the children’s book Sheldon had gotten the story from. Lalita and Penny sat on the couch and looked through the book and the page with the picture that introduced the Princess made Lalita gasp. It really did look remarkably like her.

‘Oh my, I have never seen this picture. Raj and I did look a bit online but we never saw any that looked especially like me but this, it looks like I modeled for it.’ She laughed and asked if she could show the book to Raj. she said good night to Penny with the book in hand to show Raj.

‘Look at you, mister ghosts don’t need happiness, leaving romantic nothings to Indian princesses?’ Penny walked over to Sheldon.

‘Penny, I was simply struck by the uncanny resemblance, there was nothing romantic involved.’

‘Sure, Don Juan, whatever you say. But I can’t help noticing how you’ve dropped me like a hot potato as soon as princess ruby lips showed up.’ Penny grinned at Sheldon’s discomfort and went to bed.

In the morning, Penny found a vase of roses by her bed. She sat up and picked up the flowers to breathe in their aroma. ‘Oh, Sheldon, I was just kidding last night, but you do know how to brighten a girl’s day more than most guys I know.’

+++

Sheldon and Penny went back to the comic store on Monday. Stuart had told them Leonard usually came by then because there were few regulars on such a quiet day.

‘Hey Stuart, what’s up? Did you enjoy the party?’

‘Hey Penny, god, yes, and Howard’s collector’s room, Denise and I couldn’t believe it. We might never leave a place like that.’ They chatted for a while and Penny brought up Leonard’s appearances around the store.

‘Stuart, did Leonard mention he tried asking me out again out in the parking lot?’

Stuart looked none too surprised. ‘No, but I’m not surprised. You know, he’s married. That might have slipped his mind.’

‘Yeah, Toby talked about a wife but Leonard did the hand hide and say he ‘used’ to be thing.’ Penny rolled her eyes and felt Sheldon’s displeasure with the conversation. Penny was glad Sheldon never tried being a professional card player.

‘You know, Stuart, I can’t stand cheating husbands.’ Penny smirked at Stuart’s smile of understanding.

‘I bet, the news all talk about how you practically never date since Kurt died. I guess you miss him?’

‘Penny ‘The Grieving Widow’ Queen, I get that a lot but it was a long time ago, now, I miss him but you’ve got to move on. We got married young, romantic elopement and all that, so cheating just bugs me.’ Penny wrote down Micky’s number. ‘This is a paparazzi pal, he films a lot of our show’s cast for the trades. He might like a tip about an actress at a coffee shop, say today at Bialiks.’

Stuart took the number and wondered what Penny was up to but he didn’t ask until Leonard came in.

Penny hoped Leonard might make an appearance today since he was fishing so obviously the last time they met. Sheldon looked up Leonard’s class and office schedule online and made a deduction on the time Leonard was likely to visit the shop. His accuracy was worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

‘Hey Penny, funny running into you again.’ Leonard hoped Penny didn’t think he was a fool after their last meeting. He still didn't know why he’d run off the way he did the other night. There was just something weird around Penny.

‘Yeah, my psychic might say it was fate.’ Penny smiled and glanced at Sheldon.

‘Fate, Penny, you’re going to use that supernatural claptrap to initiate a conversation.’ Sheldon waited for Leonard to react.

‘Uh, yeah, I guess, so would you like to try that coffee, Penny?’

Sheldon looked amazed since he expected Leonard to start talking about how ridiculous psychics were.

‘Oh, I guess coffee would be OK, hey Stuart, have you tried Bialik’s up the street?’

‘No way, Penny, that place is ridiculously expensive but I hear the chocolate mousse is to die for. Denise loves to go there with her girlfriends once in a while.’

‘Great, thanks Stuart, I love chocolate mousse. Chocolate anything really, let’s go there, Leonard.’

Penny and Sheldon led the way out the door and Leonard made up the third wheel he wasn’t aware of being. Bialik’s was quiet after lunch time. Penny and Leonard sat by a window where Penny saw Micky’s van pull up. She gave a long smile out the window and put a finger to her lips. It was a signal to Mickey he had with the cast to give them a few minutes but he was welcome to get a story.

‘A physicist and a witch meet in a coffee shop, what happens next, Leonard?’ Penny could see the magic stuff was wearing thin on Leonard. Sheldon really hadn’t been kidding about that but some guys will put up with anything to talk to a girl, especially, the ‘nice’ ones.

‘Come on, Penny, you know there are no such things as witches. All that New Age psychic stuff is a bunch of baloney. Here, let me show you some real magic.’ Leonard took out a ping pong ball and put it on a plate in front of him.
‘Here’s some real magic. I can pick up the ball without lifting the glass, can you?’

Penny smiled, he was going to use simple centrifugal force. She’d seen the trick done in her first physics class at UCLA. ‘Come on, really?

Leonard whirled the glass on the plate and the ball raced around and climbed the inside of the glass.

‘Holy smokes! That’s so cool.’ Penny looked astonished when Leonard quickly lifted the glass and turned it upright. He handed it to Penny.

‘It’s easy, you try it.’

Penny set the trick up again. ‘I had no idea you could do it by moving the glass.’ Penny put her open left palm on the upside down glass.

‘No, Penny, you don’t hold it like that.’ Leonard reached across the table to help but Penny held up her free hand.

‘Oh, well this is how witches hold them.’ Penny waved her right hand in a circle above her left. Sheldon began to levitate the ball and it began circling around in the glass and climbing up the inside to Leonard’s astonishment. Penny lifted her hand and the glass followed her palm upwards a few inches. She quickly closed her hand, righted the glass, and handed it to Leonard.

Leonard held the glass and picked up the plate in front of Penny and checked them in disbelief. ‘How did you do that?’

‘I told you, I’m a witch, or you could just ask at the Magic Castle but they will never tell you.’

Leonard sat back and laughed. ‘Jeeze, you’re a professional magician, too? You really had me going, there.’

‘I’m many things, Leonard, but what about you?’ Penny waved abruptly. ‘Hey Micky, good to see you again! Micky, come on over. This is Leonard, I didn’t get your last name.’

‘Hofstadter, Leonard Hofstadter.’ Micky shook hands with Leonard and sat down quickly.

‘Hi Penny, so, are you guys on a date, I’d hate to get in the way.’

‘It’s fine, Leonard and I kept running into each other at the comic shop up the street so he asked me out to coffee. He’s single and he does magic, isn’t that right, Leonard?’

Leonard blushed a bit at the praise after Penny’s trick. ‘I can’t do magic like Penny but I can do some stuff.’

‘That is so cool, are you a magician, Leonard?’ Micky guessed this guy was who the tip was about but he didn’t seem all that news worthy.

‘Me, no, I work as an experimental physicist at Caltech, lots of cutting edge stuff.’

Penny wanted to draw Leonard out more now that he was feeling comfortable and able to show off his date in front of this new guy. ‘Caltech, you must be some kind of superbrain or something?’

‘Please, Penny, his work is derivative drivel.’ Penny snapped a glare at Sheldon and snickered a bit.

‘Your aura says you are quite the scientist, Leonard, how is it you aren’t married?’ Penny saw Micky swiping through a site on his phone that he kept below the table out of Leonard’s sight. He waved it at Penny and it had a picture of him with a very pretty dark haired woman. She’d seen enough pictures to recognize Priya. Penny nodded to Micky and Sheldon’s eyes widened. He was impressed by the quick silent conversation Penny and Micky shared. Actors and the press were as devious as any batch of film spies he could think of.

‘I never found the right girl.’ Leonard did his shy puppy dog thing.

‘That isn’t what your aura tells me, Leonard, that tells me you prefer mystery.’ Penny said that slowly and looked at Sheldon meaningfully. He wondered why she was looking at him. Penny sensed the flaw in the plan.

‘Aura’s, you don’t believe in that stuff, do you?’

Micky guessed where Penny was going, fortunately. ‘Penny can be pretty scary when she reads people, Leonard, try her out.’ He sat back and gave a small signal to his partner in the van to get some good shots.

Sheldon caught another more pointed look from Penny and realized what she meant and turned up the fear on Leonard.

‘Well, was I right about the mystery, Leonard?’ Penny wanted to start rattling Leonard.

‘Sure, but that’s so vague, you could say it to anyone and they’d probably say yes.'

Penny locked her fingers together and leaned forward to rest her chin on them and gazed into Leonard’s eyes for a minute. For some reason, he always found her stare a little creepy.

‘I see a love of mystery, not just mysterious women but exotic women. Well educated, intelligent, but foreign, foreign taught, and foreign bred.’ Penny could see Leonard getting progressively antsy.

‘Well, that’s still vague stuff, I mean…’

‘Oh, no, I see a country in your aura, India, yes, there is an ancient aura mixed with yours Leonard and her spirit is from India.’ Penny nodded and took a deep breath. ‘One can almost smell the lotus blossoms in her ebony hair from her aura.’

‘I don’t, I mean, I have never been to India.’ Leonard was shifting uncomfortably in his chair and Sheldon was enjoying the show.

‘Are you sure, your aura is so entwined with hers, I can’t believe you guys didn’t work out, did she pass away? I have always felt drawn to the departed, I think it’s because my husband died.’ Penny sounded wistful and distant.

‘Dead, no, Priya isn’t dead.’ Leonard shut up and looked like a cat caught in a canary cage.

‘Priya, your wife’s name, which sounds like a lovely name, like an Indian princess of a noble family, wealthy and wise. What happened to her Leonard?’

‘Nothing, she’s, um, I should go.’ Penny clamped her right hand down on Leonard’s and kept her chin propped on her left. She was sure Micky’s cameraman would be getting this.

‘Come on, Leonard, you said you don’t believe in that stuff.’ She smiled but her eyes were strangely shifting color.

Micky got out his phone where everyone could see it and started another swipe and got to Caltech. ‘Let’s check, Penny scares the hell out of me when she gets that voice. Hey, they’ve got a page for you at Caltech.’

Leonard choked at the sight of the university faculty page. It had a picture of him and Priya.

Micky showed it to Penny. ‘Look, it says he’s married to some lawyer, Priya, hey and she’s from India! Jesus, you are scary.’

Penny clenched Leonard’s hand. ‘Married? You said you weren’t married. What is this, Leonard?’

‘Hey, I told you I was married.’ Leonard tried to sound scandalized but he couldn’t get over the cold in the restaurant.

Micky shook his head. ‘No, Leonard, I was sitting right here when she straight up asked you and you said you weren’t.’

‘Is this what you do, cheat on your wife?’ Penny let go of Leonard’s hand and got up. ‘Don’t talk to me ever again, Leonard.’

Leonard looked between Penny and Micky and started to panic. ‘I really have to go, I’m sorry it was a misunderstanding.’

Penny and her guys watch Leonard rush out of the restaurant. ‘Not much of a story, but it might hit a back page.’

‘That’s all I need, Micky, I just want to help a friend out.’ Penny sat back down and waved a waiter over to the table.

‘This friend wouldn’t be Priya, now, would it?’ Sheldon was astonished at the paparazzi’s deduction. He had to do some reevaluation of their skills in light of today.

‘Remember how well the Jonas Twill thing turned out for you? This could be a bit better.’

‘Really, well, I’ll shop the pictures and how about the story?’

‘The grieving widow tries the dating scene and gets flummoxed by a cheating spouse? I can cry for you if that would help. I hear the chocolate mousse is great here, my treat.’

Both Sheldon and Micky smirked and told Penny she really was an evil witch.

Later that week, Lalita tried calling Priya and they had a happy reunion chat. Priya had no idea her old friend was in America and Lalita thought she sounded like she missed more than just an old girlhood friend. Lalita left off that she was married to Raj and just said she was on vacation for a few weeks with her boyfriend. Lalita put off Priya’s questions saying she didn’t want to make him nervous by springing old girlfriends on him. Priya agreed, he’d probably think Lalita was trying to get him to propose to her or was having friends check him out to see if he was marriage worthy. That led to talking about Priya’s marriage which Priya got quiet about. Lalita was hopeful because Priya invited her out to lunch to talk about how things were going.

Chapter Text

Lalita and Priya met at a hole in the wall Indian restaurant in East Los Angeles. Lalita was curious why Priya picked the place because everything was in Spanish but she had to admit it smelled like a place she knew back home.

‘This doesn’t look like a restaurant where you’d find a successful lawyer who went to Cambridge.’

Priya snickered at that since Lalita was right. ‘Back home, I’d never have come to a place like this but a client told me about it. He grew up in this neighborhood. The owner here dropped out of college and went to India to discover himself.’

‘One of them looking for their guru?’ Lalita laughed at Priya’s smile and shrug.

‘Yes, but he grew out of it and he learned to cook because he didn’t have the money to get home. He said his guru turned out to be a fry cook in Bangalore and he learned very well. His Idli Dip Sambhar and Bisi Bele Bhath are to die for. Besides, Leonard would never think of coming to this part of LA much less a hole in the wall like this. He has no stomach for real home cooked food.’

The girls chatted about Lalita’s family and about each other’s jobs until the food came. Lalita was amazed. ‘Priya, this Idli Dip is just like my grandmother’s!’

‘See, I told you, that’s just what I thought the first time I came in here. I had to bring you just to find out if I was imagining it.’

They tucked into lunch and talked about old times and eventually came around to the present. Lalita could tell Priya was unhappy because she kept avoiding anything about Leonard.

‘Are you happy, Priya? Everything you talk about is someplace Leonard doesn’t go or doesn’t eat or doesn’t do.’

Priya looked at the tablecloth and shifted her plate around distracted and sad. ‘No, not really, successful sure, but I guess they’re right when they say lawyers sell their souls for success.’

‘What are you talking about; you’re no evil lawyer, saheli.’ Lalita never thought she’d hear Priya put herself down like that.

‘Everyone was against my marriage to Leonard and I ignored them, they were right, especially Raj. At first, I blamed myself since I was always working but later, he always had an excuse, a reason. I should have seen through that but I trusted him. I needed to trust him because I stood up for him. You know how my family feels about us marrying outsiders.’

Lalita nodded, her family wasn’t a lot better, especially her grandparents. ‘You can’t let their expectations keep you with someone that’s cheating on you, Priya.’

‘I’m not, I don’t really care if they know, but I would care if Raj knew. He knew Leonard for years but I wouldn’t believe him. How do I look him in the face and say I am sorry I didn’t listen.’

Priya talked on about how she found out about Leonard’s cheating, especially with the silly science fiction conventions he went to. He knew she’d never want to go to them; they were perfect cover for him. So was his lab, and seminars, all so reasonable. All so sordid and hidden but his latest tryst truly hurt because her office knew about it and talked with that sad office gossip hush for the clueless wife. She got out her smartphone and swiped to a tabloid article the office had been talking about, it was about him jilting his wife and embarrassing Penny Queen by trying to lure her into date.

‘The pity is what hurts the most. I want to kill him but I did this to myself, saheli, how am I supposed to tell Raj I messed up like this? Priya cried and seemed to fold in on herself. Lalita brought her chair over next to Priya and hugged her old friend.

‘Priya, you know how close our families are, I promise you none of them care about how you married Leonard, not even your parents or Raj. They just want you to come back to them. They want you to come home.’

‘I wish I could, Lalita, I wish I could.’

Lalita knew things could go good or bad from here because Priya hated being pushed into things or manipulated into them. They were old friends but friends who hadn’t seen each other in years and Priya was in a very delicate place where she lost trust in herself. Lalita had to hope Priya was ready to trust to old times.

‘Priya, I really wasn’t honest about my boyfriend, he actually is my husband, although it’s hard not to think of him as a boyfriend, still, he acts like a kid, at least.’

‘You’re married, why didn’t you just say so, I’d love to hear about a happy marriage.’ Priya was puzzled by the turn of story here.

‘That’s the thing, I am sort of here to say what your family can’t. They are afraid you don’t want to see them anymore. There were so many hard feelings back home, even my family had opinions on your marriage and I will spare you them. But all that was so long ago, Priya, and they stopped tending those feelings a long time back. They do want you to come home. Raj was a big part of that change when he went back. That doesn’t really matter, though.’

Priya felt Lalita was holding something back. ‘You are here with Raj, aren’t you? You married my brother?’

‘After all the time I spent beating him up as a kid, I figured, why stop?’ Lalita snickered and pulled her wedding album out of the bag she carried it in and handed it to Priya. She opened the book like a member of a bomb squad and leafed slowly through the images.

‘Like I said, Raj was a big part of changing their minds, but didn’t you ever wonder why he went back home? He loved it here in California. He had his own life without anyone pushing him around so why did he give it up to go back and teach undergraduates?’

Priya paused on the photo of Raj and Lalita in their full wedding garb. ‘He said he talked to Leonard in the arctic and he saw things Leonard’s way.’

Lalita gave an undignified snort. ‘You know how dead set Raj was against your marriage, did you ever ask him or Leonard what changed Raj’s mind? You have the world’s most annoyingly overprotective brother so what changed his mind when we both know he knew what Leonard was?’

Priya closed the book and Lalita could see the lawyer face Priya had almost from birth. ‘Are you saying Raj was forced into supporting Leonard?’

‘I’m married to him; anything I say is tainted evidence, so look at the events, instead. Raj was dead set against your marriage because he knew what Leonard was like.’ Lalita tapped Priya’s phone and brought back the article about Penny and Leonard. ‘Raj never told you the reasons from his side for siding with Leonard and the only one who did tell you had a vested interest in one version, the one that got him what he wanted, marriage to you. After that, Raj went back to India to take a job well below the capacity he is capable of and never wanted to do. What questions do you want answered about this?’

+++

‘Raj, if you don’t stop pacing, I will throw you out that balcony window. You’re just making this worse for yourself.’ Penny sat at the desk putting book marks in the arctic journals that were relevant to the connection of Priya to all this. She could understand the nerves, she was wound up like a nervous cat right now, so she tried getting her mind off what could be happening with Lalita by putting the case together. However, the sweeping of Raj’s slippers around the study was torture.

‘Penny, what if this doesn’t work? What if Lalita can’t get through to Priya or Priya figures out what Lalita is there for before she gets the whole truth? We might lose her forever.’

‘I don’t know, Raj, those are questions I can’t answer and I won’t offer any false hope by saying it will be OK. This is too important to you for that, honey; we’ve just got to trust Lalita.’

Penny tried to think of something to occupy Raj with. ‘I’m probably going to regret this but Howard has a project in the cellar he’s working on. It’s a safety surveillance system for the baby. He wants to rig up the house so he and Bernadette can keep an eye on the baby from anywhere. Why don’t you go downstairs and help him. The work will take your mind off of worrying a bit.’

Raj said that was a good idea but he asked Penny to call him as soon as she heard anything from Lalita. Penny assured him she would and walked over to the balcony to use the telescope after Raj went downstairs to help Howard. She looked down the roadway that came up the canyon but there was no sign of the car Raj and Lalita had rented. Penny took the long wait as a sign Priya and Lalita had to be talking so that should be cause for hope.

Sheldon appeared by the telescope. ‘Do you think we did the right thing confronting Leonard the way we did, Penny?’

Penny looked up from the telescope. ‘It’s a little late for that question, but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think so. All the same, like I said to Raj, that’s the kind of question, no one can give a sure answer to. I don’t know how Priya will react. Lalita thought the woman she knew a long time ago would never be involved with someone like Leonard to begin with so who’s to say? If I hadn’t listened to Kurt, I’d have never taken those classes that got me my first real roles. On the other hand, he wouldn’t have been in a place to get tempted to cheat so maybe I’d still be married and he’d still be alive? Or maybe, I’d be broken up with Kurt and waitressing, living in a cheap apartment somewhere mooching off my neighbors because I couldn’t get any work except crap roles like that Serial Apeist thing we caught Howard and Raj watching last night?’

‘Please, I find it hard to believe you could sink that low, Penny.’ Sheldon was aghast at that ridiculous film playing in his home. He came close to putting the two of them into a fit of terror they would never wake from.

‘You’ve got to get work where you can get it; Bernie was waitressing at that Cheese Cake place for years barely keeping above water to pay her school loans. There’s no knowing what you may need to do in life. Just like you can’t really know what others will do when it comes to how they will feel or react. I can guess what Priya might do but it’s only a guess. I’ve been cheated on so I can imagine how she feels but I can’t know for sure. Lalita has known her far longer than me and she’s not sure what will happen.’

Sheldon shuddered at the many unqualifiable variables while he went to his white board by the window and read the elegant mathematical functions. ‘People look at quantum mechanics and imagine it as some kind of esoteric and arcane mystery but it is simply math. It is no different, than two plus three equals five except in scale. However, emotions have always seemed far more a mystery than the most perplexing mathematical theory to me. You saw through the arctic puzzle in a way that would never have occurred to me and arrived at a solution I had begun to think was unobtainable. You are every bit the genius anyone ever called me where human motivations are concerned, Penny.’

‘Please, I’m no genius on that score. If I was, I wouldn’t have eloped to begin with, or at least not been so love struck with Kurt as to marry him. I bought any wisdom I have and it was not cheap. I’m not sure if it was even wisdom I bought.’ Penny looked through the telescope at a car coming up the canyon. It was Lalita on her way back and she could make out two passengers in the car. She rushed downstairs to tell Raj. Sheldon looked through the telescope at the approaching car. He was glad he was dead since otherwise he’d have a heart attack from the stress at this point.

Raj just stared at Penny not knowing what to do. Howard gave him a good hard back slapping and sent him upstairs with Penny. After Raj left, Howard went to find Bernadette to tell her how worried he really was about all this. Bernadette brought Howard out to the pavilion to talk about how he felt and to keep things from being too overwhelming off the bat inside. Upstairs, Penny had Raj wait in the study while she met Lalita downstairs to see how everything went. Raj was far too keyed up to be meeting Priya right away and she guessed Priya would be feeling overwhelmed, too, depending on what Lalita had been able to explain. She was starting to wish she was in the study hiding out with Raj.

+++

Penny met Lalita and Priya at the door and they went to sit in the living room. Lalita and Priya sat on the couch. Bernadette had put a tray with pots of coffee and tea on the coffee table for Penny and them when Penny came down from settling Raj in the study. Penny sat in the easy chair on the other side of the table and they all looked fretfully at each other for a few seconds. The conversation started off very awkwardly trying to be polite and obviously trying to miss everything they all wanted to talk about. In the end, Priya took the initiative and went to one of the thorns they had been avoiding.

‘I don’t blame you, Penny, about Leonard. It’s not the first time. He said you led him on as though I hadn’t heard that excuse from him before.’ Priya was grateful for Lalita holding her hand because she wanted to get up and run out of the house. She felt like a fool talking to this woman who was so well known about her fool of a husband.

‘Yes, I have heard that excuse before, too, from my husband before he died. I wanted to believe it so badly but it wasn’t true.’ Penny hadn’t talked to anyone about Kurt except for Bernadette.

‘You’re kidding?’ Priya couldn’t believe the patron saint of romantic marriage was a jilted wife.

‘He was run over and before I could do anything except smile at all the condolences. He wasn’t all bad. That’s why I married him so when he died I felt like I would have been worse somehow to accuse him of cheating. He wouldn’t have felt anything I guess but that wouldn’t have fixed my heart from that pain he put there. There would have been no justice in it just empty revenge. Instead I get to listen to well-meaning pity and condolence. I think that feels the worst because I’m lying with every thank you.’

Priya nodded in understanding about the pity. ‘Up to now, I’ve been the only one to know about Leonard. That was bad enough because my family warned me about him. I thought he was just a silly child at first and he’d learn better. I needed him to be better but he never was and I couldn’t tell my family, not Raj, he knew better but I didn’t listen to him. I don’t know what Leonard was thinking when he met you. He followed your show, bought his toys and comics; I thought he couldn’t be so stupid.’ Priya bent forward and covered her face with her hands to take a breath.

‘It was hearing about it at work that was hardest. The pity from everyone who read Leonard was cheating on me. They were all trying to make me feel better. It was worse than Leonard’s lies. I felt so foolish because they didn’t know what I had already compromised forgiving him so many times and what I lost turning on my family to be with him. Sort of like you, divorce would just be revenge and it wouldn’t fix anything. When it was nerds at his work or comic conventions no one knew but now, it feels like I’m getting what I deserve for not listening to my family or just divorcing him the first time I found him cheating.’ Priya felt like she needed a shower from the inside out. Her skin crawled to be telling all this out loud what she had thought far too many times over the years.

‘Priya, I guess Lalita told you Raj is here and everything.’ Penny continued when Priya just nodded. ‘There is justice to be had in all this. Leonard did a lot more than just cheat on you. He hurt a lot of people before he even married you.’

‘What do you mean?’ Priya was curious because Lalita had already brought up Raj’s turn of mind about her and Leonard getting together.

Penny had been wondering where Sheldon was ever since Lalita’s car came back to the cottage. She guessed he must be as nervous as everyone else in the house, today.

Lalita took up the moment feeling some of her old Priya coming back to herself. ‘You should ask Raj about that. A lot happened here in this house and up in the arctic that I believe Leonard never told you. You’re a lawyer, Priya, you know how important knowing what all the evidence in the case is, you can get that right here, from Raj and Howard, and from Sheldon.’ Lalita looked at Penny and got up. She offered her hand to Priya.

Priya looked at both women and made up her mind to follow the evidence. Penny followed Lalita and Priya upstairs and Penny told them Raj was waiting in the study. They were all apprehensive and Priya was glad Lalita was here for support. Lalita opened the door and led Priya into the study. Raj got up from the desk where he had been reading through the arctic journals. The siblings stared at each other like each was seeing a ghost. They took a tentative step towards each other then rushed to embrace. Raj was stunned by his sister crying. She always guarded her feeling so much he sometimes thought she was made of steel.

Raj hugged his sister tight and closed his eyes trying to forget she had ever been away. ‘What’s wrong, why are you crying?’

‘I feel so happy, so terrible, and I feel like it’s over. My biggest mistake; I’m sorry Raj; sorry I didn’t listen to you. I’m sorry I lost you when I left you and everyone.’ Priya rambled everything at once trying to put too many feelings she could barely explain into words she wasn’t ready to say.

Raj gently cut off her apology with his own apologies. ‘I’m sorry I pushed so hard. I’m sorry I ever made you think you couldn’t talk to me. I just wanted you to be happy, all of us did. I was stupid thinking I could make you happy by trying to make your decisions about Leonard. I was never there for when you really needed me.’

Penny saw Sheldon vanish from the telescope by the open balcony and she reached over to hug Lalita’s waist. They both breathed a sigh of relief and left Raj and Priya to their reunion.

Chapter Text

Lalita and Penny went downstairs to the kitchen and Penny made them both some iced tea. Lalita wanted to take hers outside to the pavilion to think about Raj and Priya upstairs. She wanted to call home to talk to her folks after everything that happened today.

‘Penny, did your parents look sad when you got married?’ Lalita remembered how oddly wistful her parents had looked at the airport when she and Raj left on their honeymoon.

‘Beats me, Kurt and I eloped. I expect they were more angry than sad although they never said anything. Well, my mom still complains about not getting to throw a big wedding like yours.’ Penny could still hear the shouting on her phone the morning after in Las Vegas.

Lalita giggled at that story. ‘Sometimes, I wished I had eloped when my mother got going on all the details but when we left from the airport, they looked sad in a way I never saw before. I wonder if all parents feel that way. When I think about everything with Priya and Raj, I worry about what might happen with my kids, someday.’

Lalita was glad she got to help Raj and Priya get back together and now she wanted to call her parents and tell them how much she loved them. ‘Watch, they’ll think I’m upset and want a divorce, already.’

‘Well, Priya is a pretty good lawyer, I hear. Check with her.’ Penny laughed and said she’d give her a call out in the pavilion if Raj came looking for her.

Sheldon appeared across the kitchen table from Penny after Lalita went outside. ‘How are you doing, Moonpie?’

‘I am pondering family. I know very little about mine since I died. I was not communicative with them except for Meemaw and my mommy. The calls were more dutiful with my mother because she is quite the staunch Christian of a particularly fervent Texas variety.’

‘Not the Charismatic types?’ Penny sighed in sympathy. ‘We have them in Nebraska, too. Lucky me, my family aren’t big church goers.’

‘I believe my mother found her faith because her husband drove her to it. He was not an easy man, very particular and very set in his ways. His house, his rules was how he ran things. But it was the drinking that made things hardest for her so she discovered the church. It was my Meemaw who really understood me and I do miss her very much. All the talking upstairs between Raj and Priya has made me wonder, considerably, what has happened to my family since I died.’

‘You’re listening to them even now?’ Penny couldn’t help feeling that was a bit rude.

‘Like I explained to you when you and Bernadette were discussing Jonas Twill's attack on you later that evening in the bathroom, I am always aware of those rooms. It is almost like they are in my mind up there because of my attachment to that space. I can ignore other parts of the house but not those rooms. That is why I prefer only you being there, though Bernadette’s presence is not disagreeable. She is surprisingly careful and thorough in her dusting around all my models.’

Penny raised an eyebrow at Sheldon’s approved list. ‘Is that why Howard still gets creeped out whenever he goes up there by himself? He says he hates to go in there at all if Bernadette or I aren’t in the study.’

‘He has his collector’s room downstairs which has a great deal of my collectables to lounge around in. Besides, he keeps eyeing my Battlestar Galactica which you purchased for me. He believes his display is in need of it to make his ensemble of starships complete.’

Penny gave a nod to Sheldon’s complaint. ‘I can understand you not wanting him taking your stuff downstairs. I’ll talk to him about the study collection and tell him it all stays up there. Just, try to let him feel a little more welcome, Sheldon. I know you only want me and Bernadette in there but he does live here, too, so don’t go scaring him out of the study.’ Penny saw Sheldon wanted to argue the point further. ‘You can give him a nudge if he tries taking your things, just don’t send him screaming.’

‘Penny, why do you seldom talk about your family? You do not sound displeased with them when you do so, I wonder why you so seldom mention them?’

Penny sipped her tea and glance around the kitchen. ‘Not much to say, they were OK, no different than anyone else or maybe they were? My mom wanted me to act like a girl and dad wanted me to act like a boy until I hit puberty then he spent all his time on my little brother after that. Randal did nothing but get into trouble, trouble enough to end up in jail for cooking meth. Even then, it was always poor Randal to him and why don’t you get married to me. That’s why I wanted out of Nebraska; I would have just ended up some farm wife having babies like my older sister, Helen. Don’t ask me why I married Kurt, that was all too hormone and romance novel fueled to give a good answer to. I guess I've just grown away from Nebraska and them. I love them but this is home for me, California, and acting, and the physics and math stuff. I love everything here with you, Sheldon. That would puzzle them back home, me and physics.’ Penny chuckled at the thought of her mother’s face seeing her nose buried in a science book.

+++

Sheldon felt Raj and Priya ready to talk to everyone. Penny got Lalita, Howard, and Bernadette out in the pavilion and they all went up to the study. Raj and Howard spent a lot of time feeling like they were in court with the thoroughness of Priya’s questions about the arctic. Penny’s research in the journals and Sheldon’s computer logs helped a lot to fill Priya in on their side of the arctic story. Penny started to worry that Priya didn’t believe it for a while when her questioning grew colder and clinical but Raj and Lalita’s ease with it reassured her. Raj later told Penny that was when he started feeling Priya was feeling like the sister he knew, again. She was just in her lawyer armor but he knew she was outraged not just at the sabotage.

Penny was impressed by Priya's all in commitment to clearing up the arctic fiasco and asked Raj about her quick alliance. Raj was used to this side of his sister as was Lalita. The idea that Leonard had hurt her brother and Howard and possibly driven Sheldon to kill himself was worse than anything Leonard had done to her with his cheating. The cheating on her she would have forgiven, too much and often which had always been Raj's worry about her, but hurting his friends, and her brother, Raj assured Penny Leonard had no idea what he had unleashed.

‘Priya, how are you going to find the equipment and notes from the arctic? It’s not something Leonard is ever going to talk about.’ Penny had always come to a halt on how to find the proof they needed, shy of a search warrant like a TV show.

Priya looked at Lalita and they smiled like a couple of Cheshire cats. Raj buried his face in his hands and started moaning.

‘Penny, you’ve met my husband and seen how he reacts to a pretty face, Lalita can get him talking like a fool, have no doubt of it. And besides, I am quite good at getting information from a hostile witness. A little good cop, bad cop, and Leonard will sell whatever little is left of his soul to us.’

After the war council wrapped up, Priya, Raj, and Lalita went out to dinner to have some family time. Howard and Bernadette wanted to call it a day and get some rest so they went to bed after an early supper. When Penny and Sheldon were finally alone in the study Sheldon couldn’t hold back his disbelief. Sheldon was shocked, especially after the way Penny had duped Leonard. ‘Is there some clandestine school where women go to study these arts and allurements which manipulate men or is it genetic?’

Penny glanced at Sheldon from the wing chair with some bemusement. ‘Sheldon, women hardly have a monopoly on manipulation and deviousness, look at Leonard.’

‘Yes, but it is shocking how easily people prey on others through the use of emotional intimacy. The desire for sex drives out all reason and it is easily triggered to manipulate simple minded fools.’ Sheldon had always been confounded by feelings. He felt much more at home with math and science where reason ruled supreme. Emotional intelligence was always a contradiction in terms to him. Her ability to untangle the bewildering world of feelings was what made his Meemaw so invaluable to him growing up.

‘They do, you remember Zane and his camera in the bathroom. I can only imagine what might have come of that if it wasn’t for you, Sheldon, but most people really are not out to hurt anyone or gain something that way. The Leonard’s and Zane’s who will manipulate people to get what they want make it really hard to trust again after they burn you. That’s what makes trust so very precious. It’s hard to gain and easy to lose, just like respect. It’s a shame more people don’t value it more so it can be hard not thinking like you do, Sheldon. But it isn’t a woman thing; it’s a human thing, a very bad side of every one of us. If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to think everyone is out to hurt you to gain something. You’re a good man, Sheldon, don’t let the Leonards make you think worse of everyone.’

‘Emotions and trust about feelings from others outside my family have always been difficult for me. Even my family is a mystery at times, except for Meemaw, but I do trust you as much as my Meemaw. You have made a world of difference to me, more than I can ever thank you for, Penny.’

Sheldon vanished and left Penny thinking about what a difference he had made to her life. She really couldn’t say anyone had apart from her parents, not even Kurt. She went over to the study desk and got out the paperwork about the house and looked through the owner’s information. Howard had told them about Sheldon’s mother keeping the house as a memorial to her son but that couldn’t be cheap. She found another name, Constance Tucker, and she was described as the grandmother of the deceased owner. Penny had found Meemaw. She hoped the address listed was still currant and got out some stationary. Penny expected Sheldon would never expect a letter to arrive from her.

+++
Phase one went well but Lalita returned to Los Robles Cottage more subdued than Penny expected. She told everyone that Priya and she had gotten the information they needed. The hardest part was some of it was in a safe at Caltech which Priya thought would have the most sensitive stuff; especially that can opener Howard figured had created the results. Penny took a turn out on the balcony to chat with Sheldon while everyone was trying to come up with an idea about the safe.

‘Can a ghost crack a safe, Sheldon?’ Penny cut to the chase.

‘Easily, should we resort to criminal methods to do this, Penny?’

‘You know, this game ain’t for guys that’s soft!’ Penny did her best Edward G. Robinson.

‘Thank you, Rico Bandello, that makes me feel ever so much better.’ Sheldon scoffed at Penny’s mimicking the gangster boss. Her recent love of classic gangster movies had her and Bernadette doing gangster skits all over the house.

‘Yeah, you’re right, Sheldon, this isn’t honest. I can live with doing this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Priya could, too, to save Raj, but she’s a lawyer. She could lose everything doing something like this. I don’t doubt Howard and Raj have the skills but they can’t afford to get caught doing something like this and the university would never look at the proof if they got caught. Leonard could just say they were planting it. I really don’t see this in Bernie or Lalita’s wheelhouse. It’s not really mine either but I do have a friend none of them do who can get this done with me. I can’t ask you to do it because it isn’t the honest way to do this but I can tell you I am willing.’

‘I am dead, none of this will really change anything for me but it will change so much for them.’ Sheldon looked in the study where he never expected to see his friends together ever again. To see more new friends like Bernadette and Lalita, he couldn’t express how much Penny had added to his soul. ‘We will go, tomorrow night, assuming Leonard has stayed true to form. There is an annual Babylon 5 viewing party which he attended religiously. I believe Priya can tell us if he still attends that festival, if so, access to his lab will be quite simple.’

Sheldon did feel there was a flaw in the idea. ‘Wouldn’t Leonard simply say the things were stolen?’

‘Sure, he can admit to hiding data proving he sabotaged your experiment, I’m sure that will work.’ Penny did think it would be best to go over that with Priya after they had the proof.

‘He could claim that it is fabricated.’

‘How did he keep his data, Sheldon?’

‘Much like mine, hand written journals and computer records.’

Penny gave that a thought and felt it shouldn’t be a problem. ‘It’s hard to fake a whole journal of handwriting so that would fall apart pretty quick. Computers and files can be just as hard to fake, I guess, not something so needed with a set of journals of undeniable handwriting. One should back up the other and we aren’t going in a court of law, we are going for scientific proof. That is something you guys do know. I am sure with the know how in that room the proof will stand up.’

+++

Three days later, Priya came to Los Robles Cottage in the morning with some of the equipment and paperwork from the arctic that was in the basement of her home. Penny let her in and brought her to the living room where a large FedEx box sat on the table. She asked Priya to sit and give her a second while she found everyone. She called folks down from upstairs where Raj, Lalita, and Bernadette were putting themselves together. Penny found Howard in the kitchen making breakfast before he went to work and had him join everyone. They all were happy with the stuff Priya brought from home but the safe in Leonard’s lab weighed on them. Penny asked Howard if he’d mind opening the box that had been delivered this morning. The contents had them all astounded. The journals had Leonard’s name and were labeled Cooper Arctic expedition. Everything was there, including the can opener Howard remembered from the arctic. The rapid fire of questions about where the box came from all went to Penny since she got the delivery. She just put it down to the ghost of Sheldon.

Priya, Raj, and Howard took over the study for the day. Howard told Bernadette he wasn’t bothering with opening his office until this was over now they had the proof they needed. She gave him a kiss and told him to make her proud. Bernie hadn’t seen her husband ever look so changed for the better. She did have questions for Penny, though. She found Penny in the kitchen and asked her to take a little walk outside with her. They headed up a trail out behind the house they enjoyed for the views of the valley.

‘It’s great that box of goodies showed up out of nowhere, sweetie.’ Bernadette didn’t bother keeping the sarcasm out of her voice.

Penny smirked and agreed. ‘Yup, it is.’

‘It wasn’t Sheldon’s ghost, was it, Penny?’

‘Oh yes, yes it was.’ Penny had no reason to lie about that. She’d never been able to get past the cameras, motion detectors, and locks without him. He did wonder about the FedEx but Penny wanted the box to get to them with some sort of trail so it didn’t just fall into their hands from the get go. It made it a little harder to say they had faked the contents.

‘Come on, I want to save Howard’s bacon just as much as you, you can tell me.’

Penny gave Bernadette a hug. ‘You know, something could go wrong. If it does, well, some crazy actress living in an attic full of Sheldon’s stuff got her head filled with the guy. She came across his old work pal and got jilted just like the press said. Being a crazy old bat, she went and tried a silly stunt to get back at him for the jilting and for hurting the guy she went nuts for up in that attic. It’s just a story but Leonard can’t really touch me. Not even over that stuff because he would have to admit having it to begin with.’

Bernadette looked at Penny with newfound respect. ‘Talented, beautiful, and evil, I think I’ll divorce Howard and marry you.’

‘Good idea, love of my life. We’ll make that Plan B, if this doesn’t work. Let’s keep this between us, though. Howard and Raj need this win a lot more than I do.’ Penny and Bernadette held each other and promised to never talk of the box and its appearance ever again.

+++

For the next two weeks, Priya, Howard, and Raj took over the library to go over all the data that they had from the arctic expedition. Sheldon, through Penny added some of the theoretical proofs he had worked on to explain what happened in the arctic experiment. Raj had brought his journals and files from India, and Howard had kept his own which added to Sheldon’s meticulous work bore out the discontinuities in Leonard’s public journals. His private journals revealed the source of the mechanical faults which gave Sheldon the positive results. Being a lawyer, Priya took up the opposing side and worked to invalidate Howard and Raj’s arguments. She managed to rattle them a few times with tangents Leonard was likely to use. Years of marriage gave her a keen insight into how he might seek to deflect the charges against him and she helped them greatly in dealing with those possible defenses. Howard and Raj took up demonstrating the equipment and Leonard’s sabotage via the electronic interference created by the electric can opener and eliminating other possible sources of the false data.

During the work on the arctic case, a letter arrived for Penny from Constance Tucker of Galveston, Texas. She got some coffee and went up to the study to get comfortable in the wing chair and see what Sheldon’s Meemaw had to say. Penny was glad to see the letter come since Sheldon was growing more nervous and Sheldony by the hour about the data and the case. Penny could follow some of what the guys were demonstrating after all her classes and having listened to Sheldon talk about the experiment many times but she wasn’t on a level to really add anything meaningful without Sheldon feeding her the information. He insisted she should speak for him but she knew that was a bad idea because she didn’t have the qualifications, yet, and that alone would tend to make her input weak from the start even though she could be speaking fluent Sheldonese. Penny felt sure the letter would distract Sheldon and give him some needed family help.

Penny had written to Mrs. Tucker to talk about Sheldon because she had been living around Sheldon’s papers and things so long and to tell her about what she and the others hoped to do to validate Sheldon’s work. Penny had wanted to get to know Sheldon from her perspective and wrote about some of her own impressions from living with his presence in the house. Meemaw was happy to write about her grandson. As happens with death, many people will try to avoid bringing up lost ones to avoid upsetting those left behind. The idea Sheldon could have committed suicide had been especially painful to her and that had really silenced discussion of her much loved grandson. She was taken with Penny’s letter immediately for the chance to bring him back to life if only in a few pages of a letter.

‘Penny, you must come down to the library and speak to the group about the absurd tack they have taken on Smolin’s criticism on String Theory.’ Penny looked up from her letter and smirked at Sheldon’s latest complaint.

‘Didn’t Frodo push him in that volcano or something?’

‘Smolin, not Smeagol, though I wouldn’t mind seeing him fall into Mount Doom. Is this another of your attempts to get under my skin?’ Sheldon was never sure anymore whether Penny was serious or kidding him with her malapropisms or not ever since she started taking up her physics degree.

‘Tell me what the chicken was about, first.’ Penny could see the wheels turning at the left turn in the conversation.

‘What chicken are you talking about, Penny?

‘The one Connie, here, says chased you up the elm tree in your front yard when you were seven.’ Penny waved the letter towards Sheldon.

Sheldon gasped in shock hearing his Meemaw’s name. ‘How could you have a letter from Meemaw?’ Sheldon ran to the couch and ripped the letter from Penny’s hand. He scanned the pages rapidly drinking in the familiar elegant cursive loops that were so familiar to him.

Penny curled her legs up under her and watched Sheldon read the familiar stories about his past with alternating expressions of embarrassment, humor, and wistfulness. ‘You’re not forgotten, Sheldon, not by her, or your family. You’ve been so keyed up over the arctic stuff in the library; I figured you needed to remember some more important things like the people who love you, Moonpie.’

Sheldon held the letter delicately as though even a ghostly breath would make it disappear. ‘I haven’t heard from her in so long, I can’t tell you what this means.’

‘You don’t have to, Sheldon, I can feel it. Now, tell me about her, tell me about you both.’ They spoke of Meemaw, and Texas, and Sheldon’s childhood and Penny got out some memorabilia of her own that even Bernadette had never seen and for a few hours, there was no past or future for either Penny or Sheldon. There was only the life and love of their families to share between them.

+++

Chapter Text

Leonard and Priya+++

The whole Week had been one frustration after another. His planned meeting to talk about funding for his latest research with Gablehauser had been put off three times already. Gablehauser kept telling him nothing could be done at the moment until the department’s funding as a whole got settled out. Everyone kept miscommunicating and not communicating from Barry Kripke’s campaign of embarrassment over the funding which he’d managed to obtain to Leslie Winkle’s tormenting him with the aftermath of the Bialik’s fiasco and getting in the news for that mortifying non-date with her favorite TV star. He had even more trouble at home since Priya seemed to have gone into permanent lawyer mode on some kind of case at her office. Every conversation seemed to go to the same dead end.

‘Hey, is your friend, Lalita, coming over again?’

‘I don’t expect so; she’s got a lot of people she wants to meet from her time studying at USC.

‘That’s too bad. She was pretty funny. You should invite her again; you two seemed to have a good time.

She’s traveling with her husband so I expect he’ll take up a lot of her free time.

‘You didn’t say she was married.’

‘No? We were too busy reliving old times to think about husbands.’

‘You’ve been going out a lot lately, Priya.’

‘Yes, I have’

‘Well?’

‘Well, what, Leonard?’

‘What are you doing?’

‘That makes you concerned, for what reason?’

‘I’d just like to know where my wife is going, isn’t that OK?’

‘You are evading the question, Leonard, why does my going out make you concerned?’

‘It doesn’t worry me, I just want to know?’

‘Why does it make you concerned to know what you say does not worry you? That is a contradictory statement, Leonard. Are you suspicious of something, Leonard?’

‘Do you love me? I try to do right by you and I know I screw up a lot but you mean everything to me, Priya.’

‘Did you tell that to Penny Queen or any of the other women, Leonard?’

‘I love you Priya.’

‘That is reassuring.’

+++

 

Raj and Lalita

Lalita brought Raj to La Casa Bangalore, Priya’s and now Lalita’s favorite restaurant in LA. Raj had been dubious about the place until he got a whiff of the food and tried the Bisi Bele Bhath. The restaurant was a lot like them. They’d lived overseas for so long being given the best education their families could get them but they had grown in so many more ways they felt most comfortable in places like this. A café that was a jambalaya, it was their lives made manifest.

‘What happens after this is over, Raj?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘If we win and we prove everything about the arctic and Leonard, what do we do from there?’

‘Do you want to go back home, Lalita, back to India?’

‘Every decision we make turns into something bigger, Raj, almost from when we were children.’

‘Is that why you spent so much time kicking me in the groin growing up?’

‘No, I just enjoyed that; I didn’t want to be married. What ten year old does, really? Our parents made an arranged marriage for us and I hated the idea, but here we are because anyway but because we wanted to do it.’

‘Are you worried about us lasting, Lal?

‘Of course, how can you take care of a marriage if you do not worry about it?’

‘Are you worried about choosing to live in India or America?’

‘I am worried that we work to be happy wherever we are. Are you happy teaching in India, Raj?’

‘Of course not, we have talked about that hundreds of times.’

‘Then, it should be easy to answer what happens next, Raj.’

‘I want to return home, home to California. Would you be happy coming to California?’

‘When I was studying at USC, I might have said no because I was alone, but now I have you. And, Priya did find the most wonderful restaurant, here.’

+++

 

Howard and Raj+++

Howard was seeing double from staring at formulas and data for the last week. He and Raj had thrown themselves into the work and they were dying to do more but they hadn’t had a break in days. Raj looked up at the moan that escaped from Howard.

‘Can’t look at any more, either?’

‘I want to, man, but I’m getting to where I’m rechecking what I rechecked because I thought I didn’t recheck what I did check. I have no idea what I just said.’

‘There’s only one answer, man. We have got to risk it.’

‘Are you crazy, Raj? Remember what Bernie said the last time you brought it up?’

‘I know, and she set Priya on us and you know how she feels about the idea but we have a stake in this, too, maybe, the biggest stakes.’

Howard got up from the desk and tossed the pen and calculator aside. ‘Let’s do this. We are droppin' into Hell, troopers! Time to grow a pair!’

+++

Priya arrived at Los Robles Cottage at her usual 11am for the last couple of weeks and didn’t see Raj or Howard in the living room or library. She greeted Lalita and they both wondered what became of the guys. They went up to the study where they found Penny in her favorite chair playing a chess game on a weird multilevel board set. She said she hadn’t seen the guys since early this morning but they hadn’t come up here all morning. She seemed to pause in thought a second and said they were in the basement collector’s room. Priya mumbled something harshly about childish games and marched out of the study.

‘Could you get Priya to go easy on the guys, Lal, they’ve been burning themselves out. I don’t think they’ve slept in the last forty hours and they’ve got be losing it. A little Halo time might help them unwind and focus more.’ Penny was almost glad she couldn’t be a big contributor after seeing the guy’s haggard faces this morning when she had gotten up. She’d gotten them some coffee and something to eat but she wasn’t surprised that hadn’t been what they really needed.

‘Sure, Penny, what’s that game, some kind of chess?’

‘Yeah, it’s from Star Trek. Sheldon loves the game.’

Lalita nodded at the funny way Penny sometimes referred to Sheldon in the present tense but she had to save the guys from the wrath of Priya.

‘Your game has improved greatly, Penny.’ Sheldon had been surprised how quickly Penny picked up three dimensional chess but he had to admit she did have a facility for puzzles and the complexities of strategic games that made her a satisfying opponent for Sheldon.

‘Thanks, Sheldon, but I still like Age of Conan, more. This does work to get your mind off things, though, and I do like this part, check.’

‘What?’

+++

 

Howard and Bernadette +++

Bernadette had seen Howard’s pictures and memorabilia. She knew what his job was, well, the one he was trained for and hoped he could go back to again. She didn’t like it, not one bit.

‘You can’t be serious about that, Howard?’

‘Of course I am that was what I did for a living, build spacecraft and fly up in them.’

‘You can’t do that anymore, you have a wife and a baby to think of!’

‘I am thinking of them but can’t I think of myself, too?’

‘Obviously, but how can you do something so dangerous?’

‘Bernie, it’s more dangerous driving over to JPL than flying up to the ISS.’

‘I can’t think of losing you, Howard, the baby needs you because I would be a terrible mother alone.’

‘You won’t be a terrible mother, you’ll be Bernadette and she is wonderful.’

‘What would the baby be without a father?’

‘I can’t promise you a danger free life, Bernadette. Sheldon died right in this house. Penny almost died jogging up the road. I’m not fearless, Bernie, but space travel is no job for the fearless or the reckless.’

‘Those rockets scare me, Howie.’

‘The thought of losing you scares, Bernie. If it's what you need, I guess I've had enough time up there.’

'Would you really miss it that much, Howie?'

'Yeah, I would, but I need you more, Bernie.'

 

Penny and Sheldon+++

Penny read through the script again for The Coven’s new season premiere. The show was set to begin filming next month so she had to put the arctic stuff aside for a bit which annoyed Sheldon quite a bit. Penny didn’t doubt his supportiveness towards her work but she also knew his conceit for his own field over everything else.

‘Penny, I have several ideas that I wish to have you introduce to Howard and Raj.’

‘I’m sure you do, Sheldon, but I don’t have the time or energy to go through another ping pong science match between you and them with me being your ghost speaker.’

‘You have no idea what they are considering. The overarching goal of my experiment was not meant to work within-‘

Penny cut off the tirade by whistling up a shrill rodeo horse call. Sheldon hated the high pitched noise more than any show tune melody. It reminded him all too much of his father’s loathsome hunting trips. ‘Sheldon, Howard and Raj are pretty good at what they do and Priya knows more about how to present a case than all of us combined. The theory doesn’t matter, we are proving the sabotage. They don’t need more theory down there to do that and I need to have this script prepped and ready so I can do my job next month.’

‘They will soon be presenting this case to the university. Well before you have to shoot your show and your familiarity with the character and setting should make the preparation little more than memorizing your lines of dialogue.’

‘Sheldon, honey, I am not going to have a debate with you about the merits of my work or how it needs to get done. You are not an actor I am not going downstairs to, basically, argue their job with them since I really am not a scientist and they are right to make those arguments I bring from you an uphill fight. All they see is an actress with some coursework in her head. They aren’t wrong. Would you listen to some BA arguing String Theory with you, Moonpie?’

‘Of course not, but you are not a simple BA student and you have my intellect behind you.’

‘They don’t know that, Sheldon, so throwing my two cents in takes more effort than it’s worth all too often and it is time taken from doing this work which is my job and does need my attention.’ Penny lifted the script meaningfully.

‘Penny, I am grateful for the time you take to speak for me but this is urgent.’

‘So, is this, and in this job, I am the expert. Respect, all jobs need it to work. I wouldn’t tell a pilot how to fly a plane or a surgeon how to operate. I do know about acting. You know how hard it is for you to lie, Sheldon?’

‘Of course, you have read Meemaw’s letter and read about a most regrettable attempt.’ Sheldon was still shocked Meemaw had shared that story with Penny and that Penny had found it charming.

‘Acting is a lot like that. If you aren’t prepared, anyone can see you are just some nitwit who memorized some lines and are just spouting them back like a parrot. Maybe, worse, since parrots can manage authenticity in their speech even if it’s nonsense.’

‘I had not considered acting to be akin to being a professional liar.’

‘I don’t think I’d say I’m a professional liar but I am creating a version of the truth, if the work is any good.

 

Leonard to Siebert’s office+++

Leonard was taken aback after he hung up with President Siebert’s secretary. He felt Prof Gablehauser wasn’t taking the funding issue seriously so he tried getting an appointment to discuss the situation with the university president and get some pressure put on Gablehauser to get his funding locked down. The secretary had explained the president was aware of the funding issues in the physics department but a review of the department was ongoing and funding issues were tied up in the review. When Leonard had pressed the secretary on what was being reviewed that could affect his ability to continue his research, she had said there was a review of research of the staff within the last five years and future funding depended on the integrity of that prior research. Leonard felt uneasy with that time frame since that went back to the arctic expedition with Sheldon.

Leonard started when his lab door opened. He looked up at Leslie Winkle’s wry grin.

‘What’s got you so jumpy, dumbass?’

‘I’m not jumpy; the door just surprised me, that’s all.’

‘Did it surprise you as much as being in the news, again? Penny Queen’s show is back on soon and the gossip news is running your hundred yard sprint from that coffee shop, again.’ Leslie poured herself a coffee and enjoyed watching Leonard getting worked up.

‘Jeeze, not that again? It wasn’t a date and she asked me out!’ Leonard kept telling everyone about the comic shop and it was just getting coffee not some kind of date.

Leslie rolled her eyes and smirked. ‘Yeah, Penny Queen, the grieving widow of Pasadena, the idol of Goth tweeners and angst filled teens asked you out. Is that what you told Priya?’

‘Hey, leave Priya out of this, Leslie. I have enough trouble with her already without you adding your two cents.’

‘Leave Priya out of this? Like the way you left Priya out of that ‘not a date’ at Bialik’s? You really are a dumbass.’ Leslie chuckled and freshened her coffee before leaving to teach her class.

‘Thanks for the sympathy, Leslie. Hey, did you have any trouble getting next term’s funding?’

‘No, why would I? Is something going on?’ Leslie hadn’t heard of any funding troubles in the department but she always liked to keep her radar checked.

‘My funding has been held up and I tried talking to Siebert about it since Gablehauser’s been stonewalling me for the past week over it. His secretary said there was some kind of review of past research going on. Have you heard of anything?’

Leslie took a sip of her coffee and mulled over what Leonard said for a minute. No one in the department had said anything about research reviews. Some people were still waiting on the usual slow wheels of departmental paperwork but there was no talk about reviews. She guessed it might be something to do with Leonard’s work specifically that was holding up his money. She thought about warning him but she figured you really can’t save a fool from himself. ‘Nope, my money came through fine.’

‘You don’t suppose that Penny Queen news has anything to do with it, do you?’

Leslie laughed and figured Leonard was too hopeless to save. ‘Why would the department make funding decisions based on your so called love life?’

‘It wasn’t a date!’ Leonard growled at Leslie’s back while she went out the door and he grabbed some antacid out of his desk drawer for the burning in his stomach.

Leonard tried again to get an appointment scheduled when he got back from lunch. She told him the president was available to see Leonard in his conference room. That worried Leonard because Siebert only held meetings there when something big was going on. He got his paperwork together to discuss his money requirements and headed over to the meeting.

On his way he met a pretty petite blonde with a high pitched voice and wearing glasses. ‘Hey, can I help you, miss?’

‘Bernadette, thanks, I’m looking for the president’s conference room. My husband has some kind of meeting there and I am so lost here on this campus.’

‘I’m headed there myself, Bernadette, let’s walk together, my name’s Leonard, by the way.’

Bernadette laughed and started walking. ‘That’s a funny name, Bytheway, do you play for St. Louis?’

Leonard looked confused and tagged along. ‘What?’

‘What’s on second.’ Bernadette strung Leonard along with the old vaudeville routine.

‘I don’t know?’ Leonard was quite lost now and wondered what was wrong with this girl.

‘He’s on third; we’re not talking about him, Bytheway.’ Bernadette waved and called out to the woman on the sidewalk. ‘Lal, over here, honey, I thought I lost you.’

Leonard couldn’t believe this odd girl was friends with Lalita. ‘Hey, Lalita, how do you two know each other?’

‘Hi Bernie, hey Leonard, my husband and I have been staying with Bernie at her place. I had no idea I’d see you here, Leonard. You sounded like your lab was your life at dinner the other night. How’s the science going?’

‘Great, but I have a meeting with Pres. Siebert in a few minutes.’ Leonard thought for a second and it hit him what Bernadette had been talking about and he cracked up. ‘Who’s on First, Abbot and Costello!’

Bernadette giggled at her success. ‘Yeah, my girlfriend and I like to do routines from old movies we watch. Sometimes, something just triggers me like when you were saying you were Leonard Bytheway.'

They chatted their way up to the conference room and Leonard froze when he heard Penny’s voice when he walked in and his gasp choked in his throat when he heard Priya respond.

‘And, did he try that centrifugal force trick with the ball in the glass?’ Penny handed Priya another coffee and sat down on the couch next to her.

‘Thanks, Penny. Oh, yes, he thought that was so smooth. Almost every freshman physics geek tries to impress a girl with that, even at Cambridge.’

Lalita piped up in the middle of their laughter. ‘I found Bernie; I guess she got turned around coming back from the parking garage.

‘We may never find the car again; do you know how to find the parking garage, Priya?’ Bernadette got some coffee for Lalita and herself.

‘Don’t worry, I know this campus thanks to Leonard, but I want to ask you about this one here.’ Priya pointed to Penny. ‘How could you get her a Skype channel for your wedding and not get one for your old friend?’

Leonard’s head was spinning from the interconnections in the room. Penny was Skyping Lalita’s wedding? Lalita was staying with Bernadette? Priya was friends with Lalita and now she seemed all chummy with Penny. ‘Someone wanna catch me up? It sounds like you all know each other.’

Leonard didn’t get to hear an answer since he saw a sight that made him feel much worse. Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali came out of the conference room with President Siebert.

‘Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure to see you here at Caltech again after so long. I want to say how happy I am for myself and for the university to have you both come and speak to me and the board. There’s so much we should discuss. I would like to invite you both to lunch tomorrow at my home and I hope you can bring your wives as well. Mrs. Siebert would be delighted to meet them, and maybe Ms. Queen and your sister could come, Raj?’

Raj shook hands with Siebert. ‘I hope they will, how about it Priya, Penny?’

Howard seconded the invite. ‘Yeah, the president puts on quite a spread. You guys will love it.’

Leonard grew sick watching the scene play out in front of him. The stonewalling and prevaricating had to be from Raj and Howard trying to bring up Sheldon and the Arctic. The whole thing about reviewing past work was an attack on him. Fortunately, he had his backup plan ready in his laboratory safe. Siebert’s secretary brought his attention to Leonard.

‘Ah, Prof. Hofstadter, I am glad you could make it. The board and I would like to discuss some previous work of yours.’ Siebert’s voice had turned to a cold frost in the instant he turned to Leonard. ‘Ladies, Gentlemen, if you would excuse me, I have some university business to discuss with Prof Hofstadter. Please, I would be very happy to see ‘you’ all, tomorrow.’

Leonard tried to march confidently into the conference room but the table the board of governors sat around held a nightmare. Sheldon’s journals were scattered about along with several laptops that had his data. He was aghast at more and worse, his private journals from his safe were there as well as his arctic equipment, his computer data, and the electric can opener he’d used to fudge Sheldon’s results.

Sheldon watched the scene play out in front of him. He had caused panic in too many people invading his home to not be able to see it in Leonard. He wasn’t revengeful by nature but he had watched with pride how Raj and Howard had handled themselves. Now, he saw Leonard start to fall apart and he didn’t even have to use his ethereal influence to see his ‘best’ friend face the consequences of what he’d done to benefit himself. Sheldon watched the proceedings begin and he thought that if he had ever won a Nobel Prize this was how it would have felt, vindicated.

+++

Penny looked out the window at the campus with its students and teachers and bustle between classes and waited for Sheldon. She was taking a sip of her coffee when he appeared next to her.

‘Have you seen enough, Sheldon?’

‘I have but where are the others?’ Sheldon thought they would all celebrate together over the victory they had achieved.

‘They’re all gone to a victory dinner at some place in East LA that Priya likes but I wanted to wait for you so I said I’d catch them back home. How did it feel in there, Sheldon?’ Penny couldn’t help thinking about Kurt while she watched the afternoon sky.

‘Howard and Raj were magnificent but it is strange, I felt oddly sorry for Leonard just now. I was so angry and shocked when Howard told his story. I was mortified at how Raj was manipulated into supporting Leonard marrying Priya. Yet, if Leonard had only hurt me, I think I would have forgiven what he did. I almost want to forgive him now except for how he hurt so many other lives. This is that strange cocktail of emotions you talked about when you found out about Kurt’s cheating, isn’t it?’

‘It is but you are a better soul, Sheldon. I don’t really feel forgiveness for what Kurt did to me. They say forgiveness heals but his death took away the chance to face him for what he did. I felt more cheated by his death than I ever did from his sleeping around. I’m glad you can forgive Leonard; I like to hope I could forgive Kurt but I don’t know. You make me want to be able to, though, Sheldon. Thank you.’

Chapter Text

The wake of the arctic brought a host of changes to the Los Robles family. The immediate aftermath saw Howard and Raj got their positions back at Caltech. The Board and Pres. Siebert had been quite impressed by their presentations and by their loyalty to Prof Cooper and his memory. They would be starting full time with classes again in the coming spring term which gave them a little time to get their affairs in order to restart their old jobs.

Priya and Leonard got a divorce in the aftermath of everything. That had been surprisingly less acrimonious than she had thought it would be but in arbitrating the terms of the divorce; she and Leonard had finally had an honest discussion about everything that had happened between them and it brought them closure. As much as Leonard had connived to get together with her, she had married more to prove to her family that she could than to be with him, really. They both realized they shouldn’t have gotten married to begin with.

Howard and Raj got their jobs back at CalTech and were busy re-orienting themselves. Raj found the change less stressful than Howard because he had the advantage of having been able to stay in his field and work while in India. Howard had fallen behind but with Penny and Bernadette’s encouragement he used the time to begin his own engineering PhD program to help him catch up on advancements in the field while he was ‘slumming it in real estate’ as he called his time outside academia.

The biggest change for all of them came in December.

+++

Bernadette loved seeing Howard heading off to Caltech in the morning. He looked happy enough that sometimes Monday morning wasn’t entirely awful. She was more concerned with Penny these days. She knew Penny was usually rehearsing later in the day so she went up to the study after Howard left to have a chat before Penny dove into her Coven work. She heard Penny talking from outside the door and guessed she was rehearsing something and hoped she wasn’t breaking her concentration on something important when she knocked.

‘Come on in, Bernie!’

‘Morning, Penny, how goes the show?’ Bernadette came in with a pot of coffee and some mugs. She set them down on the study desk and poured for Penny and herself.

‘We start filming the midseason finale in a few weeks and it all looks good. How’s your finale coming on, the baby will get here soon, I expect.’

‘Oh, god, not fast enough, but the exam yesterday went fine. The doctor is still predicting the end of the month for the birth. Howie and I decided on names, finally, Halley for a girl and Neil if it’s a boy.’

‘They sound lovely. Do you mind if I write to Connie about the names? She’d love to know, I think she wants to knit something for the baby.’ Penny chuckled a bit at Connie’s curiosity about the doings in Los Robles Cottage.

‘Sure, that would be lovely, please thank her for the thought.’ Bernadette poured some more coffee for them both and decided to get to the real reason for this morning’s chat. ‘Penny, are you thinking of doing that M.A.? I get you wanted to help Howie and all but it’s over. You seem to be getting buried in this study more and more and I worry about you.’

‘Why? I have the show, my classes, and my friends?’ Penny could guess what was on Bernadette’s mind.

‘When’s the last time you went on a date?’

‘A real date, Zane, pretty much, I just haven’t wanted to date anyone, Bernie.’

‘That’s what worries me, you used to get out and see people, but now you turn everyone down. You’re barely 25 but you are acting like dating has passed you by or something.’

‘You know, life has been pretty busy of late, Bernie, and besides, I dated more than my fair share in high school before I married Kurt and I met enough people after him that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.’

‘Don’t you ever get lonely up here, sometimes?’

‘Bernie, I have never felt lonely since we moved in here. I dated folks but I feel like I was always trying to be something for them. I never felt I needed them. A lot of times, I really felt happier when the break up came along. I guess I feel happier being here for me.

Bernie sighed. ‘I wish you would do something besides work and study. I worry about you up here all the time. Sometimes, I hear you talking like there must be someone else here, arguing even, and it doesn’t sound like rehearsal, either.’

Penny looked abashed since she knew how she and Sheldon could go at it from time to time. ‘I’m sorry, Bernie, I guess I can get talking to myself up here but it’s nothing to worry about. I’m not going to turn into some crazy cat lady up here.’

‘Oh, honey, it’s just I don’t want to see you get stuck and trapped up here so much. It just seems a little too much like after you found out about Kurt cheating on you. You got all barricaded up there in that old apartment.’ Bernadette looked around the room with its eccentric decoration. She got up and walked over to the bookshelves. She perused the eclectic mix of books- science and math, theater and literature, new age spiritualism and astrology.

Penny’s eyes followed Bernadette’s hand running along the books and her thoughts ran along the paths of those final days with Kurt. ‘Bernie, you know I was hardly happy back then. The highlight of my life back then was my husband dying. I was angry, despairing, and exasperated. I was relieved I didn’t have to tell my family about the cheating, but I was filled with guilt and doubt about everything ahead of me. I had found my fairy tale prince and kingdom when I got to California and it all had come crashing down on me.’ Penny picked up their coffees and brought Bernadette’s over to her. ‘If I didn’t have you back then, Bernie, I don’t know what I would have done.’

Penny took Bernadette’s hand and smiled. ‘That isn’t what’s happening now. I was feeling miserable back then but now, now I have everything I dreamed of when I left Nebraska. Everything I ever wanted for me.’

Bernadette took a thoughtful sip of her coffee and considered what Penny had said. ‘Wasn’t Kurt part of what you wanted; not the cheating obviously, but someone to love just for yourself? I don’t want to see you cutting off your love life. You have such a big heart and I don’t want to see it afraid to reach out. You deserve to be loved, honey.’

Penny squeezed Bernadette’s hand and hummed to herself for a second. ‘Do you remember your first dance back in school? The one you can’t forget?’ Penny put her mug down on a shelf space and went over to the music. She got out one of her CDs and put it on. ‘Mine was a homecoming dance for the football team.

‘Yes, mine was the Valentine’s prom in my sophomore year.’ Bernie affirmed and smiled at the recollections that came to mind while she waited for Penny to continue.

Penny came back to Bernadette. ‘Dance with me a bit.’ Bernadette put her coffee down and gently swayed to the music, LeAnn Rimes ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’

‘It was my first date with Kurt. I was one of the pretty and popular girls. He was the new star on the football team. It was all a painful teenage cliché. I thought we’d go to the dance, get drunk on some peach schnapps, make out, and I’d be home before mom could wake dad to be ready to kill me again, but it didn’t go like that. We danced and I can still feel his back and smell the Old Spice aftershave he used too much of and this song in the dark. ‘Part of me the starlight’, we were starlight and dreams. We left right after that song and went out to his car. We sat in there, just sat and held hands and talked.’

Penny and Bernadette went and sat back on the couch and Penny felt Bernadette’s tummy where the baby was moving from time to time. ‘I had never really done that with a guy before. We clicked and we talked about feelings and pasts and dreams and what we dreamed for the future. He got me back home so late dad and mom were outside and giving us hell before the car had even stopped but we didn’t care. Our parents were always telling us after that that we were too close for our own good. A year later we eloped. Maybe, they were right in the end, but he was everything to me. That’s why I never go dancing on a first date, too many memories and too many comparisons and too much betrayal in the end. I still feel the shattered bits shifting in my stomach when I hear that song on a dance floor or on a date.’

‘You still love Kurt, don’t you?’

Penny hugged Bernadette close. ‘It wouldn’t hurt so much if I didn’t. I don’t think I stopped looking for someone so much as I don’t want to bother. I had everything I wanted with Kurt, my fairy tale ‘happily ever after’ until the cheating. Now, I have so much more than I ever did then. I love having me and dating would be a distraction. A distraction from what I want to be and do and become.’

Howard had told Bernadette she was trying to get Penny to be like her and now she thought maybe he was right. Bernadette grabbed Penny’s hand and gasped aloud. ‘Penny, how do you feel about becoming a driver right now?’

Sheldon appeared looking terrified. ‘Penny, I think Bernadette-‘

Bernadette unwittingly cut Sheldon short when she groaned louder. ‘I don’t think the baby heard the doctor’s prediction.’

Penny leaped for her phone and car keys and helped Bernadette out of the study to the stairs.

‘Penny, we have to get the hospital bags.’ Bernadette tried to steer them into her bedroom.

‘I already moved the bags to the car, Penny.’ Sheldon had sensed Bernadette’s early pangs during her dance with Penny and had moved the emergency bags to the car.

‘The stuff is already in my car, we just need you down there.’ Penny and Bernadette moved gingerly and quickly down and out of the house which Sheldon locked up behind them.

‘What? How? When? Oh, God!’ Bernadette was confused but the labor spasms overtook her curiosity. Penny got Bernadette into the car and started for the hospital. Bernadette called her obstetrician and then Howard while she and Penny were getting on the road to the hospital.

‘Did you get a hold of the doctor, Bernie?’

Bernadette nodded quickly. ‘Yes, she’s already at the hospital and Howard said he’s on the way so now we just need the baby and us to get there.’

‘Penny, you are exceeding the speed limit by 12mph.’ Sheldon’s advice had been a constant chorus for Penny that she envied Bernadette’s ignorance of at the moment. She rolled her eyes and huffed.

‘Yes, and yet, people are still passing us.’

Bernadette looked at Penny awry. ‘I don’t mind they’re passing us, honey, it’s OK. You’ll get us there, fine.’

Penny patted Bernadette’s arm. ‘I’m sorry, Bernie, I’ve just got a voice running in my head that won’t shut up.’ She glared at Sheldon in the rear-view for emphasis.

‘I am just looking out for the safety of everyone in the car, Penny, especially the child.’ Sheldon’s high pitched worry touched Penny beyond her irritation with his backseat driving. She brushed Bernadette’s arm gently. 'I’ll be careful driving. We’ll get there, soon.’

‘Penny, both hands on the wheel, please!’ Sheldon’s voice carried a more pronounced Texas drawl as his anxiety increased and Penny slowed the car for her own peace of mind as much as his.

Penny and Bernadette were both grateful when they finally pulled up to the hospital’s emergency entrance. Howard was already at the door waiting when they arrived. They quickly ushered Bernadette into the hospital and a wheelchair. The nurse started asking questions about the contractions, timing, duration, when they started and so on. Penny walked with Howard and Bernadette up to the delivery room doors but had to stay outside when they went through.

Penny stood looking at the doors feeling unnerved and helpless, oddly not unlike the night she’d fended off her stalker. She had felt relatively fine until she’d gotten out of the police car but the walk to her door had suddenly felt cold in her guts that she’d never known before. She’d felt overwhelming relief when she’d gotten in and hugged Bernadette that night. Seeing Bernie go through the delivery door without her brought back some of that feeling. Her head told her everything would be fine but she wished she was with Bernadette so she could feel it. Penny went to the waiting room and about an hour later Howard came in to give her news.

‘How is she, Howard?’

He smiled and sat next to Penny. ‘Bernie’s fine, she’s only threatened to kill me twice. They are sending her up to a room. The doctor is sure that this really is early labor and that can take some hours.’

Penny felt happier having some news. ‘Can we go and see her, now?’

Howard nodded. ‘Yeah, she sent me to get you in fact. We could be here till tomorrow so it might be good to go home and get some stuff if you’d like to stay. I have an overnight bag, too, if you don’t mind getting it.’

‘How could you forget Howard’s stuff?’ Penny growled at Sheldon.

‘I have never been part of delivering a baby. My foremost concern was getting Bernadette to the hospital.’ Sheldon stated in his best teacher voice.

Howard tried to reassure Penny unaware of Sheldon’s presence. ‘Don’t worry about it, Penny; I’m glad you were there for Bernie.’

Penny rolled her eyes wondering when someone was going to try and have her committed one day for talking to empty air. ‘Thanks, Howard. I need to stop at the studio, too. It might take a while getting your stuff.’

They went upstairs to see Bernadette. Howard asked a few questions to Bernie and said he’d be back soon so as to give Penny and Bernadette some time together while he went to take care of some more hospital insurance forms.

‘How are you doing, Bernadette?’ Penny helped Bernadette unpack the emergency bags and settle into the room.

‘Pretty good, I guess. The doctor says everything is going smoothly.’ Bernie sat on the bed and looked around the Spartan room. ‘I’m sorry if it felt like I was pushing you this morning.’

Penny sat next to Bernadette and smiled softly. ‘That was hardly pushing, you should come to Omaha for Christmas to see how pushing is done by professionals.

‘I believe Bernadette’s anxiety is deeper than that, Penny.’ Sheldon tried to be helpful with the obvious and Penny looked at him with a smirk.

‘You think?’ Penny forgot herself for a second talking to Sheldon.

‘Think what, Penny?’ Bernadette looked for Penny to finish her thought.

‘Do you still worry about being a good mother, Bernie? I think you will be great.’ Penny felt part of Bernadette’s worry for her was projecting some of her own fears onto herself.

‘Sure, sometimes, but don’t you wonder about having kids, Penny?’

‘Are you asking because you’re worried for me or for yourself?’ Penny hugged Bernadette. ‘Ever since my sister had her kid, my parents have wanted me to start having grandkids. That was something Kurt and I always agreed on, we didn’t want them. Maybe, it was because we were barely kids ourselves when we got here but we both got to like our careers and we were always happy for each other’s success. I don’t know if I’d make a good mother or a bad one, I just know I never felt like I needed to be one.’

Bernadette sighed and leaned against her old friend. ‘I never thought about having kids, either. I had to help raise my younger brothers and sisters since our parents both worked. I keep thinking about all the responsibilities and I keep worrying I’ll screw everything up.’

Penny got up and helped Bernadette lie down in the bed and tucked her in with the extra blankets in the room’s closet. ‘You’re not alone in this, Bernadette. We all love you. Why don’t you try to take a nap, now?’

‘That would feel good right about now.’ Bernadette took off her glasses and gave them to Penny and closed her eyes to rest a bit.

Penny nodded at Sheldon a few times and looked pointedly at Bernadette.

‘I fail to see what your gestures are for, Penny. Bernadette is trying to sleep.’

Penny just sighed and smiled at how hopeless Sheldon could be at picking up on body language. She poured some water for Bernadette to have nearby. ‘I guess you can’t have anything to help you sleep, Bernadette?’

‘No, not until after the baby comes, I wish I could, though.’ Bernadette opened her eyes and got a drink of the water she heard poured then settled back to try and rest.

‘Oh, I see, why didn’t you ask for my help in the matter, Penny?’ Sheldon’s aura glowed and Bernadette’s breathing eased into a sound sleep.

Penny reached to strangle Sheldon but she was grateful Bernadette could get some rest. She picked up her purse and phone and whispered to Sheldon. ‘Let’s find Howard and say goodbye before we go to the studio. After work, we can get the other hospital stuff at the house.’

Penny and Howard said their good byes and Penny left with her ghostly peanut gallery to do her filming and get some fresh clothes for Howard and herself. She was glad of the light filming this week for her character. She hoped to be able to shift some filming times so she could be at the hospital for everything.

+++

Penny had gotten her day cleared and her few scenes in this episode filming this week set for filming the day after next. She went home and got some fresh clothes and Howard’s emergency bag and then returned to the hospital for the wait. She also heard from Raj and Lalita who said they’d drop in that evening to see how things were going. Penny had gotten back just in time for Bernadette to go into active labor. After Bernadette went into delivery, she went to the waiting room with some script work. The waiting had finally gotten to her.

‘Sheldon, what time is it?’ Penny sat in her chair wondering how Bernadette was doing in the delivery room.

‘6:15 pm, or 12 minutes and 7 seconds since you last asked. I can inspect the delivery room if that will make you easier, Penny.’ Sheldon had felt Penny’s anxiety all day. He was surprised at how well she covered it during her work but since leaving the studio even he had noticed her fretfulness.

‘No, this is Howard and Bernadette’s time, I don’t want to intrude. I just feel so helpless and useless sitting here.’

‘I can sense Bernadette’s distress but she also feels capable of getting through the state she is in, plus Howard is providing a great deal of calm for her.’ He hoped Penny would relax but he wondered how she was feeling after some of the conversations she had with Bernadette, today.

‘You can feel all that? I thought you only felt that close to people in the house?’

‘That is true, but at the moment Bernadette’s emotions are very intense and hard to miss, almost as hard to miss as yours.’

‘Mine? You feel my presence, what, here or all the time?’ Penny was surprised to hear that from Sheldon since he was so standoffish about pretty much everything.

‘Always, Penny, you are very important to me.’

‘And you are important to me, Sheldon. I have never felt happier with my life, with my work, with school as hard as it is, and you’ve been a great support through all of it.’

Penny’s anxiety finally got relief when Howard came into the room. He was still in the blue hospital smock and Penny thought it made him look a bit like a smurf. ‘Penny, Halley has landed! Everything went fine. Bernadette’s going to be in the nursery for a while because of routine checks and stuff but everything is fine.’

Penny got up and hugged Howard in congratulations. ‘That’s wonderful, I’ve been on tenterhooks, and I can’t wait to see her. When can we see her? Raj and Lalita are coming soon, they can’t wait.’

They chatted for a few minutes and then Howard wanted to get back to Bernadette and Halley while Penny went up to Bernadette’s room to wait for the newly enlarged family. Penny said she’d get a hold of Raj and Lalita and let them know the good news.

‘The house is going to be a lot busier, Sheldon; I hope you are ready to deal with it.’ Penny remembered the difficulties of the past and she was determined they wouldn’t be repeated on the baby.

‘I understand that, Penny. That is why I have created a house plan and schedule which will benefit everyone.’ Sheldon began by explaining the optimum areas for Halley during the course of the day and the activities appropriate to each area.

Penny gazed out the window and nodded absently at Sheldon’s plan until she got bored. ‘Enough, Sheldon, you can’t schedule a baby’s pooping and changing times. In fact, none of that is going to happen. Halley has a room and her parents will decide what happens with her.’

Sheldon shuffled about in frustration. ‘Penny, a child is an anarchy machine. She will turn our well worked out routines into a hurly burly of selfish whim.’

Penny laughed and rolled her eyes. ‘We haven’t had to deal with that, before. So, are you still avoiding Bernadette’s laundry nights?’

Sheldon’s retort was cut off by Bernadette being brought into the room and Howard following behind. Halley followed in a specialized warming crib to keep her temperature stable when she wasn’t being held.

Penny was happy and relieved to see her friend back safe and sound with the new baby. She envied Howard being there with Bernadette through the whole delivery.

‘Penny, I am so happy you are here, did you see the baby?’ Bernadette was groggy from the delivery and half nodding off while she spoke.

‘Yes, and she’s beautiful like her mother, honey.’

Bernadette smiled and asked for Halley. Hoard brought the baby over and Bernadette held her gently. ‘Do you still feel the same about our conversation in the study?’

Penny nodded. ‘Oh, yes, just waiting here was as close as I want to get. I’m happy to be the kooky aunt.’

Penny and Bernadette talked about the baby for a few minutes before Raj and Lalita arrived. Bernadette was curious at Halley’s fixation on the wall. ‘Do you think something is wrong with her eyes? She keeps staring off into that corner.’

Penny looked over to where she could see Sheldon standing. Penny went over to the corner and whispered to Sheldon to walk around. ‘Penny, only you can see me.’

Sheldon walked around the room and Halley seemed to be following him as he walked. Sheldon walked through the wall into the next room and came back in several times and the baby giggled. Penny and Sheldon looked at each other in silent astonishment. ‘That is very peculiar. Perhaps, it is because she is a newborn? I could try an experiment.’

‘I guess she’s alright, maybe you are just both tired.’ Penny cut off Sheldon before he could go any further with that thought. Fortunately, Raj poked his head in to see if it was OK for him and Lalita to have a quick visit.

Bernadette was happy to see Raj and Lalita arrive just then. Penny felt the room was getting too crowded and she wanted to talk to Sheldon so she wished everyone goodbye and headed home to Los Robles Cottage with Sheldon.

Penny and Sheldon rode in silence for a good while after leaving the hospital. Both were preoccupied by thoughts of Halley.

‘Penny, you saw how Halley seemed aware of my presence in the room, didn’t you?’ Sheldon’s scientific mind was fascinated by that event.

‘Yes, I did. I thought you had to make your presence known. Were you trying to make Halley see you?’ Penny wondered if Sheldon might have been trying to get Halley used to his presence since he was always felt around the house to some degree. His moods were often felt in the air by Howard and Bernadette quite unintentionally, especially when one of his quirks got riled up.

‘I was not, that is the fascinating aspect, and I wonder if it is a function of being a newborn? We should try to determine if it is just Halley or if any newborn could perceive me. We have an ideal opportunity to explore the crossover between paranormal beings and biological reality.’ Sheldon grew excited considering the implications before him.

‘No, Sheldon, we are not going to experiment on Halley or any other babies.’ Penny shot down Sheldon’s ideas but she was curious about Halley’s reaction. ‘You need to be careful around Halley. I don’t want her scared or afraid, Sheldon. If she can see you, it might be best to let her be and leave her alone.’

‘Of course, I would never scare her but I believe you are letting an invaluable scientific opportunity slip through our hands, Penny.

‘She’s not a scientific opportunity, Sheldon; Halley is a person, a little girl who will be treated with respect. She’s not an experiment in the making.’ Penny got heated with Sheldon’s obtuseness.

‘I am sorry I upset you, Penny, but Halley is unique. Not unlike you, she doesn’t feel any fear from my presence. Most who sense a ghost become afraid, after all.’ Sheldon wondered if that absence of fear in Halley, and Penny when he first confronted his thespian friend, was what let the baby see him in the hospital room. ‘I admire your maternal protectiveness.’

‘Maternal protectiveness? I am hardly maternal, I just want Halley to have a happy home, Sheldon.’

‘As do I, Penny, but you are very caring. I can’t imagine anyone buying models and comics for a ghost.’ Sheldon wished he could really feel and hold Penny’s hand for the preciousness of that gift.

‘Sheldon, honey, I could feel how much those models meant to you. I couldn’t let you lose something so important to you. Besides, you’ve given me something just as important. You’ve given me a whole knew me with the math and science, helping me with the acting, and believing I could be more than just a hot babe. You’ve been the best guy in my life, Sheldon Cooper.’

‘While I am very flattered by your esteem, I am dead. Don’t you think Bernadette might be right about looking out for more than a dead physicist in your relationships?’

‘What would that give me that I don’t have? Did you feel the need to go dating when you were alive, Sheldon?’ Penny was curious what brought this turn of mind to Sheldon. He was usually telling her how inferior any of her dates were when he encountered them.

‘I did not. Dating would have been a distraction… from my work.’ Sheldon paused recalling Penny’s own words on the subject to Bernadette. ‘Oh, I see.’

Penny drove up to the Cottage and parked. She turned off the ignition and lights and sat in the darkness outside for a minute. ‘Ever since we talked about how I learned about tools from my dad when we were building the collector’s room with Howard, I have been thinking about how much of myself I was putting into my relationships. After a while, I started thinking about how I was putting in more than I wanted to. I guess it felt like I have always been keeping that dress clean I hated so much as a kid. Maybe, that’s why I didn’t notice Kurt’s cheating. I always thought I was stupid but maybe, deep down, I didn’t notice because I wanted to be out doing my work.’

‘Perhaps, your marriage breaking down was inevitable?’ Sheldon knew how much his passion for his work made social interaction a chore, especially when it involved activities that held no interest for him.

Penny and Sheldon got out of the car and strolled around to the pavilion out behind the cottage. They sat on an outdoor couch and looked up at the night sky. The cloud cover was lit up by the city below and the moon above and in between starlight shone through like her new thoughts. She thought about Sheldon’s question in the new light of why she hadn’t noticed Kurt’s cheating. ‘I’d hate to think inevitable but maybe breaking up would have been for the best in the end. We did get married far too young. We clicked, we knew each other, at least who we were. We never thought about what we might become or how we might change in our future.’

‘Do you think you can forgive what happened, then, Penny?’ Sheldon almost rolled his eyes at the sound of the question since it sounded so much like something his mother would have asked but he was sure it was something Penny needed. Sheldon knew about holding on to grudges, he’d had plenty in life. Ever since he’d died, he had plenty of time to reflect on their inconsequence.

Penny closed her eyes a minute and felt for the anger the betrayal always set off inside her when she thought about it. It was still there. She was sure it always would be but it didn’t make her feel like screaming for once. ‘Maybe a little, just a bit to start.’

Chapter Text

Penny had been reworking her MA proposal but it was going nowhere. She felt close to what she wanted to say but the words came flat and the equations didn’t sing an original note to her. It all looked so pedantic and pedestrian. She picked up her diary which was crammed with thoughts of Sheldon and how to save his reputation from his Arctic disaster. Ever since the Arctic Affair had come to an end Penny had felt like she was drifting. The last six months were spent finishing the back half of The Coven’s season and dawdling on finishing this proposal. ‘Where is the muse to write this?’

Penny looked at the diary and was ready to toss it aside for another day. Ennui had set in and she was without a clue. She threw down her pen and went over to the music collection. Needing something different, she went through Sheldon’s albums instead of her own. She needed something out of the ordinary and his music was sure to be that. She didn’t see anything she recognized by name but there were a lot of science fiction themes on the CD covers. She found one that had a stylized LAX terminal made to look like a space station called ‘Project Comstock: Music for Outer Space’ so she settled on that. She settled herself in the wing chair with her comforter and let the weird Theremin notes lull her into a restful snooze.

Sheldon felt Penny’s disquiet and appeared in the hall outside the study. He listened to the album choice Penny made and nodded approvingly. It was one of the few albums he enjoyed when he had a knotty problem to work out. He popped into the study and found Penny dozing to the music. He glanced at the MA proposal on the desk and smiled at his napping friend. He approved of the concept she was working on, an offshoot of his own work, but he could see Penny was confused about something. It wasn’t like her to abandon something she set out to do and the music choice was very unlike her. He frowned and tucked the comforter up around his sleeping friend.

In spite of his concern he didn’t want to interrupt her nap so he looked in on Halley. The baby was sleeping soundly with Bernadette and she was sleeping even more soundly in the room with the balcony open to the warm June afternoon. Bernadette seldom got to sleep so well since bringing Halley home so he went to check on Howard to make sure he didn’t wake anyone upstairs. Howard was in the collector’s room watching a marathon of aquatic sci-fi: Dagon, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Shape of Water. Sheldon settled down to watch the films while the ladies upstairs dreamed their worlds.

Bernadette dreamed of her daughter. She tossed uneasily in a recurrent dream that she had forgotten something. Halley needed her to remember something but she couldn’t think of what it was. Her restlessness stilled when she held the baby in her dreams and sang an old lullaby her grandmother had taught her long ago, A-a-a, kotki dwa, Ah-Ah-Ah, Two Little Kittens.

A-a-a, a-a-a,
byly sobie kotki dwa.
A-a-a, kotki dwa,
szarobure, szarobure obydwa.

Ach, śpij, kochanie,
jesli gwiazdke z nieba chcesz - dostaniesz.
Wszystkie dzieci, nawet źle,
pogrążone są we śnie,
a ty jedna tylko nie.
Ah-ah-ah*, ah-ah-ah,

There were once two little kittens.
Ah-ah-ah, two little kittens,
They were both grayish-brown.

Oh, sleep, my darling,
If you'd like a star from the sky I'll give you one.
All children, even the bad ones,
Are already asleep,
Only you are not.

 

In Penny’s dreams she weaved her hands over a cauldron and summoned a future. She danced within the rhythms that rose from the tripod. She added herbs and starlight and red vines. Her becoming had to continue. She had arrived where she wanted to get but where she wanted to be was always further on. It troubled her and the spell she was trying to cast needed something further on from where she was. That last ingredient was what she left Nebraska for, what she immersed herself in acting for, what she wanted to take the physics MA for. She yearned for love that was embraced in letting go. She dreamt of The Lusiads, the Portuguese epic poem of Vasco de Gama’s voyage to India. She’d loved its vision of exploration in her high school poetry class and its stanzas stilled her fretting. She was born for the journey and the dance.

Love is a fire that burns unseen,
A wound that aches yet isn't felt,
An always discontent contentment,
A pain that rages without hurting,

A longing for nothing but to long,
A loneliness in the midst of people,
A never feeling pleased when pleased,
A passion that gains when lost in thought.

 

Haley dreamed of shapes and sounds and smells that had no names. Her young mind was still recognizing and cataloguing the world. Mama was one fixed point she knew was always nearby. She slept and dreamed of faces and funny noises and soft kitties and a funny tall figure no one seemed to see except for other mama. Her dreams were of the song the tall one sang every night and she wondered what a kitty was.

Soft kitty,

Warm kitty,

Little ball of fur.

Happy kitty,

Sleepy kitty,

Purr Purr Purr
+++

 

Penny woke from her nap renewed and clear on what she really wanted to write. She went to the balcony and opened the window to gaze down the valley with the telescope. She gathered her thoughts as through the lens that showed her the hills below the cottage in crystal clarity. She walked over to the desk and cleared away the MA proposal and got out her favored stationary and wrote to Sheldon’s Meemaw. She was glad of the correspondence that she had with Sheldon’s grandmother. Sheldon looked forward to seeing the letters when they arrived. He was surprised at the candor his Meemaw and Penny shared. Penny had found it a great help in navigating Sheldon’s prickly feelings about his work, his life, and his ways.

 

Dear Connie,

I need to sit down and do more than write you emails so I apologize for a lot of old news; I need to clear my head. It’s a whole new world here. I would have written this real letter long ago but we were so busy building the case to defend Sheldon’s work. As you know, Sheldon’s friends really stepped up for him. Rajesh Koothrapalli came all the way from India with his wife to be a part of this. He and Howard wanted to get to the bottom of what happened up in the arctic for years but for many personal reasons they felt helpless to act. It turned out that it was jealousy and a woman that was at the bottom of everything. Sheldon had been looking at the science and technology from one end to the other. The study here is filled with his work. It never occurred to him hearts and desires and jealousy were the culprits. Leonard, Sheldon’s friend, had gotten involved with Raj’s sister Priya and everything all came down to Leonard destroying everyone’s lives to get Priya to marry him. She is quite a woman and a formidable lawyer. When she found out the truth, she was tireless leading the charge to take down Leonard and put things right for Sheldon, Howard, and especially her brother Raj. She doesn’t take harm to her family well. I think you might like meeting her…

That wasn’t the only thing to make things busy here. Raj’s marriage wasn’t the only news we got back then. The first wind of Halley’s arrival came while we were watching Raj and Lalita’s wedding online. Bernie started feeling unwell during the big moment. She was thinking it might have been a bug she picked up until it hit her she’d been unable to look at breakfast for a while and her period was late. Sure enough, a pregnancy test later and we knew the house was going to have a new family member. Bernie had her daughter about six months ago and everything is going fantastic. Mom sends her thanks for that beautiful quilt. Howard is envious of the thing with its Solar System and Halley’s orbit included. I thought Bernie was going to die just a few days ago when Halley called her mama for the first time. It’s amazing how quickly she seems to be comprehending things…

In answer to your question from Mary about the show, there are no Satanists writing for us. None that I know of any way but we do have a few Wiccans on the crew, not sure if that will ease her mind, though. We’ll be filming the next half of the new season soon so I am glad this arctic stuff is behind us. It’s a big weight off of everyone here as I am sure it must be for you as well. I did want to ask you some advice, Connie, since Sheldon’s work is important to you all down there. It’s why I wanted to write this letter. Sheldon’s work has grown important to me, more than I thought it had. I started pursuing a physics degree out of some scenes we’d done in The Coven’s first season and from being surrounded here by Sheldon’s work while we were solving the arctic failure. It has become a part of me that I can’t let go. I have been working on an M.A. proposal that is based on Sheldon’s work. I have been hung up on writing it, I think, because it kind of feels like taking over a part of him from you all down there and I would hate to make you feel I was poaching his work, so to speak…

 

Penny sighed in relief when she finally closed the letter. It had cleared her mind of the ennui. She knew she wanted more than just Sheldon’s name cleared she wanted to see his work move forward. She felt more centered after she told Constance about the M.A. program she was planning and that she felt inspired by her grandson’s life and work. Looking around the study and at the white boards, she could now make sense of much of the math after finishing her B.A. She felt a new sense of purpose that she had wanted Constance to know about. She also wanted her to know she was doing out of respect for her grandson’s work and accomplishments.

+++

In Galveston, Constance reread the letter from Penny. She was very glad to get the greater details about Sheldon’s name being cleared and she wanted thank Penny, Howard, and Raj for working so hard to clear their Shelly’s good name. Constance thought it deserved more than a letter or phone call so she was determined to fly out to LA and Pasadena. She did have some questions of her own for Penny. She had enjoyed the correspondence they’d shared over the last year or so but she had noticed Penny’s strong attachment to Sheldon. She figured a house full of his stuff might have caused simple curiosity but feeling so strong as to continue his work was a big step up from childhood stories. Penny wasn’t the only one she was concerned with being over attached to Sheldon.

‘Momma, what are you thinking of going all the way over to California for?’ Mary Cooper put down the church calendar she’d been looking through.

Constance and her daughter Mary had not been to Pasadena since Sheldon’s death. They had gone there to bring the body back to Texas and set up the Cottage as a memorial to Sheldon. All that had changed into a day they had never thought to see, Sheldon’s name cleared of the odium of that Arctic failure. Neither really was sure how to thank Howard and Raj and especially Penny who they knew was the prime mover in all the effort to redeem Sheldon’s reputation.

‘I don’t want to sound ungrateful but what would make that girl fight so fierce for Sheldon, momma?’ Mary Cooper was happy her son’s name was free of that arctic disgrace but she kept wondering why some actress would care so much about her Shelly. She figured it was because she was living in Sheldon’s old house but that just made her attachment all the stranger to Mary’s thinking.

‘I don’t know but her girlfriend there is her housemate and she is married to Howard Wolowitz. Remember, he was one of Sheldon’s friends in the arctic so maybe it was really to help them?’ Connie felt that had been a big part of Penny’s concern. The way Penny talked about Bernadette sounded more like someone talking about a sister than just a housemate or friend.

Mary considered that might be the case but she couldn’t help wonder if there was more on Penny’s mind. ‘I just wonder if she might want something for all the help she did?’

‘What is running through that head of yours, Mary Cooper?’ Constance had been exchanging letters and the occasional phone call with Penny for quite a while now so she couldn’t help feeling her daughter was acting needlessly suspicious.

Mary hated the feelings that crept through her because they were unchristian but Shelly was her special baby. ‘I just wonder if she feels she’s owed something for this.’ Mary waved the letter from Penny with a shade of suspicion across her face.

Connie didn’t have a clue what her daughter was bothered by but she knew Mary was disturbed by Penny’s zeal. ‘Owed something? Mary, honey, I have been communicating with Penny for quite a while and she isn’t fishing around for thanks or anything else. Whatever put such an idea in your mind?’

Mary Cooper loved her son fiercely. She didn’t understand his work except that it was brilliant. Of course she wished he would have found Jesus and a girl before he died but she had been glad he was happy doing what he loved. She knew what a pill he could be to the people around him but she knew it wasn’t done out of meanness but out of certainty that he was right, just like his father and grandfather. His brilliance didn’t help soften that hubris. She was convinced the church and a girlfriend would have softened that prickly streak. Mary sighed and thought about her mother’s question. What was really bothering her about Penny Queen?

That show of hers was one thing. It was about witches and demons and it just wasn’t proper Christian TV. She knew it wasn’t really the devil’s work like her church group felt but it still didn’t sit right with her even if her momma was a fan of the show. The much bigger thing was how deeply involved the actress had become in her son’s life and work. She couldn’t deny it had all been to the good but why had a TV star got so committed to her dead son’s life work? Mary had read some of the letters exchanged between her mother and Penny and the woman seemed to be acting more like a girlfriend to her son’s memory than anything else was how it seemed to Mary Cooper. Why was Penny so attached to a dead man she had never known?

‘I just don’t get why Penny’s so attached to Sheldon, momma, it’s not like she ever knew him. If she’d been a girlfriend or something it would make some sense but I just can’t make her out for the life of me.’

Connie Tucker sat back and looked across the kitchen table at her daughter and figured, now, she knew what was wrong. ‘Mary, Sheldon’s gone, you know that and Penny isn’t taking him away from you.’

‘I know that, whatever made you think a crazy notion like that?’

‘Because I felt that every day you were married to George Cooper. Mary, you are afraid she wants that house and all it means having been Sheldon’s home there. Be honest with yourself, what’s got you so tied to that house?’ Connie had been gently pushing Mary to sell the place and let go of Sheldon for her peace of mind. With Sheldon’s reputation mended, she figured this was a good time to get Mary to give up that burden.

Mary sighed and closed her eyes in a prayer. ‘I miss him every day and I know he’s with Jesus but I just can’t let him go, letting his house go feels like giving up on him, momma.’

Connie understood that feeling well even after all these years since her husband Sam had died. ‘Mary, you won’t be letting go of anything in your heart just the burden of keeping stuff and memory that won’t let you feel happy out of guilt that he’s gone. It’s time you laid that burden down, Mary.’

‘I would feel better about it if I could get to know those people there, especially Penny.’ Mary got up to pour more coffee for her and her mother.

‘Well, we should do just that. I would like to see the house again and get to know the other folks there that helped save Sheldon’s name. What do you say we go visit them in California? I wouldn’t mind a tour of that show of Penny’s while we are there, either.’ Connie grinned at the surprise on her daughter’s face.

‘You can’t be serious? Traveling all that way at your age, what are you thinking?’ Mary didn’t half mind the idea but she did worry for her mother’s health on such a long trip.

‘Of course, I’m serious, and I’m not half so old I can’t fly to California. We’ll be spending more time in the airports than it takes to get there, anyway.’ Connie got up and went to the living room to turn on her computer and send a note to Penny about coming to California with Mary.

+++

Sheldon and Penny walked along the hiking trail above Los Robles Cottage. The early evening air was cool and the first stars could be seen coming out. For the first time in years, Sheldon felt free of what had gone wrong and it was all the work of the woman walking by his side. He would never have thought the impulsive and tempestuous baseball bat wielding thespian would be the one to free him from the failure that had bound him to the Cottage. Penny had proven so much more than an actress or an activist. Sheldon felt bound to her side.

‘You seem satisfied with the M.A. proposal. It seemed for a while that you might be at a loss.’

Penny swung away with the nunchucks she was carrying to stay in practice for the fight scenes coming up in the filming for The Coven. ‘I guess I was at a loss. I got into all the physics and math because I wanted to understand everything about your work and the arctic. When that was solved and my B.A. was finished I was really vexed what I wanted to do next.’ Penny considered the hillside its crest blending with the coming night.

‘How so?’ Sheldon was curious where Penny’s mind was headed.

Penny stopped the weapons routine with the nunchucks and looked at Sheldon. ‘Remember when we talked about my father teaching me about the tools for fixing the car when I was helping Howard build the rec-room? You said I shouldn’t have to hide my talents under a dumb blonde disguise. I have been thinking a lot about that conversation, especially now that we got to the bottom of your problem. I’ve been acting for a long time, not the job, but being the pretty girl that smiles at her man because he’s so smart. It’s what my mother wanted me to be; she understood a life like that, my dad, too. The M.A. is like a chance to get that dress dirty again like when I did working with my dad.’

Sheldon thought about Penny’s career and what a big change she sounded like making. ‘Are you thinking of leaving off acting?’

‘No, I love it too much to do that but I just want to see what I can do with your deal. Heck, I put that tractor together mostly because dad didn’t think it could be fixed. I don’t expect to be some professional physicist or teacher but I want to know I can do it.’ Penny began her workout routine again with the strikes and kicks. Sheldon watched her somewhat awestruck at what his friend could do when she set her mind to the task and wondered what she might accomplish running up this next hill.

+++

Sheldon and Penny got back to the house and Penny was surprised by Bernadette rushing out of the living room and pulling her back with her. ‘Come on! Hurry!’

Penny was surprised and curious at Bernadette’s excitement and saw Howard filming Halley. Halley was rocking and starting to roll over. ‘You’ve got to see this, Penny. She’s really starting to move.’ Bernadette was almost jumping and both women got down to eye level with Halley.

‘Look at her; she’s been feisty all day.’ Howard couldn’t contain his laughter following Halley’s moves and the baby finally rolled herself over and started pushing herself up.

‘Come on, Halley!’ Penny and Bernadette clapped and laughed together.

‘She seems unusually precocious about this, Penny.’ Sheldon was just as fascinated by this as everyone else. Halley zeroed in on Sheldon’s voice and began pushing and arching and finally getting her legs under her to begin a few unsteady paces of crawling in his direction before going flat again. Everyone began laughing and clapping and Halley giggled and began making her way up into a few more crawls that took her to Bernadette where she managed to sit up and laugh. Bernadette was crying and laughing too much to speak.

‘This is cause for celebration!’ Penny went out to the kitchen where Sheldon had already gotten a tray ready with bottle of champagne and glasses for the family.

‘Thank you, Sheldon. You are happy for them, aren’t you?’ Penny picked up the tray and headed back into the living room.

‘Of course, I am not without sympathy, Penny. The child is clearly quite intelligent and discerning.’ Sheldon was fascinated by Halley’s development over the months although he proved just as adroit as Howard at disappearing when it came time to change the baby.

Penny, Bernadette, and Howard enjoyed their champagne and replayed Halley’s first crawl and sit up quite a few times. Howard continued to film her exploits when Halley would try crawling again. ‘It’s funny; she keeps looking like she has a goal every time she gets up.’

‘She does, Penny and it is always in my direction. This is too fascinating not to try-‘ Penny cut off wherever Sheldon might be going.

‘Now that she’s starting to move, we should give some more thought to baby proofing. I think the study might have a lot of stuff that should be kept out of reach.’ Penny looked archly at Sheldon and he glared back.

‘Penny, what do you mean?’ Sheldon still meant to defend his turf.

Bernadette picked up Halley and rocked her. ‘I think it’s a little early to worry too much but I guess it is worth a look around over the weekend now that she is starting to move on her own.

‘Raj and Lalita are coming over tomorrow. He and I can start setting up some of the baby gates.’ Howard had designed and built them and was ready to see them in action as soon as possible.

‘I’ll take a look around upstairs and see if any of the study things should move down to the collector’s room.’ Penny smirked at Sheldon and he blanched at her clear threat. They talked a bit more about some of the precautions to take and things to start double checking for. After another glass of champagne Penny said good night to Howard and Bernadette and Halley, and then headed up to the study.

Penny found Sheldon standing guard over his models. She smirked and rolled her eyes at his predictability. ‘Something bothering you, Sheldon?’

‘You know very well, what do you mean by moving things to the collector’s room?’ Sheldon glowered impressively but he was more nonplussed by Penny’s laughter.

‘Don’t panic, Sheldon. It’s going to be a while before Halley gets moving freely but first, we both know she can see you. We talked about that when she was born, she isn’t an experiment.’ Penny sat down on the sofa and patted the seat next to her for Sheldon to come sit with her.

‘I apologize. I was carried away in the moment. However, I do want to keep the study as it is as much as possible.’ Sheldon knew things were going to have to change; he just didn’t want to admit it, yet.

‘Don’t worry; I want to keep things here for you and me. Besides, the door does have a lock. I don’t suppose she’ll be picking any locks any time soon.’ Penny smirked.

‘When did you pick your first lock, Houdini?’ Sheldon remembered opening a toy safe his brother George kept his allowance in. George had forgotten the combination and Sheldon had opened it for him with ease. He had been four at the time and George had needed an hour convincing Sheldon it was OK to break into the safe.

‘I was a little over two.’ Penny chuckled at Sheldon’s look of shock. ‘You should hear my mother tell the story; I don’t really remember it that well. I do remember the Twinkies, though. Mom had a lock for the pantry and I had managed to use a coat hanger to jimmy the lock and managed to get the Twinkies off a top shelf with some clever climbing and a mop with a makeshift lasso at the end I’d made from stuff in her yarn basket.’

Sheldon started looking around the study fearful of what damage a commensurate hellion might cause. ‘There would be no stopping the chaos she could create.’

‘Sheldon, Halley is not going to create chaos. Well, no more than any other two year old and that is a ways away, yet. Raj is coming over, tomorrow, and he and Howard are going to start baby proofing the house.’ Penny got up and went over to the desk. She got out two sheets of her stationary. 'Why don’t you write down some of your preparation ideas down here? It might make you feel better to have some input. Just, these two pages, one sided, double spaced.’

‘That will hardly scratch the surface, Penny. Your professed experience with breaking and entering in your terrible twos should be clear indication you are underestimating what havoc Halley might accomplish.’

Penny rolled her eyes at Sheldon’s consternation. ‘Two pages, Mister, no more. Besides, Howard and Raj will be engineers on a mission that I’m sure will satisfy even you, Sheldon.’

Penny pushed the pages over to Sheldon along with a pen. She laughed at his grimaced acceptance to these miserly limits to his thoughts on baby proofing. While Sheldon wrote, Penny booted up her computer to take a look at her email and Twitter. She found Constance’s email that had just come a few hours ago. She whistled the Star Wars Imperial March much to Sheldon’s annoyance.

‘Penny, you know very well that I cannot stand whistling. Isn’t this shortfall of space for my ideas penance enough?’ Sheldon had already filled half of the first page in cramped and precise script.

‘I suppose you were never terrible when you were two, honey?’ Penny grinned at Sheldon’s aloof glare.

‘Certainly not, and my eidetic memory is most clear on that, Arsene Lupin.’ Sheldon was still amazed at Penny’s thievery.

‘Well, I think I will just check on that from the horse’s mouth when your mom gets here, Moonpie.’ Penny laughed at Sheldon’s double take. She turned the monitor so Sheldon could read the email.

‘Oh good Lord, and Meemaw is coming, too?’ Sheldon’s eyes rolled and he vanished. Penny had never seen a ghost faint before.

Chapter Text

It had been three weeks since Connie’s email about coming to California. It had taken a little doing but Penny had finally convinced her and Mary there was plenty of room at Los Robles Cottage for them. The master study was quite large enough to put the fold away beds in for the house guests. Penny, Bernadette, and Howard moved the beds into the study as well as a small chest of drawers for Mary and Connie the night before they were due to fly in. The couch and wing chair had gone down to the library so the study was a comfortable space for the Texas arrivals.

On arrival morning, Penny was woken by Sheldon’s agitated yammering. ‘Penny, you need to get up and get ready right away! Meemaw’s plane will arrive at 2.45 and you haven’t even gotten up yet.’

Penny glanced at her bedside clock with one half open eye, it said 7am. ‘Sheldon, my alarm is set for nine. I am going back to sleep.’ She groaned and buried herself under her blankets and pillows.

‘How can you go back to sleep?’

‘Sheldon, if you don’t shut up and let me sleep, I will find a way to punch you in the throat.’ Penny rolled deeper into the darkness of her pillows but Sheldon persisted until she raised a shaking fist in warning.

When her alarm went off at nine, Penny woke to find Sheldon’s agitation had turned to more useful purpose. She sat up and saw her favorite white blouse and black jeans laid out on the ottoman under the window along with her new Jimmy Choo sandals that she’d bought to go with the outfit.

Sheldon appeared looking a little wary. ‘Your alarm has gone off so I trust you will not be throat punching anyone.’

I’m sorry Sheldon but I hate being woken up so early. You know that, honey.’ Penny ruffled her hair and stretched out with a long morning yawn and then got out of bed.

‘Thank you, and I apologize for waking you but I am anxious to get to the airport for Meemaw.’ Sheldon began making the bed for Penny while she wandered across the study to the bathroom.

Penny nodded in sleepy satisfaction at what she found, a tray with coffee, scones, and marmalade. ‘I have drawn you a bath and added your preferred mixture of bath soap and scented oils to the water.’

‘This is great Sheldon, especially the coffee and scones.’ Penny got herself ready to have a nice lie down in the fragrant bath.

‘I have also started breakfast downstairs for you. In addition, there is also chili, pozole, and huarache ready for when Meemaw and my mother arrive. Meemaw loves Mexican food and so long as there is ample coffee, Pepsi, or some other caffeinated beverage my mother will be satisfied. However, if you want to know true culinary delight you should get my mother to make her fried chicken.’ Sheldon appeared in the bathroom once Penny was settled into the bubble bath.

‘Sheldon, I am not going to ask your folks to do any cooking. Besides, don’t freak out Howard and Bernie cooking in the middle of the night like that.’ She could just imagine having a conversation about a ghost in the house after all this time.

‘Not to worry, Penny, Howard and Bernadette have already gone out. Howard’s mother called a while ago asking for Howard to take her to the hospital. They left with Halley about an hour ago.

‘Sheldon, get me my phone. God, I hope it’s nothing serious.’ Sheldon levitated the phone into the bath for Penny and she tried calling but got Bernadette’s voice mail. She left a message and also sent a text asking how Debbie was doing. ‘I hope she’s alright. Her horoscope says this is a delicate time for her health.’

‘Penny, how can you cling to that delusional claptrap with your education? Are you aware of the number of pathogens, alone, that surround us every day? Such fatuous advice would apply to any day of the year. And while we are on the topic, your habit of prancing about unclothed is inviting who knows what new form of influenza that might be floating about. Furthermore…’

Sheldon lectured on while Penny giggled at the idea of a ghost paranoid about sickness. She sipped her coffee and had a scone with some grapefruit marmalade while she waited for Sheldon to wind down.

‘Well, turnabout is fair play, I suppose.’ Penny’s non sequitur brought Sheldon to an abrupt pause.

‘Turn about? To what are you referring, Penny?’ Sheldon was at a loss to respond to that remark.

‘Your running around naked, of course, Sheldon.’ Penny poured another coffee and smiled at Sheldon’s wide eyed shock.

‘What? I have never been naked around you, Penny.’ Sheldon had no idea what was going on in Penny’s head and was wondering if she was quite well.

‘Not me, Sheldon, but I am sure your mother must have seen you in the buff growing up. Meemaw, too, I suppose.’

‘Of course they did. I was a baby once upon a time but what does that have to do with anything?’ Sheldon was perplexed by Penny’s whole conversation.

Penny stretched out in the bubble bath sending Sheldon fleeing out into the study. ‘Sheldon, honey, your mom isn’t going to bathe clothed, you know.’

‘Oh, lord.’

‘And Meemaw has to wash up, too, you know.’ Penny chuckled softly.

‘Oh, dear lord!’

‘You know, this room is big enough and with the privacy of the study and bedroom, we could make a girls’ bath and slumber party up here so they can get to know Bernie and Halley, too.’ Penny warmed to the idea with gusto.

‘Penny, you can’t be serious!’ Penny smirked at the quavering high note Sheldon squawked out.

‘Maybe, we could get Priya and Lalita to come over, too. You and Howard and Raj can have your sci-fi stuff downstairs, and we women can have a bath and slumber party up here. Doesn’t that sound like fun, Sheldon?’

Penny heard Sheldon give a strangled scream and then one of the white boards fell on the floor. ‘Sheldon? Sheldon, honey, are you OK out there?’ Penny listened for a minute but only silence followed. She settled back into the warmth of the tub with her coffee. ‘That should give me a quiet bath.’

After her bath, she found breakfast waiting downstairs and she ate without incident. The bath party idea had worked better than she had expected. Bernadette called with an update during breakfast. They had brought Debbie to the hospital for a checkup. She was feeling pains in her chest when she woke up this morning. They got her to emergency right away and they were waiting on the examination.

‘How long has she been with the doctor?’

‘It’s been about an hour and Howie is going up the wall. He doesn’t show it but I can tell.’ Bernadette couldn’t think of anything to say that would help him except platitudes that didn’t feel right.

‘It will be OK, I’m sure. I’m going to pick up Mary and Connie this afternoon but let us know as soon as you hear anything. I love you both and you’ll be alright.’

‘Thanks, Penny. I want to tell that to Howard as confidently as you sound I don’t want to give him false hopes.’

Penny understood that feeling. ‘You need to say it for each other just as much as for Debbie.’

‘You’re right, thanks, Penny. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything.’

Penny said goodbye and hung up with a concerned look around the kitchen. ‘Sheldon, where are you, Sheldon?’ Penny waited for a few minutes and then went up to the study.

She peeked into the bathroom and bedroom calling out for her ghostly companion. ‘Sheldon, honey, come on out. I’m sorry for teasing you like that. I just wanted a quiet bath; I’m not going to be having any naked bathtub parties with your mom. Come on out.’

Penny hoped Sheldon wasn’t sulking. She figured he might just be nervous. He’d been very overwhelmed when Connie’s first letter had shown up. Having his mother and Meemaw soon to appear in person might be just a bit too much. ‘I’m going to the airport, Sheldon. If you want to come, now is the time.’

‘I don’t think I am ready for this, Penny.’ Penny jumped at Sheldon’s voice from behind her. He was sitting on one of the beds and looking white as a ghost.

‘I hope you’re not going to pop up on your folks like that, Sheldon, you’ll scare them to death. What are you so worried about, sweetie, they are your family.’ Penny sat down next to Sheldon and waited for him to put his thoughts together.

‘Penny, I hadn’t seen them in years even before I died. My mother and my sister Missy came here when I bought the cottage. That was almost seven years ago. It has been just as long since I saw Meemaw except on Skype. I feel so dead and alone.’ Sheldon started to fade away.

‘No you don’t Sheldon Lee Cooper. You are not disappearing like that.’ Penny glared at Sheldon nigh on willing him back into the study. ‘Sheldon, honey, they love you. That is why they are coming here. I am sure they love you just as much as they ever did.’

‘That’s what I am afraid of, feeling their awareness that I am dead. I am. I feel it every time someone becomes aware of my presence. They feel death. With strangers, it does not matter but feeling that from my family, I don’t know if I can handle that.’ Sheldon rocked quietly on the bed deep in morbid thought.

Penny reached over to hug Sheldon but her hand passed through him and she fidgeted in shyness at her forgetfulness. ‘Oh, honey, you know they love you and I do, too, Sheldon. Alive or dead doesn’t make any difference, Moonpie.’

‘Thank you, Penny, but I need to think about this. Would you mind picking up Meemaw and my mother alone? I don’t think I am ready to see them so soon.’ Sheldon faded from sight leaving Penny to her own thoughts.

Penny got her purse and car keys and went downstairs. She checked the kitchen where Sheldon had already started stress cleaning; this morning’s breakfast had vanished. ‘We’ll get through this, Sheldon; we’ll get through it together.’

Penny locked up the house and got in her car. ‘Sure you don’t want to change your mind, Sheldon?’ She waited a minute and then started up and drove off to get to the airport.

For once, she didn’t feel like any music while she made her way through the traffic. She wished she had time to stop by her psychic for a reading and a chat. Penny had never talked much with Sheldon about how people felt about experiencing a ghost or how ghosts experience people for that matter. Her brief chat opened up a new train of thought on her own spiritualism. Her psychic had always said that ghosts were souls that were not ready to move on from this life. That was because they felt either their purpose in this life was not yet done or they were too afraid to move on to their next journey. Penny didn’t feel either of those really fit Sheldon’s situation.

Sheldon felt the real world and the people like something he could never get back, a distant shore on the horizon left behind. That was why people coming to the cottage could feel like an unwanted intrusion because it couldn’t add to him or change him. People who encountered Sheldon felt that non-life that is a ghost. It was sort of like looking down and seeing an abyss under your feet instead of the ground and you could feel the unstoppable instant just before the fall starts. The fall people were feeling when Sheldon used his power was the feeling of the fall from life to death.

Penny kept coming back to asking herself why Sheldon was still here after the arctic business was solved. She didn’t think anything was holding him here or that he was unready or afraid to move on so what was the deal? It wasn’t that she was in a hurry to get rid of Sheldon. She had come to appreciate his presence, heck; she looked forward to coming home to him a lot of times in spite of his quirks and demands. She thought of the first day she had come to Los Robles Cottage and saw its rose color in the sunset and sat in the study chair and saw the sunset through the French windows. She had felt like she had come home.

‘Well, maybe it really is the blue jay that’s the problem.’ Penny left off any more thoughts to later having arrived at the airport.

+++

Connie and Mary’s flight arrived on time at LAX. They made their way through the bedraggled business folk, tired parents with bored and restless kids, and the general chaos of airline arrivals finding their bags. When they got their suitcases off the carousel they headed down to the arrival’s gate. Connie looked at her phone when she got a text message.

‘Good, Penny is waiting for us outside.’

Mary sighed a bit. ‘Are you sure this is a good idea? Wouldn’t you rather stay at a hotel, momma?’

Connie nodded in some agreement. She knew the house was a good size but with a new baby there strange house guests would have to feel a bit trying. As much as she wanted to see Halley, she could understand her parents feeling cramped with two more folks in the house. ‘We could do that but I would like to see the house for more than a peek and Penny was very warm to have us stay.’

Mary frowned a bit from wondering why Penny was so eager to have them stay. They weren’t family, after all, even if they did actually own the place. ‘I’d really like to know why she’s so keen to have us there. She wants something more than to say thank you if you ask me.’

‘Penny said they’ve all talked this out and gotten things ready for us. Let’s at least take a gander at what they’ve got for us. She said they had Sheldon’s study fixed up for us so give it a chance.’ Connie was eager to see the house but she was curious to see Penny. She really was just as curious as her daughter about Penny’s attachment to Sheldon and the house for her sake at any rate.

Mary nodded and walked along with her mother keeping her thoughts to herself. Her mother had known Penny for a while now through the mail and phone and all so her mother probably did know the actress better than she did. She couldn’t deny Penny and her friends had been a force for good to her family but it was all just too good to be true. It might be unchristian or looking for fault in a good turn but she worried about Penny’s attachment to Sheldon. It didn’t seem natural to Mary for Penny to be so attached to a dead man, especially when that man was her son.

+++

Penny waited at the arrival gate for Constance and Mary. A few fans recognized her and got her autograph while she waited for Sheldon’s folks. Her day brightened a lot when Bernadette called with an update.

‘You’re kidding me?’ Penny chuckled.

‘Am not, Debbie’s chest pains were just stiffness from the first day of her water aerobics class, yesterday, that Howard had signed her up for. She’s been thanking him for that scare since we left the hospital.’ Bernadette joined Penny in the laughter and relief. ‘All the same, it was scary so we’re going to spend some extra time here. Say hello to Texas for us.’

‘I will, and tell Debbie how happy I am for her she’s alright.’ Penny hung up in relief. She knew how close Howard was to Debbie. She was like a mother to everyone she came in contact with full of pushy advice and bemused love for Howard and all his friends. Penny’s reverie was broken when the first arrivals came out of the reception gate.

Penny recognized Connie from their Skype calls and waved to her and Mary when they came through the arrival gate. ‘Connie, Mary, over here, welcome to L.A.!’

‘Penny, dear, how are you? I hope you weren’t waiting too long for us.’ Connie gave Penny a hug. ‘You haven’t been properly introduced to Mary, yet, it’s time you met my daughter and Sheldon’s mother.

‘Hello, Mary, I am happy we finally got a chance to meet. Sheldon’s talked a lot about you.’

Mary gave a funny look at the odd greeting. ‘Well, hello, Penny, you do know Sheldon’s dead, right?’

‘What? Oh, yes, of course, but Sheldon had all those journals and he was very detailed. Sometimes, I wondered when he had the time to do any science stuff.’ Penny wasn’t exaggerating there, even dead he still managed a bewildering array of interests but she was a bit flustered by the slip.

Both Connie and Mary nodded in good humor at the truth of that. Connie spoke up to get things moving along. ‘How about we find someplace more comfy to chat than the middle of an airport?’

‘Sorry, momma, let’s get going to the house and put these bags down. I could use something to eat and a large pot of coffee.’ Mary picked up her bag and Penny grabbed Meemaw’s bag and the three women headed out to the car and Los Robles Cottage.

‘How do you folks feel about Mexican food, we’ve got huarache, pozole, and chili ready at the house and I couldn’t live without coffee so there’s plenty of that to go around.’

‘Honey, those are some of my favorites, how in the world did you ever did you think of them?’ Connie loved those dishes though she’d be hard pressed to think of any Mexican food she didn’t like.

‘Sheldon’s journals were very detailed.’ Penny opened the trunk when they got to her car and after the bags were put away and everyone was settled they got on the way to the cottage.

+++

Mary and Constance were glad to see Los Robles Cottage again for the happier memories it still held for them. Penny was hoping Sheldon had gotten out of whatever funk he was in. She didn’t expect him to make any trouble for these two guests, of course, but she didn’t want him to miss their arrival.

Mary and Constance were glad to have all the travel getting here done with when they put their bags down in the front hall of Los Robles Cottage. They glanced around the hall and into the dining and living rooms on either side. They didn’t see any of the toys Sheldon used to have all around the place but the Cottage, somehow, felt more like Sheldon than when he was alive.

Penny could feel the welcoming air she usually felt when she got home from work. Judging by the smiles from the house guests, she figured they could feel it, too. ‘I guess you’d like to freshen up before anything else? Bernadette and Howard are over at his mother’s with Halley so things should be quiet for you upstairs after your flight.’

‘I could use some of that coffee I smell before I do anything. You know, you should be careful leaving something like that running, Penny.’ Mary was feeling the travel from Galveston and getting a little edgy.

‘You’re right but it’s all got timers so it hasn’t been running long, how about you, Connie?’ Penny knew it was Sheldon that got the coffee running since she hadn’t even thought of it, a bit to her chagrin.

‘I’m fine, Penny, I’d just like to put my things down and get my slippers out of the bag. Why don’t you get your coffee, Mary, and we’ll get these bags out from under foot.’ Connie wanted to relax a bit after the flight and she knew Mary would be easier after she got her caffeine fix.

‘Do you want some help finding anything, Mary?’

‘No, dear, I’ll just follow my nose. I guess you’ve got things ready upstairs for us?’ Mary wanted her coffee and just as much a moment alone to look around the house and say hello to her Shelly.

‘Alright, we’ve got the beds and things made up for you in Sheldon’s study when you want to find us, and there’s plenty in the fridge if you’re feeling hungry.’ Penny wanted Sheldon’s folks to feel at home and she hoped they wouldn’t mind the changes around the property since they moved in, big things like the pavilion out back or all of Sheldon’s stuff down in Howard’s collector’s room.

Mary ambled her way through the dining room to the kitchen while Penny grabbed the bags and went upstairs to the study with Meemaw.

+++
‘You know where the study is, I guess?’ Penny wondered if Sheldon was listening and hoped he was ready to have Meemaw upstairs in his rooms.

‘Sure, I do. I like how you’ve got the place fixed up. What happened to all of Sheldon’s toys?’ Meemaw well remembered how littered with collectables anywhere Sheldon lived became. His old Pasadena apartment had been loaded with them.

‘We moved a lot of the stuff down stairs in the basement. Howard and I made a collector’s room for a lot of it but there’s still quite a bit in the study. I hope you folks don’t mind us moving it around. I know you guys wanted the house to be a memorial but we kind of also wanted to make it a little bit more our space.’ Penny had felt no one would mind moving stuff, other than Sheldon, of course.

‘I don’t mind at all, Penny, but Mary will be sure to ask. She’s no big fan of the toys but she does miss her Sheldon and that stuff really does remind her of him.’ Connie was happy these kids moved the stuff for their comfort and she hoped Mary felt the same way. It was time she let a lot of things get put away as far as Connie was concerned.

Connie opened the door to the study so Penny could get through with the bags. Penny saw Sheldon standing in a fret by the telescope and gave him a reassuring smile. ‘Here we are; I hope you’re OK with everything.’ Penny chirped with some extra emphasis for Sheldon and his very apparent nerves.

Connie paused a second in the doorway almost sure she saw Sheldon for a second but she just laughed at her own silliness. The room had so many of Sheldon’s toys around it must have just made her think she saw him in the balcony doorway. She glanced around the study with a bemused air at all of Sheldon’s things.

‘I know Mary wanted to keep Sheldon’s memory alive but isn’t this a little overboard, dear?’ Sheldon ran up to Meemaw and followed her stroll around the room.

‘Doesn’t she look wonderful, Penny?’ Sheldon’s joy was a strong presence both Penny and Meemaw could feel.

‘Yes, she does… it does.’ Penny caught herself in the moment feeling caught up in Sheldon’s joy. ‘I guess it looks that way but they are kind of cute toys. It all helped in solving the arctic stuff and by the time that was over I got to like them all where they were.’

‘The way you have things set up here, you look like you got hitched.’ Connie smiled at the collection of Care Bears. It looked more like a kid’s tree house up here than anything else.

Sheldon snorted and grinned looking bemused. ‘Hitched? Do I seem the marrying kind, Penny?’

‘Hitched to Sheldon? He’d have to make more room for my Care Bears.’ Penny grinned at Sheldon standing by his models. ‘Maybe, I should make some space on this shelf and move a few models like this Serenity.’

‘Penny, you wouldn’t dare!’ Sheldon glared in frustration since he couldn’t upset Meemaw.

‘I’m sure Sheldon wouldn’t mind a bit, dear. Which one is Serenity?’ Connie looked over the models not knowing any of them besides Sheldon’s favorites from Star Trek.

‘Meemaw, how could you?’ Sheldon never expected Meemaw to ever say such a thing.

Penny grinned at Sheldon’s dismay and picked up the Firefly spaceship. ‘It’s this one. I almost broke it my first night here. I thought I heard a prowler and I came out of the bedroom swinging with a baseball bat. Took out two of them, that Galactica model, and the Enterprise.’

‘Oh, lord, Shelly would have had a fit if the Enterprise was destroyed.’ Meemaw looked at Penny and stage whispered for effect. ‘I broke his old Enterprise, once, I was lucky the store had another so I could replace it before he found out.’

‘Meemaw?’ Sheldon was flabbergasted. Penny couldn’t help laughing for a while and Connie soon joined in.

‘Yes, have your laugh, vandals. I am going to see how my mother is doing.’ Sheldon disappeared leaving Penny and Meemaw to reminisce and unpack.

+++

Mary got a mug from the cupboard and poured her coffee. She thought about Sheldon while she looked around the kitchen. She wondered where all Sheldon’s toys had gotten to not that the place didn’t need the cleaning from them all. Their absence just reminded her of Sheldon’s having passed away. She saw the pavilion out the kitchen window and decided to have a look since it was new to the property. ‘Momma, what did you let them do to Shelly’s house?’

Mary walked out the back door to the pavilion. Opened up for the warm weather it did look like a comfortable place for a coffee and to sneak a quiet cigarette. She kept meaning to give them up but ever since she took to them for her quiet moments away from George when he’d had a few too many they had became part of her thinking time. She sat down on one of the sofas and took in the quiet. ‘I hope you’d have liked this, Shelly, but you were never one for parties. I can’t see what else a place this size would be for.’

Mary put her feet up on the sofa and thought about Penny and the house. She couldn’t deny the girl and her friends seemed to have taken good care of the place but she did wonder where Sheldon’s things were. She didn’t feel there was enough of him inside, not downstairs at any rate. ‘I miss you, Shelly.’ The day hadn’t gone by she didn’t think of her special, genius son. She’d been against any renting until her mother had insisted. When folks kept moving out, she tried getting her mother to stop trying to rent the place. That is until Penny came along.

She’d just thought of Penny as another tenant until The Coven came on TV. She had been surprised to find her tenant was in the show when her church group started petitioning against what they saw as the Devil’s work with all the witches and satanic images in the series. Mary had been ready to have the actress evicted until her mother put her foot down. Her mother loved the show and it was just a TV show to her and Penny was just an actress. She was almost ready to let the thing go until Penny started writing to Texas and getting involved in her Shelly’s work. It all turned out well and the girl had saved her son’s good name but the why of it still bothered her. Witches, real or not, getting all friendly with her mother, getting into Shelly’s work like that, it was like the girl was wheedling her way into Mary’s family and it set off her alarm bells. It wasn’t Christian because of all the good work Penny had done but Mary couldn’t help it.

Mary lit her cigarette, closed her eyes, and took a long meditative drag. She sipped her coffee and couldn’t help thinking they’d built a nice place to come and have a quiet moment to think.

‘Oh, good lord!’

Mary snorted wishing Sheldon wouldn’t act so critical. The thought brought her up short and she sat up spilling some of her coffee. She could have sworn she heard Sheldon. It was impossible but she looked around half expecting to see him. She put out the cigarette remembering how much he didn’t like her smoking.

‘I’m sorry, honey, I know you don’t like them but they do help me to think when I’m troubled.’ Mary took another sip of her coffee and lay back again. Sheldon sat on a sofa opposite his mother and listened to her long remembered voice.

‘What would you have made of that Penny? Witches? I don’t think my church group would have kept that girl as far away as you would have. I know she’s an actress but you were never into magic and hocus pocus.’

Sheldon had to agree with that but he was sure none of that would have affected his relationship with Penny.

‘I guess none of that might have been any different to those funny shows you watched.’

Sheldon was astounded at such a thought. ‘The Coven most certainly is not the same as Star Trek.’

‘But why would an actress get all involved with your work? Wouldn’t that have bothered you, Shelly?’ Mary stood up to walk around the yard and Sheldon followed with her. ‘Your Meemaw wants me to sell the place but it would be like giving you away. I’m not sure I am ready for that, honey. And that girl, studying your work, taking over your house, it’s like she’s taking you away from me, Sheldon.’ Mary finished her coffee and headed inside to find her mother and Penny.

Sheldon watched her go inside unsure of what to do. He didn’t understand why his mother didn’t trust Penny like him or Meemaw.

Chapter Text

Mary wanted to see more of the house on her own before she went looking for Penny and her mother. She went back in through the kitchen where she got another cup of coffee. She followed back the way she had come through the dining room paying more attention to the changed ambiance from her last time here when Sheldon was alive. ‘The place does look better without all the wacky toys, I guess, but where did they all go?’ She appreciated the changes for what they were but she regretted who they said was gone. The dishware in the cupboard and on the sideboard was more floral and elegant than the practical things Sheldon had and there were no strange dishes from his sci-fi shows. The furnishing was the modernistic white and black Sheldon had bought but now there were more artistic touches complementing the design such as the deep red of the place settings and the black vases for the yellow roses currently on the table. ‘You would never have thought of flowers for a table, Shelly.’ Mary smelled the fragrance of the roses with a sad smile.

‘Why would I litter the house with dying plants? They belong in the garden, mother. Not to mention, Bernadette insisted there should be yellow roses since we are from Texas. It’s all too kitsch.’ Sheldon could not believe his mother seemed to approve of their presence.

Mary went around to the living room where the clean comfortable furniture was as it had always been but none of the toys or video games were around the way Sheldon would have had them. ‘It looks like they wanted to take away everything about you, Shelly.’ Instead of Sheldon’s toys the room had a number of oil paintings. They were various scenes of 19th century Parisian women, one in particular was made a centerpiece, two women ice skating. The titles said the paintings were by Jean Beraud.

Sheldon popped in to follow his mother through the house wondering how she was feeling about the changes. ‘I said that, too, when Penny and Bernadette moved everything down to the basement.’

‘I can’t say those girls don’t know how to decorate, I wonder who likes the paintings?’ Mary admired the works for several minutes trying to guess who in the house might have chosen these.

‘Penny chose them for Bernadette as a wedding present. Bernadette has often said she would like to have been an ice dancer if she hadn’t become a scientist.’ Sheldon wasn’t entirely displeased with the art though he felt his collection of sonic screwdrivers would look better up here.

Mary walked on into the library. She glanced at the bookshelves and there seemed even more science stuff than when Sheldon was here if that were possible. Mary looked along the shelves at the bewildering array of reference works and text books and research works. ‘I don’t know what half of this is but I guess you’d enjoy it.’ She was happy to see Sheldon’s library put to good use.

Curiosity getting the better of her, Mary decided to take a peek up the spiral stairs to see the old sitting room. She smiled at the sight of familiar baby stuff and guessed she’d found Halley’s room. She looked around at the toys and decorations with fond memories of her own children. ‘Oh, Shelly, why couldn’t you have found a nice girl to settle down with and have a little one like this?’ She glanced at the sturdy baby door Howard had made with approval. ‘I hope this little one isn’t the dickens you were, Shelly.’

Sheldon looked in astonishment at his mother’s comment. ‘I remember no such thing. Wait until you hear of Penny’s larcenous escapades before you make such declarations.’

Mary didn’t want to disturb the baby’s room so she went back down to the library and used the main stairs up to the second floor. She got to the doorway to Sheldon’s study and felt a weird presence around her. She looked around the hallway almost expecting to see Sheldon next to her. She shook her mind out of her mood thinking she’d been too maudlin in her ramble around downstairs. ‘Next, you’ll be seeing Shelly’s ghost, Mary Cooper.’ She gave a knock on the door and went in to join her mother and Penny. In the doorway, she stopped in curiosity at the state of the study. The models, the swords, Batleths, Sheldon had called them, and a host of other toys littered the study. The Care Bears and Hello Kitty comforter over the desk chair had to be Penny’s since she could never imagine Sheldon with such things. She was perplexed why there was nothing of Sheldon’s things downstairs while up here, it looked like Sheldon had never passed away. She saw Penny and her mother out on the balcony chatting and glanced around the study while she went to join them.

‘Mary, did you find the coffee alright?’ Penny was starting to wonder how Sheldon’s mom was doing downstairs.

‘She did while on her tour of inspection downstairs, pavilion and all.’ Sheldon appeared by the telescope to watch his family come together up here again.

‘I found it, alright, but why’s there so much of Sheldon’s stuff up here? It’s kind of funny compared to the look downstairs.’ Mary was itching to look in the other rooms after seeing the study.

‘Oh, Mary dear, who cares how they decorate the place to suit themselves?’ Connie didn’t want the visit starting off on the wrong foot, especially after starting off so well with Penny just now.

Penny felt the tensions rising quickly so she hoped some refreshment might help smooth things over a little. ‘I guess you two might want to relax a bit after the flight. Why don’t you freshen up and I’ll put some dinner together for when you’re ready?’

Connie liked the sound of that since she could let Mary get whatever this was out of her system. ‘That would be nice, Penny. How about in an hour or so, I’d like to take a little nap. I reckon that pavilion you built would be a nice spot for supper on a nice day like this. I’d like to take a look at it after seeing those pictures you sent.’

They all agreed to have dinner in the pavilion and Penny left Connie and Mary to freshen up for dinner while she had a chat with Sheldon.

+++

Connie sat down on the bed and sighed with some frustration. ‘Well, get it out, Mary, what’s wrong?’

‘Are you kidding? Look at this room; it looks like Sheldon decorated it but there isn’t sign of him downstairs. Are you sure that girl is right in the head?’ Mary walked over to Penny’s bedroom to have a look half-expecting more of Sheldon’s stuff to be decorating it.

‘Mary Cooper, get out of that room this instant!’ Mary started to object but Connie put her foot down. ‘Now, Mary Elizabeth!’

‘I’m sorry, momma, but something’s just not right around here.’ Mary closed the bedroom door and came over to sit on the bed across from her mother. ‘Look at this room; it looks like Sheldon is going to walk in any moment.’

Connie chuckled a bit at that. ‘I don’t think Sheldon would have a collection of Care Bears anywhere near his precious models. Besides, you were the one that insisted Sheldon’s things be kept in the house. You’re not happy they aren’t all over the place one second then you’re complaining they are out on display the next. Penny wanted to keep some things out because you wanted a memorial for Sheldon and she’s done a fine job of it at that; let these kids have some space for themselves. The rest of it is down in a proper collector’s room according to Penny.’

‘A collector’s room, where did they put that? I didn’t see any sign of any collector’s room.’ Mary was sure she’d seen everything downstairs.

‘It’s in the basement. Penny and them did some remodeling when they built the pavilion out back.’ Connie wanted to see the job in the full since pictures and videos online really didn’t give the full feeling.

‘Remodeling! Why didn’t you ever say anything about remodeling?’ Mary was getting hot wondering what her mother might have let happen here at her son’s Los Robles sanctuary.

‘Do not take that tone with me, Mary Elizabeth Cooper, that’s not how you were raised. Now, I didn’t tell you because this is exactly how you would have reacted.’

‘Of course this is how I would have reacted. I’m sorry, momma, but this house is supposed to be a memorial to Sheldon.’ Mary fidgeted and got up to be closer to the models Sheldon had cared so much for.

‘Mary, honey, memorials are places people come to remember someone. No one ever came here and you never made it easy for anyone to come here. You haven’t been keeping a memorial here; you’ve been keeping a mausoleum.’ Connie had already buried one child and that was more than enough so she didn’t want to push Mary too hard on losing hers but she couldn’t let her daughter stay in unhealthy mourning like this.

‘What am I supposed to do? Sheldon was too bright and too special to be forgotten. Failure and suicide, I can’t let that be his memorial.’ Mary sat at the desk and started to tear up.

‘It seems you don’t have to. Penny and her friends have fixed that failure and Penny has been through enough of Sheldon’s work that she’s sure it must have been some kind of accident Sheldon fell off that balcony. God forgive me, but he was not the most coordinated boy on Earth so I can believe he fell off that balcony by accident.’ Connie tried not to grin at Penny’s idea of a bird scaring him like that chicken but it sounded so very Sheldon to her, especially after Carl and the badger.

‘And that’s another thing, if Penny had been his girlfriend or something all of this would make sense but look at this; she’s even working on his theories.’ Mary picked up a thesis outline on the desk that Penny had been working on for her M.A. application.

‘Yes, Penny was showing it to me while you were downstairs. All that science work clearing Sheldon’s name got her interested in the subject. There’s nothing strange about that.’ Connie got up and took the outline from Mary and put it away where Penny had gotten it from and held her daughter’s hand. ‘Mary, dear, you’ve got a lot to work out for your peace of mind and I hope being here will help that along. But, while you’re working that out, try to remember these kids have been Sheldon’s friends in life and after. You should be able to admit that much at least.’

‘I’ll try, momma.’ Mary sighed and chewed her lip wanting to add more but she knew her mother was in no mood to let her push the issue any further.

‘That’s fine. I’m going to wash up a bit after that flight and take a nap before we eat. You might try to do the same.’ Connie got some bath things from the dresser and insisted Mary get herself a little more comfortable for dinner. She hoped that would help Mary look at things less suspiciously if not better.

+++

Penny started getting out the Mexican food Sheldon had made and she was surprised at the amount he’d made. She guessed he was including Howard and Bernie and maybe Raj and Lalita since there was enough made for that many people. Penny texted Bernadette about whether they might be back in time for dinner. Bernadette said they expected to be back in an hour or two. She also texted Raj and Lalita were likely to drop by since they were worried about Debbie, too, even if Howard had been keeping them updated. They were hoping to drop by and see how Howard was doing and the say hi to Sheldon’s folks.

‘The correct temperature should be set 5 degrees higher, Penny.’

‘Life is so much easier with you running behind correcting things, Sheldon.’ Penny rolled her eyes and adjusted the temperature to keep things running without further incident.

‘My mother would often say the same thing to me. It is nice to have one’s efforts appreciated by the people close to them, don’t you think?’ Sheldon hoped his mother and Penny would find more in common during her stay.

‘Oh, sure.’ Penny was too busy thinking about Sheldon’s mother to be bothered by his obliviousness to sarcasm. ‘Sheldon, does your mom like traveling?’

‘Yes, she has frequent sojourns with her church group. She’s particularly fond of her church’s summer cruise package.’ Sheldon helped Penny get the chili going while she washed some vegetables for a salad.

‘She just seemed a little antsy when she came up to the study. I wondered if the trip here had her on edge.’

Sheldon asked Penny to sample the taste of the chili. ‘That’s fantastic, Sheldon.’

‘You should thank Meemaw since it is her recipe. However, it is not the trip which has my mother so antsy; it is you, Penny.’ Sheldon went back to the refrigerator to get the huarache out.

Penny stared at Sheldon waiting for him to continue that thought but he kept cooking like everything was clear. ‘What do you mean it’s me?’

Sheldon paused in his work. ‘While my mother was out in the pavilion, I listened to her talking to herself about the state of the house and of my work and possessions. She believes you are trying to take them away from her. Also, I believe her fundamentalist Christian beliefs are somewhat contributing to this due to your profession and that you currently portray a witch.’

Penny frowned in thought while she started chopping up the vegetables for the salad. ‘I guess I can’t really say I’m surprised. I hardly ever talked to your mom all this time. I handled all the house questions through your Meemaw, maybe she resents that?’

Sheldon put out several trays to carry the dishes, glasses, and silverware to the pavilion. ‘That may be some part of this but I had always intended to use the house for Meemaw if she didn’t want to keep her home any longer as she got older. I believe my mother would defer to her in any changes you arranged through her. Do not let the charming Texas granny veneer fool you. Meemaw knows her mind and will express it quite clearly when need be. My mother knows that better than I do. I believe the concerns you put in your last letter to Meemaw express the problem, poaching. From what my mother said in the pavilion over her cigarette break, she believes you are too attached to me and you are taking away her last attachments to her memory of me.’

Penny loaded up the trays while she imagined being in Mary’s shoes. Too attached, she had to laugh a bit at that. ‘I haven’t been accused of being too attached to anyone since Kurt and I met back in Omaha.’

Sheldon scowled at Penny’s laughter. ‘There will be no frolics to Las Vegas, Penny.’

Penny batted her eyes and smiled. ‘So, you’d rather just stay shacked up and single with an actress? Sheldon honey, what would folks say back home?’

‘You are incorrigible, woman.’ Sheldon snorted and tossed a tomato slice at Penny.

Penny tossed a carrot slice back at Sheldon but it passed through him. ‘Hey, no fair starting food fights when I can’t hit you back!’

Sheldon chuckled and tossed the fallen carrot slice back at Penny.

Penny glared back at her preening nemesis. ‘Oh, it’s on!’ She began whistling The Yellow Rose of Texas.

+++

Mary looked around the study for a minute. Her mother was right about letting go of things here. Even her church group told her the same thing from time to time but sitting here surrounded by her son’s things, she could almost feel Sheldon around her and it wasn’t just because of the toys around the room. She closed her eyes and listened to her mother moving about in the bathroom. She felt too restless to lie around so she gave the bathroom door a knock. ‘Momma, I’m going to go downstairs and give Penny a hand with the dinner fixings. Do you want anything downstairs?’

Connie hoped her daughter was taking on some of her advice. ‘I wouldn’t mind a chamomile tea if they have some, thank you, Mary.’

‘You’re welcome, momma. I’ll be back up in a bit.’ Mary took a breath and promised herself to keep thinking more charitable thoughts about the Los Robles kids. Her mother was right about the good that had come about since the house got rented to Penny and her friend. Her head knew that at any rate.

Mary got down to the first floor just as a young couple with a baby came in the front door. ‘Hello, y’all, I’m Mary Cooper, Sheldon’s mother. I guess you are Bernadette and Howard and this must be little Halley?’

Howard and Bernadette both said hi but Halley said the most with her crying and fussing. Bernadette sighed and handed her to Howard. ‘I’m sorry Howie, but can you change her?’

Howard grinned at his wife and Mary as he took Halley. ‘Why not, it will take care of the hearing in the other ear.’

‘You’re not squeamish about changing a diaper, are you Howard?’ Mary could never get her George to go near the job.

‘No, I’ve just listened to my mother all day which makes this is a relief since I can put this one to bed.’ Howard went upstairs to change Halley and let her settle down for a while. Bernadette handed Howard a small cell phone looking device she picked up from the hall table and put a matching one on her belt.

‘What’s that thing?’ Mary was curious about the odd devices.

Bernadette led Mary into the living room and sat down on the couch with her. ‘These are something Howard made. The house has small cameras that let us keep an eye on Halley when we are away from her.’ Bernadette turned on the screen and they saw Howard walking into Halley’s room. Bernadette said hi to Howard and had him turn on the room’s speakers so she could sing Halley’s Polish lullaby to her.

Halley reached out towards the toy shelf and saying ‘kotki’ again and again. Howard went to the shelf and got a plush dog and tried giving it to Halley but she pushed it away and kept asking for ‘kotki’.

‘What’s a kotki?’ Mary had no idea what the funny sounding song was Bernadette had sung.

‘Kitties, the lullaby is Polish and it’s about two kitties. I think Halley might have figured that out.’ The two mothers watched Howard get a horse this time but Halley pushed that away and kept asking for kotki. When Howard came back the third time with the kitty Halley squealed and hugged the plush kitty. ‘Sof kotki… sof kotki…’

Mary drew back a bit then got closer. ‘What’s ‘sof kotki’? I guess that’s some other Polish word?’

‘I don’t know it’s not Polish. I think she just means soft kitty.’ Bernadette shrugged but Mary asked if Bernadette would mind if she tried a lullaby. Mary sang Sheldon’s old lullaby and while she sang Halley started repeating sof kotki, wum kotki along with the tune and fell asleep while Howard finished changing her.

Bernadette was delighted to see Halley fall asleep so quickly after such a busy day but she wondered why Mary was looking so pensive. ‘Halley liked your lullaby; I haven’t heard that one before.’

Mary passed the baby monitor back to Bernadette and pondered a few seconds more. ‘It’s a little tune I made for my Sheldon when he was a baby. Funny, it almost seemed like she knew it but I can’t see how. She must have just meant the doll, I suppose.’

‘Whatever the reason, thank you for getting her to sleep. We spent all day with Howard’s mother. She thought she was having heart trouble but it turned out to be exercise cramps, thank god, but Halley had a long day.’

Bernadette and Mary chatted a few minutes about Halley until Penny came into the living room with a tray. ‘Hey Bernie, I’ve got your lavender tea and there’s a pot of chamomile tea here for you and Connie, Mary.’

‘How in the world did you know that’s what I came downstairs for, Penny?’ Mary was happy at the coincidence but it seemed odd as well, especially after Halley and Soft Kitty.

Penny floundered a second. She hadn’t given any thought to Sheldon preparing the tea since he usually had a pot brewed up for her and Bernadette. She’d long forgotten to give it any thought but Bernadette saved the moment.

‘Penny’s wonderful like that. Sometimes, it is almost like she is a witch or something having just the right thing made for me when I get home.’ Bernadette lingered over the aroma and giggled. ‘I think Howard gets a little jealous over that.’

Mary paused a second in shuffling the tea and dishes to bring upstairs for her mother. ‘Why is that, can’t he figure out what you like?’

‘Howie is so sweet but he doesn’t have Penny’s touch for having things ready.’ Bernadette thought about some of Howard’s nerves about the Cottage. ‘When we first moved in here, he was sure the place was haunted. Sometimes, he still thinks there is a ghost that gets the stuff ready for me when I come home.’

Bernadette and Penny laughed for different reasons over that but Mary’s chuckle was more guarded. She thought about the lullaby and the tea and thinking she’d heard Sheldon out in the pavilion. ‘I can’t say I believe in ghosts. Jesus takes the good to his bosom and the others go you know where but Howard always used to tell us the Cottage was troubled. He said he could never get anyone to stay until you folks came along. He never said what the troubles were exactly but sometimes I did wonder if it was Sheldon making a fuss over everything that happened to him.’

Bernadette still felt rankled over the first week or so when everything kept going wrong some way or the other. ‘I sure had enough trouble here the first week whenever I was alone. I kept getting locked out, the laundry kept ruining my clothes, I started to think I was going crazy but Penny did some kind of New Age psychic stuff one weekend and everything was fine after that.’

Mary looked awry at Penny. ‘You do that funny Wicca stuff? I though all that was just acting?’

Penny laughed a little embarrassed at the misplaced praise. ‘No Wicca stuff, but I did talk to my psychic. She talked about rearranging the furnishings and using incense and stuff to make the place homier. She figured the house wasn’t used to us and we weren’t used to it, either, so a little Fung Shui and everything got better.’

Mary huffed and rolled her eyes. ‘Witches, fang-shoes, or whatever, it sounds like you can use a bit of churching up around here. I’m going to bring this tea up to momma and we can have dinner in an hour.’

Penny and Bernadette stared at each other in astonishment and then followed Mary’s march out of the living room and up the stairs. Howard came down the spiral stairs and into the living room from the library. ‘What’s up, you guys?’

‘Mary thinks we can use some churching up.’ Penny giggled at the thought. The contortions Howard’s face made set her laughing.

‘You can’t be serious.’ Howard was ready to move back in with his mother right now.

‘She sounded serious but I guess we can just plead the baby.’ Bernadette was going to make the most of being a new mom, tomorrow.

Sheldon appeared with a maniacal smile. ‘I think it is you she wants in church, tomorrow, Penny.’

‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’ Penny nodded to Sheldon and reassured Howard and Bernie, too. ‘I think Mary was a little spooked about me talking about psychics and stuff. Connie doesn’t mind any of that but Mary is kind of fundamentalist.’

‘My mother is kind of fundamentalist the way the Spanish Inquisition was kind of against witches.’ Sheldon rolled his eyes grateful he was left out of this.

‘I hope you’re right about that, Penny. I don’t mind the church bit so much but Howie shouldn’t have to deal with it. None of us should, really, but I can make her happy for one morning.’ Bernadette gave Howard a hug in support and headed upstairs to check on Halley and get ready for dinner.

‘Thanks, Bernie.’ Howard turned to Penny. ‘Do you want a hand with dinner?’

‘No, I’m OK, Howard, it’s mostly done, there’s just the warming up and such. I could use a hand in when I’m carting things out to the pavilion. I’ll give you a shout.’

‘Sure, I’ll be downstairs in the collector’s room. I found some files of Arctic videos with Sheldon. Maybe, his folks would like to take a look at them?’

Penny glanced at Sheldon and he just shrugged. ‘There is nothing very interesting to see. I never sent any videos home to Texas since the experiment turned out to be a failure.’

‘I think they might enjoy that. Let’s ask at dinner.’ Penny shoed Howard on his way and then directed Sheldon into the kitchen with her to finish dinner.

Chapter Text

The pavilion was a delightful place for a meal as far as Connie was concerned. She was amazed Penny had made her favorite foods so well. ‘Penny, where did you ever learn to cook like this?’

‘Don’t thank me, thank Sheldon, his journals had a few recipes that he noted were your favorites. I just followed the instructions.’ Penny was ashamed to accept the praise for Sheldon’s cooking but it was quite good. She got a text from Lalita that she and Raj would be coming over in a bit so she got up to get places set for them. Mary joined her helping bring out more of the food when Raj and Lalita arrived.

Everyone was delighted to see Halley come down with Bernadette. ‘She had quite the nap so I’d like to let her burn off some energy.’

Halley was fascinated by the many faces, especially the two new faces. She was very taken with Mary as soon as she heard the Texas drawl. ‘Kotki, sof kotki,’

‘I think she might remember your lullaby, Mary.’ Bernadette moved over on the couch and Mary came over to sit next to her to hold Halley for a bit. Halley chortled in approval.

Mary bounced Halley on her lap but the baby was far more interested in the foods Mary was eating. ‘This little one is getting as grabby as Sheldon and Missy at this age. Lord, those two could eat when they weren’t starting food fights.’

‘Starting food fights, was this a regular thing with Sheldon?’ Penny was still planning retaliation after the kitchen standoff.

‘Of course not, I am not one to resort to such petty antics.’ Sheldon anticipated his mother’s agreement though Penny wasn’t counting on it.

‘He and Missy were hellions. Momma was the only one that could keep them under control. Bernadette, have you been starting her on any foods, yet?’ Mary was having a fight on her hands with Halley’s hands. She was smacking her lips and trying to get at each forkful that passed by.

‘It was Missy who kept starting everything!’ Sheldon fumed and paced in agitation.

Penny giggled at Sheldon’s frustration after the kitchen food fight today but Halley was more on her mind at the moment.

‘Not yet, Mary, but how about we try a little avocado?’ Bernadette came over and sat by Mary with a small dish where she was mashing a soft piece of avocado into paste.’ Bernadette ate a bit of the avocado paste and hummed happily. That caught Halley’s attention and she scooped up some of the avocado from the dish and ate it with a lot of messiness.

‘I don’t have a camera. Mom is going to kill me.’ Howard started to rush into the house but Raj had come to the rescue.

‘I’ve got it, dude. I got my phone out when Bernadette came over with the food.’ Raj and Lalita were both looking from the phone to Halley and waving at Halley.

Howard hurried over to Raj and looked at the camera’s quality. ‘Thanks man, you’re a life saver. I’m going to run inside and get mine, thanks you guys.’

Raj and Lalita kept filming Halley’s antics with the food. Raj whispered something to Lalita and she nodded and got up to go over to Bernadette. She got into an excited whispered conversation with Bernadette. Bernadette urged Lalita to go ahead once Howard got back. She didn’t have long to wait when Howard got back and set up his camera to film Halley. Holding Halley, Mary had been lose enough to hear most of the silent chatter between Bernadette and Lalita. ‘Go on. This little one has probably had as much as is good for a young tummy.’ Mary got a napkin and wiped Halley’s face and hands. Mary handed Halley back to Bernadette after she’d cleaned the evening’s newest diner.

‘Hello everyone, Raj and I came over to say how happy we are that Howard’s mom is alright and today was nothing serious.’ Everyone clapped and said similar cheers to Howard.

‘Thanks, now everyone tell my mother that.’ Howard often joked about Debbie but he had been every bit as frightened as she had been on the way to the hospital. He was feeling too relieved to do any suffering son jokes tonight.

‘We also wanted to welcome Connie and Mary back to California and we hope this trip will be a happy one. Raj and Howard were Sheldon’s friends and we all hope you will be a part of our lives.’

Connie and Mary both felt warmed by all these kids and Connie felt glad to say as much. ‘Thank you, Lalita, all of you. Mary and I can’t tell you how much everything you all did to save our Sheldon’s good name. I hope you’ll give our thanks to your sister, too, Raj. Penny’s told me a bit of what she had to go through in all that business.’

Raj was looking embarrassed by the praise so Lalita carried on with her speech. ‘Thank you, Connie. We also wanted to make an announcement. Halley will have a playmate in about eight more months.’

Everyone gasped and cheered. Even Sheldon felt an unusual thrill of happiness along with the crowd of friends and family. Connie and the other mothers of the party corralled Lalita to have a Q&A about motherhood. Mary was especially taken with Lalita. ‘Have you ever been to Galveston, dear?’

‘No, I studied Dentistry here in California. I’ve never been to Texas.’ Lalita was curious about Mary’s enthusiasm and soon learned a lot about Texas.

Penny excused herself to get some champagne to celebrate the great news. Howard asked Raj to help him with some last touches on the video surprise for Sheldon’s folks so they excused themselves and followed Penny inside.

‘Penny, could you break the surprise to Connie and Mary? You really are the closest to them after all.’ Howard guessed getting everything set up would take about a half hour. Raj had a few files to add to the show that he could download from his cloud account for his Caltech days.

‘Sure guys, I’ll say you are setting up a surprise about Sheldon for them. That way we can show it too them here or set it up online so they can see it in Texas if they’d rather watch it later in private.’ Penny was sure they’d want to see Sheldon again but whether with strangers or not she wasn’t so sure.

Penny gathered up a couple of bottles of champagne and glasses on a tray and carried the lot out to the pavilion. She found Mary asking about a christening for Halley when she got back to the pavilion. She could feel the palpable stress coming off Bernadette as could Connie.

‘Mary, honey, we shouldn’t be sticking our noses into how Bernadette and Howard are raising their little one.’ Connie had been trying talking Mary into just the two of them going to church, tomorrow. Mary would be going come hell or high water but Connie didn’t want to impose any of Mary’s funny fundamentalist ideas on folks here. Mary kept on with saying a trip to church would be a fine time to plan a christening for Halley.

‘Bernie, I was thinking about locking up the front of the house so you can put Halley to bed when she gets tired out.’ Penny didn’t think Halley was too tired yet but it would make a timely escape story from any more church talk, at least for the moment.

Bernadette leapt at the idea. She was thankful Howard was inside and didn’t have to hear any of that christening stuff. She and Howard really hadn’t talked about religion and Haley but she certainly wasn’t going to have that conversation here with Mary Cooper. Besides, Halley had had a long day with Debbie and now here with everyone else. Bernadette was amazed at how well she had been handling so many strangers and people all day long. Halley almost seemed to thrive on the chaos and activity all day. Her fascination for everything new had never let up. All the same, bedtime was a perfect excuse to politely bow out of any more religious talk. ‘Good idea, Penny, let’s do that now. It really has been a long day for her.’ Bernadette gathered up Halley’s blanket and scurried inside as politely as possible from that impromptu crusade for Halley’s soul.

‘Oh, before we do that, Howard and Raj have a little surprise for you, Connie and Mary. They made a small home movie of some video files of Sheldon up in the arctic. Do you feel up to seeing them?’ Penny’s ploy to direct things away from Halley worked like a charm.

‘We never heard of any home movies made up there. Land of Goshen, of course we’d love seeing them, wouldn’t we, momma?’ Mary almost felt like Sheldon was inside setting the movies up.

‘Of course, we would. Are they set up, Penny?’ Connie was just as excited to see whatever Howard and Raj had to show them.

‘Howard and Raj are doing some editing; they’ll be up in a bit when they are ready to start the show. They are setting everything up in the collector’s room in the basement. There’s time to finish your drinks and I’ll lock up the front of the house and give the guys a call and see if they are ready.’ Penny went back inside to lock up and took a quick run up the library stairs to check on Bernadette and Halley. She heard Sheldon’s voice up in Halley’s room.

‘It is a kitten.’ Sheldon’s voice was a little strained.

‘Kotki.’ Halley giggled and tossed the plush kitty at Sheldon.

Bernadette sighed. ‘That’s the third time. I am not going to keep picking it up again and again, Halley.’

‘How are you doing, Bernie?’ Penny giggled at the looks on the adults’ faces, one adult and a ghost who often acted more like a child at times.

‘Fine, but Halley seems to like flying kittens, tonight.’ Bernadette waved the toy around for a bit out of the baby’s grasp and then put it in the crib with Halley.

‘For the fourth time, it is a kitten, Halley. And, I will have you know, Penny, those files Howard and Raj are preparing are scientific documents not superficial home movies.’ Sheldon put particular gravitas on ‘scientific documents’.

‘Kotki.’ She laughed and launched it at Sheldon again but Bernadette was ready this time and caught the air born toy.

Penny joined in on Halley’s game and walked behind Sheldon to wave at the baby. ‘Howard and Raj should have the ‘home movies’ ready soon. That should take Mary’s mind off of christenings for a bit.’

‘Do not encourage this perverse behavior, Penny.’ Sheldon’s voice had the deep Texas drawl of his mother that he got when he slipped out of his scientific minded teacher’s voice. Penny had grown quite fond of it.

Bernadette swooped the kitty over Halley. She laughed and grabbed for the toy. ‘I hope so. I don’t mind the idea but that’s for Howard and me to talk about and just us. I know we all agreed to have them here and they own the place but I am not having that conversation with Mary.’

‘My mother will not give up easily. You should simply direct the issue to Meemaw. That would be the simplest solution.’ Sheldon knew there would be no reasoning with his mother where religion was concerned.

Penny had to agree with Sheldon on that plan. ‘Don’t worry, Bernie, I’ll talk to Connie. I’m sure she can put it better to Mary than we can but if it comes to it, just say the word. We still have hotel reservations available.’ Penny had wanted the Texas family to stay here for Sheldon but Bernie and her family had to come first. She kissed Haley goodnight and went back downstairs to check the locks again and check on Raj and Howard’s progress in the basement.

Penny poked into the collector’s room and saw the guys scanning through some scenes on the computer. ‘Are you guys ready for show time?’

Howard gave a nod to Penny. ‘Just about, Raj had some extra files that we are adding into the movie. We’ve been trying to edit around Leonard since Mary and Connie do know about the trouble he caused up there.’

‘Yeah, and I’m not so crazy about reliving those memories, either.’ Raj was still angry for Priya’s sake even if his sister kept telling him to get over it.

‘I get it but will it be ready, soon? Mary was talking religion and Haley outside and the movie would be a good way to put an end to that.’ Penny rolled her eyes at the thought of tomorrow. She was glad Bernie and Connie were coming with her but she did feel a little guilty and abashed for wanting Bernie there.

‘Is she trying to convert you, Penny?’ Howard chuckled at Penny’s pained expression.

‘More like Haley, she was asking about christenings. Bernie brought Haley upstairs when that talk started but you and Bernie should talk over what you want to do about that. I’d love to have Connie here for their vacation but not if it’s going to bother you guys.’ Penny was sensitive to the look of impatience from Howard and wanted him and Bernie to know Connie, and especially Mary’s stay, was dependent on Howard and Bernie feeling good about it.

Raj had to sympathize with Howard on the subject of overzealous Christians. ‘Is Bernadette still up in Haley’s room, Penny?’

‘Yes, she was still settling Halley in when I came downstairs.’

‘You should go up and talk to Bernadette. I’ve got this movie covered; I’ll finish up the last scenes while you guys think about what you want to do.’ Raj figured it would only take another ten or fifteen minutes to put in the last scenes and cue up the music choices they had talked about for the movie.

Howard and Penny thanked Raj and went back upstairs, Penny out to the pavilion and Howard to check in on Bernadette and Haley.

Penny hoped Lalita was doing OK left to fend for herself with Mary. She found them laughing over the Princess Panchali story.

‘That’s why you look so familiar. I must have read that story to Sheldon a thousand times.’ Mary hadn’t thought of the story in ages so she had no idea where she’d seen Lalita before. ‘Sheldon used to love that story so much he had it memorized better than I did. I haven’t looked at that story since Sheldon was four or five. I wonder if he kept that book.’

‘Yes, he did. Penny showed me the story the first time we were here after the wedding. Raj and I couldn’t believe how close the pictures looked to me.’

Penny sat down by Connie with relief that there was no religion talk going on. ‘The book is up in the study. We can all have a look later. That isn’t all the treats we have. Howard and Raj have put together a video of their arctic trip with Sheldon that they’d like to show you folks.’

‘That sounds wonderful. We haven’t seen anything of Sheldon up there. What do you say, momma?’ Mary was delighted with the idea.

‘That does sound wonderful.’ Connie did want to see Sheldon but she was a little wary of Mary’s happiness. Seeing Sheldon was all well and good, but she wanted Mary to get used to him being gone more than she seemed to be. ‘Are they ready to show it, Penny?’

‘Howard and Raj will be up to give us a call when we can see it.’

With the video on her mind and Lalita here Penny went back to the Panchali story and other books and toys for kids. Bernadette was happy to join in when she came downstairs. She wanted to start on a collection for Haley that she could read to her during late night feedings and changings.

‘I think you should start up a music collection, too, Bernie.’ Penny thought Haley seemed keen every time some music was played.

‘Did you see how fast she seemed to pick up on Mary’s voice and that Soft Kitty lullaby?’ Bernadette was surprised at Halley’s seeming to catch the Texas accent of the guests, especially from Mary.

The women shared out their playlists of songs growing up which covered a very long time and several continents. Bernadette thought Halley might need at least two childhoods to hear it all.

+++

Sheldon watched Howard and Raj setting up the last bits of the show and feeling more uneasiness than he expected. He worked to keep his agitation from affecting Howard and Raj but watching the video made him increasingly anxious and he was surprised by that.

‘That should be it. I hate to say it but I wish we could cut more of Leonard out of it.’ Howard thought back on the time he’d lost in the wilderness of real estate with some bitterness.

‘I feel you, dude. Priya keeps telling me it’s over but when I’m here with you guys… Sheldon should be here, too. He was a pain in the ass but he didn’t deserve what Leonard did. We let him down; I let him and Priya down.’ Raj got up and walked around the collector’s room and recalled the old times in the apartment down on N Los Robles Avenue.

‘My mom says the same thing. She keeps saying that kind of thinking just makes things worse. It lets the bad guys win.’

‘Yeah, she’s right. We’ve got Lalita and Bernie and our jobs back.’ Raj felt strangely relieved.

‘That’s right, and we’ve got the kids. Going to the hospital with mom, today, I had a lot of time to think, today. I guess, at this point, what Leonard did really isn’t important anymore.’ Howard felt really comfortable and at home for once in Los Robles Cottage.

The guys finished the final touches on the editing and headed back up to the pavilion. Sheldon followed them to help make sure both Meemaw and his mother took this revelation well, as much as he could. He had assured Penny that the arctic stuff was meaningless but now he thought about how much had changed. The arctic fiasco was no more. He realized he had not cared about these videos because they had been a record of his failure. Now, they showed only his science and his friends. And Leonard. Penny had told him about not letting the past destroy the happy memories. That was proving to be a lot harder than he had imagined. Both friends had done their best to minimize Leonard’s presence but he was unavoidable in some scenes. Sheldon was grateful that Howard and Leonard felt just as disturbed as he was by those old memories.

Sheldon followed the guys out to the pavilion. The party was laughing at Penny and Bernadette’s renditions from their latest film craze, Gilbert and Sullivan. They were swapping lines from The Modern Major General song and had everyone in stitches. Howard and Raj were astonished when Connie got up and joined Penny and Bernadette with equal verve. The three took a bow to their small audience and Connie shooed off the praise as much as she could.

‘I had no idea you could sing like that!’ Penny felt like she had found a kindred spirit after their performance.

‘I love those old musicals. We did quite a few when I was in high school. I even did some local theater before I got married.’ Connie remembered those days like a fantasy. She wondered if that might be why she’d taken to Penny so fast.

‘Momma was quite the song bird when I was growing up. I wish I could get her to join my church choir. They could use you something fierce, momma.’ Mary was only half serious. Her mother had made her feelings known about strident churches on more than one occasion.

‘My performing days are long behind me. What about you, dear, why haven’t you done any musicals, Penny?’ Connie hoped she might do one down the line.

‘I did a few musicals on stage before I got the TV show. They were fun but if I did another I think I’d like it on in film. The show is doing great but I wouldn’t mind stretching out into film if something came around.’ Penny didn’t think she had the voice to carry a musical in a lead part but it would be fun to get a smaller role. The more she thought about it, it wouldn’t even need to be a musical. She’d had a few other small roles on other shows when her schedule fit the filming but a movie would be a lot more exciting. She figured she should have a chat with her agent.

Howard broke into the conversation hoping he wasn’t spoiling the fun. Penny and Bernie could get very intense when they got into performance mode. ‘Hey guys, Penny, were you able to tell everyone about the collector’s room show?’

‘Yes, Howard, we’re all set? How about it, everyone? Are you all up to seeing what these guys and Sheldon were up to way up north?’ Penny was eager to see the movie since she had never looked at any of the film footage. Sheldon had felt it was all too superfluous to the written journals and anything tied directly to instrument observation so she hadn’t delved into them.

Everyone was led by Howard into the house and down to the collector’s room. Connie and especially Mary were delighted by the ambience Howard and Penny had created. Neither woman had thought a batch of children’s toys could look like a thing of beauty but the room with the woodwork, display cases, lighting, and furniture made the room look like a true museum.

‘Howard, honey, you have got to give me a proper tour here before we get started.’ Mary had almost forgotten her anxiety about what became of Sheldon’s stuff while Howard and Raj walked her around the displays.

Connie watched the tour for a few minutes with a bit of sadness. Mary was asking a dozen and one questions about Sheldon’s stuff but she knew what Mary wanted to hear was just folks talking about Sheldon. ‘Penny, let’s get some things for folks upstairs. Maybe, Bernadette can give us a hand?’

Penny nodded at the good idea and whispered to Bernadette and Lalita who joined Connie and Penny to get some drinks and snacks for everyone. The kitchen was raided for light snacks from the pavilion fare as well as other goodies in the pantry. Connie wondered how Penny and Bernadette were getting along with Mary. While she had them and Lalita alone in the kitchen she wanted to apologize for Mary’s enthusiasm for her faith.

‘Are you girls just being polite about Mary out there going on about Halley and going to church, tomorrow?’

Penny snorted in good humor. Sheldon hadn’t been kidding about Connie speaking her mind quite clearly. It wouldn’t do to not meet her in kind if Sheldon was anything to go by. ‘Well, yes, yes we are. It’s just one day. If I can survive my family’s Christmas guilt trips, I can get through a church service with Mary.’

‘Don’t be so sure. It’s not just the church. It’s all about Sheldon. Mary wants the right sort here. Now, don’t get me wrong, she can’t do anything about you and the house without my say so, but she can be worse than a plague of horseflies if she puts her mind to it.’ Connie looked frustrated by the truth of that statement but she hoped the women believed she was on their side here as much as she could against Mary’s deeper motives.

‘Do you mean she’s serious about Halley and christening?’ Bernadette bristled at that thought.

‘I am sure of it, but that’s easy enough to tell her to mind her own business. She won’t tell you how to raise your little girl though she can be a loud little peanut gallery. She wants you to be the right people around her Sheldon and this house is her Sheldon. Thing is, most of what she goes on about used to drive him up the wall, though he was too good to really say so and mean it to his mother.’ Connie sat down at the kitchen table in a puzzle about what do about her daughter.

Sheldon appeared in the kitchen sensing Meemaw’s disquiet. ‘Meemaw is not wrong about my mother’s persistence. I do not like to admit defeat but a hotel might be the best option for everyone.’

Penny wasn’t ready to quit, at least until Bernadette and Howard had enough. ‘Mary’s problem is what I do for a living and my psychics and just being too close to Sheldon. Going to church will show her I’m willing to meet her half way about everything. I’m sure we can get her to talk more about her real feelings if you’re right about this really being about Sheldon and the house.’

Connie wasn’t quite sure of that but she wasn’t going to tell Penny how to handle Mary. She’d settle for giving advice if Penny asked for it.

The women finished putting the goodies together for downstairs. Raj came up to the kitchen to tell them everyone was ready to start after touring Mary around the collector’s room. He helped Lalita and Bernadette gather up the food and drinks and they headed down to the collector’s room with the bulk while Connie held Penny back a bit to make sure they had everything.

‘I really don’t think this is a good idea, tomorrow.’ Connie got Penny alone in the kitchen for a moment under the guise of helping her bring down a few more drinks for the movie downstairs.

‘Maybe not, but I just think meeting her half way like this would make her happier. I get the feeling Mary doesn’t like me getting into Sheldon’s work. This just seems like a way to open a little communication.’ Penny frowned at Connie’s resigned sigh.

‘Normally, I’d say you’re right but this business with Sheldon runs deep with her. I can’t say I haven’t had some questions, too, but I’ve been worried you might be too attached to Sheldon for your own good.’

‘Oh?’ Penny was surprised Connie was concerned for her like that.

‘Not now, but for a while when y’all were working on clearing Shelly’s name I did wonder what had put such a fire under you, Penny. Howard, I could understand him, of course, even his wife, but I did wonder why it seemed so important to you.’ Connie was still curious about Penny’s motives even if she wasn’t so worried for her sanity.

‘You know I was married once, and my husband was killed, right?’ Penny couldn’t recall sharing any details of her marriage with Connie other than what the websites had of general information written for publicity.

‘That I knew; it took me by surprise you got married so young.’ Connie wanted to ask more about Penny’s past but a dead husband was a delicate topic for a lot of folks and one so young, Connie thought it might be even more sensitive.

‘It took my parents by surprise, too, and it did start out every bit as romantic as the fan-sites guess.’ Penny warmed her hands on some chamomile tea she got ready and poured for her and Connie. ‘Not so much at the end, though, but that was so long ago I’ve let the bad stuff stay buried with Kurt.’

Connie took a few guesses what Penny meant by bad stuff after getting married so young. ‘Was there some kind of shenanigans like Leonard did to Sheldon up north, there?’

Penny still found it hard to talk about the end of her marriage. She didn’t feel so angry any more having Bernadette and Sheldon to share some of the pain with when it was too much. These days that anger almost never came but she still didn’t like reliving the story. She sighed and nodded and closed her eyes to the kitchen lights. ‘Yeah, there were some shenanigans. We were young and I loved acting so much and Kurt had his work. He did love seeing me on stage. He never missed an opening, not once. I remember my first professional role in a play. He came to see me in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ I saw him in the audience and it was like we were the only two people in the theater. ‘Course, our production was so bad we almost were the only ones there by the end of the final act.’ Penny still had to laugh at that first night because Kurt was so happy just seeing her up there the bad reviews didn’t matter. He was able to talk her into those acting classes, though; she couldn’t deny she had needed them. They did come at a cost in the end.

Connie took Penny’s hand to coax her out of getting maudlin. ‘It sounds like you had some happy times out here. So, what happened?’

Penny glanced at Connie with a shy smirk. ‘Oh, that’s more of a whisky conversation but, well, there are a lot more distractions out here than there were back in Nebraska. I don’t blame him anymore like I used to, still wouldn’t mind killing him sometimes, though.’

Connie was ready to let her guesses be enough. ‘Yes, I had days I could have taken a frying pan to my Sam’s head. Mary still looks up to him like he could do no wrong but I was married to the man and he was not perfect. I guess something about Sheldon’s troubles reminded you of yours, then? Maybe, that girl trouble with, who was it, Priya?’

Penny nodded and sighed. ‘Yeah, she’s Raj’s sister. I figured I couldn’t do anything about what happened to me but I could do something about what happened to Sheldon. The day Howard told me about what he knew it was awful. I guessed what happened from the diaries Sheldon had written but he never thought about the Arctic as anything but a science problem. It never occurred to him someone so close could betray him like that.’ Penny’s thoughts drifted to Sheldon and how he’d looked in the balcony window listening to Howard’s revelations. She’d had that same crushed look once upon a time.

Connie was a little surprised by the tears starting from Penny’s distant eyes and held her hand in understanding. No one could figure what Connie saw in a man as cantankerous as her Sam could be but his rock steady conviction and loyalty was worth far more than all the trouble that ever came from his temper. She had a lot of friends with stories like Penny’s, her own Mary, too, and every one of them made her value her Sam all the more. ‘I’m sorry to bring up any hard memories, dear; I was worried you were getting too lost in all Sheldon’s stuff. It did look a bit odd from down in Texas.’

Penny chuckled since she knew she had to seem a bit strange to outsiders. How many folks have a ghost for a roommate, after all? ‘Bernadette brings up getting out and away from upstairs from time to time. I tried dating some guys off and on after we moved in but I just got more happiness out of my work and my studies. Somehow, dating never felt right, anymore. Plenty of friends, but once someone starts talking about a date; I just want to run for the hills.’

Connie laughed at that since that did sound like Sheldon. ‘I came out here once because Mary had come home all fired up telling me Sheldon had found a girl.’

Penny looked surprised since she’d never heard about a girlfriend before. ‘Was this someone serious?’

Sheldon reappeared in the kitchen when her caught wind of Meemaw talking about his mother’s delight over his friend’s attempt to set him up with someone. ‘Oh lord, no, not at all. Amy Farrah Fowler was a friend that happened to be a woman.’

‘I don’t think it was on Sheldon’s side. I think he was trying to make his mother happy. He’s a good boy that way but when Mary came home talking about a girlfriend that just didn’t feel right to me. I was sure he would have told me if he’d ever found someone he’d gotten serious about. What was her name…?’ Connie thought for a few seconds.

‘Raj and Howard had entered my details into a ridiculous dating service and set me up on a blind date. She was a neurobiologist; science was the only thing we had in common.’ Sheldon had been relieved when Meemaw came to Pasadena to meet Amy.

‘Amy that was it, I never met a girl so eager to get married. I guess Mary thought they were perfect for each other because they did nothing but talk about science. Thing is, that’s all I ever heard them do. She tried being a girlfriend around Sheldon but he never let her get close to him. She never understood how to do that. His temper, he’d have run rough shod all over her and she would have made him miserable trying to make him act like a regular boyfriend. I always wanted Sheldon to have my wedding ring for the right girl. That boy was so much like my Sam, it just seemed right for Sheldon to have it. I told him he wasn’t getting the use of my ring. It didn’t take long after that before that business with Amy ended but not without some fireworks from Mary.’ Connie still remembered how angry her daughter was at her interfering with Sheldon settling down. Connie had seen enough with George Cooper, she wasn’t about to let her Moonpie make the same kind of mistake.

‘I thought my mother knew better when she met Amy. I was ready to give the relationship a try but when Meemaw said she wouldn’t let me use her ring I knew I had been right all along. I know how bad I am with feelings and figuring out social interactions but my mother thought I was just being contrary when I had a girl that was just like me. Meemaw knew that was just what I didn’t need, as you can tell. Thank goodness for her.’ Sheldon had recalled enough of that incident and was ready to leave the kitchen to Meemaw and Penny.

‘Sheldon never found anyone else, then? What kind of girl did you think was right for him then?’ Penny couldn’t imagine what kind of woman Connie could have in mind.

‘Sheldon had so much of my Sam in him. You know how some folks are ‘my way or the highway’? My Sam thought he owned that highway and you’d damn well better know it. He knew best and everyone would be better off if they just did things his way.’

Penny laughed after having put up with her persnickety ghost all this time. ‘That does sound just like Sheldon.’

Sheldon glared at Penny in astonishment. ‘When have I ever been anything but a voice of sound reason?’

Connie nodded. ‘I guess that comes across in his journals, doesn’t it. Sheldon was fussy about everything down to the smallest detail. He had a couch seat in his old apartment that he’d let no one but me sit in. Amy mentioned that when she first met me and Sheldon said she never would sit there. That’s when I knew they were wrong for each other. The only thing Sam ever cared for more than having his way was making me happy. I couldn’t tell you why he was that way but he just was. Sheldon needed to find someone he wanted to make happy more than he wanted having his own way. I wish he could have found a girl like that.’

The kitchen confab was broken by Mary coming upstairs. ‘Are you two going to watch this movie or are you going to sit up here jawing all night?’

‘We’re coming.’ Penny got up with went to the pantry. She came back out with a couple bottles and some wine glasses. ‘How do you guys feel about strawberry wine? Bernadette found this stuff last week. A local farm makes it; it’s great.’

‘Oh, lord; there will be nothing but trouble, now.’ Connie chuckled. ‘Have her tell you about the night they found her and her cheer-leading team with the football team in the high school pool at midnight.’

Mary rolled her eyes and sighed. ‘That was a long time ago, momma and it wasn’t that bad. Besides, we’d have worn bathing suits if we’d had them.’

Penny laughed at the highlights and at Sheldon’s look of horror. Penny opened a bottle and poured out three glasses before starting downstairs. ‘That sounds like a story worth hearing.’

Chapter Text

Penny finally settled in under her duvet somewhere around one in the morning. The house was quiet and happy but she could still sense the tenseness with Mary. Their conversations had been enjoyable all day but there was always an underlying prickliness.

‘Sheldon, are you still up?’

Sheldon appeared sitting on the ottoman under the window. ‘Of course, I’m a ghost. I have no need to sleep.’

‘That’s handy. Where do you go when you’re away, then?’ Penny tried to think of how she’d handle so much time without sleep. It sounded exhausting.

‘I don’t go anywhere. I simply stop thinking about the house and focus on something else. Leonard Nimoy interviews are very relaxing as is Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, for some examples that I highly recommend to you.’

Penny sat up and picked up her glass of water on the bedside table. ‘Thanks for that, Sheldon. Isn’t having your folks up here making it hard to do that?’

‘It would be if they were strangers but Meemaw and my mother are already a part of me so their presence isn’t at all intrusive.’ Sheldon felt his mother’s restlessness in the next room now that Penny had asked about them. ‘Are you feeling their presence too much, Penny?’

Penny sighed and got up wanting to go out on the balcony to enjoy the full moon but she settled for sitting next to Sheldon on the ottoman. ‘I’m worried Bernadette and Howard are feeling intruded on. They want this visit to work out but your mom’s church zeal is a bit much for them to take.’

‘I sympathize. I had to endure the claptrap of her church group and her own efforts to save me from perdition for a lifetime.’ Sheldon wished he had more advice to offer than to appeal to Meemaw but resisting his mother’s religious fervor was on a par with resisting the Borg.

‘I’m hoping that going to church with her, tomorrow, will satisfy her missionary itch.’

Sheldon snorted. ‘If only it was so simple. I think it would quell her enthusiasm over Halley since she should be likely to respect Howard and Bernadette’s position as parents, especially with Meemaw there with you.’

‘You still think it’s really me that is bothering her? Meemaw seems to think so.’

‘Indeed, I have been privy to some of my mother’s ruminations, particularly while you and Meemaw were counting coup over your history of destroying the Enterprise.’ Sheldon was still miffed over that revelation.

Penny couldn’t help smirking through an apology to her hurt friend. ‘I’m sorry about that, Sheldon, and Meemaw would tell you that, too. But, that’s all in the past and we didn’t mean to destroy your ships.’ She carried on quickly before Sheldon could indulge his peevishness. ‘What do you think might make your mother happier with me?’

‘Other than giving up your life and joining her church to become a Stepford Wife, I haven’t great hope for this quest, Penny.’

‘When you put it like that… do you really think it’s the witch stuff? It is all make believe.’ Penny wasn’t unused to religious folks complaining about the show. The whole cast had run into one or more online, in fan mail, or even occasionally out in public.

‘I don’t think that bothers her in any serious way, though she would like to see every show of that sort off the TV. The only thing she ever watched besides Christian TV was Rosanne. It is your encroachment on my life’s work which is truly disturbing her.’

Penny had suspected as much. It was why she’d wanted Connie and Mary to come to Los Robles Cottage. She had hoped to show she was trying to honor Sheldon’s memory. ‘You think she doesn’t like my working on your theories?’

‘Just so, she sees you as an intruder at best.’ Sheldon paused to look at the bedroom door. ‘I believe my mother has heard us, or rather you, talking. She is listening on the other side of the door.’

+++

‘What are you doing over there, Mary?’ Connie wasn’t asleep yet so she heard Mary get up and tip toe over to Penny’s door.

‘I think I can hear her talking to someone.’ Mary couldn’t make out any words through the door.

‘Maybe, she’s on the phone. What business is it of yours?’ Connie sighed in frustration. This was not the time for a row with her daughter. She’d die if Penny heard them much less came out to find Mary snooping at her door.

‘Who could she be talking to at this hour?’

‘My guess would be the police to come get the crazy woman prowling around at her bedroom door. Go to bed, Mary Cooper.’

+++

Penny glanced at the door and groaned. ‘Are you sure she’s listening to us?’

‘Yes, and she has wakened Meemaw. It seems my mother has heard your voice and she wants to know who you are talking to so late. Meemaw wants her to go to bed before you can discover my mother’s presence.’ Sheldon was anxious as to how Penny would handle this situation.

‘Is she still outside the door?’ Penny figured this was far enough. Mary was a guest not her mother. She tiptoed over to the bedside table and turned off the reading lamp.

‘Penny, what are you going to do?’

‘What do you think, I’m going out there.’

Sheldon got alarmed at that idea. ‘You cannot assault my mother with that baseball bat.’

Penny glanced at the bat behind the table. ‘I’m not going to bean your mother with my bat, Sheldon.’ Penny snorted at Sheldon’s anxiety with some humor.

‘I should hope not but after how you introduced yourself to me,’ Sheldon paused at Penny’s look of derision, ‘don’t look so shocked. I’d hate to see you in jail and besides, my mother might end up a ghost here, afterwards.’

‘Yeah, we don’t want that. Is she still out there?’ Penny stepped up to the door.

‘Yes, she is listening at the door right now.’

Penny opened the door swiftly and walked out smack into Mary. ‘Ghah! Mary? Oh god, you scared the life out of me. What’s wrong?’

Mary was too shocked by the door opening and Penny walking into her to know what to say.

‘Yes, Mary, what are you doing over there?’ Connie was glad the lights weren’t on. She was embarrassed enough, already.

Mary glanced between her mother and Penny in the moonlit room looking like she’d like to bolt and run. ‘Well, I thought I heard noises like someone talking outside, I guess.’

Penny smirked and thought Sheldon must have gotten his lack of skill at dissimulation from his mother. She walked over to the balcony doors and opened them to have a look outside. ‘I don’t see or hear anything. Maybe, it was an animal?’

‘Yeah, maybe it was.’ Mary hoped that would get her out of any more humiliation.

Penny looked up at the moon. ‘Beautiful, can’t you feel its light calling you?’

‘Calling me, it’s pretty but I don’t hear any calling. What are you talking about?’ Mary wondered if this was more of Penny’s psychic witch nonsense.

‘My psychic says the full moon is when we’re the most open to the spiritual forces around us. Nights like this are perfect for yoga and meditation.’ Penny closed her eyes and breathed deeply. ‘How would you like to do some yoga with me? That might help you sleep.’

‘Psychics and spirits? That’s all a bunch of claptrap. I thought you said you didn’t do any of that Wicca nonsense on the show?’

Penny nodded while she started doing some simple standing poses. ‘No, I don’t. The show isn’t about real Wicca. We try to respect their beliefs but we’ve always been clear the show isn’t about their religion at all.’

‘That’s not a religion. It’s devil’s work.’ Mary couldn’t stand to hear anything like witchcraft called a religion.

Sheldon appeared by Penny looking exasperated. ‘Penny, this is a terrible tack to take with my mother.’

Penny smirked at Sheldon but continued her yoga. ‘They don’t believe in the devil, either. Neither do I, but I do believe in spirits. I remember the nights when my dad and I went on hunting trips back in Nebraska. I do miss those moonlit nights camping out on the plains. It felt like the other world was just a breath away.’

‘That’s just silly claptrap. How can a grown woman believe in spirits and psychics?’

Connie got up to head off this on coming calamity. ‘You know, I would like to get an hour or two of sleep, tonight, if you two don’t mind.

‘I’m sorry, Connie. I didn’t think about your rest at all. Please, forgive me that was thoughtless.’ Penny did regret Connie couldn’t sleep but she also regretted it got Mary to retreat from the conversation. She was sure Mary and she needed to get past some issues and they had just gotten an honest start. The interruption bought some peace for the night but she hoped it didn’t build more walls between them.

+++

Penny looked around and expected to see Sheldon somewhere in the vast stone vaults gilt with gold. She realized she was in the Aachen Cathedral by the massive candelabrum lighting the main hall. A choir sang a song from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. She had gotten used to telling the difference between her dreams and walking in Sheldon’s memories. She knew he had to be around here. She wandered through the vaults until she found Sheldon sitting on a stone seat that was at the top of a platform mounted at the top of a small flight of stone steps.

‘What’s up with the trip, tonight, Sheldon?’

‘This is the Cathedral at Aachen, the imperial capital of Emperor Charlemagne the Great. I visited the cathedral with my mother and my sister but I never got the chance to sit up here since it is closed to the public. Come on up, Penny.’

Penny walked up the steps and Sheldon let Penny sit down. ‘It’s a stone seat, hardly the most comfortable chair in the world. You could get some pillows, at least.’

Sheldon sighed and rolled his eyes. ‘What did they teach you about history in Nebraska, Penny?’

‘Enough to know this is the Throne of Charlemagne; I’m not a complete dunce. I’ve seen enough pictures of it, especially a picture of Napoleon viewing it. It could still use some pillows. And a foot rest, if I’m going to be Empress, here.’

‘You are incorrigible.’

Penny felt the comfort of plush cushions on the seat beneath her and an ornate mahogany ottoman with red satin pillows on it appeared at her feet. ‘That’s much better, honey, I might not have you beheaded, after all. Now, why are we here?’

‘My mother never appreciated this place. Her church is a very strict revivalist sect. You must have met some of the same kind of revivalist preachers in Nebraska that we have in Texas?’

‘Oh, yeah, my parents couldn’t stand the sight of them. They sent us to Sunday school at the local Episcopal Church but after we were nine or ten they stopped making any of us go there. My folks were never big on regular church going.’

‘How I wish that could have been my experience. The more distant my parents became the more my mother threw herself into fundamentalist churches. She went to several until she found a very strict fundamentalist group. It was only Meemaw’s intervention that kept Missy and me from being indoctrinated there night and day. It was an escape from a bad husband for my mother and it has since become her prism for viewing everything.’

‘So, do you mean she didn’t see this place as really being a church?’ Penny could hardly imagine anyone not being impressed by the weight of history and culture all around them in this place.

‘She thought the people who built this cathedral were about one step away from being a bunch of heathen. I understand you want to have a better relationship with my mother but religion really isn’t the best way to do it, unless you want to follow hers. She really doesn’t have a lot of compromise on the issue.’

‘How about you show me around the cathedral, Sheldon?’ Penny and Sheldon went down the steps and he started telling her about the Carolingian Cathedral. Penny was impressed by Sheldon’s knowledge of the place and he was surprised by how well she knew Carolingian history.

‘I am sorry to sound insulting, but I would never have thought you knew so much about medieval history, Penny.’

‘The medieval stuff started when I read Orlando Furioso and The Song of Roland. I loved those all those kinds of stories back in school. Everything and anything about knights and horses fascinated me when I was doing rodeo. I loved the pageantry of it all and Orlando had women knights like Bradamante. I couldn’t get enough of those stories after I read Orlando. I can’t believe your mother wouldn’t love this place. Why did she bury herself so much in her church, then?’

‘My father was a heavy drinker, and a womanizer. Even with all that, my mother still loved him. Sometimes, I think she blamed herself for his misdeeds. Not unlike how you described your troubles with Kurt, I guess? The church was her escape mechanism.’

Penny nodded and ruminated on Sheldon’s explanation. ‘Did Meemaw know about any of that cheating and drinking?’

‘She did. She never liked my father from the beginning. The alcohol was bad enough but the cheating angered her at least as much as it did my mother. Meemaw never felt he was good enough for her daughter but my mother couldn’t conceive of getting a divorce. However, I have always agreed with Meemaw’s assessment.’

‘Did your mother take as much interest in your sister or brother as she does in you?’

‘Missy and George were much more mundane children. George was very much my father’s son. Missy and I were never quite as close to him as George was but Missy was far more gregarious and sociable. She did not have as many problems with our parents as I did. My mother fussed over me and my special brain. Meemaw and Pop Pop were my only relief from it all.’

Penny pondered Sheldon’s life while they circled the cathedral interior. When they got to the golden main alter with the vast stained glass windows soaring above she basked in the glorious light imagining Roland and Orlando in a place like this. She guessed Mary might have thought of Sheldon’s uniqueness like some gift from God, a reward for what she was suffering with her failure of a husband.

‘Did your mother come to visit you often in Europe?’

‘She came only once with Missy. She wanted to visit me and Missy wanted to visit The World Equestrian Festival. She has always been very keen on dressage ever since she could mount a horse.’ Sheldon still loathed that week of his life with horses.

‘You went to that? Oh, man, Sheldon, I dreamed of going to that when I was doing rodeo but we never had the money.’ Penny chattered on about the events and the renowned riders and horses that had appeared at the show over the years. She’d followed it religiously ever since her rodeo days.

‘Well, we can go to the one I went to with Missy.’ The cathedral vanished in a mist and when it cleared they were at the Hauptstadion in Aachen and in time for the dressage. Penny wrapped Sheldon up in an ecstatic hug but she was too happy crying to be at the festival to say anything. Sheldon rolled his eyes still mystified at what anyone saw in horses.

+++

Penny woke early Sunday morning happy with everything. She slipped out quietly through the study to make some breakfast for everyone. She ran into Bernadette coming into the kitchen with Halley.

‘Hey, did Halley let you sleep alright?’

‘She did, she only woke up three times for feedings. I want to give her some breakfast and get something for us before we get going. I was thinking we could go to the ten o’clock service at The Sacred Heart. I hope you know what you’re doing, Penny.’

Penny sighed and shrugged her shoulders. ‘There’s been a voice in my head asking the same thing.’

Mary and Connie came down a little while later and Penny served out breakfast for the Texans. ‘Which church are we going to?’ Mary was curious where Penny might go but Bernadette spoke up.

‘I thought we could go to The Sacred Heart. I go there from time to time. There are a few Polish families in the area that go there and some of their folks are from Poland. It gives me a chance to practice the language. I used to speak it a lot with my grandmother. It was like having a secret language but after she died there wasn’t as much chance to practice. My parents weren’t very interested.’ Bernadette helped Penny clean up the dishes while Connie and Mary had their coffee.

‘How about you, Penny, do you go to church with Bernadette or do you have your own church?’ Mary poured another coffee for herself.

‘I’ve never been a big church goer. The last time I went to church was the funeral for my husband, Kurt.'

‘Well, I’d say it’s been too long without staying straight with the Lord. All that witch nonsense on that show is going to go to your head if you’re not careful. Good thing you’re going even if it is with a bunch of Rosary Rattlers.’

Bernadette gripped Penny’s hand. She had never thought she was especially Catholic but she had never been around a Fundamentalist like Mary Cooper.

‘I hope last night prepared you for today, Penny.’ Penny looked around at Sheldon’s sudden appearance. He had felt the growing waves of tension coming off Penny and Bernadette.

‘I never got the feeling from Sheldon’s journals that he was much of a church goer. He seemed to find his god in science. I find mine communing with nature up in the hills with yoga and running. The spiritual world is too personal to be the same for everyone.’ Penny had never doubted her spiritual sense of the world around her even before she met Sheldon. She felt even more connected to her psychic world since moving into Los Robles Cottage.

‘The Lord made the Bible so people would know what’s what.’ Mary had more to add but Connie cut her off.

‘That’s enough of that on a Sunday morning and no one should be going to church in a snit.’

‘Momma, you can’t believe in communing with spirits? And Sheldon, well that boy was set in his ways but he promised to go to church for me and he did.’ Mary didn’t kid herself that Sheldon doubted her faith but she couldn’t believe he was an atheist.

‘That’s nonsense, Penny. I promised her annual visits to church so I wasn’t plagued by her daily reminders that hellfire awaited me among her many other delusional ramblings. I’d sooner believe in Harry Potter.’

Penny couldn’t help giggling at Sheldon’s outrage. ‘Harry Potter.’ Penny looked abashed at blurting that out but she carried on. ‘You guys knew him when he was alive but do you really think Sheldon believed in churches any more than Harry Potter?’

Mary looked at Penny in consternation. ‘Shelly used to say things like that all the time but what made you think of that, Penny?’

‘Enough of this, the both of you, are we going to this service or do you want to make poor Bernadette here sorry she ever thought of bringing you to her church?’

Penny and Mary both apologized to Bernadette and Connie for ruining the morning and finished up breakfast in some semblance of equanimity.

Bernadette parked in her usual spot at the Sacred Heart’s parking lot. She was happy to see her friend from work, Julie Parda parking nearby. ‘Hey, Julie, come meet some guests of ours from Texas.

Julie came over saying hi to Penny and Bernadette and greeting the two Texas guests. ‘What brings you here all the way from Texas?’

‘Bernadette and Penny here are renting Los Robles Cottage from us and Penny invited us to come visit for a few days. Bernadette says you two work together.’ Connie couldn’t help feeling there was something familiar about Bernadette’s friend.
‘Yes, Bernadette just started at Zangen Pharmaceuticals with me but we met here at church years before that. We were both looking for folks to speak Polish with. That was back when you were finishing your B.A. at UCLA, wasn’t it?’

‘It was and you and your folks were life savers. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on with Microbiology but Julie’s dad was a great encouragement. Did your dad come, today?’

‘Yeah, he and babka came; I dropped them off at the door. I’m sure babka will love to meet you. She was born in Texas, my dad, too. They moved to California when he was a kid.’

Mary and Connie were surprised at the coincidence of Julie’s family history. ‘Mary, we knew some Parda’s when you were in high school. Hanna and her son, he went to high school with you.’

Mary remembered them well. ‘Yeah, his name was Carl. It was him that had the idea to break into the school swimming pool.’

‘Get out! I think that’s my dad and babka Hanna. They said they came from Galveston. Is that where you’re from?’ Julie and all were equally amazed by the coincidence. Everyone hurried to the church to surprise the unsuspecting pair inside.

The reunion of the old friends made the Sunday service unforgettable for them. After the service, Penny hoped everyone might get some coffee together at a shop nearby. Connie and Hanna settled the matter wanting to catch up after so many years. Carl and Mary wanted to chat a bit together before joining everyone. They sat in the back of the church enjoying the quiet.

‘I never thought I’d see you again, Mary.’

‘It’s a funny world. The last time we were in a church together was your father’s funeral. Do you still miss him?’

‘Of course, but it’s not really sadness anymore. I think I missed him most when we left Texas for here. Meeting Anna and having Julie made up for so much but I still miss Texas. What about you, Mary Cooper, what brings you out here to California and where’s Mr. Cooper?’

Mary sighed and told her old friend more about her marriage and she left out the self-defensive humor. This old friend and here in a church made the truth more right. ‘Momma never wanted me to marry George. I guess she was right but I got three beautiful children that made up for a lot. I could put up with a lot worse just to have them.’

‘What are they doing, now?’

George and Missy are still in Texas but Missy’s twin, Sheldon; well he was the most special. He was just 16 when he got his first doctorate. He was teaching out here at Caltech not long after.’ Mary sighed wondering what Sheldon might have accomplished by now.

‘Wow, that is something so what’s he doing these days?’ Carl guessed something bad must have happened by Mary’s sudden silence after his question and took her hand.

‘He passed away years back. They said it was suicide but I can’t believe that of my Sheldon. We came out here because Penny and Bernadette are renting his old house from us. Momma and I wanted to see the place. I did, anyway, I think momma just wanted to meet Penny in person. They’ve been chatting over the internet for years. It kind of worries me, that. Do you know much about her?’

Carl wondered what was troubling Mary so much. ‘I can’t say I do. Julie hangs around Bernadette a lot more than she does with Penny. I met Penny once at Bernadette’s wedding. She seems fine, why?’

‘Penny’s been so involved in Sheldon’s old work and getting to know momma so much and changing Sheldon’s house right and left with momma’s blessing. She’s taken over his house, his work, it all seems so strange why she’s doing it.’

‘You sound jealous, Mary. Was she Sheldon’s girlfriend or something?’

‘I am not jealous, Carl Parda. As far as I know, Penny never knew Sheldon. She’d been married to some fella named Kurt, Lord bless him, he was killed by a drunk driver. Penny and Bernadette moved into my son’s old place, Los Robles Cottage, a little after Kurt’s funeral so she told us the other day. Not long after, she got involved in Sheldon’s work.’

Carl let Mary go back over the story of Sheldon’s final months after the arctic and how Penny had come to get involved. ‘It sounds like she’s done nothing but right by you and yours, Mary, so why all this worry?’

‘I got worried because of how much she’s attached herself to momma. And then there’s the way she’s living, she’s got all of Sheldon’s old rooms just like they were when he was alive with all his science fiction TV show toys lying around. I know actors can be a funny bunch but doesn’t that sound strange to you?’

‘I don’t know, maybe she likes the stuff? If the stuff is from TV, she might just feel at home with TV show stuff around, that show of hers is all fantasy and make believe just as much as any other sci-fi show.’

Carl looked around the church and remembered the last time he and Mary had sat together in a church. ‘Do you remember that rodeo prize belt my dad used to wear?’

‘Course I do, that thing was a beauty.’

‘Yeah, I kept that. I used to wear it all the time till I got too fat for it. I could have put the buckle on something else but that didn’t seem fitting. I kept it in a closet for years. Julie found it one day and wore it out on a date. When she came home I was so mad Anna laughed at me for getting riled up over a belt. She was right but the thing is, if pop ever saw me getting mad like that at Julie like that over that belt he’d of probably given me a hiding with it. I was just too attached to the thing. Did you ever ask yourself if you are just too attached to Sheldon’s stuff?’

‘Momma says the same thing, Carl, but Sheldon was so unique.’

‘I’m sure you’re right. We should catch up with the others. Our moms will be thinking we broke into another pool. First, though, we should say a prayer for your boy.’ Carl and Mary walked over to the church’s votive candles. Carl lit one for Sheldon and Mary lit another for Carl’s father and they prayed together for the folks they had lost.

Connie’s presence reined in a lot of Mary’s thoughts about Penny as did getting to know the Parda family. Penny was sure Mary had a lot more to say and while she appreciated Connie’s keeping the peace nothing would get resolved if Mary couldn’t speak her mind. By the time they got back to Los Robles the outing had turned into a party with the Parda family. Connie played peacemaker and kept her daughter and Penny from airing what was between them but it didn’t cool off the simmering issues.

+++

‘Hey, Bernie, you’re not doing anything this Monday you can’t get away from, are you?’ Penny found Bernadette in the library reading while Halley was playing with some blocks.

‘No, what’s on your mind?’ Bernadette hoped it was something that got them away from Mary Cooper.

‘I wanted to bring Connie on a studio tour, tomorrow. Are you up for it?’

Bernadette had taken the tour a couple of times and had gotten passes to audience tapings of quite a few of her favorite shows thanks to Penny so she had to wonder what made tomorrow so special. ‘You aren’t going just with Connie, are you?’

‘No, Mary is coming, too, but she’ll be on her best behavior. Besides, I want to air some things out with her and I don’t think I can do that with Connie around since she doesn’t want to rile up her mother too much.’ Penny paused and looked a little sheepish at Bernadette’s skeptical glare.

‘How’s that going to change, tomorrow?’

‘Remember Elizabeth, the photographer at your wedding? She’s working at the studio in publicity. I was going to get her to take you and Connie on a private tour while I got Mary alone for a while. I’m sure Mary has some stuff to get off her chest; we both know it. It’s all about me.’

Bernadette sighed and thought Penny was just wasting her time. ‘I agree; her jabs really are more about you. I just don’t think letting her go all out is going to make any difference. Why is this thing with Mary’s opinion so important to you, Penny?’

‘Sheldon and his work, it’s important to me. I just don’t want her to think I’m trying to take that away from her.’

Bernadette sort of agreed with Mary wanting Penny to get away from the Sheldon stuff. ‘Have you given any thought to spending less time up there in that study? I know how much you love working on the physics ever since we moved in here but I worry you are trying to do too much. Acting full time and working on an M.A. that’s got to be grueling.’

‘I’m not doing the M.A. full time. It’s just something I need to do for me.’ It didn’t hurt that she had Sheldon to act as tutor when she was stuck on something.

‘I get that, Penny, but you get so serious up there. I don’t want to see you burn yourself out. I had a hard enough time doing my studies between shifts at The Cheesecake Factory. I wouldn’t want the pressure you have with the show and school. I’m sure Mary must be wondering something the same. What are you doing it all for? I guess she might not see why it’s important to you and she’s just seeing Sheldon in what you’re doing.’

‘That’s what I’d like to talk to her about without Connie making her filter what’s on her mind. My scenes are being shot tomorrow morning and they should be done by lunch. They’re on the outdoor set so Elizabeth can bring you around to watch them. I’m sure Connie will love that. You can go with Connie and Elizabeth after that and I’ll take Mary so we can hash out what’s on her mind.’

Bernadette picked up Halley and her kitty to go upstairs for a changing. ‘Well, I guess it’s OK going with Connie for you. Mary’s fine, mostly, I just don’t want to see you and her have some falling out over everything.’

+++

Penny got up at 4am to get ready to go to the studio. ‘Sheldon, are you there, sweetie?’

‘Of course, Penny,’ Sheldon appeared by the bedroom door. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to follow Bernadette and Meemaw’s advice?’

‘I get what you’re all saying but, I’m sorry to say it like this, but Meemaw is getting on in years. Someday, we’re just going to have to deal with your mother without her help.’

Sheldon sighed at the truth of Penny’s point. ‘Knowing there is an afterlife makes that much easier to think of, Penny, but you are correct. My mother will be solely responsible for Los Robles Cottage and this will have to be faced. I suppose it’s better to do that while we have Meemaw for back up.’

Penny and Sheldon tip toed between the bathroom and her bedroom discussing the day. Neither noticed Mary’s eyes following Penny’s getting ready. Penny went down to the kitchen to make a quick breakfast and chatted with Sheldon about today’s scenes. She read through her lines with him while she ate. Mary came downstairs drawn by the smell of coffee. She heard Penny sounding very animated and wondered who else was up at this hour.

‘Who are you jawing with, Penny?’ Mary was surprised only the Nebraskan was down in the kitchen.

Penny jumped a bit surprised and even Sheldon was a little put out he hadn’t noticed his mother coming downstairs. ‘Reading my script for today, I still get nervous just before shooting a scene.’

Mary nodded accepting that for now but she could have sworn Penny was just talking and not reading from a script. She offered to read with Penny and they shared coffee and lines in a comfortable start to the day or so Penny hoped. She looked up at the clock in surprise after a couple of reads through. ‘Holy crap, I gotta get going.’

Mary was surprised Penny was leaving so early. ‘It’s the curse of acting. Make up and wardrobe can take some doing before everything gets going. You know Jason, he plays Cristoph, that vampire/demon makeup he has to wear sometimes takes three hours or more to put on.’

‘I had no idea. Are you going to take that long, today?’

‘No, there are no special effects or anything so the work on me should go pretty quick. I’ll see you guys for lunch, later.’

‘That sounds fine. I’m going to sneak a cigarette and coffee out in your pavilion before folks get up around here.’

‘Mother, no! I am not about to see Penny compromised into supporting your drug habit.’ Sheldon’s disapproval even colored Penny’s mind for a second which she’d never felt from his aura before.

‘You don’t mind, do you, before Halley and my mother get up.’ Mary couldn’t help wondering if Penny minded her smoking here.

‘I don’t but Bernadette will appreciate it if it’s not around Halley. I guess Sheldon doesn’t like them?’ Penny grinned at Sheldon’s consternation.

Mary caught the present tense but filed it away. ‘No, he didn’t like me smoking. He was probably right but I had my reasons.’

Penny wanted to give Mary a hug but her gut said that wasn’t what Mary wanted just then. ‘Husbands will do that.’

Mary was struck by the empty note in Penny’s voice. She’d never heard her sound bleak before. Mary was aware Penny had been married but she had never thought about what that had been like for her. She was struck by realizing Penny had become a widow before she’d been the age Mary had had her first child. She said her goodbyes to Penny and poured herself some more coffee to bring out to the pavilion. She thought about the end of their conversation and Penny talking about Sheldon not liking cigarettes in the present tense. She often talked about him that way which was odd to Mary. She also was struck by Penny’s guessing her smoking was related to her husband. Penny often put her knowledge down to Sheldon’s journals but that didn’t seem the kind of stuff Sheldon would ever put in a diary or journal. Mary set herself up comfortably on her favored couch and considered the oddities of Penny.

‘I can’t imagine momma would ever talk about family things like my marriage but that girl has burrowed her way into momma’s heart. I just don’t like it.’

Chapter Text

Bernadette came downstairs to find Howard was already eating breakfast.

‘Morning Bernie, look who I found making breakfast.’ Howard was busy finishing a plate of waffles before it was time to head for CalTech to teach his Monday class.

‘Mary, what do you think you’re doing? You didn’t have to go to all this trouble.’

‘It’s nothing. I smelled Penny making coffee early on and I came down to get some. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I made myself useful.’

Howard finished his breakfast with a happy smile. ‘Wait till you try her cooking, I think this is better than my mother’s waffles. Just, don’t say anything to her, please Mary. Mom called and said she should be over in about an hour to look after Halley for the day.’ He gave Bernadette a kiss and left for work.

Bernadette grumbled a bit about Howard taking advantage of a house guest but she was grateful for the breakfast. She really didn’t like cooking in the morning like this and fresh waffles were a lot better than frozen ones.

‘Did you have any trouble around the kitchen, Mary?’

‘Of course not, except for finding things once in a while. You made that sound like trouble happens a lot around here.’

Bernadette tucked into her waffles and thought Howard was right about how good they were. ‘These are great, Mary. Yeah, we had some troubles at first, well, I did, anyway.’

‘Howard used to tell us the place was troubled, all kinds of crazy stories about why no one wanted to stay here.’ Mary didn’t put much stock in stories of ghosts but she couldn’t deny how hard it was to get anyone to look at the cottage much less rent it.

‘He said the same things to Penny and me when we first met him.’

Mary was curious about how they came to live in Los Robles Cottage. ‘You and Penny have known each other a while, I guess?’

‘Yeah, we met a few years before we moved here. Penny was starting to make her name in theaters in Pasadena and LA. She and her cast had a first night party for some play, I don’t remember which one, and they came to the restaurant I was working at. We got to know each other and hung out a lot after that. We just hit it off really well. Why?’

‘I was wondering what brought you to the house, Bernadette.’

Bernadette gave Mary a short version of how they came to rent Los Robles Cottage, Penny wanting to move after Kurt’s funeral and Bernadette wanting to get some space from her family. ‘The price was perfect but the beginning was a little rough. Howard said the place was haunted and I even started to believe it but Penny never had any troubles. She seemed to have some kind of connection with the place right from the start. She said she got some ideas from her psychic to quiet the house down and I guess they worked. We’ve never had any trouble since, at least Penny and I haven’t at any rate. Howard still has his doubts.’

‘Does he still think the place is haunted?’

‘Not really, it’s just he doesn’t like to be upstairs alone, especially in Penny’s rooms. Funny, no one does really, except for Penny and me come to think of it. Have you or your mother had any problems upstairs or anything?’ Bernadette hoped Mary’s questions didn’t mean the house was acting up again.

‘Not a bit. The only thing that struck us odd was seeing so much of Sheldon’s stuff up there. Why didn’t Penny move it all down to that collector’s room?’

Bernadette had often asked herself that same question. ‘Penny seemed to like it up there the way it was almost right from the start. She even started working on the math problems on those white boards after we moved in. I never knew she had a talent for the stuff. She even plays that 3-d chess game for hours on end. I guess you don’t know much about anyone until you live with them for a while.’

‘She likes that chess set? You know that was one of Sheldon’s favorite games. He was always complaining there was no one to give him any competition with it.’ It struck Mary that Penny was into another of Sheldon’s hobbies.

‘It’s a shame he never met Penny. I can’t make heads or tails of regular chess but Howard has tried his luck a few times with her. He won’t even try playing her any more.’

Mary had some more questions to ask about Penny and her attachment to Sheldon’s rooms but she let those questions lie when her mother came into the kitchen. She was sure her mother wouldn’t agree with her suspicions about Penny. Mary hoped she was wrong but she really couldn’t shake the feeling that Penny was just a little too strongly attached to Sheldon, the house, and her mother. She very much wanted to get Penny away from her mother for a private chat. Mary served out breakfast and the three women talked about the day’s plans at the studio.

+++

Bernadette and the house guests got to the studio at 9am as planned. Elizabeth was waiting for them with the faithful old studio guard, Darius. Penny had wanted as few problems for Connie and Mary as possible even if the studio security was quite reliable and professional with guests of their performers. Elizabeth covered the tour that was planned for the day and everyone was thrilled. Even Bernadette was surprised at some of the places Penny had arranged to get them into. She and Elizabeth had arranged some meet and greets in the morning with cast members of various shows Penny knew Connie and Mary enjoyed.

Connie was especially delighted to meet the main cast of The Coven and get pictures and all with everyone. Connie was keen to watch Penny filming her scenes with Jason. She hadn’t mentioned to Penny she was one of the many Kaystoph shippers that followed the show. She’d feel ridiculous to admit it to Penny but she had hoped to see them do something together while she was visiting. Even Mary couldn’t help herself getting a picture as one of Cristoph’s vampire victims. One of the crew came over to Elizabeth to tell her about the outdoor scenes and where her tour group could watch from.

Everyone was fascinated by the scene since it was a critical part of the show’s two part finale. They were too far away to hear clearly Penny and Jason speaking but when they kissed Connie was beside her self. The director called cut and led a cheer from the crew for the scene work.

Elizabeth looked for the OK that they could come and chat with Penny and Jason. ‘Let’s go over and say hi before we get on with the tour.’

Penny and Jason grinned at the excitement on Connie’s face. ‘I told everyone back home there would be more than a little romance between your characters.’

‘Wait till you see the scene for yourself, momma, I read it with Penny this morning.’

‘Don’t you go spoiling it for me, Mary Cooper.’

‘I won’t but you two, momma’s not wrong about the spark between you two.’

Jason thanked Mary for the compliment. ‘We just enjoy playing off each other so much. Her fight scenes bring the most realism. She loves wounding me.’

‘Kaley doesn’t love kicking you in the ass half as much as I do when you pull this victim crap, Jason.’

‘See what I have to put up with, Mary, she really is a witch.’

Everyone laughed at Jason’s pitiful voice of complaint. They chatted for a bit and Connie got pictures with Jason and Penny in their full costumes. The show’s assistant director came up and told Jason the director wanted to talk about last week’s filming.

‘I have a bad feeling about this folks. It was a pleasure to meet you all.’

‘Jason, it’ll be alright. I’ll be in my trailer just in case.’ Penny had a pretty good guess what Jason and Craig were going to be talking about.

‘What’s all that about? Nothing serious I hope.’ Connie had hoped to be able to chat with Jason a bit longer.

‘No Connie, I’m guessing it’s about some scenes we did last week. It was stuff that led to today’s scenes. I might be around here a lot longer, today, so you might not be able to count on me for later.’

Bernadette had seen more than a few of Penny’s days turn quite long because of difficult scenes so she wanted to keep up everyone’s spirits. ‘We’ll be fine, Penny. Elizabeth has plenty more to show us, today.’

‘Of course we will,’ Connie chimed in, ‘And if it’s working with Jason that has to be fun. He is a card.’

‘He is at that, momma. So, is he married? You could do worse than him, Penny.’

Connie laughed at Mary’s ever ready matchmaking instincts. ‘Don’t go there, Mary, Jason is taken already.’

‘That’s a shame. All the good ones are either married or gay.’

Everyone chuckled at Mary’s joke with various levels of unease. Penny cut off Elizabeth before she could tell Mary Jason was both. She didn’t want to take any chances on a fundamentalist freak out. The house was tense enough already. ‘What’s next on the tour, Liz?’

Elizabeth had a talk show taping on schedule that Connie and Bernadette adored. Mary wasn’t nearly as keen on the show.

‘Mary, you were great with the scene readings this morning. How about you help me with some more, you can catch up with everyone at lunch after the taping.’

‘I’d like that fine, Penny. I’ll catch up with you at lunch, momma. Aren’t you eating, Penny?’

‘I’m guessing I’ll be getting something sent to the trailer if it’s what I think with Jason and all. You guys go have a good time.’

Connie looked at Mary and Penny with a little worry. ‘You two be on your best behavior, especially you Mary.’

Bernadette gave Penny a hug. ‘Good luck with everything. We’ll see you back at the house if you can’t get away. *Będzie dobrze, kochanie.’

+++
*Polish: It will be alright, honey.
+++

Mary and Penny were left on their own. ‘You two are mighty close.’

‘I guess so. I don’t know what I’d do without Bernie some days.’

‘What was that beddy debbie stuff. That sounds like one of those spells you folks use on the show.’

‘Just reassuring me the Jason stuff will be alright. How about we get to the trailer and we can have some coffee and look at that script.’

Coffee was all the encouragement Mary needed. While they walked Mary was able to get a closer look at Penny’s costume and the details were impressive up close. She couldn’t help her surprise when they got into Penny’s trailer. ‘Aren’t you the cat’s meow?’

‘The advantages of being in a successful show and winning Emmy Awards. Sometimes, there are long waits between scenes so it’s nice to have a place to unwind, especially when you’re out on location. You can really appreciate the privacy when you want to stay in character.’

Mary helped Penny take off parts of the costume. The cloak, weapons belts, and jewelry pieces coming off made life much more comfortable after filming out in the heat of the day.

‘This is quite the get up.’ Mary was curious about all the detail that went into the costume materials.

‘Aren’t the details wild? None of us could believe it when we got this stuff. The producers were so happy with the first year that they got all us witches our own specially made weapons. It’s a shame the audience hardly ever gets to see all the work wardrobe and everyone does for us up close.’ Penny picked up the belt and sheathes for the sais her character was famous for and showed Mary the special features of scrollwork and spells engraved on the leather and on the sais.

‘What do they need all this detail for if no one’s going to see it? Seems like it’s going to waste.’

‘It helps build the character when there’s detail like in real life. Witches like Kaley would have spells and prayers on their stuff like that prayer on the sais. Deam da nobis victoriam, Goddess give us victory.’

‘I guess it’d be hard to play act against nothing. Do you use these in the fight scenes?’

‘No, we don’t want to ding them up. I carry these for show and for the occasional close up of the weapons. I have others for the fight scenes or for throwing like those back there.’ Penny walked to the back of the trailer where there was a target board for throwing weapons. She got a couple of the throwing tsais and handed them to Mary.

‘You can feel the difference. These feel like a real weapon.’ Mary hefted the tsai a few times and gave it a throw that hit dead center on the target board and its partner hit right next to it. ‘Poppa insisted I learn how to use knives and guns before I started dating. He said it would keep me from being impressed by idiots.’

‘Sounds like something my dad would have said.’ Penny chuckled and got the coffee maker going and then she and Mary made a little competition for hitting center target while they waited for their coffee.

Sheldon appeared by the coffee maker when they finished their game. ‘I hadn’t thought of your mutual love of implements of destruction. You could have brought my mother to your archery club, Penny. It would have been like taking her to her alternate church.’

Penny asked Mary to have a seat and relax while she made their coffee. She stuck her tongue out at Sheldon on the way to the coffee maker and Sheldon sighed and smirked through an eyeroll.

Penny was about to sit down with Mary when a knock came on the trailer door. She opened the door to find Jack, one of the show’s assistant directors. ‘What’s up? You usually only come around when there’s trouble.’

‘Ah, I bring news of food this time. Craig had the caterers go to Bialiks for canolis, crostatas, the whole Italian shebang they make, espresso and all.’

‘What are you not telling me?’ Penny was sure it was about Jason’s fast departure.

Remember those scenes Jason insisted the new make up wouldn’t work in? He was right. They looked like crap in editing. Craig and the producers decided to reshoot all those scenes between you and Jason from act four but it’s gotta be today. The art department has to break down that set for tomorrow’s scenes so it’s all gotta be re-shot today.’

‘Oh crap.’

‘No kidding, Jason’s in the make up chair fit to be tied. Your prosthetics looked fine but Craig wants to double check with some lighting checks so he wants you in make up by three so we can do the checks by five. He wants to start shooting at six.’

‘Sure, great, this is what I live for. Send a cart with extra canolis and lots of that epresso.’

‘You got it, Penny.’

Penny looked at Mary with a resigned shrug. ‘So much for a long relaxing afternoon. Now, you know why we’ve got the trailers.’ Penny sat down on the couch and took off her boots so she could lie down and relax a bit before going to make up.

‘Does this happen a lot?’

‘No, not reshooting a whole sequence like this, thankfully, but sometimes there can be long waits between your own part being in a scene. It’s really nice to have the trailers, especially when you’re on location.’

Penny picked up her script and looked at the scene that was being reshot. ‘Would you mind reading through the scene with me? The dialogue is a lot shorter than this morning’s stuff since it all turns into a fight between Kaley and Cristoph.

Mary and Penny ran through the scene on the couch. Penny pointed out where the notes were for the fight choreography. She wanted Mary to throw a few simple punches during the reading to keep a sense of the fight building in the scene. The Italian cart and espresso arrived while Penny was demonstrating the punches to use during the dialogue. The coffee and canoli made the practice go more enjoyably.

They read through the scene a few times and Mary started getting very involved in the climax of the dialogue. ‘Get out of here, Kaley. You don’t belong here.’ Mary swished her arm in a backhanded blow that Penny back-stepped from.

‘I go where I am meant to be.’

‘Typical witch’s hubris. The Codex belongs to my family. You will not have it for your coven.’ Mary swept out another faster punch that Penny barely blocked.

‘The Codex belongs with the living, Cristoph. Your family is dead and being a vampire so are you. It can’t do you any good. Stop this madness, Cristoph.’

‘No! Your Coven won’t have my family’s life work. You won’t have our life’s work, witch!’ Mary swung hard and fast at Penny, faster than she’d expected but Sheldon had felt his mother’s rising heat and mojoed Penny out of reach. The unexpected telekenetic push made Penny lose her footing and she fell back on the couch and rolled onto the floor in a shocked splay of arms and legs.

‘Lord almighty, are you alright, Penny? I am so sorry, honey.’ Mary was scared she’d actually hit Penny after she fell so hard. She helped Penny get up onto the couch and sat down with her.

‘I’m alright, Mary. I was just surprised by that last swing. There was more than acting to that, wasn’t there?’

‘More than acting, what do you mean?’

Penny put the scripts aside and got them some of the tartufo in the cart’s icebox and more of the espesso. ‘The scene was all about Kaley taking The Codex, the life work of Cristoph’s family. I’m guessing that struck a nerve, not the vampires and witches, but Sheldon and me.’

Mary thought a second and figured she’d never get a better time to open up with Penny. ‘I reckon it did feel a bit personal. What are you up to in my son’s house, Penny?’

‘I’m not up to anything there, Mary. I just live there with my friends.’

‘I guess you don’t need ghostly powers to sense my mother’s agitation and disbelief, Penny.’ Sheldon wanted to help but he hated confrontational exchanges like this.

‘More than living, I’d say. You’ve been changing everything around to suit yourself. That house is meant to be a memorial to Sheldon’s life.’

Sheldon was surprised by his mother’s harsh tone. ‘My mother never saw my collections as anything but children’s toys. She never appreciated their true creative significance or personal relevance.’

Penny offered an understanding smile to Sheldon. 'His collections? Do you want them back all over the house where anyone could damage them? They’ve got a safe place for display in a secure collector’s room while the rest are in my private rooms where Sheldon always wanted those things. Is that what’s really bothering you?’

‘Your private rooms, and how would you know what Sheldon wanted there? You never knew my son or what was important to him.’

Penny ground her teeth trying not to let Mary get to her. ‘Howard told us you wanted Sheldon’s memory to be seen in the house. He knew Sheldon and he knew darned well Sheldon kept what was most important to him up stairs. We kept the important stuff where Sheldon had it.’

‘How could you possibly know what was important to my Sheldon and don’t give me any nonsense about his journals.’

Sheldon was growing very agitated feeling the tensions rising in the trailer. ‘She’s trying to goad you, Penny.’

‘I know.’ Penny chewed her lip a moment and smiled softly at Sheldon. ‘I know he was your Sheldon. We can put it all down in the collector’s room if it will make you happier.’

‘That won’t make me happier.’ Sheldon gasped in a high pitched refusal.

‘Do you really think shuffling Sheldon’s toys around the house will change anything?’

‘I think Sheldon’s things aren’t the real problem. We tried keeping you folks involved in all the changes we made.’

Mary snorted at that. ‘You kept my momma informed. You pampered her cajoled her and weedled everthing you wanted out of her.’

Sheldon started to retort but Penny’s smile towards him gave him pause. ‘Your mother doesn't seem the type to be weedled into anything, Mary.’

‘You can say that but you got your way changing Sheldon’s home to suit yourself.’

‘The collector’s room keeps Sheldon’s stuff safe and the pavillion keeps the house safe when Bernie and I have job parties. Neither of us want strangers wandering the house, especially with Halley there.’ Penny knew Sheldon definitely didn't.

‘You’ve got a smooth explanation for everything, don’t you?’ Mary scoffed in a harsh mutter.

‘Smooth? What do you think is going on?’

‘I think you’ve been taking over my Sheldon’s home and his work and making it your own. And, you’ve been doing it while wrapping my momma around your finger and getting her to treat you like you’re one of her own. I want you out of my Sheldon’s house and I’ll have you out of it, all of you!’

Mary stormed out of the trailer to go find her mother. Penny sat stunned and disbelieving what just happened. She got up and locked the trailer door and then she started crying in vexation.

‘Penny, please don’t cry. Meemaw would never allow that to happen.’ Sheldon moved a chair over for Penny to sit down on and got her a cool wet towel from the bathroom.

Penny was grateful for the damp towel and breathed into it to calm herself.

‘Penny, it will be alright.’

‘How Sheldon? Meemaw can’t live forever. Besides, it isn’t fair to her to make her take sides against her own daughter.’

‘This is not an issue of sides, Penny. It is my house and I very much want you there.’

They were interrupted by a knock on the trailer door. ‘You’re on call for make up, Ms. Queen.’

‘Thanks, I’m on my way.’ Penny buried her face back in the cold towel for another minute to focus herself on going back out to work. She put her full costume back together and smiled tiredly at Sheldon. ‘A couple hours in a make up chair having prosthetics put on sounds positively relaxing right now. Could you come and sing a couple rounds of Soft Kitty, Sheldon? I could use it about now.’

‘Of course.’ Sheldon and Penny left the trailer for make up both deep in thought.

Chapter Text

Mary strode along for a couple of minutes until it hit her she didn’t know where her mother and all were having lunch. She saw one of The Coven crew she remembered from the filming and asked her where the restaurant was.

‘Oh, hi, you’re with Penny’s family tour. I hope all of you are having fun. There’s a few restaurants on the lot so let me get ahold of Elizabeth and find out where they went.’

‘Thank you, dear.’ Mary ground her teeth a bit at being one of Penny’s ‘family’ but she managed a smile and stewed silently.

The crewwoman found where Elizabeth and the group went for lunch and escorted Mary to the right place. When they got to the cafeteria, Mary almost felt guilty seeing how happy her mother looked with Bernadette and Elizabeth.

‘Mary, honey, how was your time with Penny?’

‘Fine, momma, fine, how’s your day going?’

‘Elizabeth has been just wonderful. She got us back in the green room and we got to meet Jeff Bridges and that lovely wife of his.’ Connie hoped Mary had just as good a time but a waitress came by before she could ask how her time with Penny went.

Elizabeth took care of the order saying it would be taken care of by her department. They all chatted about the rest of the day’s activities but Connie noticed how Mary kept side stepping any lengthy chat.

‘Is Penny coming along soon, Mary?’

‘No, I don’t think so, momma. She has filming that doesn’t start until six. Right now, she’d be getting some kind of make up on that takes hours to do. One of the show’s people stopped by her trailer and said she and Jason had to re-shoot some scenes. Penny made it sound like it could go pretty late.’

‘That sounds awful. Did she say when she’d get back?’ Connie wanted to thank Penny for this wonderful day she was having.

‘No, momma, she didn’t.’ Mary sipped her coffee and looked distracted. She knew her mother had looked forward to this studio tour ever since they left Texas so she held her peace about Penny for the time being.

‘If Penny’s not starting to film until six, she could get back pretty late tonight. We probably won’t see her until breakfast unless you want to stay up who knows how late.’ Bernadette had seen a couple of these late night shoots. She told Connie and Mary about a couple of times she’d joined Penny for some night shoots on location to see what really happened behind the scenes.

‘You can get exhausted just by thinking about all that. Well, let’s all pray Penny doesn’t have any more trouble.’ Connie asked Elizabeth a few questions about their next stop on the tour and kept a weather eye on Mary.
+++

Bernadette felt bushed from the tour and was happy to see Los Robles Cottage again. The day had been an eye opener for her and her Texas charges but she was happy to get back home and see Halley again. Debbie was making some babka cake in the kitchen while Howard was playing with Halley outside. Connie and Debbie were quick to get to know each other and talk about Halley and each other’s families. Mary said she wasn’t hungry and just wanted to lie down so she went upstairs to rest. Connie followed Mary upstairs after Debbie went home to find out why her usually voluble daughter was so quiet.

She found Mary out on the study balcony. ‘You’ve been mighty quiet all afternoon, Mary.’

‘Have I, I didn’t notice.’ Mary walked back inside and fussed about the models and toys around the room. Connie watched her fiddle about with a few things and go over to peruse the books. Finally, Mary came back to the balcony and checked the valley with the telescope.

‘What are you looking for, Mary?’

‘I’m sorry, momma, I wasn’t listening.’ Mary stepped outside to the balcony railing and breathed in the night air.

‘You’ve been in another world all afternoon and you’re prowling around this study like a cat after a June bug. What is the matter with you, Mary Elizabeth?’

‘Oh, you’ll just say I’m crazy.’

‘I’ve been close to that for years, just spit it out.’

Mary looked around the study and frowned. ‘There’s something missing here, momma.’

Connie glanced around the study in puzzlement. ‘Missing? All of Sheldon’s stuff is either here or downstairs in that collector’s room. Maybe, what you’re looking for is down there?’

‘No, it’s not his stuff; it’s him. When we got here the other day, I almost expected him to pop out begging me to make my fried chicken. I don’t feel that up here, now.’

‘That’s not such a bad thing, Mary. Being here with all these new folks might just be putting some distance between you and all this.’

Connie paused in her thought for a knock on the study door. Bernadette came in with a tray of tea. ‘I thought you guys might like some lavender tea to relax with before turning in.’

‘Thank you, Bernadette that would be perfect right now. You and Penny must be mind readers.’ Connie helped Bernadette clear the desk and set out the tea and snacks.

Bernadette smiled at that. ‘Penny and I just love a pot of lavender at the end of a long day like today. That’s the other thing I came about. Howard’s decided to go out and have dinner with his mom to thank her for today. He’s taken Halley with him to give me a night off so I was going to warm up some of those leftovers from the party the other night. Would you like that for dinner or could I order out something for you?’

‘The leftovers will be fine, dear. Take your time with that. This tea will be perfect while Mary and I have a little chat.’

‘OK, sing out if you want anything else.’ Bernadette left expecting the chat was about Mary and Penny this afternoon. She hoped it wasn’t too bad but she went down to the library through Halley’s room to set out some work to occupy her while she waited for Penny to come home.

‘Almost as bad as the other one.’ Mary grumbled after the door shut.

Connie snapped a miffed glare at that out of nowhere complaint. ‘Who put the burr under your saddle?’

‘Momma, you know I’ve always wanted Shelly’s house kept as it was. I wanted it kept as a memorial to him. Those two have turned everything here upside down.’

‘Are you still worked up over the redecorating? They asked and I said it was alright. Don’t be blaming those girls, Mary.’

‘I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just saying I want to see Sheldon’s memory here. People should be able to feel what he was, how special he was.’ Mary fretted with a napkin and chewed her lip. She tossed it on the desk and started another patrol of the room.

‘We talked about the house before we left Galveston. This place is a house, not a museum or a mausoleum. But look around you and remember that collector’s room downstairs. Penny and Bernadette have done a fine job of taking care of Sheldon’s things. I can’t see how they’ve done wrong by us on that count, Mary.’

‘Done nothing wrong by us? I don’t see taking over Sheldon’s work as doing right by us. You saw that thesis of hers; it’s all Sheldon’s work.’

Connie pulled out the desk drawer where Penny kept the copies of her thesis proposal that she’d shown to her on their first afternoon at Los Robles Cottage. ‘Mary, this work was something Sheldon cared about more than anything. That boy was a true scientist. He knew no one would ever look at his work again after the arctic. It was Penny, Howard, and Raj who fixed all that. You know those boys were friends of Sheldon and they paid their own prices for what happened up in the arctic and both those boys give the lion’s share of credit to fixing that business to Penny.’

Mary huffed in exasperation. ‘I know that and I’m grateful for it, momma, but that should be Sheldon’s name on that work.’

‘Mary, Sheldon’s dead. His name won’t be authoring anything again. Besides that, science is something that builds on itself. You should know that from Sheldon’s pontificating if nothing else. He’s gone so someone else has to do the building with his work.’

‘How come you keep taking her side, momma, ever since Penny got here? It’s like you care more about her than your own grandson.’

‘Taking her side? Are you thinking I’m siding with Penny over you and Sheldon?’ Connie had guessed this was the nub of everything upsetting Mary and setting her off against Penny.

Mary put her tea down and started her pacing around the room again and stopped by Penny’s Care Bears. ‘Haven’t you, momma? We had Los Robles as a memorial to Sheldon until Penny came along. Then, she moves in here, she starts writing to you out of the blue about anything and everything and especially about Sheldon. Then, not long after she’s changing everything around here and you just let her do whatever she wants to Shelly’s memory.’

‘Mary, she started writing to me because I own the house. You do remember Sheldon left it to me.’

Mary cast her eyes around the study. ‘I know that, momma, but don’t you want Sheldon remembered, too?’

‘Of course I do but this house was empty and going to ruin. No one wanted anything to do with it until Penny and Bernadette came along but none of that matters. The only side I’m on is yours, honey, if it comes down to it, but that side means you getting your head out of this house. Your mind has been stuck in this place ever since Sheldon died here.’

Mary swept out onto the balcony and Connie got up from the desk and followed her out. Mary stood by the railing looking down where Sheldon’s body had fallen. ‘Of course my mind is here. I’ve prayed every day for an answer why the Lord took my Sheldon. He was so special. He was going to do so much but now he’s gone. I put up with so much from George. I know Sheldon was the Lord’s way of telling me it was all worth it but then He took Sheldon away and now Penny’s going to have everything that’s left of Sheldon? It’s not fair, momma. It’s not fair and I want him back. I want my Sheldon back.’

Mary sobbed like she had at the funeral in Galveston and Connie gathered her daughter in her arms and stroked her hair and cried with her. ‘I know, Mary. I want him back, too, my poor baby, I want him back, too.’

Connie got Mary to lie down. She got some tissues and facecloths from the bathroom for her distraught daughter. She was glad Mary had finally gotten that feeling out in the open but she knew it had been no easy thing for Mary to admit. She sat with her daughter until she fell asleep wondering what might have happened with Penny, today. Mary had been far too quiet after she came back from her time with the Nebraskan actress. Connie reckoned it had gone pretty badly for Mary to be so subdued. Her daughter was not one to stay quiet when she was hurting. Connie watched over Mary while she slept and wondered what to do about all this mess. Finally, she decided to go downstairs and have a chat with Bernadette.
+++

She found Bernadette in the library working on her computer. ‘Hi, Bernadette, I hope I’m not interrupting you?’

‘Of course not, Connie, I guess I forgot all about the time. I haven’t even put those leftovers on.’ Bernadette was grateful for the break from staring at the monitor. She’d spent more time thinking about Penny and how things might have gone with Mary than doing any actual work.

‘Don’t mind about that, dear, but I wouldn’t say no to another mug of that lavender tea.’ Connie sat in the wing chair while Bernadette went and got another mug of tea.

‘How’s Mary doing upstairs?’ Bernadette handed Connie her tea when she got back from the kitchen and sat at her desk with a fresh mug for herself.

‘She’s sleeping, now. I guess she had a long afternoon. I was hoping to chat and see how you were doing and have a little talk about the house and all.’

Bernadette’s first thought was the house acting funny again. ‘Is everything OK? You haven’t had any odd things happen to you, I hope. Mary seemed to think everything was fine, this morning.’

‘It’s nothing like that. It’s more to do with Penny and Mary.’

‘Did they get into it after we left?’ Bernadette wished she could have been more convincing to Penny about refraining from talking to Mary alone.

‘I expect so, I don’t know a lot of details but Mary’s not happy about Penny and the house.’ Connie took a sip of her tea but didn’t look satisfied.

‘We thought everything was going fine. I know Penny did all the talking with you folks but she and I agreed on everything we wanted to do here together.’ Everyone seemed to enjoy the pavilion and collector’s room so Bernadette wasn’t sure what Mary could be unhappy with.

‘Oh, the house itself is fine,’ Connie nodded in agreement, ‘I am the one that owns the place but it did belong to Mary’s son.’

‘And, she sees the changes as going against her son somehow?’

‘I guess that about sums it up.’ Connie finished her tea and looked at Bernadette with a tired sigh. ‘I don’t suppose you girls have any whisky lying around?’

‘That’s a thought. Penny may want some, too, when she gets back.’ Bernadette went to the dining room liquor cabinet and came back with a bottle of Lagavulin 16 and a bottle of Redbreast 15 and some glencairn glasses. ‘Penny loves the Islay stuff but I’m an Irish girl, what’s your poison?’

‘Let’s try your brand, Bernadette.’ Connie took one of the glasses Bernadette poured of the Redbreast gave it a sniff and hummed in anticipation. She savored the taste a minute and raised a toast to Bernadette’s choice of drink.

They sipped their drinks and gave some thought to what to say about Penny and Mary. Bernadette started off with her advice this morning to Penny. ‘I tried getting Penny to let the business with the house and Mary lie for now but she’s a stubborn one for confronting trouble.’

Connie chuckled at that. ‘That’s something I do like about her. The trouble is that describes Mary pretty well, too.’

‘Do you think they’re going to keep butting heads?’

‘Well, we haven’t heard Penny’s side of things so I don’t think it’s time to give up on fixing this, yet. Mary knows y’all have taken fine care of the place she just doesn’t believe it in her heart. Losing Sheldon hurt her pretty deep.’

‘I can understand that. If I lost Halley, I don’t know what I’d do.’

‘You keep putting one foot in front of the other, dear.’ Connie talked a bit about losing her son Carl and her husband, Sam. ‘Mary’s seen a lot of loss around her. God forgive me saying it but sometimes I think she could handle losing both the others easier than she’s handled losing Sheldon. That boy was more special to her than she knew until she lost him. Thinking it was suicide on top of it all? I think she’s been blaming herself for it and using this house ever since he died to try and make up for losing him.’

Connie swirled the last of her whisky thinking about the years since Sheldon died. ‘Howard kept asking me to sell this place for years. I’d have done it right off the bat but I didn’t think Mary could take losing the place on top of losing Sheldon.’

‘It’s funny; Howard wouldn’t mind moving out of here tomorrow if I asked him. I guess he can’t get over the past with it and all the troubles. I love the place but it gave me a few moments in the beginning that I might have moved out. Penny, though, she seemed to fall in love with the place as soon as we pulled up in front of it. I don’t think she could imagine ever leaving Los Robles the way she feels about it. This house has a funny effect on people.’

‘It does at that.’ Connie finished her whisky and waved off a second. ‘You look to be staying up to wait for Penny, just tell her we’ll figure something out. I’m going to get me something to eat and turn in.’

Bernadette finished her drink and put the glasses on the desk. ‘I’ll join you. I could use something to eat myself and some coffee while I wait up for Penny.’
+++

Penny parked in the driveway of Los Robles Cottage with a sigh of relief. She felt more exhausted than she could ever remember. The dashboard clock read 12:30am which was hardly her latest arrival from work but the argument with Mary had weighed on her. She smiled at the sight of lights on in the library and guessed Bernadette was probably waiting up.

The front door opened before Penny had finished locking up the car. Bernadette held out her arms and Penny hurried into them to feel the first real warmth she’d felt since the argument with Mary.

‘Come on inside and have some tea, honey.’ Bernadette and Penny went into the library and Bernie was surprised at the heavy slump into the chair Penny took. She had never seen Penny look so wiped out. She turned down the lights and brought over a mug of tea.

‘I’ve missed this old chair upstairs. Thanks for the tea, Bernie.’ Penny took a sip and closed her eyes.

‘Rough day, I guess, Penny.’

‘I’ll say. I’m so wiped out I don’t think I can even sleep.’

‘That reminds me of doing the Ph.D. I was sure that thing would be the death of me. You might like something a little stronger than tea, then.’

Penny opened her eyes and noticed the whisky on the desk. ‘Howard doesn’t appreciate what a divine angel of mercy you are, Bernie.’

‘Don’t look at me, this time, Connie was down here earlier worried about you and what might have happened with Mary.’ Bernadette got up to pour Penny a glass of her Lagavulin and Bernie got another Redbreast for herself.

‘I see, so is she of the Irish or Scottish faith?’

‘I think she may be non-denominational.’

‘Heresy, I calls that.’ Penny and Bernadette clinked glasses and savored their drinks.

‘Well, was there trouble with Mary, today?’

‘Yeah, you could say that.’ Penny stared at the single evening lamp on the library desk through the amber liquid in her glass. ‘I thought we were hitting it off real well to start but then I got word I had to reshoot some scenes from last week. Mary helped me with reading the scenes together. It reminded her too much of me taking on Sheldon’s work in my thesis proposal. Things went downhill pretty fast from there. She’s ready to try and get us moved out of Los Robles Cottage.’

‘It’s not that bad. Connie was talking about wanting to sell this place, you know. She’s wanted to ever since Sheldon died. We could talk to her about buying the place.’

‘That would fix things pretty easily but what about Connie and Mary? That would put a world of hurt between them. Mary already thinks I have too much sway over her mother. If we bought this place just like that, Mary would never talk to her mother again. I don’t want to come between family like that if I can help it. I’m thinking the best thing would be for me to move. Lord knows I can afford it, now.’

‘Penny, don’t say that, not the way you’ve felt about this place from the start. It’s been too long a day to think straight about stuff like this. You should get some sleep, honey.’ Bernadette got up to coax Penny upstairs to bed.

‘I’m going in a bit. I just want to enjoy this old chair for a while. I really have missed it.’ Penny handed Bernadette her empty glass and sat back in the chair with her eyes closed.

Bernadette finished her whisky and got a comforter off the couch for Penny. ‘Don’t worry yourself here all night, Penny. We’ll think of something.’ She kissed Penny and headed upstairs wishing she had a clue what that something was.

Sheldon watched Penny while she drifted off to sleep. Life at Los Robles Cottage was rapidly becoming a Kobayashi Maru scenario. He wondered what Captain Kirk might do about this version.
+++

Penny woke up feeling a little stiff from sleeping the night away in the wing chair. She looked up to see the balcony windows open and Sheldon using the telescope to inspect the valley.

‘Sheldon, I appreciate you giving me back the study like this but did you have to simulate me waking up with a stiff neck?’

‘I thought you might enjoy a return to our customary routines after recent events.’

Sheldon joined Penny by the chair while she stood and stretched out the kinks from sleeping like that. She looked around the study with everything back in its place and sighed in contentment. ‘You’re not wrong there, Moonpie. It’s nice just the two of us up here. She hugged Sheldon for the lovely thought of this simple pleasure.

Sheldon rolled his eyes at the not unpleasant reward. If you are done mauling me, I was considering your thesis topic.’ They walked over to a white board and Sheldon pointed out a set of equations. ‘I believe you need to better address here the criticisms that arise from those like Lee Smolin towards background independence and the reference geometry you are proposing to analyze in your thesis.’

‘Do you seriously expect to work on my thesis after the day I’ve had, Sheldon?’

‘I would like to return to what has made us both happy. I thought you enjoyed working on your thesis, Penny?

‘I do enjoy it but you heard your mother, today. She thinks I’m stealing this from you and from her.’

‘Well, I have another idea, then. I can’t imagine why it never occurred to me before.’

The study melted away and tuned into the bridge of the Enterprise from the original ‘60s TV series. Sheldon was sitting in the command chair dressed as Mr. Spock with hair and ears to match. Penny looked down at herself then at her reflection in a nearby monitor. She was dressed in the very short miniskirt and boots of the female crew. Her hair was done up in the elaborate beehive hairdo of Yeoman Rand.

‘Sheldon, I can barely stand watching this show with you.’

‘That’s Commander Cooper, Yeoman Queen. Penny, this is a perfect opportunity for us both. I love Star Trek; you love acting, what could have more syncopation?’

Penny’s growling was cut short by Captain Kirk coming out of the turbo-lift. ‘Mr. Spock, you will be taking a science team out to examine the phenomena. You and Yeoman Queen will select a science crew for shuttle Galileo. Be ready to launch within the hour.’

‘Very good, sir, the con is yours, captain. Come along yeoman.’ Sheldon marched off to the turbo lift with Penny stalking after him with a growl. She launched into her tirade as soon as the lift doors closed.

‘Sheldon, if you think I’m going to play some damsel-in-distress in a hiked up miniskirt, you are out of your Vulcan mind!’

‘That was an excellent rendition of Dr. McCoy but we will stick to the definitive DeForest Kelley for this evening while you will be playing the part which would have been played by Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Rand had she not left the series and was instead played by Phyllis Douglas as Yeoman Mears.’

‘I’m not playing anything, Sheldon.’

Penny, ‘The Galileo Seven’ is one of the most celebrated episodes in the fifty-plus years of Star Trek canon. Not only does it illustrate Spock’s impressive command skills, it is one of the seminal demonstrations of the internal conflict between Mr. Spock’s Vulcan logic and his human emotions that Leonard Nimoy’s superlative acting skills made so memorable to so many generations of fans.’

‘Get me out of this ridiculous go-go dancer suit.’

‘Oh, very well, Penny.’ Sheldon snapped his fingers and began smirking while staring attentively at the turbo lift ceiling.

Penny felt the cool air of the turbo lift had suddenly become much cooler and noticeably draftier. ‘Sheldon, honey, if I look down and see me standing here in my birthday suit; I will give your entire model collection to Wil Weaton.’

‘Oh very well, spoil sport.’ The scene shifted back to their study in Los Robles Cottage and Penny was satisfied to see she was dressed in her more familiar jean shorts, white t-shirt, and sandals. Sheldon had changed his Spock look to his old thermals and Flash t-shirt with corduroy slacks. If you don’t wish to re-create one of the great pieces of cinematic art in American television history, perhaps, we can work on your thesis?’

‘Fine.’ Penny rolled her eyes but she had to admit it was fun to have one of their bickers again.
+++

Mary put some of the first batch of her fried chicken on a platter next to a pitcher of sweet tea with mint. She picked up both and brought them out back to the pavilion where her mother was chatting with her old friend Hanna Parda.

‘Here you go, momma, be careful of the chicken since it’s right out of the fryer.’

‘Isn’t Sheldon coming down to eat, Mary?’

‘That boy can get so lost in his work a stampede of wild horses could run right behind him and not notice a thing. I am surprised the smell of my chicken hasn’t brought him downstairs, though. That’s usually the only thing that will break his concentration besides Star Trek coming on the TV.’ Mary made sure her mother and Hanna had everything they needed and then headed back into the house to fix up a plate for Sheldon.

When Mary got inside the house, Connie leaned towards Hanna conspiratorially. ‘Between you and me, Sheldon was telling me earlier about a little Cornhusker girl he met a while back. I think that might be the hold up.’ She grinned and poured some sweet tea and told Hanna about Sheldon’s surprising news.
+++

Mary got a second platter of chicken and fixings together and headed upstairs to Sheldon’s study. She walked in and came to a halt in surprise at the sight of some blonde woman with her back to her who was working away at one of Sheldon’s precious white boards. She couldn’t believe he was just sitting in his wing chair watching the girl work on some math problem. He never let anyone touch those boards. ‘What’s going on up here, Sheldon?’

The blonde woman spun around looking just as shocked seeing Mary. ‘Sheldon, what have you done?’

Sheldon got up and walked over to Penny. He put his arm around her shoulders and smiled at his mother. ‘Momma, I’d like to introduce you to Penelope Queen, she is-‘

‘I know who she is, Sheldon Lee Cooper! What are you doing with a half-dressed actress up here in this study?’

‘Sheldon, you can’t just dump your mom and me together like this.’ Penny hissed in embarrassment.

‘Don’t fret none, dear, my son doesn’t think things through half as much as he likes to believe.’ Mary strode up to Sheldon and grasped his free hand. ‘I’d like to have a moment with the ‘genius’ if you don’t mind, dear.’ Mary pulled Sheldon over to the far side of the library.

‘How could you go embarrassing that poor girl not telling her your mother was here? And how could you not tell me she was here, letting me come up without a bite to eat for a guest. Where are your manners, Sheldon?’

‘I didn’t say anything because Penny lives here, momma.’ Sheldon started to walk back over to Penny but was brought up short by the sound of the platter of chicken hitting the floor. He turned to see his mother looking as furious as she did in one of her rows with his father. He started to question if this really had been a good idea.

‘She lives here, Sheldon Lee Cooper?’ Mary’s voice was a harsh whisper.

Penny blanched at the storm coming and she punched Sheldon in the arm. ‘Are you trying to give your mother a heart attack, Sheldon? Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with you? I’m sorry Mary, give us a second? Come here!’ Penny pulled Sheldon out onto the balcony.

‘It’s perfectly alright, Penny. This is for the best.’

‘For the best? What best? Sending your mother to an early grave?’

‘I’m beginning to wonder that myself, Penny.’ Mary growled from behind the arguing couple. ‘What does she do here living in this house alone with you, Sheldon?’

‘We are collaborating on my theories, momma. Penny is quite precocious as a mathematician and physicist besides also being an outstanding thespian.’

‘Collaborating? How is an actress supposed to collaborate on your work? You can’t just let her put her name on your life’s work. You’re letting her turn your head around. You’re acting just like your father, letting some sweet little thing in a tight dress lead you around by the nose.’

Penny gasped and Sheldon felt her tense up ready to explode. ‘Momma, I’m sorry, but I won’t hear Penny spoken of like that. Now, if you will excuse us, we are at risk of running late for the cotillion and I promised Penny the first set of the evening.
+++

Sheldon put Penny’s right hand on his left arm and they stepped off the balcony to a large paper lamp lit pavilion built on the shore of Galveston Bay. Penny saw Sheldon was dressed in a formal black tuxedo and she was dressed in a white satin ball gown with long white opera gloves. She had a diamond bracelet on her right hand and a simple gold necklace with a large teardrop shaped ruby.

‘Sheldon, are you trying to drive your mother and me insane?’

‘Of course not, Penny, but don’t you think things would be easier if my family could speak to me about Los Robles and my work? They believe all this is a dream so the illogical events have no dissonance to them.’

‘Moonpie, is this the little Cornhusker girl you were telling me about? Why didn’t you just say it was Penny Queen? I love your show, dear. Sheldon, aren’t you going to introduce us?’

I’m sorry, Meemaw, I forgot my manners for a moment. Penny Queen, this is my Meemaw, Constance Tucker. Meemaw, I’d like to introduce the only girl to ever make me want to go out on a dance floor, Penelope Queen.’

‘You got Sheldon to dance? How did you ever manage that feat, Penny? Sheldon loathes dancing.’

‘I can’t say. He just saw I didn’t get to dance at a party one night so he took me out waltzing but he’s not going to get me out on a dance floor, tonight, I can tell you. Could you excuse us a second?’

‘Of course, dear.’ Connie watched Penny pulling Sheldon along by his lapels in a perfect snit. It reminded her of the night her Sam had taken her out to dinner without telling her his parents would be there. She laughed to herself remembering how he even thought that would be a good time to propose. She’d thrown the engagement ring at him and stormed out of the restaurant. She looked at the ring that she’d finally accepted three months later. She gave Penny a minute to have her say and then went over to help save her Moonpie.

‘Sheldon, am I to believe you didn’t tell Penny I would be here, tonight? How did you think she would react being taken by surprise like this? Please, don’t be mad at him, dear. This kind of stupid just runs in the family. His grandfather did the same thing to me when we were courting. He took me out to dinner one night and sat me down with his parents without a word of warning. I could have killed him then and there.’

‘I’m considering that very idea right now.’ Penny’s anger was clear but not half as much as Mary’s.

‘You’re going to have to get in line, Penny. Momma, did you know these two have been living together?’

‘Oh, Mary, Sheldon told me all about Penny a long time ago but I have been kept waiting too long to meet her, Sheldon. Now tell me, Sheldon, did you drop your mother on Penny like you did me?’ It’s a wonder the girl will even talk to you anymore.’

‘You can’t just be OK with them living together, momma! You can’t just be fine with her moving into Shelly’s home, taking over his life and his work just like that.’

‘Momma, we have been happy just like that for some time. I would love to propose an engagement but that would be impossible without Meemaw’s ring which I hope-‘

Connie giggle-snorted at how very much Sheldon took after his grandfather. Mary stood goggle eyed in shock. Penny outdid them both with a snarl of pure outrage.

‘No, no, no! No more of this, Sheldon. You are not going to make some kind of crazy proposal to me in front of your mother and grandmother. Goddammit, Sheldon Lee Cooper! I am not a toy you can just play puppet master with, not now, not ever. Dammit, Sheldon!

Penny stomped off towards the harbor side railing away from the dancefloor. Sheldon looked at his mother and Meemaw like the world was coming to an end and then hurried off after Penny.

Connie grinned and chuckled at the sight of her grandson hurrying off with his head tucked down and calling after Penny. ‘Did all that remind you of anything, Mary?’

‘That sounded like you giving poppa one of your hidings and damned if Sheldon didn’t look like him for a second, there.’
+++

Sheldon caught up with Penny at the harbor railing and fidgeted in agitation. He and Penny had often bickered but she had never sounded truly angry at him before. ‘Penny, please, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to turn you into a puppet or manipulate you.’

‘What did you think would happen dropping your mother on me like that. How did you think that was going to make me feel after today? Hell, you were there for it, Sheldon!’

‘Penny, I had to do something. You were seriously considering leaving Los Robles. I had to do something. I don’t want to lose you, Penny. I don’t want you to give up on your thesis or on your home.’

Penny clutched at the railing with tears falling. ‘And, what about your mother and Meemaw after that tour through Sheldon’s Wonderland, do you think everything’s going to magically be alright?’

‘They will think it was all a dream. You said my mother saw you as a threat trying to take everything away from her. Now, she knows I do want you here, Penny.’

‘She only saw that in a dream, Sheldon, just a dream.’ Penny gulped raggedly.

The harbor railing morphed into the study balcony’s railing with the moonlight Penny loved to come out here for. ‘Do you remember when I asked you if that ‘date’ with Leonard was a good idea and you thought it was in spite of being unable to predict the outcome? I felt this situation was much the same. I was really the only one who could talk to my mother about this, tell her that I want you here, tell her that I do very much need you here more than anything.’

Penny clutched at the railing and rocked back and forth and then spun around and latched onto Sheldon in a fierce hug. ‘I don’t want to go, Sheldon. I don’t want to lose you.’ Penny pressed her face to Sheldon’s chest and clung to him. ‘I love you, Sheldon. Please, I don’t want to go… I don’t want to go…'
+++

Chapter Text

Mary woke with a start and half wondered why she wasn’t in Texas for a moment. She had been dreaming about Sheldon and Penny. They had been visiting her mother and telling everyone they were living together. She couldn’t imagine what made her think her son would live in sin with any woman much less some TV star like Penny Queen. She needed someone to talk to but it was too early for people but never too early for the Lord. She picked up her phone and Bible she always kept by her bed and tip toed out onto the balcony. She opened the Bible in the darkness with her thumb to a random passage and turned on her phone light to read what she had opened to. She tuned off her phone light and closed the book. Mary knew the passage very well and it disturbed her.

Connie woke up thinking of a cotillion down on Galveston Bay. She had a fleeting image in her mind of Sheldon bringing Penny to go dancing there. She wasn’t sure which was stranger, Sheldon dancing there or Penny wearing her engagement ring. ‘Crazy old woman.’

She got up to go to the bathroom and tried to recall some of the dream she had. ‘Penny and Sheldon, that’s got to be the silliest idea you’ve ever had, Constance Tucker.’ She washed her hands and her ring reminded her of Sam’s first proposal more than ever. ‘I wonder what you would have made of that little Cornhusker, Sam. Shelly could have done a lot worse than her, you know.’ She dried her hands and headed back to bed.

She started to get into bed when she noticed Mary’s bed was empty. She looked around the dimly lit study and noticed the balcony door was ajar. Connie walked over to the door and peaked outside. Mary was staring off out across the dark valley. ‘What are you doing out here, Mary?’

‘I just woke up thinking so I came out to get some air and look at my Bible. I read my passage and I couldn’t get back to sleep after that.’

‘What was the passage?’

‘Mark 14:6’

Connie didn’t recognize the reference but she didn’t read the Bible a dozen times a day like Mary. ‘What was it you were thinking about?’ Connie joined Mary outside to look at the beginnings of dawn. The night sky was beginning to change to navy blue.

‘I just had some funny dreams, that’s all.’

‘What kind of dreams?’

‘I don’t remember clearly but Sheldon was there. Maybe, it was just from being here. Why were you so dead set against Sheldon and Amy, momma?’

‘I told you back then, Sheldon had too much of my Sam in him. He’d have walked all over a girl like that and she’d have let him just to be married.’ Connie couldn’t figure what brought that up.

‘Shouldn’t that have been their choice, momma?’

‘Before I saw how you were with George, I might have said so. George Cooper never cared about making you happy and you let him be that way. It didn’t do either of you any good. I know your father didn’t worry much about other people’s feelings and opinions on his best days but he never let the sun go down that he didn’t make me smile somehow no matter how mad I was with him some days. It ate him up if you and I weren’t happy. You deserved that kind of marriage, Mary, and so did Sheldon. Amy wasn’t the kind to give him that because she would have just been a doormat to that boy’s bullheaded ways. What brought up that old chestnut?’

‘Do you think Sheldon would have liked Penny that way?’

‘She likes science like he did but he’d have never made heads or tails of Penny’s astrology and psychic stuff. She would have puzzled him and he did like puzzles. What’s got you thinking of girls for Sheldon?’

‘I don’t know I just had Penny and Sheldon on my mind when I woke up. I kept thinking of her and him up here. Why would an actress take up doing that rocket science of his?’

‘I expect you’d have to ask her. Is this because of the studio, yesterday?’

Mary shifted and sighed. ‘We had an argument; I guess I did the arguing, really. I can’t think why but I woke up feeling cross because they were living here, together mind you.’

‘That study is filled with both their stuff, it’s no wonder you might have felt that way in your sleep. I woke up thinking sort of the same thing. I pictured them dancing at a cotillion in Galveston, as though Sheldon would ever have danced at one he wasn’t made to.’ Connie laughed at the recollection again.

‘You were dreaming of them, too? Don’t you find that funny, momma, both of us dreaming of Sheldon and Penny?’

Connie thought the coincidence was because the two had been so much on everyone’s minds last night but she wanted to keep Mary talking this out of her system. ‘I don’t think so after we got back here and all. What did you argue with Penny about at the studio, Mary?’

‘The house, his work, you; she’s everywhere I turn somehow when it comes to this house. I told her I wanted her gone from it all, her, Bernadette, all of them.’

Connie bit her tongue for a second. ‘And?’

‘I left her trailer too hot to think. By the time I found you folks, you were having such a good time and I didn’t want to ruin it so I kept it all to myself. It wasn’t till we got back here I really gave what I said any thought. I felt Sheldon everywhere when we got here but after the studio this place just didn’t feel the same. Like I said yesterday, something was missing. I think it was because I couldn’t feel him here, anymore.’

‘I’ll say something’s missing here but it isn’t in the house. That was an unkind thing to say to someone that’s tried to do nothing but right by us, Mary Elizabeth. She and Bernadette have worked mighty hard to keep the house with Sheldon’s memory in mind and they’ve gone a hell of a lot further than we could ever repay saving his good name just out of the goodness of their hearts. I’ll say no more. I’m going back to bed.’ Connie went back inside to let Mary think about what she’d done. She did decide this house had far too much hold on her daughter’s mind. She hoped this talk was a sign that was starting to slip. Either way, this place was best sold off for Mary’s own good as far as Connie was concerned.

Mary knew her mother was right. That was unkind and unchristian to say all that to Penny, yesterday. She read the verse she’d opened to again and went back inside but she didn’t have any urge to sleep. She looked at her phone, 5:20am, good enough time for coffee. She walked quietly downstairs in the morning silence so as not to disturb the house. She heard a whimpering sound from the living room or maybe the library. She found Penny sleeping fitfully in Sheldon’s old wing chair. The dampness under Penny’s eyes made Mary feel like there was a stone weighing down her gut.

‘Oh, honey.’ Mary got down close to Penny and brushed her hair out of her face. Penny swung a punch that Mary just barely pulled away from.

‘What? Oh my god, Mary, I’m so sorry. I don’t take getting woken up by surprise well. I’m so sorry.’ Penny helped Mary up and was grateful for the older woman’s chuckling.

‘That’s alright. My Missy wakes up the same way. I kind of know what to look for. Why are you sleeping down here?’

‘I got back after midnight. I talked to Bernadette for a while down here and I just fell asleep after she went up to bed.’

Mary sat down on the couch and looked like she didn’t know how to start something she wanted to say. Penny wasn’t sure what to say, either so she just sat back down in the wing chair.

‘I heard crying when I was coming down the stairs. Were you having a bad dream?’

‘Yeah, I guess you could call it that. How did you sleep?’

‘Not much better, I guess.’

They sat in silent awareness of each other. They looked around for something to start their talking.

‘Maybe, your bad dreams were from all the whisky over there.’

‘I don’t think it was. Is that something else to tag me on?’ Penny closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Mary, that was uncalled for.’

‘No, that’s alright. I was no box of peaches, yesterday.’

The silence settled back between them. They heard Halley start to cry upstairs and Bernadette’s voice drifted down the spiral staircase soon after greeting a new day with her daughter.

‘Things are going to start getting busy down here, soon. How about we take a walk up the trail out back? There are some nice views up in the hills back there.’

Mary agreed and went upstairs to put something on while Penny made a thermos of coffee to take with them. They met out in the kitchen where Penny left a note for Bernadette and Connie while they were on their walk.

The two women walked with their thoughts for a while. The trail they followed was popular with the local joggers and Penny introduced Mary to a few of the familiar folks that stopped to say hi while on their runs. After about twenty minutes, the women came to a bluff that looked down on the canyon. Los Robles Cottage could be seen in the distance to the right and down below from the bluff. They sat on one of the public benches set up on the trail and Penny poured out their coffees.

‘Nice view to enjoy a coffee with up here.’

‘Yeah, Bernie and I like to come up here and chat from time to time.’

‘You two get along mighty well, don’t you?’

‘That’s why we moved in together. We’ve been through some tough times.’ Penny recalled the weeks before Kurt’s death when she’d found out about his cheating on her. Bernadette had kept her sane at the time. ‘I don’t ever want to lose her.’

‘You two have put a lot of yourselves into the house. I can’t imagine what Sheldon would have made of it all but I think he would have liked that Collector’s Room.’

‘Hmm, so why don’t you like what we’ve done? You sure didn’t sound like you did, yesterday.’

Mary bit her lip and nodded her head for a second recalling her morning Bible verse. ‘I said a lot of things I oughtn’t to have said, yesterday.’

‘Why did you say them?’

Mary stared at the black surface of her coffee and thought about why. ‘I think it was because I didn’t believe you were good enough for my Sheldon.’

‘Excuse me?’ Penny wondered how much of Sheldon’s dream tour Mary remembered and if she knew it wasn’t a sleep born fantasy.

Mary snickered with some discomfort and blushed. ‘Just thinking of some funny dreams,’ she stood up to get a better view of Los Robles Cottage. ‘That house is all that’s left of Sheldon, all I have left of him. I’ve been trying to hold onto his memory with it but all I really remember is he killed himself there.’

Penny kicked herself for being a conceited diva. After all, why hadn’t Connie sold the place from the first like Bernie had said she wanted to, last night. ‘Mary, it’s a one story fall from that balcony onto a gravel and sand walkway through a flowerbed. It’s not a place for a suicide. Sheldon would have known that just from the physics of it. I can’t imagine why anyone would rule it a suicide except to avoid an insurance payout. Folks blamed it all on the arctic but Sheldon was bound and determined to figure out what went wrong. He thought of little else and Raj and Howard can tell you that from experience.’

‘You sound mighty convinced of that for somebody that never met him.’

‘I’ve read his journals and talked to his friends. I have no reason to think it was anything but an accident.’ Penny got up and joined Mary in looking down at the cottage. ‘He wanted a solution to what happened in the arctic and Sheldon strikes me as the kind who wouldn’t even let death stop him from figuring out what went wrong up there.’

‘You do that a lot, talk about Sheldon like he’s still alive. It’s kind of strange.’ Mary teased.

‘I guess it does sound strange. I first saw the house about a week after Kurt’s funeral. I needed to get away from where we’d lived together. I loved Los Robles Cottage as soon as I saw it.’

‘Did losing your husband hurt that much?’ Mary remembered the relief she felt when George passed away with guilt.

‘No, at least not from his death as such,’ Penny could see the question Mary had. ‘That saying is right about being careful what you wish for because you might get it.’

‘I don’t follow you.’ Mary remembered the empty sound to Penny’s voice when she’d hinted at problematic husbands the other morning before she’d left for work.

‘Bernie was around for pretty much all of it. She’s the only living soul who knows everything that happened. Kurt and I got to California married and dreaming of everything we could do together. He loved seeing me act and he supported me in it any way I wanted. He paid for classes and came to every opening. I couldn’t have wanted for a better guy, mostly. One day, he was gone up to Clear Lake to do a freelance job for a couple of weeks. I had a play I was trying out for and I had scripts and notes on a flashdrive that I needed. The one I found was one of his with pictures, videos, and then I found others two years of cheating I never knew about. Bernie kept me from going up there and killing him or killing myself or just going crazy. She was at the apartment with me the day Kurt was supposed to come back from his trip. We heard a car brake and crash. When we looked out the window, we saw Kurt had been run over, dead in the road. Losing him didn’t hurt as much as not getting to face him for what he did. It felt like he got away from paying for what he did to me. Sheldon thought Leonard was his best friend in the world. When I figured out what really happened to Sheldon, it was like Kurt’s cheating all over again. I couldn’t let Leonard get away with what he did to Sheldon.’

‘I had no idea. Everything in the news talks about your ‘Romeo and Juliet’ marriage.’

‘We didn’t have to both die, at least.’ Penny had always found that comparison ridiculous. ‘There was no point to blaming Kurt in public after he died but I had to get away from the memories. Los Robles and Sheldon’s work helped with that.’

‘I always wondered why you were so involved with Sheldon’s work. I never thought about the stuff that caused Sheldon’s problems in the arctic being a reason, I just saw you trying to steal Sheldon’s work, killing what was left of him. Even after everything came out, I guess I hated you being in Shelly’s house and work. I was wrong.’ Mary went back to the bench and poured out the rest of the coffee into the cups and brought them back where Penny was standing.

‘I had the oddest dreams last night. I walked into the study and Sheldon was just watching you work on his white boards. He never let anyone near them but he told me you were living there with him and working with him on his theories. I don’t know if it was Sheldon or the Lord or just my conscience but I think the dreams were telling me I was wrong. I woke up and I didn’t want to believe it so I looked to my Bible. What I found there, well, there’s no gainsaying the Lord but I should have known better to start. I was wrong about you and Bernadette here, I’m sorry.’

‘What did your Bible say?’

‘I opened it to Mark 14:6 And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me.’

‘I’ve seen enough of Sheldon’s work to say you must have done pretty good work with him, too.’ Penny took Mary’s hand thinking how much she must miss her son. She asked herself if Sheldon should reveal himself to his mother but then she remembered Sheldon’s alarm about the baseball bat and how she might turn his mother into a ghost in the house with him which set Penny chuckling. She pulled Mary into a glad hug.

‘You are an odd one, Penny.’ Mary was surprised by the frank and easy forgiveness of the young woman. It shamed her to recall what she’d thought of Penny for so long.

‘Do you really think so? You wouldn’t be the first. Some of the fan sites think I really am a witch and I live in a haunted house with spirits I call up.’

Mary laughed at the idea while she and Penny sat down to finish their coffee. ‘I guess that troubled reputation Howard kept telling us about worked out for you, then,’ Mary paused and finished her drink, ‘All the same I would like to make up for the crotchety way I’ve been acting.’

‘How would you like to do that by making some of your wonderful fried chicken?’ Penny had to admit the aroma had been divine in that dream tour. She wanted to find out if it was as good as Sheldon made it out to be with his mojo.

‘How would you know about my fried chicken? Is this another of your Sheldon’s journals stories?’ Mary still found it hard to believe Sheldon wrote so many odd details but then his ‘email blasts’ were usually filled with any sort of ridiculous details so filling journals with stories of her chicken might not be so farfetched.

‘Oh, no, the websites are right about me being a witch. The spirits showed it to me in a dream last night. It smelled wonderful,’ Penny grinned at Mary’s glowering face since she’d seen that exact same look on Sheldon’s at least once a day. ‘Or is that secret chicken recipe thing all just a Texas mom stereotype?’

Mary scoffed and frowned just like her son. ‘You are incorrigible.’

+++

Bernadette finished putting together the things she wanted to take to work with her and shut down her computer. Her thoughts were more occupied by the note Penny had left in the kitchen. Penny had already had one row with Mary; Bernadette prayed there wasn’t a second one going on, now. She heard footsteps and turned to see Connie coming into the library.

‘Good morning, Bernadette. Have you seen Mary around?’

‘Morning, no, Penny left a note in the kitchen saying she and Mary had gone for a walk out back.’

‘Mary was up early this morning around 5:30 acting out of sorts. I guess she must have run into Penny after that.’

‘Halley woke me up around then. They had to have gone out around then or not much after. I hope they’re alright. Damn, I have to go to work, today.’ Bernadette was considering calling in anyway after the way Penny had talked last night.

‘Don’t worry, dear, I’ll be here to look out for them.’

Bernadette thanked Connie and they went to the kitchen, Bernadette to put together her lunch for today and Connie to make herself some breakfast. When she looked out the back window she saw Penny sitting alone out in the pavilion.

‘I see Penny out there, Bernadette; did you hear Mary come in?’

‘No, where do you think she could be?’

‘I’m not sure. How much land’s out back there to hide a body?’

Mary came out of the downstairs bathroom and walked in on Bernadette and her mother. ‘Good morning, you two.’

Connie and Bernadette side eyed Mary and her casual greeting. Connie wanted to know what had happened with Penny after that talk on the balcony. ‘What have you two been up to, this morning?’

Mary poured out two coffees and got some muffins from the bread box. ‘We had a good bit of talking. I’m sorry, Bernadette, for being so ornery and pushy on you and Howard over Halley. Penny’s right it’s none of my business but I’m going to make up my Texas style chicken fried steaks and fried chicken to make a little apology for all that.’

Mary gathered up the coffee and muffins and breezed out the door to go back to the pavilion. Connie and Bernadette stared through the back door window at the two women chatting outside.

‘I did not see that coming.’ Bernadette watched the scene in the pavilion in amazement.

‘Ever wonder if Penny might really be a witch?’ Connie giggled in confusion.

‘The girl makes me wonder sometimes.’ Bernadette shook her head in defeat trying to guess how Penny accomplished that change of heart.

+++

‘Penny, this situation with my mother cannot go on any longer.’

Penny looked up from her script in confusion. ‘Your mother and I had a long talk this morning before I went to work. The situation is fine between us.’

‘I am well aware of that since I facilitated that reconciliation between you through my superior diplomatic skills.’ Sheldon looked at Penny as though that had cleared everything up.

‘Great, I’ll submit your name for the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Penny went back to making notes in her script.

‘Any and all Nobel recipients must be alive at the time the prize winners are announced so that would be impossible in my case. Besides, even if it were possible I would wish my prize to be for physics.’

‘Great, so if I get a Nobel for Physics with your theories I can keep everything for myself, good to know.’ Penny started taking notes again but was interrupted by Sheldon’s grumbling and pacing around the study.

‘What has got you so worked up, Sheldon?’

‘I told you, the current situation with my mother is intolerable.’

‘What could possibly be wrong? She’s downstairs cooking for dinner, tonight. She’s making chicken and steaks enough for a small army.’

‘That is precisely the problem. She is making all my favorite foods and I cannot eat them. I can only sense the maddening smell of it all. This must be what hell is like.’

Mary came through the study door carrying a platter much like she had done in Sheldon’s dreamscape last night. ‘Penny, I hope this won’t ruin your dinner but I brought up a couple of drumsticks and some of my special breakfast potatoes to tide you over for dinner.’

‘Mary, this looks fantastic and it smells even better.’ Penny grinned at Sheldon’s grimace.

‘I do wish Sheldon could be here to for it like that dream last night.’ Mary sighed and shook her head in regret.

Penny got up and gave Mary a hug. ‘I’m sure he’s here in spirit and happy as can be to see you look so happy.’

‘Thank you, dear, now eat up and enjoy.’ Mary dashed back to the kitchen to keep an eye on progress down there.

Penny turned to see the platter of chicken rising from the table. She picked up the Serenity from the model shelf. ‘If anything happens to that chicken, Sheldon, the Serenity will be just the first casualty.'

The platter returned to the desk and Sheldon continued to fume and pace while he glared at Penny sitting down to his mother's chicken.

‘Oh, my god, this chicken is to die for, Sheldon!’

‘Intolerable, in every way, absolutely and completely intolerable.'

+++

Howard spent a good deal of Wednesday pestering Mary for the chicken recipe. She’d only ever seen Sheldon eat it faster but she said it was a secret and that was that. In truth, she’d already given the recipe to Debbie because she wanted to make it for Howard’s birthday after seeing the way he tackled that meal.

‘Do you suppose you could make some more, tonight?’

‘You are as bad as Sheldon ever was. I am glad you liked my chicken but Penny and I are going out, tonight.’

‘What are you guys doing?’ Howard couldn’t imagine it could be a church thing.

‘Penny and I are going to her Archery and Gun club. She said they have a decent range set up so we’re going to do some target practicing.’

‘I tried that place, once, but I’m going to stick to guns in computer games. Bernie practices with Penny once in a while. Penny goes there with Raj and Lalita a lot more. Raj and Lal love archery practice together.’

Penny and Mary did run into Raj and Lalita but they were just leaving.

‘No, Raj, we are not going in so you can have another competition with Penny.’

‘Come on, Lal, he needs the practice.’

‘I could use you buying dinner for us again, Penny.’

‘Says the man that bought dinner last time.’

‘This is how it always starts, Mary. Raj, car, Penny inside.’ Lalita did enjoy watching them compete but she was too tired for it, tonight.

Everyone said their goodbyes and Mary and Penny decided to start with Archery. Mary was impressed by Penny’s skill.

‘You are like some kind of Cornhusker Robin Hood.’

‘I started bow hunting with my dad when I was seven, rabbits, ducks, other small game. I loved it, especially camping and cooking out on a long hunting trip.’

‘Do you do any hunting these days?’

‘No, the folks at the house would be a little too squeamish about a dead carcass being cut up and cured.’ Penny told Mary about one time she’d tried getting Bernie to try a hunting trip. They both had a great laugh over it but Bernie really didn't have the heart to shoot anything. Mary and Penny, though, had the same feeling that if you can eat a steak you shouldn’t have a problem with being able take down the animal yourself.

‘That’s too bad. You should come down to Texas some time. Some folks in my church group go on hunting trips in deer season and even Missy comes along a lot of times.’

‘That does sound good. I would love some fresh venison instead of the stuff in the game section of our butcher’s shop.’

Guns were where Mary excelled. Penny had to admit she was too long out of practice to shoot like Sheldon’s mom.

‘My church group takes regular cruises out from Galveston Bay. They have all kinds of things to do besides praying. Gunning with God is one of my favorites. You write your sins on a batch of clay pigeons then you say pull and blast them away.’

‘You might actually be able to get my dad to go to that church service.’

+++

The Los Robles family headed over to Carl Parda’s home on Thursday. They wanted to have a party for their Texas friends before they went back home. Carl and Mary settled around the grill over a couple of beers and minding the grilling.

‘Carl, you have done well to have a family like that. Is Anna from California?’

‘No, she’s a Yankee from Massachusetts but I don’t hold that against her. What about you and Penny? You seem to be getting along since Sunday.’

‘You were right about the jealousy over Sheldon’s work. I made a right fool of myself the next day getting into a scrap with her at her studio.’ Mary told Carl about the afternoon in the trailer and about the funny dreams later that night.

‘That is a funny house. Julie talks about the stories around it that are posted on the internet. Maybe, it really is haunted and you saw Sheldon’s ghost.’

‘Carl, you know there’s no such things as ghosts but I wouldn’t mind it if it was true. I could make that chicken again for Sheldon that I dropped on the floor.’

‘I don’t suppose you could leave some recipes? Anna tries her best but she doesn’t have the touch for a proper Texas fry up and I can’t find anything online that comes out right.’

‘Why doesn’t your mother teach her?’

‘Are you kidding? It was dad that did all the Texas cooking. Momma cooks nothing but Polish food. I think that’s really why Bernadette keeps coming over.’

‘Fine, when we get back to Galveston, I’ll have Missy come over and help make some video recipes but only if you promise to handle them better than you do that grill.’

‘Oh, crap.’ They laughed and fixed the flaming disaster before anyone could find out.

Hanna and Connie watched the flaming disaster from the living room window and laughed at how little some things changed.

+++

Late Friday evening, Bernadette came up to the study and found Penny in her wing chair. ‘How in the name of Christ did you get everything moved so fast? We only just got Connie and Mary to the airport.’

‘When the spirit is willing, miracles can be accomplished, Bernie. How about a movie night so we can celebrate having our home back?’

‘Let’s watch ‘Amélie’ and we can get out the Absinthe Edouard.’

‘And we can watch ‘La Vie en Rose’ after that.’

Penny and Bernadette headed downstairs to get the snacks and the absinthe for their movie night. Sheldon appeared by the telescope feeling surprised to feel just as relieved his folks were gone so life could get back to normal. He set out the films and put ‘Amélie’ in the player for Penny and Bernadette and waited in contentment to be regaled by their terrible attempts to speak French.

Chapter Text

‘Penny play!’ Halley waddled towards the shelf Penny had put some of her Care Bears on for Halley to play with when she was in the study.

‘How did you get past Howard’s gates on the stairs this time?’ Penny picked up Grumpy Bear for Halley. Halley called the bear Showdon much to Sheldon’s annoyance.

Penny got the baby monitor she kept in the study ever since Halley started walking. She guessed Howard was probably involved with something in the collector’s room. ‘Hey, rocket man; guess who’s visiting the study?’

‘Are you kidding? Again? I’ll be right up.’

‘Penny, this is ridiculous. Houdini would be impressed by Halley’s prestidigital talents.’ Sheldon had followed Halley’s progress with each break out.

‘Showdon play!’ Halley threw the stuffed bear towards Sheldon.

‘Shel-don, Halley, I know you have mastered the alveolar lateral approximant so this use of Kripke speech can only be a deliberate attempt to drive me mad.’

‘Mastered the what, Sheldon?’

‘The alveolar lateral approximant, it is how the letter l is described in phonetic terms.’

Penny picked up Funshine Bear and came over to Halley with Grumpy and made the bears do a dance that Halley copied with alacrity. ‘Such language around young ears.’

Howard knocked on the study door. ‘Hey Penny, did Halley interrupt you?’

‘Of course not, come on in.’ Penny picked up Halley and handed her to Howard.

‘Showden, Penny, play.’ Halley reached out for the Care Bears so Penny got them for her.

‘She really loves these two bears, can I bring them downstairs? They might keep her from another escape attempt long enough for me to look at the video for how she got past the new latches.’ Howard headed back down to his basement workshop to fashion another locking mechanism instead of continuing his marathon of Space Battleship Yamato.

‘Howard should consider not bringing Halley into his workroom when he’s making his locks.’

‘I don’t know. It’s the one place she doesn’t make escapes from. She plays with the tool sets she got for Christmas endlessly down there when Howard’s working on something.’ Penny paused in her thought when the baby monitor buzzed.

‘What’s up Howard, did Halley escape already?’

‘Very funny, no, but there’s a delivery truck down here with a big black box for you.’

Penny jumped in excitement. ‘I’m coming down!’

‘What has you so elated about this delivery, Penny?’

‘Texas, Moonpie, I’m gone to Texas!’ Penny’s voiced trailed behind her as she rushed to the stairs and down to the front door.

‘We do not mangle the English language in that fashion in Texas, Penny.’ He couldn’t imagine what Penny was talking about or what the mysterious box could have to do with Texas.

‘What is this thing, Penny?’ Howard was dying to know what Penny was signing for and even Halley acted curious about this new thing.

‘You’ll see in a second.’ Penny closed the door and picked up the four foot travel case and swept into the living room. She set the case down on the coffee table and pulled out a set of keys on a ring that had a crescent moon overlaying three arrows. She jingled the keys for Halley a couple of times before she opened the case.

‘New key chain?’

‘No, these keys are just for this.’ Penny unlocked the case and inside was a slightly smaller case that had straps like a back pack. Penny slipped the pack on her back and adjusted the straps.

‘How does it look?’

‘Great if you’re excited to wear a box. What’s inside?’

‘That’s the best part.’ Penny took the pack off, unlocked it, and opened it up on the table.

Inside, the top level had a compound bow of a kind Howard had never seen except in TV competitions. The second level had a sophisticated recurve bow that looked a lot more technical than the bow Penny used for her archery club outings. The third level had numerous parts, tools, and accessories for maintaining and using the bows.

‘Is this the moment where you tell us you’re an international assassin like Black Widow just before you kill us all to hide your secret identity?’

‘It does look like that, I guess.’ Penny laughed at the thought. ‘These are my hunting bows from back home in Omaha and I plan to do some real hunting, soon.’ Penny picked up the compound bow and started assembling and stringing it.

‘This must be where your terrifying skill at paintball comes from. That’s all just been practice time for you, hasn’t it?’ Howard was spending as much time keeping Halley away from dangerous looking stuff as inspecting the new to him equipment for these kinds of bows.

‘Mary talked about me going down to Texas some time for a hunting trip while she was here. Her church group has a lot of folks who go out for deer season in the fall. We’ve been getting the licenses and permits and stuff together and this year I’m going down to get some real fresh venison, not the butcher shop’s stuff we’ve been getting.’

‘This is a whole other scary side of you, Penny.’ Howard could barely enjoy going to the archery club with Raj let alone think about killing something with a bow. He didn’t like weapons outside of the ones in computer games.

‘This was one of my favorite things to do with my dad growing up. I never thought too much about it since I moved to California but when Mary brought up the idea I just had to give it a try again.’ Penny finished putting the compound bow together, stood up and gave it a few draws to test it out. Satisfied, she started assembling the recurve bow for a cursory check.

‘Where are you going to put an entire deer?’

‘I’m not bringing back the whole deer. Texas, Nebraska too, has got programs like Hunters for the Hungry. You can donate the kills to them and they distribute the meat to the hungry around the state. Hunters feed a lot of folks around the state that way. I’ll just bring back a batch of steaks and the rest will be feeding hungry folks around Texas. That’s the idea but I’m taking these to the club for some practice time so I can make sure that happens.’

Penny took the bows apart with Howard’s help and put everything back in the case to go to the club. She went upstairs to the study and gave Raj a call to ask if he wanted to come there with Lal to try out the bows with her. They agreed on a time and Penny got ready for some archery practice.

Sheldon appeared after she finished her call. ‘I can’t fathom how anyone enjoys the outdoors like that. My father forced Missy and I to endure the process several times.’

‘I can’t imagine you on a hunting trip, Sheldon. Were you any good at it?’

‘I learned to use a bow credibly but not anywhere near your level. I had better skill with handguns and rifles but no more love for them. I don’t detest them as such like Howard but my father couldn’t instill anything but distaste for their purpose. Stalking through nature, good lord, what did the man think supermarkets were for?’

‘Bernadette would agree with you, there. She doesn’t mind going to the club with me once in a while but that’s as far as it goes with her.’

The months passed quickly to autumn and Penny could tell Sheldon was not happy about something. ‘It’s only a couple of weeks, Sheldon, it’s not like I’m moving out.’

‘I am aware of when you will be returning but I was thinking more about the emails and letters from Meemaw of late.’

‘Yeah, she’s been talking about feeling under the weather. That was something I wanted to find out about down there. I hope it’s nothing,’

‘Meemaw has always made light of her health scares since they have always been very rare.’ Sheldon started working on a whiteboard but Penny saw the lines of equations were just a collection of random theorems.

Penny walked over to the board and took the marker from Sheldon. ‘I want it to be nothing, too, Sheldon, honey. I’ll send some emails to let you know what’s going on. I'll see you soon, Moonpie’

Sheldon nodded distantly and took the marker back from Penny and went back to scribbling more theorems. She picked up her suitcase and bow case with a sad smile and tilt of her head. She watched Sheldon writing for a few seconds more and then left him to handle his anxiety over Meemaw in his own way.

+++

Penny saw Missy when she came through the arrival gate at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport. She was easy to spot being almost Sheldon’s height; she stood out easily from most of the women around.

‘Missy, hi there!’

‘Penny, welcome to Texas! How was the flight?’

‘Fine, I think I spent more time getting through security than I did on the flight.’

‘Well, let’s get you settled in. It only takes a half hour or so to Meemaw’s place.’ Missy picked up Penny’s suitcase and Penny carried her bow case. ‘What kind of bows are you carrying?’

‘I’ve got a Hoyt compound and a Bear recurve. I’ve been practicing but a standing target isn’t the same as trying to hit an easily spooked deer. I’ll use the one that fits my mood. What kind are you using for the trip?’

‘I’ve got a Bear recurve, too. We’ll have to check them out when we get home.’

They got to Missy’s car and put Penny’s luggage in the backseat and headed for Galveston and Meemaw’s house.

‘It’s nice to see the real you, Missy, instead of Sheldon’s ideas of you.’ Sheldon’s comments were too mixed with his feelings to provide anything but a caricature of the confident and funny woman driving the car.

‘Momma said you had a funny way of talking about Shelly. What did he say about me?’

‘Nothing worse than I’ve heard my brother say about me but I get the feeling he loved you quite a lot. He sure has enough pictures of you in his photo album.’

‘I’d have thought he’d only have pictures of me for paintball practice.’ Miss told Penny a few stories of their growing up and the many fights they had. ‘I guess, the smarter Sheldon got, the more I just wanted to take some of the hot air out of him.’

‘That sounds perfect. My brother was an idiot that got busted for cooking meth. He even tried to rope me into selling it for him before he got busted. That’s all self-pity, sorry.’

‘That’s OK, Penny. I think we were kind of a burden on Sheldon, sometimes, with that big brain of his. I guess I just wanted him to act like other girls brothers and care once in a while.’

‘Well, his photo album has just as many pictures of you as Meemaw. I’m pretty sure he did even if he never said it.’

Missy smiled with a bit of sadness that she hadn't seen Sheldon before he died. She told Penny about some of their funnier moments growing up while they drove to Galveston.

+++

Missy and Penny arrived at Meemaw’s house around dinner time. Connie came to the door to give Penny a welcome hug and bring her into the front parlor. ‘Penny, dear, it’s so good to see you again. I hope you and Missy didn’t have any trouble finding each other?’

‘We found each other pretty easy. I am happy to see you too, you’re looking great.’ Penny was grateful to see Connie looked as healthy as ever in spite of the letters saying she’d felt under the weather of late.

‘Let’s put your things in the spare bedroom, Penny, so you can get settled in after your flight.’ Missy got the suitcase and showed Penny the way to the bedroom. She showed Penny where the bathroom was and where she could find some extra blankets if she felt cold sleeping during the night.

Penny came out of her room after freshening up and changing from her traveling clothes and helped Connie and Missy making dinner and setting the table. Mary arrived from work at her church happy to see Penny again. They all sat around supper and chatted about everyone’s life in California and Texas.

‘It surprised me you wanted to come on a hunting trip, bow hunting no less.’ Missy knew Penny from Meemaw loving her show and entertainment news so she didn’t think a Hollywood actress would be the type to go out in the wild like this.

‘Oh Missy, Penny was a Cornhusker cowgirl long before she ever became an actress.’ Connie told the table about a few of Penny’s rodeo events she’d found on Youtube.

‘Please, don’t build me up like that. I’d probably kill myself if I tried doing any trick riding after this long out of practice. I do hear you like dressage, Missy. I was never very good at that finesse. I’d love to see you doing some if we could.’

‘I don’t do any competitions anymore but I am still in a dressage club. How about we all visit for lunch one afternoon after the hunting trip? We can get you on a horse again, Penny, and I can show you some pointers.’ Everyone loved the idea so plans were made to go after the hunting trip was finished.

Mary wanted to know how Halley was getting along. Penny giggled and filled them in on her escapades. ‘Halley’s talking a mile a minute and now that she can walk she’s driving Howard crazy getting through his child proof locks.’ Penny described a few more of Halley’s adventures and used that as an opportunity to bring out some gifts from everyone in Pasadena.

Penny came back with traditional Polish shawls from the Pardas for Connie, Mary, and Missy. They were enchanted by the elegant floral designs and rich vibrant colors. Mary was especially charmed by a picture Bernadette sent that Halley had drawn. The Soft Kitty Lady had made quite an impression and Halley had drawn a crude picture of ‘Kotki mama’. Penny gave Mary a present of a chocolate babka cake from Debbie for the chicken recipe. Howard couldn’t believe his mother had made it for his birthday. Penny gave Connie a bottle each of the Lagavulin and the Redbreast.

‘Don’t mind me, I’m feeling bed calling. You all enjoy yourselves but stay out of the whisky.’ Connie enjoyed the presents but it was nicer still seeing Penny again.

Connie insisted she’d just had a long day and everyone should keep on enjoying themselves. Missy confessed to having a thing with some friends after Connie went to bed and Penny and Mary were soon left alone.

Mary didn’t want to disturb her mother so she suggested going to a late night neighborhood café up the road for a drink and a chat so they drove there in Mary’s car. They ordered some coffee and brownies to snack on when they got seated at the café.

‘What did you want to talk about that you didn’t want your mother to hear?’

‘Was it that obvious? I’ve been worrying about momma. She doesn’t look it I know, but she doesn’t get around with the same energy she used to, like going to bed so early with the like of you just getting here. It’s only 8:30.’

‘Are you sure it’s not just getting old? I’m no doctor but she seemed OK, tonight.’

‘Yea, but momma was always good at bluffing about health problems so folks wouldn’t worry. Sheldon used to hate it when she’d do that.’ Mary recalled the stories her mother whipped up for Sheldon and Missy when George had a few hospital scares.

‘You’ve been pretty good at getting my momma to open up, Penny. I thought you might be able to work some of that witchcraft of yours on her and find out what’s up.’

Penny stabbed at her brownie with her fork and pondered a moment or two. ‘Some of her emails have made me think your mother was a little more under the weather than she was letting on. That was part of why I took up your invitation to come down here for a hunting trip but if it is something she wants to keep to herself I couldn’t break a confidence like that.’

‘I wouldn’t ask you to but it would be a comfort to know it really was just age slowing her down or if there really is something to be worried about.’

I can’t make any promises she’ll say anything to me and I wouldn’t repeat anything she doesn’t want said but I’ll see what I can do.’

‘I can’t ask fairer than that, thank you, dear. Now, tell me about that master’s program of yours, how’s that going?’

+++

Penny went to bed wondering how to bring up that point to Connie. She was no closer when she woke up the next day. She sighed in frustration, got up, put on a bathrobe, and headed out to the kitchen.

‘Good morning, Connie. Did you sleep alright?’

‘Good morning, dear! I did indeed; can I interest you in some breakfast?’

‘I’d love some if I can help you with it.’ Penny got a few things from the refrigerator that Connie asked for and started prepping up the vegetables.

‘You went to bed early, yesterday, are you feeling OK?’ Best to just dive in, Penny figured.

‘Don’t you start with that, too. Is that why you and Mary were slinking out of the house, last night?’ Connie stopped beating the eggs she was working on for omelettes.

‘She’s just worried about you and your last few emails had me wondering a little about your health, too.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with me that isn’t wrong with every other woman my age.’

‘That’s good, then.’ Penny kept on with the vegetables she was working on and let the matter drop, for now anyway. Connie’s reaction felt like the same kind of deflection Sheldon did when he wasn’t ready to talk about something. She figured if they were anything alike that way, pushing on the topic would only make Connie clam up even tighter.

Missy came by a little after breakfast so she and Penny could go to a local archery range to check out their gear and get some target practice. At the club, she met the rest of the folks going on the trip and they talked about the Sam Houston National Forest, the area they were going to for this expedition. There would be four teams of two as well as a few of some other wives, husbands, and children of the church. Their plan was to donate the bulk of what they brought down to Hunters for the Hungry as well as a financial donation the church had collected over the past year for the organization.

One of the wives kept a curious eye on Penny throughout the planning session. Penny had gotten used to spotting prolonged attention after Jonas Twill and a couple of other overzealous fans. She wasn’t sure if it was because the woman was a nervous fan or just curious. She eventually came over to where Penny and Missy were getting their bows ready for some target practice after the planning wrapped up.

‘Aren’t you one of them hippie witches on that Coven show? You don’t look the hunting type.’

Penny stared at the woman in surprise but Missy stepped in to introduce folks before an awkward situation could get worse. ‘Penny, this is Lynn Howard. She works with my mom at the church. Lynn, this is Penny Queen and yes, she is an actress on The Coven.’

‘Hi, Lynn, yeah, I guess my character wouldn’t do stuff like this but my dad got me started bow hunting when I was seven.’ Penny hoped the whole trip wouldn’t be like this. Mary’s prickly ire, at least, had had some basis for tolerance.

‘Seven, I’d have never thought folks in California raised their kids like normal folks.’

‘I wouldn’t know about that, Lynn, I’m from Nebraska. I just live in California.’ Penny was imagining a week trapped in a camper with a batch of women like this and so very considering going back to Los Robles Cottage. She was saved making that decision by a man who came over with a younger similar looking teenager.

‘Stop your interrogating the woman, Lynn. Hi, I’m Bob, the busybody’s husband and this is our son, Connor.’

‘Hello, Ms. Queen, it’s great meeting you. My friend Solomon and I love your show. He’s coming, too, but we don’t have bow hunting licenses so we’ll be helping with dressing and carrying. Are you really going hunting with us? That’s so cool’

Penny smirked and chuckled at Connor’s inability to stop talking. ‘Thank you, Connor. So, who’s your favorite character, Cristoph? All the guys who watch think Jason is so cool. The girls, too, I think it’s that broody Luke Evans thing he has going on.’ Penny rolled her eyes and smiled at Connor.

‘Well, there won’t be anything going on on this trip, I can assure you.’ Lynn interjected.

Bob rolled his eyes and Connor blushed and looked like a teen with a far too embarrassing parent. Penny wanted to save them any more embarrassment and get to some target practice.

‘That is a relief since I’m just here to get some venison to take home. You folks have a good time. Come on Missy, bet you coffee on our first set of arrows.’ Penny and Missy headed quickly for an available range and tossed a coin to choose first up.

‘Now, you know why they call her evil Lynn. She’s the biggest gossip in the church and makes my mother look like a hippie.’ Missy laughed at the look of shock on Penny’s face from her whispered lowdown on Lynn.

Missy won the competition for the coffee and Penny was happy to have Missy’s skill on hand to note where she was rusty compared to her Nebraska days. They went through several more rounds before deciding to take a break so Missy could claim her victory coffee. The range had a snack kiosk where they could sit and have their drinks so they made their way there.

Connor found them at the kiosk. He wanted to apologize for earlier and introduce his friend Sol Crane. Sol hadn’t believed Connor saying the real Penny Queen was here practicing archery. Penny chatted with the boys for a few minutes and took a couple of pictures with them. Penny was just sitting down from taking the last pictures with Missy’s help when Connor’s mother reappeared.

‘You boys stop your pestering and find something to do with yourselves. Your father’s teaching his children’s archery class, you could try helping him with it. Go on.’

‘They really aren’t bothering us, Lynn. They’re just asking a few questions about the show.’ Penny felt miffed for Connor and his friend.

‘I have no idea why Bob or your parents, Sol, let you boys watch that show. Witches and Satan’s work, there won’t be any leading anyone into that claptrap on this trip.’

Missy held Penny’s hand and Penny smiled and petted Missy’s supporting clasp giving her a small grateful smile. ‘It’s all make believe, Lynn. Kaley Jenkins is a playacting game. I’m a Cornhusker going on a hunt for some venison.’

‘I certainly hope so, and there won’t be any of that funny business, either.’ Lynn waved towards Penny and Missy’s clasped together hands on the table.

‘Momma, will you just knock it off with that!’ Connor surprised everyone with that heated outburst. Sol laid his right hand on Connor’s shoulder.

‘Connor, man, she’s your mom. Take it easy.’

‘Connor Howard, how dare you take that tone with your mother?’ Lynn’s ire was palpable but anything more was checked by Bob Howard showing up.

‘Hey Lynn, did you forget the archery class we’re supposed to be teaching?’

‘I have something more important than that, right now. This son of yours needs to learn some manners.’

‘Manners, momma, was it manners insulting and trying to shame Penny and Missy like that?’

‘There was no insulting going on. I was letting those two know there won’t be any monkey business carpet munching going on, probably, why they don’t have husbands.’

Missy shot up out of her seat and Penny got up with her still holding their hands since Missy looked about ready to explode. Connor looked about ready too and Sol put his arm around Connor’s shoulders and whispered something that seemed to get through to his friend before he said something he might regret. Fortunately, Bob spoke up before things got any hotter.

‘Lynn honey, that archery class isn’t going to teach itself. How about everyone go to separate corners for the good of everyone’s peace of mind.’ Bob was fairly confident of the instigator disturbing the peace needing redirection.

‘Sounds fine Bob, but you, Lynn Howard, I know you don’t want folks walking into your home telling you how to live. Be so good as to stay out of telling me and mine how to live.’ Missy could never understand how her mother could put up with Lynn.

‘That’s my mind on the matter, too, Missy. I haven’t dated much these last five years since my husband was killed but I can tell you if I wanted to date Missy or any woman or man your opinion would mean less than nothing to me. I would not put up with you or anyone else thinking they could tell me how I’m allowed to live my life.’ Penny enjoyed the flinch Lynn made when she mentioned Kurt even if she felt like a hypocrite using that this way but this woman really seemed like an evil version of Mary.

‘We’ve all had our say, so Lynn, it would be a big help if you would go get that class started.’ Bob and Lynn had a quick stare down but she cracked first and grumbled her way off to start teaching the archery class.

‘Carpet munchers, God help us. You know, Connor that really isn’t the way to talk to your mother.’

‘Momma was having a dig at Penny and Missy just because they were holding hands and I’m the one who’s going to get a lesson in manners, now?’

‘Not on manners, but you do lack a lot of skill in diplomacy when it comes to your mother.’ Bob laughed and apologized to Penny and Missy.

‘I guess your dad means picking your battles isn’t just a matter of when but also how to fight them but thank you for standing up for Missy and me.’

‘You’re welcome Penny, Missy.’ Connor looked a little self-conscious and a bit lost for what to do next.

‘How about you boys go have some fun away from here for a while?’ Bob got out his wallet and gave Connor some spending money to take with them.

Connor and Solomon said their goodbyes leaving Penny and Missy with Bob. ‘I do worry about Connor and his mother sometimes.’

‘It’s just another year and he’ll be off to college and free of her.’ Missy’s knowing sympathy to Bob made Penny curious.

‘Do they get along badly or something?’

Bob shook his head and sighed. ‘No more than any seventeen year old and his mother but she doesn’t know he’s gay or she’s in denial. I’m just afraid he’ll drop that bomb on her like he seemed close to, today, before he’s got a safe place to retreat to.’

Missy nodded at that. ‘It’s great he found someone like Solomon. His parents are a lot more open minded and they aren’t in momma’s church, sorry Bob, so Connor can get away there when it gets too much but Lynn’s still his mom.’

‘You seem well versed in Connor’s past.’ Penny had to smile at Missy’s fondness for the two.

‘They came into the restaurant I was bar tendering at a year or so ago and trying to use the worst fake IDs you can imagine. You noticed Connor can run on when he’s excited. He was so happy he let slip that was their first date. I thought he was going to die from letting that slip right in front of Mary Cooper’s daughter. I used to let them hang out with cokes there and stay out of Lynn’s line of fire.’

They talked a bit more about the boys then Bob excused himself to go to the archery class and see if Lynn had simmered down. Penny and Missy decided to try any more practice tomorrow when Lynn wouldn’t be here.

‘If we’re done here, I saw some really sweet dress boots at the Tanger Outlets up the road toward Houston. We could be there in less than an hour.’

‘Lead on, girlfriend, lead on!’

+++

Penny loved the boots Missy wanted to buy. The knee high boots were perfect for fall and winter so she decided to get herself a pair as well. They strolled through most of the stores and decided to eat out given the late hour. They called home to let Connie and Mary know they would be back after supper.

They got back around 9pm and found Mary and Connie sitting up watching The Coven together. ‘Shush, hi Penny, don’t you go telling me what happens next.’

‘I’d never do that, Connie, besides we film scenes out of order so it’s hard to remember even if I wanted to spoil it for you.’ Penny did remember this episode finished on quite a cliffhanger between the witches of the Coven and this season’s new arch enemy. She went to put her things down in the bedroom and to keep from giving anything away to Connie. She checked her laptop and read a message from Sheldon and laughed. Howard had finally realized how closely Halley would watch him making any new lock and kicked himself for not realizing why. His latest locks were built without her in the workroom and had so far curtailed her escape attempts. Sheldon predicted at least three more days before she overcame Howard’s latest effort to contain her.

Penny wrote back with a cheer for Halley. She also asked Sheldon if he knew Lynn Howard and told him about her encounter, today. Sheldon wrote back almost at once telling Penny how it was Lynn that convinced his mother to have him tested to see if he was alright in the head. He suggested to Penny that he’d be more than happy to have her visit Los Robles so he could return the favor at long last. He understood quite well when Penny refused to put up with the woman long enough to do that. When the living room resounded with groans, Penny knew the episode’s ending had come. She said goodbye to Sheldon and rejoined the folks for the after episode chat.

She answered a few non spoiler questions and she reassured Connie that Jason was coming back for the second half of the season. He was filming a movie in New Zealand during the first half of the show so the series had developed this new villain while he was away. It made Connie a lot happier to know Cristoph would be back.

Connie asked about the hunting trip and Missy explained she and Penny were going to do an equipment check tomorrow and get any last things they needed. ‘You all be safe out there, but there is something I want you all to think about while you are on this trip. Mary, I have been giving this a lot of thought since California and I want to sell Los Robles Cottage to Penny and Bernadette if they’ll have it.’

‘Momma, what do you want to do that for?’ Mary’s attachment was as strong as ever even if she was comfortable now with the folks living there.

‘Mary, right now, I’m just asking you, all of you to consider it. The house is a big expense on us, here. Selling it would be a huge burden off of us. I know your feelings for the place, Mary, but you got folks you’re comfortable with there in Penny and Bernadette. They’re just leasing it, though. They could decide they want a place of their own and then who knows who might move in there. Los Robles can’t just sit there empty. Penny, I’ve seen how you and Bernadette feel about the place. And, I’m sure it would be a relief for you to have a place of your own for Halley to grow up in. I’m guessing from the kinds of jobs you all have there in California buying the place really wouldn’t be a financial issue for you folks. I ain’t selling it today; I’m just asking you all to give it some honest and careful thought. You can do that for me, can’t you Mary?’

‘Yes, I can do that, Momma.’ Mary sounded like the wind was taken out of her.

‘I’d have to talk to Bernie and Howard about this, Connie. It’s not a decision I can make alone. I can promise you, Mary, we would keep Sheldon’s things the way you want them there. That won’t change.’ Penny was sure Sheldon wouldn’t let any changes happen but she didn’t know how he’d take her and Bernadette buying Los Robles.

‘Thank you, Penny, that is a comfort to know but this is a big decision. I am going to have to do some meditating and praying on it. Which reminds me, funny thing happened at the church, today. You know, momma, I’m told Penny has been after my Missy now that she doesn’t have a husband to keep her in line.’

Penny rolled her eyes and ground her teeth wishing she could hex Lynn Howard like Kaley could. Sheldon’s idea was becoming tempting, to be honest.

Missy looked offended and her snorted huff had enough derision for her and Penny. ‘Momma, how can you listen to anything that gossiping nutcase has to say?’

‘Because she’s funny, that woman has to be the touchiest person I have ever seen in my life. It’s funny as all get out watching her eat herself up over something. I am sorry she set her sights on you two, though. I had a chat with her about her opinions so I’ll be going with you on this trip while she minds the church offices.’

‘There, you see Missy? These matching boots of ours and Meemaw wanting to sell Los Robles, it’s a sign.’

‘I think you’re right, Penny. I know those rooms of Sheldon’s are plenty big for two.’ Missy and Penny put their heads and hands together and smiled at the eye rolling of the matriarchs on the couch.

‘Don’t you two try riling me up or I’ll get Lynn to go on this trip, anyway.’ Mary recalled Lynn’s very long and detailed version of Penny and Missy’s lesbian tryst. ‘Lord, the things she said. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable around it but the gays don’t need my approval. Jesus knows it’s hard enough for them. I do hope I’d never turn away one of my own besides I wondered often enough about Sheldon.’

‘Moonpie, what made you think he might be gay? I don’t remember him interested in anyone, male or female.’

‘I guess that’s why I wondered. As for you two, they’ve got things hard enough with the likes of Lynn Howard without other people making fun of them. If there’s any sin in it, it’s between them and the Lord. I’ve got enough of my own sins to worry about.

Penny and Missy apologized for their out of hand silliness. They felt ashamed that they were safe making light of the very real kind of situation Connor and Sol faced every day.

When bedtime rolled around, Penny sent off a note to Bernie and Howard about Connie’s idea to sell the house. She explained the situation and let them know when she’d be back from the hunting trip if they wanted to talk in person about something this big. She also thought of what Mary had said after her joking with Missy and wrote to Jason about Connor and Sol. She told him about their situation and their love of the show. She asked if he could send something to give them some encouragement.

Penny shut down her laptop and put it on the bedside table. She turned off the lamp and lay back thinking about that high school dance when she first went out with Kurt. They’d been the same age as Connor and Sol that night. She wondered how many kids were in the hall that night who weren’t allowed to be starlight and dreams and had to stay secret in the darkness. ‘We had it pretty easy, Kurt, didn’t we? You didn’t deserve that end, honey.’

Chapter Text

Penny woke up feeling good about today. She went through the gear she had brought and made a checklist of things she should have brought on reflection. Connie called her for breakfast while she was finishing up her list. Penny reread her list while she walked to the kitchen and looked up to notice Connie pocketing some medication when she walked in. It wasn’t unusual for women her age to have medications still she was curious.

‘Do the doctors have you on something, Connie? The price of medicines these days is ridiculous. I hope that’s not part of the financial burden making you think of selling Los Robles.’

‘This is blood pressure medication. The doctors prescribed it last spring or so. My insurance covers it but you never know when something can go wrong at my age. Freeing up Los Robles money would be a big help if the unexpected happened.’

Penny wanted to ask more but she knew how hard it was dragging information out of Sheldon. Mary had been every bit as bad to get at the bottom of her hard feelings. She expected Connie would be the same so she just agreed to that and thought about what might draw out some more details about that medication and the unexpected.

Missy and Mary showed up during breakfast but they’d already eaten and satisfied themselves with coffee.

‘Do you need me for anything, today, Momma?’

‘No, Mary, why do you ask?’

‘I had all my licenses together for this trip when Penny said she was coming down but I didn’t do much more planning when I drew church duty this season. Now, that that’s changed, I could do with a trip to some outfitters, myself.’

‘Penny and I are going to the range for some practice then we’re going to the outfitters after lunch. How does that plan work for you, momma?’

‘Sounds just right, you don’t mind if I tag along with you, do you Penny?’

‘Of course not, I’ve been wanting to do this together since you brought it up in Pasadena.’ Penny got the table some more coffee and they talked more about the day’s plans.

+++

Penny hadn’t spent time like this since she left Nebraska. The Cooper women made the day feel as exciting as going on hunting trips with her dad. The following day they met at the church parking lot to join the caravan of five camper-trailers. The group planned to set up in the national forest camp ground to be ready for the opening of the season the following morning.

The group got to the Sam Houston National Forest at their planned time and worked together setting up their camp. They got together a prayer session when everything was done to mark the start of their mission to feed the hungry by hunting for Jesus.

‘You weren’t kidding about this, Missy?’ Penny whispered in disbelief.

‘I was not. Momma made Sheldon and me promise to go to church at least once a year. This is how I get in my once a year.’

Penny managed her way through the prayer service and then was confronted with Shooting with Jesus, posting your sins on a target and shooting them. ‘Is this the end of it, Missy?’

‘This one and the end service on the last day are the only ones momma’s church folks get touchy about. They expect you to go to one or the other. I always envied that about Sheldon getting away to college overseas. He didn’t have to put up with this, anymore.’

Penny chuckled at the number of similarities she noticed between Sheldon and Missy, especially when it came to going to church and to the people in them.

‘Come on, Missy and you too, Penny, time to confess something to Jesus and shoot that sin down.’ Mary loved this part though she did prefer the skeet shooting version.

‘I can confess to being impatient with this.’ Mary had already written just that on the Jesus note from writing some form of it every year and pinned it to the target. Missy drew on it from the thirty yard mark and hit her target on the first flight.

‘How about you, Penny, what do you want to confess?’

‘How about I’m sorry I got angry at Lynn yesterday and I’m relieved she’s not on this trip, sorry Bob.’ Bob and many others around chuckled at that either from sympathy after the archery range kerfuffle or from agreement with the thought but there were a few who looked disapproving. Penny loosed at thirty yards and hit her mark as clean as Missy had.

‘That’s my church service done, momma. I’m going back to the campers.’ Missy invited Penny along with her to have a chat. Mary went along with them for a bit.

‘Aren’t you staying for the whole thing, momma?’ Missy had never seen her mother leave a church service early for anything but medical emergencies.

‘I’m going back but I wanted to ask you both something. Folks are used to your feelings after all these years, Missy, and you’re not in our church. Of course, you’re not from Texas, Penny. Well, be careful of the smart comments, especially when you’re together around the group. Lynn’s a gossip and there are a few on this trip that keep her informed. You know good and well, Missy, she’s not just a gossip. She is a vindictive little creature when she feels slighted and that’s almost daily.’

‘Momma, haven’t you had enough of her?’ Missy hated Lynn ever since she’d gotten her brother sent to the psychiatrists. She’d thought it was funny at first but then she’d found him crying and talking to himself about it that he wasn’t crazy. She’d tried to be nice to cheer him up. He’d gone into his shell of science and scientific aloofness pushing her away but she knew it hurt him that his mother had had him tested like that. She’d sworn she’d never go willingly to church again from then on.

‘I live and let live, Missy. If I got tetchy with everyone that riled me up, I’d be as crazy as Lynn is. You don’t have to like people to get along with them. You and Sheldon never seemed to understand that. If you ever took a disliking to someone it was always some lifelong feud. You’re just like my poppa the both of you that way. Lynn’s riled up with the two of you, try not giving her more to complain about even if it’s just so I don’t have to hear her lecturing at work.’

Penny and Missy promised easily not to think about Lynn anymore and went back to the campers where Missy made some coffee and Penny had her usual evening lavender tea. They chatted about the World Equestrian Festival in Germany which they both followed as avidly as the other. Missy had often thought of visiting again but the timing wasn’t right for her friends and her mother seldom left Texas without a good reason.’

‘Maybe, we should just go ourselves one day. I’d love to walk around Aachen besides in a dream.’ Penny daydreamed frequently about that trip with Sheldon.

‘Well, if we did that, we’d have to go to Austria and the Spanish Riding School, too. It ate me up we were no more than the distance of Dallas and back to Galveston but we had to go back home after the Festival.’

‘The Lipizzaner horses, you are right. We’d have to do that, too.’

‘What would you have to do, too?’ Mary and the church group were filtering back to the campers to start making dinner for everyone.

‘We were talking about horseshows in Europe we’d like to go see the Lipizzaners in Austria.’ Penny thought to message Sheldon later to see if he’d ever been to see them.

‘They are beautiful animals but with all the horse shows in Texas there just don’t seem the need to go all the way over there to see one. Still, they would be a pretty sight to see.’

The three got up to help the church group putting the dinner together. The meal was good. Penny could not fault the cooking of anyone on this trip. Being the new person in the group, there were a lot of questions directed at Penny. The obvious show and Hollywood questions were familiar territory. How she knew Mary and her family came up which she and Mary explained together.

‘You’re working on Sheldon’s science stuff? I don’t think anyone understood half of what that boy said after he was ten. I tried getting him to my Sunday school classes by offering to learn something about physics from him when he came. I’d be lost after about ten words in.’

‘Yeah, my Master’s thesis is based on his work, Christine. It didn’t come to me overnight, either. The first time I saw his white boards with all the math, I thought it looked like a bunch of magic spells.’

The talking got around to the hunting, tomorrow, and Sol asked Penny about the necklace she was wearing with its arrows on it.

‘This is the fob from the keychain to my bow case.’ She took the necklace off and handed it to Sol so he could get a better look at it. ‘It’s the symbol for Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. I’ve worn it on just about every hunting trip I’ve been on since I was ten.’

‘Goddesses, what kind of heathen parents did you have buying devil’s playthings like that?’ The table went quiet with that question. Penny recognized the woman who spoke as one of the frowning ones from the archery confession earlier.

‘I used to love watching Hercules and Xena growing up. I got into all the Greek myths for a while and when I found that goddess of the hunt fob it felt like the perfect charm for hunting trips with my dad.’ Penny got the necklace from Sol and put it back on. She noticed the group of frowners looked more disapproving than ever. Fortunately, there were a couple of Coven fans who had also been fans of Xena. They wanted to ask about her meeting Lucy Lawless when she appeared on The Coven so the conversation drifted away from her necklace.

Penny, Mary, and Missy shared one of the campers together. While Mary and Missy were getting ready for bed, Penny got out a bottle of her Lagavulin that she’d brought with her in the bow case. Mary watched Penny pour a shot glass of the whisky and then take off her necklace and seemed to be praying. She put the fob down and placed the whisky glass on the fob and proceeded to dip the arrowheads in the whisky.

‘What kind of hocus pocus are you up to?’ Mary had never seen Penny pray for real before.

‘My grandfather taught me this. He only came on a few trips with my dad and me when I was seven. He used to say every living thing deserves a last drink before you kill them. He and my dad always did this on their hunting trips. I added the Artemis stuff. I wouldn’t feel right going out hunting without doing this.’ Penny finished dipping her arrows, touched her fob to the whisky while whispering ‘goddess, give us victory,’ and then downed the shot.

‘Isn’t that the prayer on those sais you use in the show?’

‘That’s the one, the folks making us our stuff for the show asked us what kind of prayers or spell language we’d like on our weapons. Since my character does most of the monster hunting, I used my old hunting prayer.’

‘I don’t know from goddesses or that other nonsense you get up to in Pasadena but I haven’t met a hunter, yet, who didn’t have some kind of lucky charm of some sort. Me, I just ask Jesus for a quiet forest and a clear shot.’ Mary pushed the shot glass towards Penny.

Penny got up and found a couple more shot glasses in the cabinet. She poured out two glasses and they sipped their whiskies. Missy came back from the campground shower and looked at her bunkmates. ‘What are you two up to?’

‘We’re having proper Nebraska prayer before hunting, whisky.’ Penny picked up the third glass and offered it to Missy. She took the glass with a happy nod and a smile when she recognized the brand.

‘Islay, I do love your church, Penny.’ Missy had gotten to know the various whiskies from Islay and around Scotland through her bar-tending work.

‘A sister of the church well met.’ Penny laughed at Mary’s eye roll and poured a shot for Missy. They chatted a while about nothing special and Penny felt a little of those spirit filled nights on the Nebraska plains with her father while they talked.

+++

The group’s goal was to get at least eight deer for Hunters for the Hungry, two per team except for Penny joining Missy and Mary this season. The three of them had filled their season quotas of three deer each on their licenses by the time the third day ended. The other three teams had only brought down four deer between them so far, so everyone was ecstatic that they had reached their goal so quickly and had two more days of the season left. The group quickly voted to donate all the deer to date since it had to be a sign from Jesus to have exceeded their goal to feed the hungry so quickly. The dinner on the third night focused on how Mary’s team had gotten so many deer so fast. Mary and Missy gave Penny all the credit for their success.

Penny had lost none of her tracking skill which made her happy to text to her father about after the third day. He had texted back how proud he was and also her mother wanted to know if there was some Texan in her life Susan should know about before she ended up eloping again. She wrote back that she was just with the owners of Los Robles who’d invited her on this trip. She did have a fleeting wish she could have said yes if things were different.

‘Who are you texting to, Penny?’ Mary laid a platter with a large venison steak and fixings enough for two by the look of it to Penny.

‘I was just telling my dad about the deer and my mom that I wasn’t down here getting married again without her getting to plan a wedding.’

Connor and Sol kept whispering in some kind of disagreement until Bob spoke up. ‘What has you two so agitated?’

‘I wanted to ask Penny something but Connor doesn’t think I should.’

‘Instead of worrying about asking me something, how about you two let me decide if I want to answer whatever it is?’

‘Connor and I like making amateur films. We want to get into film school so we try making as many as we can. We figured since we’ve got so much deer for the church we might take our cameras and go get some pictures and videos in the wild. I was hoping since you’re so good at finding wildlife out there you might want to help us? You could even give us some pointers on making a short film out of what we get?’

‘I guess Bob’s looking out for you guys so if it’s alright with him, I don’t mind helping find some shots for you guys. How about you Mary, Missy, are either of you game to help?’

‘Sounds like a fine way to spend a day or two to me, how about you, Missy?

‘Sounds fine.’ Missy suggested they try starting over by Lake Conroe and working their way from the lake north and east around the forest using their camper so they could cover more territory.

They spent two days finding and filming eagles fishing on Lake Conroe, family groups of deer moving through the park, red cockaded woodpeckers, owls, and other wildlife. Connor and Sol worked furiously on their laptops to put together a presentation for the church group after dinner on their final night in the park. One of the campers had an outdoor screen and projector set up that they used for their presentation of the church’s week in the park. Everyone was delighted with what they produced and the boys basked in the applause. Connor and Sol had Penny, Mary, and Missy come up to take a bow for their tracking skills that let them find the shots they used in their film.

+++

The church group all gathered at the donation point for Hunters for the Hungry on their last day at the park and gave them the catch for the season and the financial donation. They had a final prayer of thanks for their success and then the caravan drove back to Galveston. They divvied up the venison when they got back to the church. Mary put her dry ice box in the trunk of the car and she drove Missy and Penny back to her mother’s house.

They found a note from Connie that she was visiting a friend down the road and that they should call her when they got home. Mary called her mother and Connie said she would be home in about an hour to hear all about their trip. Everyone wanted to put their gear away, throw their clothes in the laundry, and take a shower. Penny and Missy insisted Mary get in the shower first while they handled the laundry. Penny stowed her bows and helped Missy get the laundry going. She went to her room afterwards and got out her laptop. Her messages showed Bernie was online so she opened a video chat to talk about the trip and see how she felt about buying Los Robles. Bernie was excited about the idea and both women laughed about Howard’s shock at the notion.

Mary and Missy finished their showers and wanted to get dinner started before Connie got home. Missy knocked on Penny’s door and let her know the shower was free when she was ready. Missy was stopped from going to the kitchen by a knock on the front door. She opened it to find Frank Vernonsen standing there in his Galveston police uniform. ‘What are you here for, Frank?’

‘Is there a Penny Queen staying here, Missy?’ Frank had his officious voice on full which made Missy roll her eyes. Missy loathed his bullying all through school and he only became worse since he’d become a cop.

‘That doesn’t work on me, Frank. What do you think you’re up to?’

‘I am here because of a report of possible child abuse, now answer the question, Missy. Is there a Penny Queen here?’

Mary came to the door wondering what the knock was about that was keeping Missy so long. She rolled her eyes at the sound of Lynn’s nephew speaking from the porch.

‘What interest do you have in Penny, Frank?’

‘I already told Missy there was a report of possible child abuse and if I don’t get an answer I will be coming in.’

Penny heard the raised voice of the man on the porch and saw the police uniform. She turned on her phone to record what was happening.

‘I am Penny Queen and I am recording this conversation. What do you have to say to me.’

‘Turn the camera off, now.’ Frank stepped forward a pace but Missy didn’t back down and simply stared down the smaller man.

‘She doesn’t have to do that and you can’t order it. I know the law, Frank. Only the homeowner can order that and you don’t own this home.’

‘What in the name of the good Lord, Jesus Christ is going on!’ Connie Tucker heard the last from behind Frank.

‘I already told Missy and Mary there was a report of child abuse connected to Penny there.’

‘Child abuse, and what fool made that report.’ Connie already had a good idea just from the way Frank was speaking.

‘This is a serious matter that I need to speak with Penny about privately, Ma’am.’

‘Don’t use that tone with me, Francis Vernonsen. It didn’t help you in my classroom and it won’t help you here on my front porch. First, how do you address me properly, Francis.’

‘Mrs. Tucker, Ma’am.’ Frank began wilting under the eyes of the four women and the phone recording everything.

‘And how do you address my daughter, granddaughter, and her friend? I am waiting, Frank.’

‘Mrs. Cooper, Miss Cooper, and Miss Queen, Ma’am.’ Frank sounded pained with each name.

‘Now, if I call your station house right now and ask them if you are on duty, what will they say?’ Connie got out her phone and turned it on.

‘I’m not on duty today, Mrs. Tucker.’

‘No, I didn’t think so. Who sent you here, Francis Loyd Vernonsen?’

‘Aunt Lynn called me and said she thought Connor might be under the influence of Pen- Miss Queen, Ma’am.’

‘Penny dear, I see you have your phone there. I hope it is recording all this?’

‘Yes, every word of it and film.’ Penny seethed at the sound of Lynn’s name and what she tried here, tonight.’

‘Good, keep filming. Francis Vernonsen, you are in a great deal of trouble. Did you call the boy’s father? I guess that’s who he’s with after the hunting trip,’ Mary told her mother he’d taken Connor and Sol over to Sol’s parent’s house, ‘I thought as much. That badge is not license to come to people’s homes and threatening them under any circumstances, on duty or off. I am going to see that this evening’s events are sent to the proper police authorities. You will learn to never darken anyone’s door like this, anymore. Now, make a proper apology and get off my land, Francis Vernonsen.’

‘I’m sorry Mrs. Tucker, Mrs. Cooper, Miss Cooper, and Miss Queen. Have a good night.’ Frank dashed to his truck parked down the street and sped away.

‘How does my hair look, Penny?’ Connie sounded flippant but her face went suddenly grey and she staggered against the door frame.

All three women rushed to Connie and helped her into the house and to the nearest chair. Penny dialed 911 and asked for an ambulance right away. She described what was happening to the operator.

Connie got out a bottle with trembling hands. Penny was sure she’d seen that bottle the other day. Mary saw the label and growled in vexation. ‘Digitalis, momma, why didn’t you say anything?'

Mary opened the bottle and poured out the prescribed dosage. Missy ran to the kitchen for a glass of water.

‘Because there’s nothing you could do except worry.’ Connie drank down the water and pills and thanked Missy for the glass.

‘And suppose we came back from this trip and found you dead on the floor, momma?’

Anymore talk was cut off by the ambulance arriving. The EMTs got Connie into the stretcher under her great protests but Mary and Missy were not about to let her carry on any further. Penny joined them in the car and they rushed behind the ambulance. The EMTs hurried the stretcher out onto a waiting gurney in front of the emergency room entrance and on into the hospital. The three women following stopped still in the emergency room and remembered nothing more clearly about that evening than the life gouging clack of the room’s clock for the next thirty minutes.

The doctor came with news that Connie was doing better but they wanted to keep her overnight for observation. Mary slumped into a chair in surrender to the news and cried in relief. Missy held her hand and took care of the doctor’s questions and the forms that followed. A nurse came and brought Mary up to her mother while Missy and Penny handled the admission work. They were taken up to Connie’s room not long after where she was soothing Mary with a halfhearted harangue about kicking up a fuss. Missy hugged her grandmother and Penny joined her in relief.

Penny let the family talk while she stepped out into the corridor and walked down to the lounge at the end of the hall. She sent a message to her study computer. She quickly wrote what had happened and her phone chimed with a direct call.

‘Meemaw had a heart attack because of Lynn Howard?’

‘Yes, but don’t worry. The doctor’s said it was just an extreme arrhythmia event, not a full heart attack. Her medication and rest should keep her safe, honey.’

‘That’s not good enough, Penny. That woman has been the source of too much pain. My mother has always tolerated her and listened to her beyond all sense but I will not suffer this.’

‘I wish you were here so we could do something about it. I would love nothing more than to put the real fear of death into that woman once and for all.’ The archery range had been a nuisance but Connor’s situation had been haunting her. Tonight was another scale altogether.

‘Even so, hold that thought as clearly as you can, Penny. I would very much like to do exactly the same.’

Penny heard Sheldon’s voice spoken from behind her. She turned around and smiled. ‘Welcome to Texas, Moonpie.’

+++

Missy found Penny in the lounge. ‘Meemaw’s been asking for you, Penny. Who were you talking to?’

‘Folks at home in Los Robles, they’re worried about your grandmother, too. The real problem is Lynn. How do you feel about going over to her place and giving her a piece of our minds?'

‘I like that idea.’ Missy felt like she could hear Sheldon agreeing with her.

Penny talked to Connie for a few minutes until George Jr arrived. Missy and Penny said they’d run and get some overnight things for Mary and run a few errands. They gave Connie a goodbye hug and left with a very impatient ghost to visit Lynn.

Missy pounded on the door to the Howard house and Bob came to the door looking angry and contrite all at once. ‘I expect you are here to talk to Lynn but I don’t know what would get through that head of hers. She and Frank are in the living room making every excuse under the sun for that story about Penny, here.’

‘It’s going to get through, tonight, because my Meemaw is in the hospital from a near heart attack after her stunt with Frank.’ Missy’s glare alone had Bob stepping back.

‘Lord Jesus, is she alright?’ Bob paled and whispered.

‘Yes, no thanks to Lynn and she’s going to hear that from us.’ Missy marched in past Bob and Penny went in lock step with her. Sheldon strode ahead of them searching for the woman that had caused him far too much pain first in life and now in the afterlife.

Frank jumped up in full police swagger as soon as he saw Penny and Missy walk into the room. ‘There won’t be any cameras now, little Miss Penny.’

‘Sit your sorry ass back down on that couch, Frank Vernonsen.’ Missy hissed in disgust and Frank’s swagger left him in a rush that tumbled him back down onto the couch in a frightened heap in front of Missy.

‘What are these two doing in our home?’ Lynn wasn’t half done arguing with her husband and in no mood for interlopers. She looked at her nephew in consternation at his lack of backbone.

‘We’re here because your halfwit nephew showed up at my Meemaw’s house. I told you the other day to stay out of my family, Lynn Howard. Clearly, you didn’t get the message.’

‘Bob, are you going to stand there and let these two trollops threaten your wife?’

Bob started to step in front of Missy before she could do what he was sure was coming next and he couldn’t have blamed her for it, but Penny got there first.

‘It’s alright, Bob. Lynn doesn’t understand what happened tonight but I will make sure she understands the depth of that mistake.’ Penny felt Sheldon’s anger flowing through her. She remembered the night when Jonas attacked her and Sheldon’s using his power through her but this was visceral, tonight. It felt the way she imagined the witches felt wielding their powers on her show. She liked it.

Penny spoke softly but Bob stepped back from her while Lynn gaped at the Nebraskan actress. She stepped back and fell into her chair without a word and her eyes were fixed on Penny’s stare like a mouse looking at a snake.

‘You crossed my path once at the archery range. I was willing to take you as no more than a busybody nuisance but tonight your antics harmed someone I care for. You harmed Connie with that stunt and now she is in the hospital because of you. You harmed her and almost caused irreparable harm to her family who I love. I have no love for you, Lynn Howard. Do not bring yourself to my attention again or you will learn what nightmares are made of.’

Bob felt his skin crawl with the dreadful quiet timbre Penny put into her voice while Missy felt furious indignation roiling in her gut. She could have sworn she saw Sheldon glowering out of the corner of her eye for an instant but she was more intent on Lynn and Frank. Bob was shocked at Lynn’s petrified face and white knuckle grip on the arms of the chair.

‘Penny, Missy, I’m sure you’d rather be looking in on Mrs. Tucker than wasting time talking with Lynn and Frank, wouldn’t you?’ Bob wanted Missy and Penny gone right now but the whole room felt too eerie to insist on anything and the two young women were the heart of that uncanny feeling suffocating the room.

‘Of course, we would Bob. I’m sure Lynn and Frank will be much more receptive to your line of thinking, now that they know what happened thanks to them.’ Penny turned and smiled but there was no warmth at all.

Lynn folded up with her face in her hands and started sobbing as soon as Penny’s gaze left her while Frank gaped at the two women in panic. Bob went to Lynn’s side and tried to calm her down. He’d never seen her fall apart like this and he asked if Penny and Missy might say anything else they wanted to say another time. Penny and Missy agreed and said their goodbyes to Bob. They left with their unseen but still felt companion.

Missy and Penny drove away from the Howard’s house deep in thought. ‘That’s some voice you’ve got. I thought that was all sound effects on the show.’

‘Hmm, I guess jangly nerves can do that sound, too.’

‘That little speech was from the show, wasn’t it? No wonder you win those awards right and left.’ Missy chuckled with a sudden realization where she’d heard those lines from Penny before.

‘Yeah, the episode with that cult of witch hunters, it seemed fitting.’ Penny grinned.

‘I wish Sheldon could have been here to see that. You know it was Lynn that got momma to get him tested to see if he was crazy? He deserved to see that high and mighty hypocrite taken down like that, her and that bullying torment she calls a nephew.’

‘I’m sure he saw every second of it, Missy. And I think he was happy to see you there taking them down.’

‘I most certainly was, Penny.’ Sheldon sat and stewed wishing he could fix Meemaw as easily as he’d taken care of Lynn and her nephew.

Missy reached out to hold Penny’s hand. ‘Thanks, I wish you could have met him. Maybe, you could have figured out how to get him to act like a human instead of a Venusian like that Doctor Spock he kept going on about on Star Trek.’

‘Must you drive as hazardously as Penny does? Both hands belong on the wheel, Missy. And for the ten thousandth time, Mr. Spock is a Vulcan, Missy! And why are you laughing, Penny?’

‘Dr. Spock was that child care doctor. I’m pretty sure the Star Trek guy was Professor Spock but I think you’re right about him being from Venus, although I thought the men were supposed to be from Mars.’

Sheldon spluttered in vexation at their laughter over his favorite show but as their conversation turned to Missy’s memories of growing up with him Sheldon was surprised by how much she actually did care about him. He had always thought a twin should be more like him but Missy’s gregariousness and live for the moment abandon had alienated them from each other all too often. It had never occurred to him that his aloofness and condescension had been just as alienating to her.

‘I’m sorry, Missy.’

Penny turned to look at Sheldon and smiled in sympathy. ‘I suppose Sheldon had a favorite comic book store he liked to go to. How about we go to it and get something to remember him by?’

‘I think I’d like that.’ Missy and Penny finished their errands and visited Meemaw in the hospital before going home to bed. She dreamed of being at the Spanish Riding School and seeing the Lipizzaner horses with Penny and Sheldon. Sheldon inviting her and Penny to go to a waltz at the Hofburg Palace left her speechless.

+++

The hospital cleared Connie to go home and everyone was delighted to get her back where she belonged. She put up with everyone’s fussing about with teasing complaint they were more a bunch of old worrywarts. Sheldon stayed by Meemaw in worried fog that saddened Penny. She got his attention and they went to the guestroom for a chat.

‘How are you doing, Sheldon?’

‘I am worried for her, Penny. Meemaw can’t die.’

Penny sat on the bed and patted it for him to sit down by her. ‘We knew something was wrong and we know what that is now. The doctor said she could live for quite a few years if she takes care of herself and there’s no more stuff like Lynn and Frank.’

‘I understand the biology of it but the reality of it is something else. Being so far from Los Robles, I don’t belong here. Feeling Meemaw so close to the other side, my side last night, was awful. I don’t want her here, Penny. She belongs alive and I couldn’t help her.’

‘She’s getting over it, Sheldon. You’ll feel better when we get home, tomorrow, honey.’ Penny felt Sheldon’s anger return.

‘They’re here, again.’ Sheldon muttered and followed Penny out into the living room.

Bob Howard was standing with Connor behind Lynn while she apologized for sending Frank over like she did. Her speech ended abruptly when she saw Penny come into the living room. She stepped backwards into her husband and asked to go. Frank tried to bolt as soon as he saw Penny but George grabbed him by the neck.

‘Stand there until you’re told you can go, you jellyfish.’ George was still annoyed Penny and Missy had gone over to the Howard’s without him. He was glad he got the chance to express his displeasure with these two, today.

If it had been just her alone, Connie was willing to let bygones be bygones for Bob’s sake and for Connor’s too but she wasn’t ready to forgive the threats to a guest in her home.

‘I’m sure they are sorry for that, Connie, and they won’t make that mistake again.’ Penny was ready to forget last night as much as Connie was but Sheldon’s growl told her he wasn’t. She hadn’t told him the whole of what Frank and Lynn had cooked up about her to try and scare her. Hearing the threats they made through Meemaw’s retelling made him as angry as he was last night.

Lynn sagged against her husband and whispered she wanted to go but her eyes were frozen on Penny like last night. Bob thanked everyone for their kindness and patience for listening to the apology from Lynn and Frank and the two bolted from the room as soon as Connie thanked them for their apology. Bob and Connor thanked everyone again and followed their fleeing miscreant relatives wondering what had gotten into them all of a sudden.

The family and Penny spent the day feeling too happy Connie was home safe and sound to give anymore thought to the Howards. They had a small party to celebrate and to wish Penny a happy trip home to California after the events of the last week.

Missy drove Penny to the airport the next morning after breakfast. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t get that chance to go horse riding, Penny.’ Missy was still struck by how real that dream the other night felt when she woke up.

‘We should try doing it next year, or maybe go to Europe like we talked about on the trip.’

Penny and Missy talked warmly about the idea and decided to plan it once they got back home and sorted out from this vacation. They hugged each other hard and said goodbye one last time.

‘I wish I could hug her like that again, Penny.’ Sheldon sighed envying his friend holding Missy.

Penny drew back softly from the hug and held Missy’s hands feeling Sheldon’s regret at leaving. Missy felt a sudden wave of sadness and pulled Penny into another hug. ‘Take care of yourself, Penny, and take care of Sheldon’s work.’

‘I will, and take care of yourself and Meemaw. And don’t forget, we have a trip to plan.’ Penny cried and smiled softly at the tears on Missy’s face. She pulled some tissues out of her travel bag and handed them to Missy. ‘Here, you’re going to look a mess, soon.’

Missy took the tissues and slapped Penny’s arm. ‘Get out of here with yourself.’ She stuffed the tissues away in a pocket and held Penny’s hand wondering why she felt like Sheldon was grumbling about rank sentimentality like he used to do when they were kids.

‘It’s time to go home.’ Penny picked up her bags and said goodbye to Missy again. She chuckled at Sheldon’s growing impatience with the long farewell and headed into the departures area.

Chapter Text

Galveston, Texas

Mary Cooper had been thinking long and hard about her only daughter. She had often called her dumb as a box of hammers but the last year working close with her had made Mary rethink that. Lynn Howard had quit working at the church after almost thirty years leaving Mary to make heads or tails of the chaos of paperwork she’d left behind. Missy came in to help her saying she felt responsible for Lynn’s departure.

Missy proved surprisingly adept at ferreting out what Lynn’s disorder was making obscure. A lot of church money was going to Lynn’s relatives. Mary had been incensed by it all, especially when the church elders confronted Lynn with the information and she had the gall to deny it. Lynn threatened legal action until Missy came to the meeting with the proof. Missy had barely started presenting her proof before Lynn cracked and confessed the truth of what Mrs. Cooper’s daughter had discovered. Missy stayed on a couple of months turning the office work into an efficient system one person could handle with a minimum of training. And then she quit and went looking for another job.

It had been that way all along with her daughter growing up. Pick something up until she got the knack for it and then move on. Horses had been one of the few things she kept on with. Mary hummed an old Texas folk tune, ‘I’m Bound to Follow the Longhorn Cows’ and the lyrics fit Missy’s life ever since she’d left high school moving on from one job to the next.

I'm bound to follow the longhorn cows until I git too old,
It's well I work for wages, boys, and git my pay in gold.
My bosses, they all like me well, they say I'm hard to beat,
Because I give 'em the bum stand-off, they know I've got the cheek

Now if I had a little stake, I soon would married be,
But another week and I must go, the boss said so today.
My girl must cheer up courage and choose some other one,
For I'm bound to follow the longhorn cows until my race is run.

Missy’s car pulled up in front of the house so Mary got up to meet her at the front door. ‘Morning, Missy, I guess that’s the paperwork to finalize the sale?’

‘Good morning, Momma. It is. Meemaw’s already signed them so I just need your signature before I head to California with them. A courier will bring our copies back after Penny, Bernadette and I sign them at the realtor’s. Are you sure you want to do this, momma? I know Penny and them won’t mind if you want to think about it some more.’ Penny had emphasized she and Bernadette didn’t want to go through with the sale until Mary was comfortable with it. They knew it was Sheldon being let go more than the house. Missy envied the bond Sheldon had always had with their mother. She wondered often since his death if that was why she had gotten on so hard with him sometimes.

‘No, your grandma’s right. She’s been saying for years I need to let the place go. I’d just be stalling to go on thinking it over any more.’

Mary took the paperwork out of the folder and signed all the marked places. ‘I recall you and Penny are leaving for that Europe trip you’ve been planning all year. What are you going to do when you get back?

‘Get a new job, I expect. The church was dandy but you don’t need me there anymore. I’ll find something else when I get back. We planned a month sightseeing up the Rheine from the North Sea to Austria. I’ve wanted to do something like this ever since we went there to visit Sheldon.’

‘Yeah, I thought as much.’

Missy watched her mother’s fingers drumming on her Bible. It was a sure sign she had something to say so she waited for her to continue what was on her mind.

‘The church was your third job in three years. I can’t even think of how many you’ve had before that since high school.’

‘More than a few but I’ve never been fired from any of them. I just like to try my hand at something different after a while.’ Missy wondered what her mother was driving at unless it was just thinking this Europe trip was a bad idea.

‘I know you’ve never been fired from anything. Most of them even offered you plenty to stay on. In fact, you’ve been too good at too many different kinds of jobs to think you’re stupid so I wonder if you’re just bored too easily to stay put.’

‘Momma, you’ve never really worried about me changing jobs before so why is this time so different?’

Mary gathered up the signed papers, put them carefully back in the folder and closed it. She brushed the tips of her fingers over the name of the property and sighed gently.

‘I love Texas. I can hardly stand being away from it but Sheldon had to get away. The whole state wasn’t big enough for that brain of his. I’ve been wondering if you don’t have the same problem he did.’

‘Momma, I don’t have an IQ of 187.’

‘Maybe not, but you know Sheldon could be pretty dumb about a lot of things even ones he thought he was an expert on. Don’t go selling yourself short because you didn’t turn out the same as he did. Sheldon needed to get away from here to become what he wanted to be. Maybe, what you need is somewhere else instead of here.’

‘Why would you think that? Besides, what about you and Meemaw? George isn’t the sharpest tool in an emergency.’ Missy shared Sheldon’s opinion about their older brother’s swiftness of thought even if she did get on better with him most times.

‘Believe it or not, we used to take care of ourselves pretty well before you all came along. I’d hate to think I raised you to think your purpose in life was to be a safety net for me and your Meemaw or anyone else.’

‘I don’t feel like anyone's safety net, momma. Why are you trying to get rid of me all of a sudden?’

Mary held the folder with the papers for the Los Robles sale in her hands. She considered her meditations and prayers on the sale over the last year. ‘I made a lot of time and effort for Sheldon. I think if he hadn’t been so different I’d have spent more time on you and George.’

‘What are you talking about? You were a great mother for all of us.’

‘Thank you, Missy, but you were like any other kids compared to Sheldon and I let you grow up like any other kids. George might have had a lot more success if I hadn’t spent so much time and money on Sheldon. You could have done better in your schooling and your jobs if I’d pushed you more instead of letting you slide by on the bare minimum.’

‘Momma, I couldn’t stand school-‘

‘No, let me finish. There’s more in that head of yours than you let on. How much of that hating school was just hating it because Sheldon liked it so much. You’d swear off anything he liked just to spite him and take up anything he didn’t like just to rile him growing up. You’d get more than good at whatever it was, to boot. You flit from job to job but almost everyone has called wanting you back because you were that good and I saw myself what you could accomplish at the church. Everything you turn your hand to says you’re not stupid and I am sorry I ever said that to you. You do learn fast when you want but you don’t follow through and master anything. I want you to think about why that is while you’re away and why you don’t do something to change it. I think this trip with Penny might be just the thing you need instead of just bumming around jobs here in Texas.’

'I'm not sure what you think I might be better at than jobs here in Texas but I'll think about it with Penny while I'm on this vacation.'

+++

Los Robles Cottage

‘Thanks Sharon, I’d love to see those movie scripts when I get back from vacation, bye.’ Penny hung up with her agent hopeful for something exciting when she got back from this trip with Missy. She got up and erased one of the white boards and began putting down some of the script ideas with emojis of her first impressions.

‘Penny, those boards are meant for important research not thespian frippery.’

‘The thespian frippery is paying for Los Robles Cottage and letting me go to Europe with Missy. I think the research can stand a little competition.’

‘Financial remuneration is hardly a sufficient gauge for importance.’

‘True, but importance isn’t unique to science, Sheldon. The arts let people explore the unknown just as much as science. I used to think math and science were a boring waste of time until I came here and met you, honey, but they can never take the place of the arts. Science can give you a rational understanding of the universe but the arts let you explore how humanity feels about it all.’

‘That is liberal arts twaddle that presupposes feelings and emotions provide comparable intellectual depth or insight into the nature of the universe to the hard sciences like physics.’

‘And yet, Spock told Kirk that was the stuff V’Ger needed to learn in order to evolve.’ Penny giggled at Sheldon’s glare.

‘How dare you abuse Star Trek canon like that? Oh, very well.’ Sheldon huffed and grumbled his way over to the balcony.

Penny finished her list and sat down in the wing chair to give it some thought. Her attention kept wandering to Sheldon pacing about the balcony outside. She got up to join him.

‘How are you doing, Sheldon?’

‘Fine for having my whiteboards commandeered.’

‘Is it really the white boards or is it because of Missy coming to sell us Los Robles?’

Yes, Los Robles Cottage will belong to you and Bernadette, I am aware that will be the case, soon.’

‘Does that bother you, Sheldon?’ Penny had been surprised there was so little input from her ghostly housemate.

‘I do not understand why you think I would be bothered by the sale.’

‘Los Robles won’t belong to your family anymore. I’d have thought a change that big would have brought a few comments from you.’

‘I had planned for the house to be a place for Meemaw and my mother to retire to in their old age. The proceeds from the sale if invested well should provide them with ample security.’

‘So, no worries for the future, then?’

‘I have eternity, Penny. The future is a limited concept.’ Sheldon chortled at the thought of the future.

‘How is eternity different from the future going on forever?’

‘Eternity has no past or future or even a present. The future is relative to a fixed time that it can be ahead of.’

‘Could you meet people from the future? I mean since there’s no time in eternity is everyone there, already?’

‘I don’t know any way to answer that. Identity is so tied to the dimensions of space-time existence. There isn’t even a you in any sense of this reality.’

‘I can’t imagine any reality where you aren’t my whack-a-doodle.’

‘Think of it like the Sheldon you see is what I am here and the soul, for want of a word, is what my space-time existence shaped it to be. Humanity walks in eternity every day, Penny, but being bound to a finite existence in your body your consciousness cannot experience it. None the less, the life that you live shapes the eternity that you will know after life.’

‘So, what kind of eternity have I made of myself, so far?

‘I couldn’t say. The living are always changing and shaping their souls. You might say they are unborn until they shed their shell of existence in this space-time continuum.’

‘I wonder if Mrs. Brisby is there.’

Who is Mrs. Brisby?’

‘She was my pet hamster. I named her for Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of NIMH. I remember when she died. I was six and I asked the minister if she was in heaven and he said animals don’t have souls so when they die they are just gone. I didn’t care about anything the church said after that.’

‘All life has a soul or spirit that lives in eternity which should be a relief both to you and my sister. I accidentally killed her pet guinea pig, Snowball, when I tried experimenting with a homemade CAT scanner.’

‘Maybe, I’ll ask her side of what happened when I pick her up. I’ve got to go pick her up, now. Do you want to come, Sheldon?’

‘I think I will stay home and let you catch up, together. I can only imagine such horrors as clothes shopping, horses, and hunting being discussed.’

‘Don’t forget chicken, Sheldon. I have to remember to ask Missy if she ever learned your mom’s recipe.’ Penny grinned and waved goodbye. The glare from Sheldon was epic. She also could tell Sheldon was deflecting from answering what was keeping him pacing the balcony.

+++

LAX

Penny and Missy wrapped each other in a warm hug as soon as they met. ‘This is so much better than a computer screen, Missy’

‘Yes, it is. Momma and Meemaw say hi. Meemaw made you one of her cherry pies.’ Missy handed Penny a travel bag with the pie and a few other gifts for her.’

Missy gave Penny a quick rundown of the folks in Texas on the way to the car. Meemaw was doing well but Mary was making her crazy minding her health. Lynn had left the church and she and Bob were in the middle of getting a divorce. Connor and Sol had graduated and gotten accepted to Emerson College in Boston.

‘I am glad they are still keen on that film career.’ Penny had been hoping they’d get somewhere together.

‘They are at that. Your co-star friend Jason went to Emerson according to Connor.’

‘Yeah, he loved it up there when he went to Emerson. Jason and Paul have a little summer place up in Rockport, Massachusetts they like to go to. How about you, Missy? This isn’t your first time out here, is it?’

‘I’ve been here a few times. The first time was when Sheldon was living in his old apartment. He had a strange little roommate. He kept talking about how nice I smelled. He even asked me out to dinner. He kept giving me advice on food and health and everything he couldn't eat and then he tried impressing me with a centrifugal force trick with a ball and glass that Sheldon had figured out when he was four. Sheldon was smoother with girls for god’s sake. I think you must know him, Leonard Hofstadter.’ Missy smirked while she and Penny picked up her luggage.

‘Oh, yeah, as much as I ever want to know him. You must have heard from your folks about him and the arctic stuff with Sheldon.’ They walked along to the car and Penny told her about the one ‘date’ she’d had with Leonard.

‘Good lord, it’s enough to make you swear off guys the more you know them, sometimes.’

‘Tell me about it.’

+++

They talked more about folks in Texas and about the couple of times Missy had come to California. The traffic was in their favor getting back to Pasadena where they came through the door to find Halley.

‘Penny’s home! Penny’s Home!’ Halley shuffled fast to the front door until the taller dark haired woman came in behind Penny.

‘Welcome back Penny. I am glad Missy arrived in good order.’ Sheldon was happy to see his sister but he was still incredulous to see her come to Los Robles Cottage.

Missy clapped and smiled at Halley. She got down to Halley’s level to say hello. ‘Who are you, June bug?’

‘Missy kitty! Sing soft kitty!’

‘How did you know my name, scamp?’

Bernadette came quickly when she realized folks were in the hall. ‘Hello, you must be Missy. I’m Bernadette and this is our little escape artist, Halley.’

‘Hello Bernadette, I’m happy to finally get a chance to meet you and it’s so nice to meet you, too, Halley. Maybe I can sing Soft Kitty later after I get my things put away, OK sweetheart?’

‘I think she recognizes your Texas accent. Your mom made a sound file of the song and my husband Howard put it on a player inside her favorite toy kitten. She loves to go to sleep with it playing.’ Bernadette carried Halley upstairs while she talked to Missy. She paused in Halley’s room to get her toy kitten to keep her occupied while Missy settled in and they chatted for a bit.

‘Wow, momma wasn’t kidding when she said it looked like you’d moved in here with Sheldon.’ Missy put her bags down on the fold away bed set up in the study.

‘Your mom did say she wanted the place to reflect Sheldon’s life, besides I kind of like the stuff after all this time.’

‘You sure did that. You know, Sheldon used to hate it when I was in his room so this is almost like forbidden territory for me.’ Halley came over to the bed to show Missy her kitty and her favorite Care Bears, Funshine and Grumpy.

‘Howard says Sheldon treated everyone like that here. He still doesn’t like to come into these rooms but we can’t keep you out, can we Halley?’ Bernadette let Halley introduce her toys for a few minutes and then told Halley Missy needed to rest after her long trip from Texas.

‘Speaking of that, this might help tell her how far away that is.’ Missy got out a children’s book of Texas folk tales. Halley was fascinated by the pictures. Bernadette thanked Missy for the present and brought Halley to her room to read the book with her daughter.

‘Didn’t you get along when you were kids?’ Penny opened the study windows to find Sheldon pacing outside.

‘She was a contrarian nightmare, Penny.’ Penny rolled her eyes and scowled at Sheldon’s contribution to the conversation.

‘I suppose I was contrarian to him but he used to drive me up the wall with his science stuff. It didn’t help momma was always giving him his way on top of it. He thought anyone that couldn’t keep up with his ideas was an idiot to look down on. Maybe, that was to keep himself safe in his head but it made me feel like I wasn’t worth his time except like a bug in one of his tests.’

‘Was there a lot of jealousy between you growing up?’ Penny couldn’t help wonder why Sheldon could tell her she shouldn’t act stupid because others expected it and yet treat his sister that way.

‘Of course there was no jealousy, Penny. Missy has no interest in or understanding of my work and I’ve none in her career of social butterfly networking.’

‘I guess there was some jealousy from George and me. We both resented momma doting on him like she did and George especially hated how much money momma spent on his education. I know I just wanted him to like me more than he did. I always thought since we were twins there should have been more of a connection between us. I guess he wasn’t much of a social butterfly, though.’ Missy thought for a few seconds which Penny wished she could do as well instead of listening to Sheldon rant.

‘What should momma have spent the money on, horse shows and cheerleader costumes?’

‘I know he didn’t like horse shows and cheerleaders or anything I liked. I didn’t hate him or anything but it took some real work to get anything through that thick skull of his.’

‘I can believe that. Folks have told me Sheldon always wanted his own way come hell or high water.’ Penny was more curious that Missy kept picking up Sheldon’s train of thought. She had to ask herself if Sheldon had noticed it at all.

‘That’s putting it mildly. He could be all kinds of thoughtful when he wanted but he usually didn’t feel the need until he could really see when his obtuseness was hurting someone. He was never mean to me but he could be downright thoughtless at the most unbelievable times.’ Missy told Penny about Snowball and Sheldon’s going on about what might have failed and telling her the value of the experiment was worth a few half-witted rodents.

‘Penny, it was a scientific endeavor. I would never set out to inflict cruelty on anyone or anything. I never intended to hurt Missy but she wouldn’t try to understand the greater issue of scientific exploration.’

Penny growled in exasperation at the competing conversations coming at her. ‘That sounds as mean as the ministers telling me my pet hamster wouldn’t be there for me in heaven. I guess some folks just don’t understand needing to be right all the time is just another kind of bullying.’

‘He sure needed to be right all the time and scientific exploration justified anything with Sheldon.’ Missy chuckled in agreement.

Sheldon huffed and grimaced at the way the conversation was headed and disappeared in a dudgeon. Penny and Missy chatted a while longer and then decided to get a bit to eat downstairs.

+++

After everyone had gone to bed, Penny wanted to find out why her ghost was so quiet since Missy arrived. ‘Sheldon, honey, come on out. What’s bothering you, sweetie?’

‘Penny, I was never mean to Missy in my entire life.’

‘I’m sorry Sheldon if I sounded like I thought you were mean to Missy but can’t you see the point we were making? We loved our pets but people didn’t think that love was important. I know you don’t always get feelings but you should be able to get that folks can feel strongly about things you don’t. It shouldn’t have been that hard to realize hurting Snowball would hurt Missy just like that minister should have thought telling a little girl her pet was not worth a soul to God was needless religious pedantry.’

‘I never planned to hurt Snowball.’

‘You had to know an experimental machine was a risk so why wasn’t Missy’s feelings for her pet important enough to think about? Why didn’t you think about her feelings?’

‘Why would I since it was never my intention to harm Snowball or Missy?’

‘Sheldon, your intentions don’t matter in this. Suppose, I still didn’t care about those models I broke my first night here. I thought you were an intruder. I had no intention of harming your property; I only intended to protect myself and Bernadette. Suppose, that was still my feeling and I never replaced your models, what then?’

‘Penny, I explained the importance of those models and everything else here in Los Robles. It would show heartlessness that I find impossible to come from you.’

‘That’s how Missy felt about your excuses for Snowball’s death and how I felt about that Minister over Mrs. Brisby. Try using that big brain to step into someone else’s shoes once in a while, Mr. Science.’ Penny was too tired to keep explaining the obvious to Sheldon and wrapped herself in her blankets to dream till dawn.’

+++

Penny and the Los Robles house went to the realtor’s to sign the papers. She wondered if Sheldon was so silent because of last night’s conversation, or the sale. The papers were signed and copies made ready to send to Texas along with the payment for the house.

‘Congratulations Penny and Bernadette but it’s funny you didn’t sign on as an owner, Howard.’ Missy didn’t want to push any privacies but she couldn’t help a little curiosity.

‘The place still gives me the creeps. There hasn’t been any trouble to speak of since Bernie and Penny took over but I keep getting the feeling the place doesn’t like anyone but Bernie and Penny. I’m happy to hold it in trust for Halley if anything happened to Bernie but that’s as far as I’ll go.’

‘Well, we’re all glad Sheldon’s old place has folks like you taking over. How about we celebrate somehow?’

Missy suggested a French restaurant that she’d found online before she left Galveston, Bistro 45. Everyone sounded game for it but no one had tried it so Howard called Priya to see if she knew it at all. She told him she’d been there with quite a few clients and they’d all loved it. She also asked if they’d mind if she and Raj and Lal came along to congratulate them on the purchase of Los Robles. Everybody had a great time. A lot of questions were asked about Penny and Missy’s trip to Europe. Priya, Raj, and Lal were able to add a lot having traveled there numerous times. They added a number of interesting ideas to Penny and Missy’s itinerary for the trip. They looked forward to Europe all the more after the party.

+++

Penny stepped out of the car and leaned back against the door after she closed it. She gazed at the house and held out her hand to Bernadette. ‘Would you have believed this would really be our house when we first saw this place?’

‘It’s wonderful. Come on Howie. I want to get a picture of us in front of the house before we go in. Would you mind, Missy?’ Bernadette handed her cellphone to Missy for a group picture.

‘I still can’t believe you bought the place. Sheldon’s bound to come back and kick us out.’ Howard jested a lot about the old days but he did hope this change of owners didn’t bring back the troubles.

‘Don’t start that again, Howard. Penny mojoed this place real good. Nothing’s going to happen.’

‘Was there really a lot of trouble? Mom and Meemaw kept saying this place was hard to keep anyone in but I thought it was all exaggerated.’ Missy snapped several photos. Howard went inside to get Halley and his mom for a couple more photos before everyone went in.

‘The first week had its problems, especially for Bernadette. I didn’t have much trouble except for a couple of broken models our first night here.’ Penny and Bernadette recounted some of the ghostly-gremlin made incidents. Nothing had ever been scary just annoying. They had to admit the house and land around did have a reputation that kept things quieter than a TV star’s home normally would be.

Howard returned with Halley and Debbie for a few more photos. Halley was very taken with Missy and loved to hear her voice.

‘I might have to ask you to make a recording of Soft Kitty to go with your mom’s. She went out like a light when you sang it for her, Missy.’ Howard gathered up Halley and everyone went inside. Penny got everyone to relax in the dining room so they could all try Meemaw’s cherry pie together.

‘First you take over my home, then you buy it out from under me, and now you have the audacity to heat up one of Meemaw’s finest creations under my very nose?’ Sheldon paced the kitchen shaking his head in exasperation.

‘If you think the smell is something, wait till you taste it, Penny. It really is one of her best desserts. You should get it fresh out of her oven for the full effect. Waiting in the kitchen with the aroma of it cooking was one of the few things Sheldon and I always did together.’ Missy helped get the plates and utensils together.

Penny glanced at Sheldon after Missy left with the tray of dishware along with a pot of lavender tea to have with the pie. ‘Haven’t you noticed something strange with Missy, Sheldon?’

‘Every day that I’ve known her, why?’

‘She keeps picking up what you are saying like the cherry pie being Meemaw’s finest pie. Yesterday, she was filling in one thing after another that you were complaining about. You haven’t noticed, seriously?’

‘Penny, no one can see me unless I wish it, not even you.’

‘Halley can. She spots you lurking around even when you’re staying invisible to me.’ Penny agreed with Sheldon that Halley’s sensitivity was probably from having picked up on him as a new born.

‘Yes, I have felt for some time you are letting a valuable scientific opportunity slip through your hands there.’

‘We’ve been over that, Mr. Wizard, not happening. I was wondering, though, about what we talked over about souls and eternity. Maybe, being born around a ghost made Halley sensitive to your spiritual presence. Don’t you think it’s possible your twin might have a similar sensitivity since she was born with you?’

‘It’s an intriguing hypothesis but Missy has shown no awareness of my presence like Halley does.’

‘Yeah, your presence, but she does seem to be sensitive to your thoughts, especially when they are about her or your family.’

‘Penny, it sounds like you want to experiment on my sister.’ Sheldon sounded like an overprotective brother which charmed Penny quite a bit.

+++

Penny and Missy headed up to the study together after Howard left to take Debbie back home. Missy sat in the wing chair and glanced around the room. ‘Are you thinking of changing any of this now that it’s really all yours? I don’t think momma would fret it much if it was all in that nice collector’s room downstairs.’

‘You are not redecorating these rooms, Missy, and you are sitting in Penny’s spot.’

Penny smiled at Sheldon’s predictable retort. ‘No, I really have come to like it the way it is. Don’t you like Sheldon’s stuff at all?’

‘I don’t mind it but Sheldon was possessive about his stuff and all of it being put just so. I guess this old chair would have been his special spot. He used to spout all sorts of reasons about anything like that but really it was just because the spot he picked was in the middle of things where he could be the center of attention and keep an eye on everyone.’

‘That’s nonsense, Penny. That is my spot because of its ideal balance with the environmental factors of the room.’ Sheldon sounded offended by the accusation of seeking attention.

‘He’d go on endlessly about the environment and the furniture placement, breeze ways when the windows and doors were open, even how the TVs and sound systems were set up in relation to other seating in the room but really it was all about him as a king surveying his realm.’

Penny tugged on her left sleeve in a signal to Sheldon about Missy’s pick up on Sheldon’s last statement. He did a double take on the signal but nodded once he thought back on the conversation.

‘I’ve heard stories from Howard and Raj. Did you guys ever do anything together?’

‘Poppa used to take us out camping and hunting but Sheldon hated it.’

‘Why would I enjoy being exposed to the chaos and diseases in nature hiking through the back of nowhere?’

‘It’s funny, Sheldon loved Star Trek but he hated actual exploration in the wild.’ Missy smirked and shared a few of Sheldon’s more extreme reactions.

‘The Enterprise was on a mission to seek out new civilizations, not the latest adventure of Bear Grylls.’

Penny smirked at her flustered poltergeist. ‘Sheldon does come across more like a city boy but I can’t picture him in a nightclub or bar.’

‘He’d never think of going to one. He thought Fudrucker’s was a den of horrors. How about you? I can’t think of anything that would get me taking up his science stuff. What put that fire under you?’

‘It was a lot of little things between growing up in Nebraska and moving here. I used to love math and mechanical stuff growing up but when guys weren’t into girls like that I gave up on all of it. I got used to being the stupid girl so guys would like me. Sheldon never seemed to care what anyone thought of him. I guess I admired that about him when I was going through his work. It made me think I was letting myself down.’

‘You know, momma said I was letting myself down like that before I left Texas. Sheldon was so brilliant I was always left looking like I’d come up short in brains all because we were twins.’

Sheldon snorted and turned to Penny. ‘Missy hardly ever wished to improve her mind.’

‘That’s enough of that.’ Sheldon and Missy started at Penny’s stridency.

‘I guess that did sound like self-pity.’ Missy sighed and shrugged with some resignation.

‘I’m sorry I snapped like that, Missy. I didn’t grow up with Sheldon being all whack-a-doodle brilliant around me. I guess being compared to someone like him all the time would wear you down some. Let’s agree to stop talking about comparisons with Sheldon. We are going to Europe together and we’re going in style.’

The two women spent the next couple of hours going over their trip. Their highlights centered on the equestrian events as they went up the Rhine and into Austria. Missy proved very adept at handling the assorted agencies that took care of tickets, passports, and lodgings. She also demonstrated a surprising fluency with German and French that Sheldon had never been aware of.

‘Penny, how is she doing that? Her German is better than mine.’

Penny smirked at Sheldon’s shock. She wondered about why he had encouraged her but couldn’t see the brilliance in his own sister. She paused at that thinking of her own folks. They were delighted at her success but they still kept on about Kurt and when she’d find someone else to give them some grandchildren like her sister was doing. Penny wondered if her family had seen her too much to ever really see her for herself. Sheldon was seeing Missy just like the rest of her family saw her, a story of their expectations that Missy’s sense of survival made her resist in her own way.

+++

Penny felt sure Missy was picking up on Sheldon in some fashion after a couple days observation. She began to question if Sheldon was just as unconscious picking up on Missy’s thoughts. Sheldon’s unease didn’t really seem to be about the house but about Missy, instead. She wondered if Sheldon was picking up on something bothering his sister.

‘Sheldon, sweetie, can we talk a bit?’ Penny sat on the ottoman in her bedroom with her lavender tea before getting into bed.

‘Of course, have you discovered how my sister became a polyglot?’

‘Why are you so surprised Missy can speak some foreign languages?’

‘Penny, my sister has never evinced intelligence enough to speak English overly well much less numerous other languages.’

‘Maybe, you never really paid any attention to what she was capable of? Why are you so ready to talk about her like she’s an idiot? You never talked about me that way.’ Penny felt cross about the slights towards Missy. She really didn’t get why Sheldon seemed to actively deny what was right in front of him.

‘I grew up with Missy, I have always been quite aware of her capacities, such as they are.’ Sheldon’s snort got Penny’s hackles up.

‘If that’s so, you should have been aware of her language abilities. You might not know your sister half as well as you think, Sheldon.’

Sheldon mulled that over for a few minutes while Penny sipped her tea. ‘I have to admit Missy has shown knowledge I was unaware of but she has never shown any interest in the academic world.’

‘Sheldon, honey, we’ve been together long enough that you should know there is more to any person’s intelligence than just academics. How can you act so blind to Missy’s abilities?’

‘Penny, I do have some limits even as a ghost. Change does not really happen to an eternal soul when the living body has died.’

‘Are you sure, Sheldon? You seem to have changed quite a lot while I have been here all these years.’

Sheldon paused in bewilderment trying to coax a denial to Penny’s assertion. He couldn’t deny the truth of it and he couldn’t think how that had come to be. ‘You have given me something unexpected to consider about myself. I had not thought that possible.’

‘Here’s one mere, a hypothesis, could having been born together have created a link between the two of you? You seem to be picking up on each other more than ever happened with your mother and Meemaw here. Could your souls be interlinked in some way, twin souls so to speak?’

‘That is an intriguing hypothesis, Penny. It is worth careful scrutiny.’ Sheldon disappeared and Penny smiled into her tea trying to imagine what was going through Sheldon’s mind. She hoped his conclusion would be a better outlook on Missy, at least.

+++

Sheldon watched his sister with Penny’s observations in mind. She had been right about his mistaken assumptions about Missy’s intellect. He could not avoid considering what else he might be ignorant of concerning his twin. He wondered if Penny could be right about twin souls or if the connection from birth could be in some way akin to how Haley was aware of him from her birth. Perhaps, Missy’s lesser sensitivity compared to Halley’s was due to the age difference between her and Halley. There were too many variables to make any conclusions but there was much to think about.

‘Be quiet, Sheldon.’ Missy mumbled and rolled over in her sleep surprising her spectral sibling.

‘Fascinating.’ Sheldon vanished to meditate on this odd situation.

+++

‘Good morning, Missy. Did you sleep alright?’ Penny found her living roommate out on the balcony enjoying the early morning air.

‘Good morning, Penny. I did except I kept half thinking Sheldon was nattering on at me last night like he wanted me to answer something for him.’

‘Maybe, it’s all of his stuff in the study. Your mom had some funny dreams like that while she was here, too.’

‘It wasn’t dreams, I don’t think. I really thought I heard him talking when I was drifting off to sleep. I had to have imagined it but I could have sworn I heard him.’

‘How about a morning jog up the canyon trail to clear your head?’ Penny pointed out the trail and the bluff above that looked down on the cottage.

‘That sounds like just the thing.’

Penny let Missy have the bathroom first while she did a little stretching out on the balcony. Sheldon appeared soon after his sister closed the bathroom door. ‘Penny, this is a very intriguing development. It does seem that Missy is affected by my presence though not being directly aware of it like Haley. I am beginning to believe your idea of a natal connection is worth further investigation. We should make use of a CT scanner on Missy to discover how her brain is functioning with regard to sensing my presence.’

Penny giggled and shook her head. ‘There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. Missy doesn’t need a CT scan, Sheldon. She needs someone to listen to her and take her seriously. I’ve been wondering if you’ve been picking up on anything from her, though.’

‘How do you mean?’ Sheldon couldn’t recall anything that might have been from his sister’s thoughts.

‘Every time I bring up buying Los Robles you change the subject. I do believe you are fine with it but I am wondering if your reluctance to talk about it is something coming from Missy, instead.’

Sheldon looked perplexed and skeptical. ‘How is a living person going to influence the dead? That seems very unlikely, Penny.’

‘You can influence the living. We have seen that Missy is sensitive to your state of mind. She isn’t just any person, Sheldon. Missy was with you from the beginning, quite literally. You should try to keep track of any ideas that come to mind that you wouldn’t usually have.

Sheldon considered that in light of Missy’s seeming to hear his thoughts last night. Perhaps, Penny’s hypothesis was not as farfetched as he’d initially thought. He wanted to continue the conversation but Missy came out of the bathroom barely covered with a bath towel so he fled into the spectral ether.

Penny took her turn in the bathroom and after getting showered and dressed the two women went down to the kitchen to let folks know what they were up to before they headed out. They did some stretching out in the pavilion and then headed up the trail out back. They followed the trail for a couple of miles and chatted about the trip to Europe as they jogged along. They paused on the bluff above Los Robles Cottage to admire the view.

‘This is a really nice view of the house down there.’ Missy stretched and got out her water bottle.

‘Yeah, and the locals make the run along here feel real nice, too.’ Penny sat on the bench by the trail and Missy joined her. ‘I want to apologize again for snapping last night over your feelings about Sheldon. I imagine he was quite a pill to everyone from what Raj and Howard tell me about him. I shouldn’t have been telling you how to feel or express yourself.’

‘That’s alright. It’s kind of nice someone not wanting me to think of Sheldon being smarter than me.’ Missy held Penny’s hand and leaned against her while they admired the view of the valley. ‘It’s funny I’ve never thought of him more than since he died. I was always pretty satisfied working odd jobs. A year here and then there, I liked just moving on to something new when a place got boring but ever since Sheldon died I’ve felt like something wasn’t right anymore. I couldn’t settle into anything and moving on to something new wasn’t anything to look forward to. Ever since Sheldon died he keeps coming to mind somehow. It’s been like I’d gone on vacation and I was spending it wondering if I’d forgotten to turn a light off. I guess that sounds a little crazy.’

‘No, not at all, go on.’ Penny shook her head and glanced at Missy with a smile.

‘Like I was saying last night, momma said I was letting myself down acting like I was stupid. It always used to bug Sheldon so much I didn’t care about his big brain I got used to acting any other way than he would. That lost its fun after Shelly was gone so I guess momma was right to ask what I was acting like that for. I’ve been wondering about it a lot ever since that business with Lynn. What do I want to do with myself?’ Missy sighed trying to put into words what she’d never tried to describe before.

Penny hugged Missy hard wishing she had an answer. She was struck with how Missy’s aimlessness and feeling something was missing in her life coincided with Sheldon’s relentless and fruitless search for an answer to the arctic. ‘I’m sure something will come to you. Is that why you were so keen on this Europe trip?’

‘I suppose but I guess it is just as much spending time with you. I wish you could have been around Galveston back when Shelly and I were growing up. You might have been able to play diplomat.’

Penny wasn’t so sure even if she did love the time she spent with Missy. ‘I was about as far away from what I am now as could be. It was all horses, cars, and guys back then until I met Kurt. I think I’d have been just as hard on Sheldon as you say you were back then.’

‘We could have gotten along, then, I’d have been happy for that. It wasn’t exactly a woman centered house I grew up in. It would have been nice to have the help fighting back.’

‘I guess I can understand that. My folks were alright but my parents really fixated on my idiot little brother. He was everything opposite Sheldon in brains and life choices. He ended up in prison for cooking meth and yet my folks keep worrying about poor Charlie. I could have used your support, too.’

‘Let’s not jinx ourselves before we head off to Europe and find out we snore and fart in our sleep too much or worse.’ Missy laughed happy finding someone so easy to get along with.

‘I guess this trip is more than just travel for you, then?’ Penny grinned and offered no promises about what happened after dinner and bed.

‘I don’t know. It was just a vacation when we started out planning this but I’ve been wondering since I left Texas if momma wasn’t right and there might be more to it than just getting back to horses in Europe. Does that sound daft to you?’

‘No more than me and my life. There have been plenty of times I didn’t know what I wanted to do.’

Penny got up to stretch a bit and take a look at Los Robles down below the bluff. ‘I think a lot of what drew me to Kurt was really wanting to get out of my folks’ house. There were so many crossed signals from my parents I couldn’t begin to tell you what I was thinking back then.’ Penny came back to the bench and sat down with Missy. ‘I thought Kurt and I would find all our answers here in California. I thought we had until I found out he was cheating on me, anyway. I was so lost after that it was only Bernadette that kept me together. Los Robles was a huge part of getting over that rough patch. The acting really started to pay off and getting involved with Sheldon’s work opened a whole new world or maybe one I forgot I had inside me all along waiting for the right chance to come out.’

Penny glanced at Missy and trusted to their growing friendship to bring up her mother. ‘Everything was going so great that it kind of threw me for a loop when your mom took such a strong dislike to me getting into Sheldon’s work. She was afraid I was some kind of gold digger getting into your grandmother’s life and Sheldon’s work. I suppose it was pretty easy to think that since I got so close to Connie so quick. We both liked talking about Sheldon and she’s a pretty funny lady to boot.’

Missy nodded and chuckled a bit. ‘I heard about momma being antsy over all that. I’d been working around Austin back then so I didn’t get to hear more than bits and pieces of it all from George and Meemaw. How’d you get my momma to change her tune the way you did?’

‘Don’t look at me. That was all Sheldon’s ghost and your mother’s Bible. She said she had some dreams about Sheldon and me. She figured it was a guilty conscience more or less.’ Penny sighed in relief at how all that had worked out.

‘Yeah, she’d take something like that pretty seriously.’ Missy hummed a bit recalling her dreams of being in Austria with Penny and Sheldon.

‘Do you take dreams and portents like that seriously or are you in the ‘it is all hokum club’ like Sheldon?’ Penny hadn’t gone into the dreams with Mary and Meemaw. She was just happy it worked out the way Sheldon had hoped it would. She did often wonder about the dreams down in Texas that Sheldon had shared with Missy and her.

‘No, I’m not a skeptic like Sheldon was but I’m not a Christian like my momma or Lynn. They’d scare the Christian out of anyone. I’m sorry to say that about momma because she does mean well but it’s not for me. I do believe in something, something kinder than sin and saviors with heaven only for the right sort and hell for everyone else. I never felt like a sinner and the more momma and her church said it the less I believed it. They always sounded more interested in you believing in them and what they told you to think than anything else. Sheldon and I did agree on that, at least.’

‘Well, how about we take a trip over to my psychic? I wanted to visit her before we left for Europe. You could ask her a few things about your situation. It might help drive off some of this indecision around you.’ Penny was wondering if Sheldon would get wind of this while Missy was mulling the idea.

‘I can’t say I’ve ever put any stock in the idea. You can imagine my momma’s thoughts on psychics, I guess. It might be fun and at least I can hear someone else's ideas if nothing else. When would you like to go?’

‘How about tonight? Maleva hosts a séance and individual Tarot readings for a small group of us who go to her parlor.’

‘Alright, let’s head back to the house.’

They started their jog back to Los Robles Cottage. Penny spotted Micky’s van as they got near the cottage. She figured he was looking for some comments on The Coven’s renewal. Jason had had some success with his film foray and there were already rumors in the trades about her and some of the other cast members branching out like Jason or even leaving the show altogether. Penny was grateful Sheldon shooed off the worst of the reporters but left Micky alone. Sheldon had even started following his writing online after the Leonard Affair.

‘It looks like there are questions waiting for us or me at any rate.’ Penny pointed out Micky’s van down below. She told Missy about the current show gossip and how the paparazzi were all out looking for the latest news on the cast and their plans towards the show. Micky knows about the trip to Europe so I guess he might want to know who I’m going with. You don’t mind being mentioned, do you? I’m sure Micky would keep your name out if we ask.’

‘We’re going to be a month together in Europe. I assume that would come out one way or the other.’

‘Maybe, but I don’t know if the show or I am that much to notice all the way over there.’

Penny chatted with Micky for a few minutes about the show and her summer plans with Missy. Penny offered a short interview in the pavilion of he could wait for them to shower up after their run. Micky and his cameraman went out to the pavilion to wait to do the interview while Penny offered Missy the use of the study bathroom and she used Bernadette’s shower. Penny got her bath things and headed down the hall to find Sheldon in Bernadette’s bathroom.

‘Penny, you can’t be serious about going to some ridiculous séance with my sister.’

‘What gave you that idea, Sheldon? Were you spying on us?’

‘Of course not, I have not been beyond the study, today.’ Sheldon paused and looked astounded. ‘Your regular meeting with your psychic was three days ago. Are you going to your psychic tonight for my sister’s benefit?’

‘Yeah, we had the idea up on the bluff while we were talking. How do you suppose that idea just popped into your head?’ Penny grinned at Sheldon’s look of consternation and befuddlement.

‘This should not be possible, Penny. The living cannot affect the afterlife. There’s no living life to have an effect on. I am pure spirit, Penny, I don’t change.’

‘It might be time to make a reassessment, Moonpie. It seems like you and Missy have been influencing each other all this time. Missy’s talked about feeling lost and unsatisfied like she’d forgotten something ever since you died and all the time her thoughts circle back to you. Then, there is you and your worries and ideas out of nowhere that seem to match Missy’s ideas of being unhappy jobbing around Texas. She’s your twin, Sheldon, in more than just the physical, it seems.’

Sheldon had to admit Penny’s idea had a sufficient amount of evidence to take her hypothesis as more than just fanciful new age claptrap. ‘I believe your ideas merit... What are you doing!’

‘I’m taking a shower, Sheldon. I always do that after a run.’ Penny pulled off her t-shirt and Sheldon fled in panic into the hereafter.

Penny finished her shower and wrapped herself in a towel and went back to her room to dress for the interview. ‘What do you want to do while I talk with Micky?’

‘I thought I would come down with you to see how you handle this stuff. I did some camera work with a couple of Texas TV channels. It might be fun to see how these reporters out here do things.’

‘I trust Micky not to sensationalize anything. He’s great with folks he interviews that way but how do you feel about your name showing up in the gossip trades? I trust Micky but his story will breed others.’ Penny was glad most of the tabloids didn’t write their theories about her and Bernadette anymore but there were still now and again some photographers looking to get just the right picture of them to sell for clickbait to this day.

‘I survived Lynn Howard and my momma’s church all my life. I think we’ll be alright.’ Missy and Penny headed downstairs. They got some coffee and a tin of cookies to share with Micky and his cameraman.

Micky asked the expected questions about the show and the Europe trip. When Missy and Penny got to talking about horses in Europe he got very interested in the horse angle. His mother and father had met on the rodeo circuit in Canada when they’d been young and Micky still kept a lively interest in the equestrian sports. He hoped Penny and Missy might keep him up to date since it would make for some interesting story angles beyond the usual acting gossip.

‘How come you never brought up horses with me, Micky?’ Penny chided the reporter a bit more than usual.

‘There was never really a reason to since it didn’t fit any of the stories about The Coven. Are horses what brought you two together?’

‘Horses, hunting, her family owns the house, a little of all of that.’

‘We used to own the house, Penny. It’s all yours and Bernadette’s now.’ Missy talked a bit more about Sheldon and how the family had been looking for someone who would take care of the house and her brother’s memory.

‘Was Sheldon a fan of horses like you two?’

‘Oh lord, no, Sheldon was no horseman by a long shot. He was all about Physics and Penny has taken up his work.’

Sheldon showed up while Missy talked a bit more about her brother’s theories. ‘I had no idea you talked so much about my work with my sister, Penny.’

‘I didn’t know you followed Sheldon’s work so closely, Missy.’ Penny was curious when Missy’s interest had started.

‘I never used to while Sheldon was alive. The math was over my head but after he died; I missed him. I started looking at journals he published in and articles about him on the internet. It got to be a hobby and a way to remember him.’

They chatted a while longer and wrapped up the interview with a few final pictures and comments about the show. Missy got some more coffee for Penny and her while Penny said goodbye to Micky and his cameraman answering a few last questions for the ever inquisitive reporter.

‘You handled them like a pro, Missy.’ Penny settled back down on her favored pavilion couch with a fresh coffee from Missy in hand.

‘I worked at a couple of TV stations in Texas mostly promotions and advertising. I got into the camera work, too, so all that with Micky was kind of familiar territory.’

‘You might think about trying your hand at it out here. The studio is always looking for folks that can handle press and promotions so deftly.’

Missy thought about getting back into that but she was hesitant to give it a lot of real consideration. ‘I only worked at a few TV and radio stations around Texas. I never did anything on a Hollywood scale.’

‘You’ve done more than a lot of folks who come to the studio with a resume and a smile. Too many of them are really just looking for a backdoor into a TV show or movie and never get past the reception office. Think about it, seriously. We can see if you’ve got enough to put together a portfolio and resume and we can talk to Elizabeth in promotions about what’s available for jobs you might be interested in. She started as an intern there not long after I started on The Coven. She should have some ideas what your work might open up for you.’

‘Maybe, I’ll ask your psychic if that’s the way to go.’

+++

Chapter Text

Penny and Missy had an early dinner with Bernadette and Halley. Howard was off to a local comic book convention with Raj. Sheldon was miffed Penny was going to visit her psychic instead of visiting the convention but he relented in the cause of further examination of his sister’s improbable ability to sense his thoughts.

Sheldon had never bothered to ask where Penny's psychic lived or worked. He was surprised when they arrived at a secluded home in the upper Arroyo Park area. It was a notoriously expensive part of Pasadena.

‘Penny, I can only assume your psychic’s primary power is the ability to fleece the gullible.’

‘I hope you don’t get any bad vibes, Missy. Maleva is really good at what she does. Her family is from Austria, descended from aristocratic lineage according to her. She said they were the Karnstein’s of Styria.’ Penny loved the air around Maleva’s home and both women were excited for tonight’s events.

‘Of course, she’s royalty, Penny. What else would a psychic be but European royalty?’ Sheldon’s scoffing got on Penny’s nerves. She really enjoyed her evenings at Maleva’s séances and Sheldon was ruining tonight’s ambience.

‘We’ll be passing through Styria and Graz on our way through Austria. We should ask Maleva if that is near where her family is from.’ Missy had never met any European royalty so this sounded like a treat. She felt a little anxious while they waited for Maleva to come to the door.

Penny caught the note of nerves from Missy so she snatched her hand and reminded her to relax. The actress introduced her nervous first time friend to Maleva when she opened the door.

‘Welcome to my home, Missy. Enter freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring!’ Maleva smiled at her guests and gestured them inside. She was dressed in a simple dark grey blouse and pale pink skirt. Her hair was done up under a black silk kerchief with a beautiful and intricate floral pattern trim that fell over her right shoulder. She looked to be in her late thirties or early forties and she spoke with a soft Austrian accent.

Sheldon expected a cliché psychic and her clothes might have confirmed that for him but the clothing and her home was in the rustic Austrian style of Styria. ‘The home seems surprisingly authentic for a charlatan.’

Penny sighed in exasperation and wished she hadn’t let Sheldon come along. Missy picked up on the sigh and wondered what might be bothering her friend. ‘I am glad to meet you. Penny said you were Austrian royalty of some kind.’

‘Austria has no royal families anymore, not officially but many families do preserve their lineage. The Karnstein’s are an ancient family in Styria. They go back even before Christianity came to the region. The title of Gräfin, countess, belongs to my cousin, Mircalla. She and her wife reside in Castle Karnstein but they are reclusive.’ Maleva directed Missy to a portrait of a castle built on top of a very stark mountain. The outer walls surrounded the summit of the mountain and contained an elegant garden within. The main part of the castle was at the summit and the fortress brooded over a mist enshrouded valley.

‘That’s one hell of a castle. Does the artist specialize in castles? They've done quite a job.’ Missy was enchanted by the painting.

‘This painting was done by the Countess’s wife, Laura. She grew up near the castle. I think she loves it even more than Mircalla does. It’s part of family tradition that the castle was built over an ancient pagan temple and that is the source of our family’s long association with the psychic realm, some of it quite unsavory.’

‘It couldn’t be more ridiculous than this coddleswop.’ Sheldon kept up a chorus of comment throughout Maleva’s family history.

Penny excused herself to go to the bathroom while Missy learned more about the Karnsteins and their place in Styrian history. ‘Sheldon Lee Cooper, show yourself right now!’

‘What is wrong, Penny?’ He was mystified by Penny's anger.

‘You acting like a total jerk is what’s wrong! I know you don’t believe in any of this but I didn’t bring you here to be a chorus of criticism for the whole night. You are here to look for anymore signs of you and Missy picking up each other’s thoughts.’

‘That is so but the woman must be a ridiculous charlatan. You can’t believe these stories of ancient temples and magic around the Karnsteins?’

‘Sheldon, ghosts are real!’ Penny rolled her eyes in exasperation.

‘Yes, but that woman can’t have any effect on them or the spirit world.’

‘Missy and Halley sure can and both Missy and Halley can sense whenever you are around so why couldn’t Maleva be sensitive to the spirit world?’

‘Alright, Penny, I will keep an open mind but I will not be ready to believe that woman is anything but a fraud without extraordinary proof.’

Penny nodded in guarded satisfaction and returned to Maleva with a quieter ghost. She and Missy were talking to a few other guests who had come for the séance. The other guests were regular visitors to Maleva and so the greetings were quick and happy and Sheldon was amused by one of the guests. He drew Penny aside for a moment when they all started into the séance room. ‘I could almost wish Leonard were here.’

‘What for, Sheldon?’ Penny hadn’t thought of Leonard in years and she couldn’t guess why Sheldon would have thought of him much less wanted him here.

‘Mira Furlan was a main star on Leonard’s favorite TV show, a ridiculous space opera on set a space station called Babylon 5. I can only imagine how he’d react to her presence at an event like this.’

‘Oh yeah? Mira comes here from time to time, she’s an old friend of Maleva’s. They met back in Yugoslavia when Mira was just starting out in acting. I was hoping she’d come so I could ask her a couple of questions. She and her husband are producing one of the movies that I was thinking of trying out for.’ Penny and Sheldon followed along after the others into Maleva’s reading salon.

‘How very Biedermeier’ Sheldon was struck by the classic Austrian styling of the room. The pale olive green walls were host to several oil paintings. He walked over to look at the legends beneath. All of the pictures were various Karnstein relatives of Maleva from across several centuries judging by the clothes and the apparent age of the portraits. Several sofas and chairs upholstered in soft turquoise velvet surrounded the room and in the center a heavy mahogany table was circled by six leather upholstered chairs for the guests this evening. The room was lit by two elegant chandeliers at opposite ends of the room.

The guests all gathered around the table while Maleva went to a cherry wood secretaire and got a tarot deck from one of its many drawers. ‘Let’s begin with some quick readings.’

The guests asked the frequent questions every fortune teller gets, money, jobs, and relationships. Missy asked about her job prospects after the vacation she was going on.

‘Let’s see what your cards say although I feel your brother doesn’t approve of this sort of advice.’

‘No, George wouldn’t think much of this but he doesn’t even know I’m here.’ Missy was surprised Maleva had guessed she had any siblings.

‘Indeed, are you sure he doesn’t know you are here? There’s a very strong presence of your brother around you, dear, like you’ve been inseparable all your lives.’

‘The only other brother I have was my twin, Sheldon, but he died years ago.’

‘Ah, a twin, he’s the one who disapproves much more strongly than your brother George. I imagine he would call all of this hokum, would he not?’

‘I’ll say.’ Missy snorted and chuckled at the thought of Sheldon’s reaction to her being at a séance.

‘You two can’t be impressed by any of this? The woman must know you live in my house and that you and Missy are traveling together. She no doubt knows I was a physicist. It’s no stretch to deduce I would not believe in any of this ho... nonsense.’

‘Let us delve into your cards, Missy. Please think of your question and nothing else while you cut the deck.’ The Austrian psychic placed the deck in front of Missy.

Maleva dealt out the cards in a Celtic cross after Missy had cut the deck and passed it back to her. She gazed at the spread before her. ‘Interesting, strength reversed, you have lacked confidence of late and are questioning your abilities. The reversed star speaks to the resolution you must find. Your dreams have been slipping away perhaps since your brother died which we can see in the one of wands reversed. That speaks of someone lost who has left you questioning all you once knew.’

Missy glanced at Penny in surprise when she thought she heard a scoffing huff but Penny looked as intrigued as she was.

‘The six of swords speaks to how you used to go from problem to problem with confidence but the reversed four of pentacles along with the cards that came before reiterates your troubles. You feel blocked, unclear what your next step in life should be. The high priestess bespeaks your search for wisdom. You’re challenged by one who has the wisdom you desire but it is a wisdom you must discover for yourself. It cannot be doled out.’

‘I wonder if she could come up with something a little vaguer and more portentous.’ Sheldon paced behind Penny and Missy continuing his peanut gallery observations alongside Maleva’s reading. Penny was ready to drag him out of the room to give him a piece of her mind but she didn’t want to ruin the reading for Missy.

‘The king of cups shows you’ve come to Pasadena for counsel, counsel from the priestess.’ Maleva glanced at Missy and then longer at Penny with a knowing nod.

‘The tower says that your family feels you are not fulfilling your goals in life. They disapprove of what you have been doing with your life up to now. The ten of wands shows the burden you carry has become too much since your brother’s death from what the cards have shown.’ Maleva looked up behind Penny. Her eyes seemed to be searching the air which made Penny curious. She could tell Maleva’s eyes seemed to be following Sheldon’s location as he moved around the room.

‘The knight of pentacles shows the resolution that you require. You must reset your goals with the abilities you once trusted. The burdens you have taken up since your brother’s death have made you lose focus. You must regain that focus to regain the path of your heart.’

‘You must let go of the past.’ Maleva spoke to the air but Sheldon felt pinned in place by the woman’s stare straight into his eyes.’

‘Are there any more questions for the cards? Well then, let us begin the séance.’ Maleva gathered up the cards and returned them to the secretaire and then asked everyone to set their drinks on the sideboard while the session was conducted. Penny sat opposite of Maleva with Missy on her right and Mira between Missy and Maleva. The other two guests on Penny’s left were a couple that had come from Ireland to work on a docudrama about Irish immigrants in the US. They were European friends of Maleva who had met her years back in Austria.

‘Everyone, join hands on the table and close your eyes. We shall begin with silence tonight since we are already joined by a spirit who came with you, my dears.’ Maleva nodded and smiled at Penny and Missy.

‘It wouldn’t surprise me if Sheldon came back to tell me what he thought of séances.’ Missy gave a wry grin Penny’s way but she couldn’t get out of her head how often she’d felt Sheldon around ever since she’d met Penny.

‘Perhaps, that is so but I ask everyone to close your eyes and open your minds to possibility.’ Maleva grinned. She didn’t believe in a false sense of mystery permeating her sessions. ‘We reach out to those who have gone ahead. The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Be at peace guest to this home, and be here with us.’

‘I’ve been quite clear on the foolishness of this this all evening, what more do you think will be achieved by this hocus-pocus?’ Sheldon rolled his eyes and pretended to zip his mouth shut at Penny’s quick darted glare.

Missy shivered at a sudden chill in the room and opened her eyes at the familiar voice that she wasn’t sure was in her ears or in her imagination. ‘Sheldon!’

Penny opened her eyes and saw Sheldon standing by the portraits on the wall. The other guests looked there as well but they only saw a grey mist that emanated an unnatural cold draft.

‘Do not break the circle. What do you see in the mist, Missy?’ Maleva’s calming voice was a welcome comfort to the others around the table who could feel the deathly presence of the spirit in the room.

‘It’s Sheldon. Clear as day, Sheldon, talk to me, please.’ Missy wanted to run to him but she stayed in the circle. She did remember how much this presence felt like the night she and Penny went to visit Lynn.

Sheldon felt like the proverbial cat caught in the fish bowl. He tried to disappear into the ether but he found himself stuck in the room. He was anchored to Penny this far away from the house so he did the next best thing and fled into her.

Penny gasped and shuddered. She tensed up and the room spun and faded from sight. The people around the table gasped at Penny’s abrupt moans and twitching. Missy started for her but Mira held her tight while Maleva commanded everyone to remain in the circle holding hands.

‘Penny, listen to my voice. Listen and focus, focus on someone, something that you love. Focus on that love, hold on to it.’ Maleva’s calm tone was a balm to everyone around the table but Penny’s head jerked and her eyes rolled back in her head.

The actress stilled in her chair and her voice changed pitch sounding like a young child. ‘She’s gone. Mrs. Brisby is dead.’ Penny cried in the voice of her six-year old self.

Sheldon could only speculate what was happening but he could not feel Penny or rather Penny was everywhere but he couldn’t find her adult self. He suspected the séance had trapped their souls together. Instead of traveling with him in his dreams he was stuck in her soul-scape.

He heard Maleva’s advice to Penny and he guessed Penny was reaching for her pet but the death of Mrs. Brisby was clearly what her soul was most focused on so her soul’s dream-scape made little else possible at the moment. He did have the advantage of knowing how to navigate such an environment. He reached out for Mrs. Brisby.

Sheldon appeared in a cluttered room. Toys, dolls, sports equipment, and trinkets were strewn from floor to ceiling. It was Penny’s childhood home and it looked a lot like Penny had gone to the same decorating school as Missy. Penny’s six-year old self was sitting on the floor cradling her dead hamster and weeping.

‘Hello, Penny, I know you miss Mrs. Brisby very much but look; she never really left you.’

Penny felt the hamster start to scurry in her hands and she beamed in delight. ‘Mrs. Brisby! Thank you. Mister. Who are you, anyway?’

‘I’m Sheldon Lee Cooper and I heard you missed Mrs. Brisby.’

‘The minister said Mrs. Brisby doesn’t have a soul so when she dies, she’s just dead. He’s the one that’s dead. I know Mrs. Brisby has a soul and I’ll see her in heaven or I just won’t go. I don’t want to be anywhere with mean people like him.’

‘She’ll be there for you, Penny. Every life we touch is a part of us after we die. That’s what makes it important to hold on to love wherever you find it. A friend of mine taught me that.’

‘Your friend sounds nice. Does your friend know Mrs. Brisby?’

‘After a fashion.’ Sheldon straightened up when he heard a woman's voice muttering behind him.

‘Sheldon, what are we doing here? I know this isn’t one of your dream shows.’ Penny’s adult-self glanced around the room disconcerted to be back home in Omaha.

‘In this instance, we are inside one of the dream-scapes of your soul.’ They watched her younger self playing with the hamster and telling Mrs. Brisby about how she learned to make a horse cantor, today.

‘I didn’t know we could do stuff like this.’

‘Normally, we shouldn’t be able to since this is the world of a living soul. It’s always shaping and being shaped unlike mine which is fixed in eternity now that I am dead. I can’t see any of this when we travel my soul-scape. I am like a passenger when I am with you. Think of your body as the car on life’s highway and your soul is the driver.’

‘I guess that makes Maleva Meat Loaf, huh?’ Penny grinned at Sheldon.

‘Why would you compare your psychic to a dinner entrée?’

‘Never mind, Sheldon. Is this dangerous, us being together here?’

‘I don’t think so. The séance made me visible to the people in the room, in particular to Missy. I tried escaping inside you but the séance is making us vie for the driver’s seat of your body.’

‘Do you mean I’m like a medium being possessed? That's so cool!’ Penny could see she wasn’t speaking in a language Sheldon understood. ‘My body, the car, can only have one driver, right?’

‘Yes, that would seem to be the situation Ms. Karnstein has created with her séance. It would seem she is much more than a tea-room charlatan.’

‘I’ve told you that for ages, Sheldon.’

‘Yes, and you are, as ever, a constant challenge to my preconceptions, Penny.’

‘Thanks, Sheldon, it’s always a joy to be appreciated.’ Penny looked confused by the sudden change in surroundings. She remembered the day all too well back in North Platte, Nebraska. She saw her fourteen year old-self arguing with Helen Geffin. She’d been thrown during the roping competition at the Miss Teen Rodeo and Penny had been sure Helen had cheated by gingering her horse.

‘Sheldon, why are we here?’

‘Because you got annoyed. I am sorry if you thought I was critical of you’

‘I wasn’t annoyed, alright no more than usual by your snark but why are we here?’

‘We are here because the environment of a living soul functions like the Great Machine of the Krell.’ The scene changed to the Nebraska plains and they sat inside one of her dad’s old trucks. Lightening crackled and they saw teenage Penny outside throwing knives at a target but she was obviously too angry to hit anything.

‘Speak English, Sheldon, not geek.’ Penny wasn’t surprised to see how angry her young self was. She’d been stood up and made a fool of by Howard Kenny. She was sick as a dog for a week from the cold rain but it was better out here than back at the mall listening to Howard’s friends laughing at her.

‘The Great Machine could create anything instantly by simple thought, even from subconscious emotional reactions. That power to create without rational intention destroyed the Krell overnight.’ Sheldon looked at Penny like he’d explained two plus three to a slow learner.

‘What does this have to do with the night I wanted to kill Howard Kenny?’

‘Everything here is you, Penny, so what we see is always a reflection of your mind and emotions. It is especially sensitive because you are a living soul. The environment is changing with your subconscious state.’

The storm eased up and the wind carried Maleva’s voice from far away. ‘What we love endures, Penny, focus on Mrs. Brisby, Penny.’

The people around the séance table watched Penny in fascination. Her voice kept changing from low pitched male sounds to softer female notes, and the age of her voice changed just as much from word to word. In the dream-scape Penny and Sheldon were back in Penny’s Nebraska bedroom again. Her younger self was bored with her homework and she was distracted by her hamster running in the wheel in her house.

Penny smiled at the memory of refusing to let anyone call Mrs. Brisby’s home a cage. She still couldn’t stand to think of any living creature in a cage.

‘How come your dream-scapes don’t change when we argue?’

‘I do have more experience with them, Penny, but my experience is essentially static because it is in eternity with no living tie making ongoing changes. Your soul is alive to your living being so it is changing from instant to instant. Your feelings about your past or present experiences can change and thus so will your soul. That is how we shape the eternity we know after death. That is why Maleva wants you to focus on a place which is calm and safe for you while I am here.’

‘How long have we been here? It must be pretty strange looking at me out there after all this time.’

‘We are in the forecourt of eternity; time is rather meaningless here. It has only been a few seconds to the others in the séance.’

‘Are you with Mrs. Brisby again, Penny?’ Maleva reached out for young Penny in the ether.

‘Yeah, but I have to do this stupid geography homework about flags of the world.’ Sheldon glared at his adult Penny but he refrained from expressing his views on an ignorance of geography lest she send them on another emotional rollercoaster ride through her soul.

‘I’m sorry to hear you’re bored but we would like to talk to Sheldon. Is he there?’

‘Yeah, but he’s busy talking to some pretty lady.’

‘Do you know who the lady is, Penny?’

‘She looks a lot like the old pictures of gamma Elsa. She’s my dad’s gran, but Sheldon keeps calling her Penny.’

‘That’s wonderful, dear. Can you take care of Mrs. Brisby while I talk to the lady and Sheldon?’

‘Sure.’ Penny shifted in her chair at the séance table and her body returned to her more natural posture but her head lolled forward.

‘I’m here, Maleva.’ She spoke in a soft breathy voice like she was speaking from the far end of a vast, empty hall.

‘How do you feel, Penny?’ Maleva knew Penny was in no physical danger but her spirit could be quite another matter.

‘I’m fine. I’m everywhere I’ve ever been. The edge of eternity but not yet, not like Sheldon.’

‘Can we speak to Sheldon, Penny?’ Maleva could feel the ethereal bonds between Penny, Sheldon, and Missy so it was vital to tread gently.

‘Yes, but he thinks you’re a charlatan, well, he did but not so much, now.’ Penny’s voice and accent shifted while she spoke taking on the Galveston notes of the Cooper family.

Missy watched in wonder as Penny’s voiced altered to sound so much like Sheldon and her body straightened up with the same impatient hauteur she recalled from her brother whenever he was interrupted from his studies and experiments or Star Trek. ‘Oh lord, fine, let’s get this game of musical bodies over with.’

‘Shelly, is It really you?’

‘Of course, it is, Missy. I had intended just to observe you, but your séance has trapped me in here with Penny.’

‘What do you mean observe me, Sheldon?’ Missy’s shock at hearing her brother’s voice was compounded by finding out he’d been watching her.

‘You have been feeling my thoughts ever since I died, Missy, even more so since you came to Los Robles Cottage. And I have been susceptible to your thoughts much to my shock since that shouldn’t be possible now that I am dead. I came along to the séance to see if there were more instances of this or if it were only coincidence.’

‘I’m not one of your experiments, Sheldon, and neither is Penny. Get your skinny ass out of her head.’ Missy wanted to smack Sheldon but she was looking at Penny. It was bizarre. She felt Mira squeezing her hand and the actress’s Croatian accent was oddly comforting.

‘Penny needs us to stay in the circle, Missy. She is walking between the worlds, ours and the next. We are her anchor point so she can find her way back while your brother is talking to us.’

Missy glanced at Mira and Maleva and nodded in understanding. ‘How long has this sensing each other been going on?’

‘I believe ever since I died. I was obsessed with finding out what went wrong in the arctic and I couldn’t let it go on earth so I was stuck in Los Robles Cottage. Your fascination for my work started soon after I died, didn’t it?’

‘Yes, I don’t know why but I wanted to figure out what you were up to. Momma wouldn’t let the place go. I thought I might be able to figure something out. Maybe, make some peace with you being gone.’

‘You made an impressive start on understanding my work for someone who doesn’t focus on the mathematics, Missy. It was almost as impressive as Penny’s ability to comprehend it and begin furthering my work. I am sorry I never appreciated the mind you have, Missy.’

‘What was there to appreciate compared to you, Shelly?’

‘Please, don’t tell yourself that anymore, Missy. You are capable of much more than Fudrucker’s. You speak multiple languages better than I do. You’ve worked a dozen different jobs I would have been a failure at from TV broadcasting to advertising. You are my twin sister and you’ve been looked down on too much for not being like me, especially by me. You deserved better than that Missy, especially from me. You are brilliant and Maleva’s cards were right. Trust yourself, you are my twin and just as brilliant in your own way.’

‘Sheldon, I...’ The magnitude of Shelon’s speech broke some dam in her spirit Missy had never known was there. She closed her eyes and wept for nothing she could explain and everything she had felt all her life.

Sheldon felt the pressure of the circle keeping him here lessen but Penny’s spirit had wandered from her safe space. There was no real danger but she was in unfamiliar territory of sorts so he wanted to end this séance chat and go find his friend. ‘I love you, Missy, but I must go find Penny.’

‘I love you too, Shelly.’ Missy could see Sheldon sitting in Penny’s place like a superimposed picture and then it faded and Penny slumped in the chair. ‘Shelly..., Penny...? Maleva, are they alright?’

‘Yes, but we must help Penny find her way back to us.’ Maleva commanded the table to silence and focused everyone's attention on her voice while she called out for Penny’s spirit.

+++

Penny loved traveling Sheldon’s world so when he disappeared to talk to Missy she wondered about taking a dream trip through some favorite places in her own past. Her mind wandered with her eyes around her old room and the scene changed to a crib and a room strewn with furnishings for a baby. She wondered why the crib was here until her parents came in the room and put her newborn self in the crib. Penny was delighted she could travel like she had done so often with Sheldon.

The years drifted quickly and she arrived at the high school prom with Kurt. She watched that Penny’s eyes shining with an unanticipated excitement. The time swept her to Las Vegas and the wedding and further on to moving into L.A. She saw the night she met Bernadette. She hadn’t noticed Kurt slipping away during the party. She watched her younger self take Kurt’s phone call and say she’d get a ride home from her new friend or one of the theater crew. She’d never noticed how often that happened back at the time but she did now.

She had been to where these memories led many times in her dreams and in her thoughts with interview after interview. She was there with Bernadette and she watched her furious past showing Bernie the flash drives that she’d found. What a fool she’d felt herself to be.

‘Honey, you’re in no condition to go driving up after Kurt. It is better you put all this together so he can’t deny it and start thinking about what you want to do after that.’

‘Get a divorce! What do you think?’ Penny rocked and sobbed and beat her hands on the pillow in her lap. Bernadette sighed and hugged her and cried with her.

Penny followed through the days of Bernie taking care of her broken friend. Bernie never left the apartment without her and Penny loved her all the more for the quiet strength few ever really seemed to appreciate in her small, loud friend. Penny felt Kurt might have caught worse hell from Bernadette by the end of the week they were together alone. But the week did have an ending and the screech of tires outside surprised Penny almost as much as it had so long ago. She willed herself outside and saw her face in the window. She couldn’t describe that face any more than she could catalogue the mixture of feelings she had felt at the time.

One feeling she could distinguish after all this time was deprivation. She’d never gotten the chance to confront Kurt but that didn’t have to be the case, today. The scenery changed and she was standing outside the apartment building. Kurt pulled into the parking lot across from the house. She took a deep breath and marched across the street.

‘Hey honey, did you miss me?’ He smiled and it was the same smile that had filled her heart before she had found the flash drives. She wondered why he had never tried acting.

‘I had your flash drives to remind me of you. You remember them? The ones with all the other women, Kurt!’ Penny stepped back out of arms reach because she was sure she’d lash out if he touched her.

‘Hey, you know I love you, Penny. Those are just some old pictures.’ Kurt stepped back a pace and tried grinning the accusation away.

‘Don’t screw with me, Kurt! They had your damn hotel reservations with Melissa for this last trip.’

‘Alright, but I always come home to you. Besides, it’s not like I expect you to be exclusive, too. We can work this out, honey.’

Penny bit her tongue a second and wondered who the hell she'd ever married. She couldn’t imagine she’d ever be with the guy she was talking to. ‘Exclusive, too? What did you think those wedding vows were about, Kurt?’

‘Oh, come on, we were kids. Besides, look at what you’re becoming. Every theater in Pasadena wants you. How much longer are you going to want to be with a construction worker? I’ve seen how that Paul guy hangs off of you.’

‘Paul Croix? He’s gay and married and that has nothing to do with your cheating on me.’

‘Penny, I’m sorry but I can’t change the past. I screwed up but we can work this out, come one!’

Penny just turned and started striding back across the street. She ignored his calls and was surprised when he grabbed her in the middle of the street.

‘Penny, please, we can work this out. I thought of no one else but you the whole time. I couldn’t wait to get back to you. I never can. Sometimes, I feel like this day is never going to end because all I feel is guilt over everything. Come on, give me a chance.’

Penny glared at Kurt and she knew this day would never end for him. It wouldn’t end for her if she didn’t let it go. She couldn’t change this day. She couldn’t change Kurt but she could change herself. ‘We make our eternity, Kurt. You have made yours but I am tired of coming back here.’

She closed her eyes and thought of the angry woman upstairs and the philanderer holding her shoulders and forgave them both. She heard the screeching breaks and felt Kurt’s hands torn away from her. She didn’t need to see this scene anymore but something drew her back upstairs where she found Bernadette on the bed holding her nearly catatonic friend. The police and ambulances had finally left. It was early evening and Bernadette had finished calling Kurt’s family and her own in Nebraska. For the first time, she really listened to what Bernadette had been telling her.

‘You’re going to get better, Penny. I promise you that. I know what it’s like to lose someone that’s a part of you. I almost quit UCLA back when I was a sophomore because of a guy. I thought we were going to get married. I got pregnant and when the guy found out he ran home back to Japan. I spent weeks torn up with what to do. My parents would’ve killed me if they found out I was pregnant and killed me if I had an abortion. Julie helped me keep it all together. Her family helped me through everything but I still feel that abortion. I know it was right for me but I don’t think I could ever be a mom, not alone like that. I wasn’t ready for anything like that; I'm still not. Life has got to go on whatever we want. The good is easy to take but we’ve got to make do with the bad, too. You don’t have to do it alone, honey. You deserve love, Penny. That is what friends are about. Just like Julie and her family were there for me; I will always be here for you, honey. We’ll get through this, Penny, I promise.’

Penny let the days with Bernie drift by. She’d taken care of so much in those first days, Penny felt she was rediscovering her friend. The grace and strength Bernie had handling the funeral, the occasional local press, and even the boxing and packing off of Kurt’s belongings back to Omaha warmed her heart more than she knew she had needed. Her reverie through time ended with the moment she’d gotten the call from Bernie that set off their house hunting together.

‘There you are. I suspected I would find you here.’

‘Hey, Sheldon, how’d you come to that conclusion?’

‘Everyone is drawn to powerful events in their lives, especially defining ones. Mine was the arctic and yours has always been Kurt’s death.’ Sheldon had no fears about life anymore being a ghost but he did worry for Penny’s afterlife from time to time.

‘I don’t think I ever fully realized how much Bernadette carried me through those days after Kurt died until now.’

‘She is quite a force of nature as are you. However, you do need to return to the séance, Penny.’

‘Yes, and back home where we belong, Moonpie.’ Penny wrapped Sheldon in a warm hug that he returned with a small reservation. He was dead and Penny wasn’t. He couldn’t forget Maleva’s stare and admonition to let go of the past.

+++

The guests glanced between Penny and Maleva. Penny had slumped back in the chair and seemed to hardly breathe but Maleva’s command held them to the circle. They all felt relieved when the actress sat up but she looked around the room with a glassy eyed expression. Her glancing at the the people around the table was strangely like a newborn. Her eyes seem to take in everything but saw nothing and recognized no one. She tensed up briefly and closed her eyes and when she opened them again it was with her familiar gaze.

‘Hey folks, did you miss me?’

Missy pulled Penny to her in a hug. ‘Miss you? You scared me half to death. I didn’t expect anything to happen tonight but that was out of this world. You were speaking just like Sheldon. It was him. Don’t you remember any of that?’

‘Not a thing but everything is over, isn’t it Maleva?’

‘All is well, my friends but whether everything is over for you, Penny, is up to you and Sheldon and you, too, Missy.’ Maleva closed the séance and invited her guests to a special treat while they tried to grasp what they experienced this evening. Questions and observations and speculations abounded, especially towards Penny after that spirit possession.

She tried to put some of what she experienced into words but it was all too fresh to explain clearly and too important to her to get any of it wrong or misinterpreted to speak at length.

Maleva returned to the table with two ancient bottles. ‘That is the translator’s dilemma, Penny. All languages speak with their unique poetry and in their own meter and rhyme having no match in another tongue only the vague mist of mirage can be created at best.’

The Austrian matriarch poured a deep golden wine from bottles that bore the arms of Graf Karnstein. The crystal glasses had Leopold I’s coat of arms which Sheldon recognized. ‘The vineyards for this wine and these glasses were a gift to my family for their aid in the wars against the Ottomans. Mircalla guards our wine cellars like a dragon hoard but her wife always sends me some of this for my birthday. It is Royal Tokay, father would drink no other wine. Laura describes its sweet nectar as the memory of a glorious Magyar summer that carries the soul through winter’s despair to spring and life’s rebirth. She can be quite fanciful much like this wine. I believe we can all use its restorative powers after our session?’

The Tokay worked its magic on the circle. Penny was enthralled by the vintage and checked the bottle which shocked her. ‘Maleva, is this really from 1840?’

‘The wine cellars beneath Castle Karnstein are very old and very well-stocked as is the library where this wine is usually found. Mircalla is assiduous and jealous of both. I can write to Laura at the university where she teaches if you and Missy would like to visit. She is not the recluse her wife is and would love to meet you. She is a great fan of your show but Mircalla would be far more interested in your physics studies than the supernatural shenanigans of your television persona.’

Missy came over and eyed Penny with concern. ‘Are you sure you are alright, honey?’

‘I’m fine but that sure wasn’t the same as acting on the show. How did you and Sheldon get on?’

‘I never heard the like from him before. I think death might have mellowed him. I wish we could have talked like that more while he was alive. I was floored he said what he did. He said I was brilliant. I wish I’d had time to tell him what that meant to me. You know, he said he came along with us. Do you think he’s still here with us, Maleva?’

‘The spirits of those we touched in life are always around us. The lives they touched echo with them down the years. We chose to listen tonight and your brother chose to speak. Perhaps, he will speak to you again some other night.’ Maleva excused herself to bring some hors d’oeuvres from the kitchen.

The gathering broke up after another hour. Penny thanked Maleva for the evening and the introduction to her family while she and Missy were in Europe. She talked more with Missy about tonight’s experience on the drive home since she had no idea what Sheldon had said during the séance. She was happy for Missy’s sake that Sheldon was so supportive but Penny did wonder why her house-ghost was so quiet ever since the formal séance had ended.

They got back to Los Robles around eleven. Penny was surprised the library lights were still on since Bernadette liked to get to bed early on Wednesday’s because of the staff meetings she had on Thursday mornings. Her research team liked it even more when she got a good night’s sleep. Missy excused herself to get ready for bed while Penny checked on the doings in the library. Bernadette was just coming down the spiral stair from Halley’s room.

‘Thank god you are home, Penny. Halley has been restless all night. She keeps asking for Showden and Soft Kitty but for some reason the toys aren’t settling her down. I think she might go to sleep if one of you sing it if you don’t mind.’

Penny wrapped Bernie in a hug and kissed her and breathed in the rosewater scent in Bernadette’s hair. ‘Did everything go alright with your séance, tonight, Penny?’

‘Oh yeah, I’ll tell you about it, tomorrow. I haven’t told you enough how much I love you. I remembered the day Kurt died in the séance and all the things you told me afterwards. I couldn’t have got through all that without you, Bernie, and I’ll always be here for you too, kochanie.’

Bernie caressed Penny’s cheek wondering what had gone on at the séance but she was glad to see how happy Penny looked from it. ‘Me too, moje kochanie.’

They went upstairs together to check on Halley. Penny could hear Sheldon singing Soft Kitty to Halley and she was falling fast asleep.

‘I guess she must have just wanted everyone home, tonight. Why don’t you get to bed, Bernie? I can lock up downstairs.’

‘Thanks, I’ve set the lavender tea up in your study, see you in the morning.’ They lingered over Halley for a few minutes before they kissed each other good night.

Penny slipped back down the spiral stair to the library and made sure the house was secure and shut off the lights. She headed back up to her rooms and found Missy pouring some of the lavender for herself.

‘I hope you don’t mind. The aroma just felt like the perfect thing after tonight’s show.’ She poured a second cup for Penny and handed it to her.

‘Not at all, Bernie and I swear by this stuff before bed. Did Maleva and Sheldon help your thinking about what you want to do?’

Missy breathed in the aroma of the tea for a minute before answering. ‘I guess. There’s nothing I could put into words but I think getting out of Texas is the right move. I don’t think I’m ready to try your idea with Elizabeth and the studio. I’d like to do this vacation first. I’ve never really given much thought about what I want to do beyond tomorrow. I guess it’s about time I did that. That’s what I figured from that Tarot reading and Sheldon. What did you take from whatever that was when Sheldon was there?’

‘It was illuminating. I could see my whole life, everywhere I’ve ever been and everything I’ve ever done. I have to see something.’ Penny booted up her computer and went to her parent’s family Instagram.

‘She was right, take a look at that, Missy. It’s my great grandmother Elsa Queen, nee Karjala in 1919. It says she came from Finland with her parents in 1918.’

‘You’re the spitting image of her. Did you meet her during the séance?’

‘No, I just heard my kid-self recalling some old family photos. It’s funny. Dad and grandpa always said I took after her because of how easy I took to guns and bows and stuff. All this makes me think those spirits are around us, helping and shaping us like a domino chain. It’s too much to put in words beyond that, too much before bed, anyway.’

‘I guess we’ll have plenty to talk about for a month and then some on this trip.’ Both women finished their tea in agreement on that.

Penny got ready for bed after her tea and said good night to Missy. She sat up called out for Sheldon but he remained out of sight. She got up and looked out her bedroom window. She could see Sheldon pacing back and forth across the lawn in the faint moonlight. She wondered what might have made Sheldon so quiet since the séance.

Chapter Text

Sheldon was very quiet for the last couple of days before the trip. He had taken Penny on dream tours to many of the places along the planned trip pointing out highlights he thought she shouldn’t miss. Penny enjoyed the trips because they were all places she hadn’t planned to visit. She and Missy were focused on horses and equestrian events. They both wanted to use a mix of transport by bicycle and camping, trains, and the occasional rental car when they weren’t on boats. There were a couple of side stops they might like from Sheldon’s fascination for trains and industrial history but Penny mostly just enjoyed the time together with her ghost before the trip. She did wonder why he was being so helpful about the trip and otherwise so quiet during the day. Tonight they were far from the Rhine valley and were seeing Sheldon’s favorite sights in France.

‘We are coming back from Europe, Moonpie.’

‘Excuse me? What does that have to do with Gustave Eiffel’s birthplace?’

Penny brought Sheldon over to a small café nearby. ‘Honey, you’ve been too quiet since the séance. I never see you around the house by day and by night we’ve covered more of Europe and faster than Paton’s Third Army. What is bothering you, Sheldon? I’m sure it’s not Missy this time. She has told me about your horse riding excursions in Texas, though so I know you’ve been busy with her dream life, too.’

‘I have been considering Maleva’s advice to Missy in her tarot reading. She told Missy that she should let go of the past, especially her hang up on my death. I would have never expected her to take that as hard as she did.’

‘You are twins, Sheldon. No one expects to lose folks out of the blue. You’ve got to be ready for grandparents because of their age, even parents a little, but siblings almost your age or twins that’s big. She also has that connection you share on top of it.’

‘Yes, but she wasn’t just tying herself to me, I had been tying myself to her even if I didn’t know that. I wanted to give her some better memories to hang on to that would make moving on easier.’ Sheldon was fidgeting with the table ware so Penny knew there was more than just Missy involved.

‘OK, that covers your sister so what’s the deal with us?’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Why the Europe trips? A lot of this isn’t even places where Missy and I will be going. It seems more like you’re afraid we aren’t coming back. Do you think Missy wants to stay in Europe longer?’

‘I have not gotten that sense but it wouldn’t be impossible for Missy to change her mind and do something out of the blue like that. She has an adventurous streak to rival your own.’

‘Are you afraid I won’t want to come back, Sheldon?’ Penny took his hands to stop his fretting with the cutlery.

‘I would hope you wouldn’t be afraid to explore the possibility. I recall Mira Furlan’s film would be filming in Zagreb. Also, Prof. Ernst Bauschinger at Aachen University has contacted you several times to visit while you are there for the Equestrian Festival. You shouldn’t tie yourself down here in Pasadena, Penny.’

‘Sheldon, thanks for worrying about my career. I don’t know if I’d even get a part in Mira’s film. Besides, I am committed to at least one more year on The Coven before my contract with the show is up so you’re not getting rid of me as easy as your sister. You are right about talking to Prof. Bauschinger, though.’ Penny let Sheldon continue his tour of Gustave Eiffel’s works in France so he’d stop getting twitchy. She knew he didn’t like change but she couldn’t figure out what change was on the horizon might be.

+++

Customs and immigration at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol didn’t have two of their American tourists in the airport for long. Penny and Missy were eager to see the North Sea. They rented a car and headed right away to the Hook of Holland. The Hook hosted a lot of beach clubs that were filled with families and tourists seeking the sand and water of summer time sea. Penny and Missy stopped at one beach club called Dechi beach. They were eager for the sand and the club had a view of the North Sea and of the mouth of the gulf that led to the Rhine and their journey south up the historic river.

Penny got out an old and worn book ‘Legends of the Rhine’ by Wilhelm Ruland. It was a favorite of hers from childhood that she’d found at a yard sale on one of her mother's shopping tours for antiques and knickknacks. She was dying to see some of the sights the legends talked about. She read a few passages of some of the legends for Missy while they sipped their beers.

They both wanted to see Cologne and the great cathedral but their love of horses had them plan to seek out the Richmodis Tower first of all. Penny and Missy were keen to see the sight of the story ‘The Lady of the Ring’. Richmodis was the wife of Menginus von Aducht. She died during the Black Death or so the family thought. She recovered from a coma and escaped her tomb only by the luck of grave robbers trying to steal her jewelry. They fled in terror from the reawakened dead woman. She returned home but the servants thought her a ghost. Menginus in his grief believed his horses would sooner escape the stables and rampage into the house before he’d see his wife again. The horses did just that and raced to the high tower and Richmodis followed them in to the great joy and wonder of her husband. Sculptures of the horses staring out of the tower can be seen there to remember the old legend. They spent the day in Cologne and drove to Aachen the following day for the opening of the World Equestrian Festival.

‘I can’t believe I am here.’ The reality hit Penny far more than she thought it could. Sheldon’s dreamscape had limits which were from how he recalled things. The smell of the soaps and oils used on the tacking, the inevitable horse droppings, and the musk of horse flesh were dull in his memory. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep. This was the smell of her rodeo days. Missy was equally enthralled and they headed instinctively for the stables.

‘I loved the two days we spent here in spite of Sheldon but I missed so much. This is where I really wanted to go. I was so mad at him we could never get to the stables and meet the trainers and handlers and riders. It isn’t a real horse show without all of this.’

‘Oh good lord!’

Penny was brought up short by a voice from a stall she and Missy were passing. She hadn’t heard that voice since she was fourteen but she remembered it all too well thanks to the recent séance. The young girl was a grown woman now, a couple inches shorter than Missy but the thick auburn hair and dark penetrating eyes were all just like Penny remembered.

‘Helen Geffin!’

Penny sallied up to the stall in consternation since the séance had been so recent. Seeing her old rival here was discombobulating.

‘Penny Queen, what in god’s name are you doing here? Are you part of this year’s event?’ Helen hadn’t seen Penny since that day in North Platte. She knew her from TV like half the country did but she never thought she’d run into her again.

‘No, I’m here with my friend Missy. We’re on vacation traveling Europe.’

Helen did a double take at Penny’s companion. ‘Missy, are you Missy Cooper from Galveston?’

‘Yes, have we met?’ Missy and Penny confused by that recognition.

‘I used to go see you in the Texas Rose Dressage Competitions. I loved watching you ride. What, I mean, it’s so great to meet you. I missed you when you stopped competing.’

‘I still ride but I haven’t been in a competition in ten or so years. I’m surprised you even remember any of that.

‘Are you kidding? Penny, I got out of rodeo for dressage after seeing her in Texas. You two have got to come and meet the team. Hey Pete, come here a minute.’ Helen came out of the stall and called out to a man walking by outside the stables.

‘Can I help you, Helen?’ The tall, fiftyish man expected Helen was fielding questions about the horses and the team.

‘Come here and meet some folks from back home. This is Penny Queen, obviously. Forget about her being an actress, she would have been your best bet for vaulting if she hadn’t gotten married and moved to California. And this is Missy Cooper, she’s the reason I got into formal equestrian riding when I saw her perform down in Texas. Ladies, this is Peter Jura. He’s our team coach.’

‘I’m happy to meet you, Penny. My kids are crazy about your show so they’ve told me about your rodeo days and a lot else besides. Pleased to meet you, Missy. Thanks for inspiring our Helen. We have a lot to do before the opening ceremonies, though, we need to get a move on. How long are you at the festival for?’

‘We came for the whole week before we leave Aachen on our trip.’ Penny shared a little of their plans for the trip while they walked out of the stables toward the staging for the opening ceremony. Helen and Peter invited them to visit the team after the ceremonies which both women were ecstatic to accept.

The festival was everything both had hoped for. Penny had to give Helen credit for her skill in the vaulting events. She had always been a tremendous horse rider but the séance had reopened an old wound. She couldn’t help but think on the séance while she was viewing Frankenberg Castle. The Legend of the Ring of Fastrada said that Charlemagne was drawn to this place because of a magic ring his dead wife had worn was thrown into a spring that had once been near the castle. It made Penny think of how easily she’d been drawn to the memory of her fight with Helen during the séance.

‘You’re mighty quiet, today. Is there something on your mind?’ Missy wondered about the pensiveness her friend had all day while they toured the castles and cathedrals of the city.

‘Lots of things, I’ve dreamed of coming here since I was a kid. It’s wonderful but I do keep thinking about Helen and some old memories that came up in that séance.’

‘Nothing bad, I hope. You seemed pretty happy after the séance that night.’ Missy pointed out the Frankenberger Hof across from the park as a place to stop for a bite while they talked.

‘’Oh, it’s nothing terrible. Seeing Helen reminded me of one of those teenage spats that stay with you. We used to compete a lot against each other in my rodeo days. She was something else even back then but I always respected her until we got into a fight over in North Platte. I thought she was cheating, gingering my horse to mess with me in a roping competition. I hadn’t thought about it in years until the séance. Running into Helen here got me thinking it was some kind of sign or something.’

‘My momma would say it was Jesus telling you to settle things with her and get it off your conscience. I don’t know about the Jesus part but maybe it is something you should talk about with her.’

Penny agreed with Missy’s line of thought. The séance had shown her how much negative thoughts could drag you down and make you miss in the world around you. She’d been so focused on Kurt that she had never really appreciated how wonderful Bernie had been to her through that whole mess until the séance. The stuff with Helen had never been a big thing or so she thought. She’d thought she’d pretty much forgotten about it since that long ago summer but she did ponder about how easily she’d been drawn to that memory by Sheldon’s snarky remarks. Shaping the eternity you will know was a mindful business. She had never found out if Helen had really cheated or not but Penny didn’t want to keep picking at the memory like she’d been doing since she’d seen Helen at the stables.

Penny and Missy went to a small party on the third day of the festival. Helen had invited them to come and meet some of the riders and coaches who she expected would come since their performances had been in the first half of the week. Penny was a familiar face to many there but many of them were surprised she had been a rodeo champion with Helen long before she’d become an actress. Penny found it a treat to watch Missy be confounded by being recognized more often than her by a crowd who followed American dressage events more than popular television. She loved horses but she didn’t have Missy’s command of breeding and ancestry to get into the debate she was having with a few of the horse trainers so she went out to the hotel patio for some air. She found Helen outside enjoying the same relief from the crowd. She joined her long ago nemesis by the railing and they watched the starlight above the city lights together.

‘Do you ever miss Nebraska, Penny?’

‘Hmm, can’t say I do. I was in a hurry to get out and do something big.’

‘You sure did that but I miss the quiet. I wanted to get away from the small world there but I miss the plains. I’ve been coming back and forth to Europe for about five years, now. You can’t see half the stars here that you can back in Nebraska. And there’s people everywhere you go. It was so easy to get away from everyone back there. I miss that.’ Helen smiled and shrugged her shoulders. They went to lie down on a pair of lounge chairs to get a better view of the sky while they chatted.

‘When you put it like that, sure I miss the outdoors there. My house is in the hills of Pasadena but it is still pretty much one of a city with LA and everything around. I do miss the stars you could see back home at night. What’s got you thinking of Nebraska?’

‘You more or less. I got some offers to work here in Germany training teams here. I was wondering what to do when I saw you in the stables. I’ve been thinking ever since; I’ve been moving from Nebraska ever since I saw Missy performing in Texas. I never meant to travel this far I just loved riding and performing. The bigger the challenge the better but I never did it to leave home. I want to say yes to the offers but when I came across you out of the blue I started thinking about home and why I’m here.’

‘You know you can do that kind of work back in Nebraska if that’s what you want. I guess you could get something pretty easily coming from this level so are you sure that would be enough for you?’

‘That’s what makes me want to take one of the offers. I know I’d be bored out of my mind in no time back home. I don’t know.’ Helen let her half formed thoughts trail off.

‘A longing for nothing but to long, A loneliness in the midst of people, A never feeling pleased when pleased, A passion that gains when lost in thought... Is it something like that?’

‘Are you really a witch reading what’s in my head?’ Helen snorted and looked awry at Penny.

‘No, it is part of an old epic poem called The Lusiads. I loved to read it back in Nebraska whenever home felt too small. Camoes was a Portuguese poet writing about the destiny Portugal had in the world. He was describing love in those stanzas. ‘Love is a fire that burns unseen, A wound that aches yet isn't felt, An always discontent contentment, A pain that rages without hurting… the first time I read those lines I felt like I’d found my heart laid out on paper in front of me. Maybe, you just need to be sure of where your passion would burn best and bright.’

‘Where is your passion burning best and bright these days?’ Helen reached over and traced the back of Penny’s hand with a feather touch.

‘A lot of places, acting, physics, this trip, but before that hand went any further I’d want to know why you gingered my horse back in North Platte.’

‘What? Are you still pissed off about that? You really know how to hold a grudge but I never touched your horse.’ Helen sat up shaking her head in disbelief. Penny had to laugh at Helen’s dismay.

‘No, I’m not angry about that, really. I was in a séance last week and that memory came up during the evening. It was the first time I’d thought of it since that summer. Seeing you again just seemed like a sign to ask. If you didn’t mess with my horse, who did?’

‘It was that crazy bitch, Sarah Tostigson. Did you ever meet her? We went to the same schools. She dropped out of high school sophomore year. Anyway, she was complaining to her friends on the bus back from Platte how we still won over her in spite of her screwing with our horses. I went after her there and then. I think I did it more for you than me.’

‘Sarah Tostigson, was she short, weasely, looked like a cross between Peter Lorre and a mangy ferret?’

‘That would describe her perfectly. We called her the Tonya Harding of Elkhorn after that summer.’ Helen relaxed and lay back down on her lounger with a chortle at the memories Penny had drawn up.

‘I’m glad it wasn’t you. You were so good I couldn’t believe you’d need tricks like that. I should have believed you but I was so set on winning I couldn’t see straight. I don’t feel so bad coming in second to you, then.’ Penny smiled at Helen glad to have that old sore fixed.

‘That’s our past fixed up, how about you and Missy. Are you guys close?’ Helen waved over one of the hotel waiters for the party and plucked a couple more glasses of wine for them from the tray.

‘We met in Texas on a hunting trip last year. My friend Bernadette and I took over her brother’s house. We moved there after my husband Kurt died. Missy’s brother had died a few years before but the family didn’t want to let go of the place. We got to know each other pretty well over time. Last year, they invited me down to Texas for a hunting trip. Missy and I hit it off as soon as we met. She’s been at a loss for what to do with herself since her brother died kind of like you. We thought this trip might help her get some focus. Are you looking for a date with her?’

‘I’d rather have a date with you. I’ve had a crush on you ever since Nebraska.’ Helen spoke under her breath into her wine and glanced at Penny and chewed her lip.’

‘Thank you, Helen, a few years ago I would have said yes barring the gingering but my heart is somewhere else days.’ Penny took Helen’s hand when she heard her resigned sigh.

‘I had to ask.’ Helen slipped her hand out of Penny’s to take up her wine.

‘I’m glad you did. You deserve to find someone to share your love with.’ The music made Penny look up all of a sudden. It was LeAnn Rimes ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’ She offered Helen her hand. ‘You deserve to dance.’

Helen let herself be tugged along across the patio away from the furniture and put her arms around Penny’s waist. They swayed to the rhythm of the tune. ‘What are you on about here, Penny?’

‘Letting go of a different night that didn’t turn out so well as tonight. I’d rather remember dancing to this song with you.’ Penny looked abashed into Helen’s eyes that matched the deep auburn of her hair.

‘This was your song with Kurt, wasn’t it?’ Helen pulled Penny closer and welcomed her arms and her warmth.

‘Not anymore.’

+++

Missy slipped outside to evade the wine fueled late party chat. She heard Penny laughing over on one of the double loungers. She found her and Helen and a few wine bottles being worked on. ‘It looks like you two got over that fight in North Platte.’

‘Sit yourself down here!’ Penny and Helen spoke together and moved apart so Missy could sit between them on the lounger.

‘Helen has been holding out on us. Not only is she a champion horsewoman but she also knows a lot about German wines. Try this one. It’s a Schloss Johannisberg Riesling.’ Penny poured a sample of a pale gold wine.

‘That is refreshing.’ Missy was surprised by the tart fruitiness that made the sweet notes dance across her tongue instead of cloying and hiding the subtle notes of the wine.

‘The vineyard is on our way between Koblenz and Frankfurt. We have got to stop there.’ Penny gave Helen a quick idea of their course upriver and on to Austria. Helen spent a lot of time in Germany and Austria so the travelers were glad of the advice she had, especially about some riding schools and horse trails that were off the tourist trail.

‘I assume you two are coming back to the festival, tomorrow?’ Helen poured out one more of the wine samples.

‘Of course, we are or do you have something else in mind, Penny?’ Missy picked up on the hesitant hum her travel mate had made.

‘I’ll be there for the four in hand events in the afternoon but I wanted to visit a couple of professors at Aachen University. We’ve talked online but I mentioned to them I was coming to the festival and I asked them if they’d mind if I came by to talk. They have both used some of Sheldon’s research in their work and it fits in with some ideas I had that I wanted to run by them.’ Penny didn’t want the trip to turn into a seminar for Missy so she’d been wondering how to bring this up.

‘Are you really going to pull a Sheldon on me?’ Missy smirked and shook her head sadly at her friend.

‘Who’s Sheldon?’

‘Sheldon was my twin brother, dead now. He was a physics genius, sci-fi nerd, and the general pain in the ass that kept me from enjoying the Aachen Festival the last time I was here. It looks like Penny wants to try his nerd hat on for size.’

‘I’m sorry, Missy. I didn’t want to drag you to this stuff so I didn’t mention it. Actually, maybe Helen would like to show you around, that is if you have the time. I wouldn’t-‘

‘I’d love to take Missy around the festival. I’ve finished my performances but I still have to help out with the team behind the scenes. How do you feel about getting yourself dirty with some horses and riders, tomorrow? You’ll get a better view of the events with us than up in the stands.’ Helen was sure Missy would be able to handle herself in the environment.

‘I’d love it.’ Missy clasped Helen’s hand in delight.

Helen filled Missy in on some of the things she would be a help with for the team. The riders would only want team members working directly with them and the horses and equipment but all three women knew there was always more work than hands for it at any horse show. Helen said she’d have to clear it with Peter and the other coaches but she didn’t expect any fuss about it so long as the work Missy was doing wasn’t performance related.

‘Do you think you can remember which end of a horse is which, Penny? I can put in a word for you if you’d like to join Missy and me.’

‘Try to keep me out of it.’ The women toasted to tomorrow and chatted on about the festival and the trip. Penny also noticed Helen and Missy kept finding each other’s hands while they talked.

They found Peter later in the evening to run the idea past him before Penny and Missy headed out to their hotel. He asked a few questions to feel better about their qualifications to work with horses before he agreed. He wanted them to meet the other coaches tomorrow so they could have a say but he figured there would be no problems. Either way, he said they were both welcome to come watch with the team as Helen’s guests.

+++

Penny and Missy were woken early by Helen’s phone call. ‘You both know the animals get fed first so with that done, I called to see if you wanted to get breakfast with me?’

They chose a café close to the stadium and their hotels, Kantine am Schlachthof. It was short walk and a beautiful morning so Penny and Missy told Helen they’d walk there in about twenty minutes. Missy asked about the university meetings and some of the work Penny would be talking about while they walked to the restaurant.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to come with me to the university? You’ve got a pretty good handle on what we’ll be talking about.’

‘I’m quite sure. I got interested in Sheldon’s work but physics can’t compete with horses in my book.’

‘I’m sure Helen would agree with you. Don’t go having all the fun with her.’ Penny let the silence speak while Missy undid her hair and looked in a mirror and redid the ponytail she had started out with.

‘I want to go back to Texas.’ Missy grumbled and put the mirror away.

Helen was waiting at a table with coffees ready when they arrived. They all got the set menu for the morning breakfast. The meal of brötchen with butter and honey. The mix of cheeses, fresh vegetables, and various cold sliced meats on the side went perfect with the coffee. Helen and Missy went over the work they’d be doing while they ate. Penny let them do the talking while she checked the time difference before she called Bernadette to see how things were going back in California. She expected Bernadette would be up working with the nine hour time difference. It would be about 10:00pm in Pasadena so Penny hoped the call didn’t wake Halley.

‘Penny, how are you both doing in Germany?’

‘It’s better than we hoped so far. The festival is fantastic. We are going to get to work with the horses, today. Missy will be at that first, though, I’ll be at the university here visiting some of the professors before I get time with the horses.’ Penny went on to explain about Helen and how they got involved with her at the festival. Bernadette was happy for them even if she couldn’t see the attraction for working with the horses.

Bernadette did want to find out from Penny some of her house mojo techniques. Halley kept finding her way into Penny’s rooms to play with the Care Bears. Penny assured her that wasn’t a problem until she found out Howard kept getting spooked whenever he went looking for Halley up there. He said the toys would get thrown at him and he was sure Halley was floating across the floor at one point. Bernadette told her about a few more incidents Howard had had in Penny’s rooms but Bernie never saw anything when he brought her up to show her. She was sure Howard was going to drive her crazy before long with his paranoia about the study.

‘I can give you a good whammy to fix the problem. You remember which model the Serenity is, don’t you? Just go upstairs and pick it up. Tell the room in your best ruined laundry voice Penny says you can kiss the Serenity and all the other models goodbye if you don’t knock it off.’

‘Are you sure that will work? Howard has been holed up down in the basement whenever he comes home since you left. It’s weird since I haven’t had a problem. Halley and I play up there a lot because she’s been missing you something awful.’

‘I’ll call later your time for Halley. We can Skype it from the hotel here. Just text me what time would be good for you. Make sure to do the Serenity whammy, tonight. I think the problem’s like when we moved in. The house’s aura has changed since I left so you’ve got to let the place know who’s in charge again. Just don’t ever let Howard do it. I don’t think it would work out well for him. The energy is all wrong; a woman needs to cast the aura cleansing.’ Penny couldn’t imagine the magnitude of disaster if Howard threatened Sheldon’s models. Penny said goodbye to Bernie after a few more minutes of chatting and then she finished up her breakfast.

‘Are you ready to go to work, Missy?’ Helen was itching to get back to the stables.

‘I am at that. How is everyone in Pasadena, Penny?’

‘They’re fine except Howard says the house is acting up. Bernadette will set things straight. I’m going to pop back to the hotel and get some files I want to bring to the university. I’ll give you two a call when I’m done.’

‘That sounds like a plan, are we all ready to go?’ Missy was just as itching to get close to the horses.

They said their goodbyes outside. Missy wanted to call home while she walked with Helen so she called Texas and told Penny she’d say hi to everybody for her. Penny watched the twosome heading off to the stadium complex. She smiled at seeing Missy reaching out for Helen’s hand while they walked.

+++

Penny started back to the hotel. She checked the time on her phone and wondered what was taking so long. She hoped Bernadette had taken her advice. The Ghostbuster’s ringtone sounded before she could put her phone back. Penny laughed at the video call waiting with the Darth Vader emoji. She saw a bus stop up ahead where she could sit for this. Sheldon looked positively grim which delighted Penny.

‘Hey Moonpie, how are you doing on this lovely morning? In Germany, at any rate.’

‘I am shocked that you would tell Bernadette to vandalize the Serenity.’

‘She didn’t vandalize the Serenity, Sheldon.’ Penny giggled at his growing dudgeon.

‘How are you so certain of that when you are in Germany?’

‘I could say it is from all the time I spend with Maleva but I can see the model behind you. This is a video call, after all.’ Penny laughed at the double take from Sheldon.

‘No matter, threatening violence is just as bad, Penny.’

‘Does that include threatening Howard?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about.’

‘From what Bernie said you almost decapitated him with a Batleth.’

‘That was an unfortunate accident. I was checking their centers of gravity so they could be remounted out of Halley’s reach.’

‘I’ve got Wil Wheaton’s number on speed dial, honey. I know he’d love to make an offer for the model collection. I might even ask if he’s interested in comics.’ Penny hoped she wouldn’t have to go to extremes like that but Sheldon’s antics would only get worse while she was away.

‘Penny, he keeps coming up here and rearranging everything.’ The petulance in Sheldon’s voice signaled to her that the threat was sinking in.

‘He only goes in there to play with Halley and that’s because you keep letting her in there.’

‘Her precociousness demands attention, Penny. Halley learned to assemble her chemistry blocks in the correct order of the periodic table in less than a half hour. Are you and Bernadette certain Howard is the father?’

‘Yes, that was amazing but not the point. Howard is Halley’s father,’ Penny rolled her eyes the Spock eyebrow Sheldon was shading her with, ‘He isn’t about to leave her alone for hours on end.’

‘May I remind you of the space babe movie marathon with Raj just last month?’

‘No one’s perfect but also not the point. It can’t just be Bernie and me up in the study now that Halley’s here. Stop spooking Howard.’

‘Very well, I will allow Howard access but only to attend to Halley.’

‘Thank you, Sheldon. How are you holding up while Missy and I are here?’

‘I’m dead. There’s not a lot of change in my existence. Are you both in horse heaven and ignoring the greater sights around Aachen?’

Penny told Sheldon about the trip up to date. She let him give her several reminders about topics to discuss with Prof. Bauschinger but he was scandalized that her greater excitement was for working with the horses later today.

‘I cannot believe you will cut short the opportunity to discuss string theory with one of Germany’s leading authorities on the subject in order to play with horses.’

‘It was his idea. He’s taking his wife there this afternoon. He asked me if he could introduce her to me since she loves The Coven. Besides, I can’t leave Missy to have all the fun.’

‘it is unsurprising Missy would take advantage of this equine hullabaloo. I hope she is enjoying it.’

‘I am pretty sure she is and not just for the horses.’ Penny put off Sheldon’s questions since she didn’t want to second guess what Missy and Helen might find together.

‘I see you wish to be mysterious about my sister but I hope you are not neglecting your options. Meeting Prof. Bauschinger is a rare opportunity, Penny. Do not let the lure of horses narrow your focus. The options to further your career in Europe are vast.’

Penny let Sheldon lecture on. She was happy just to listen to him but she did wonder why he was acting more like a Hollywood agent ever since the séance.

+++

The afternoon went better than they hoped. Penny thanked Helen a dozen different times. As much as she was happy to leave Nebraska, her love of the horses and horse shows back there had never left her. Penny sent off a few short video logs to Micky to use for story ideas. She got quite a laugh out of Jason’s call. He kept trolling the fansites about how Kaley would be leaving Cristoph for Europe for a new love interest next season. Her video logs to Micky quickly became part of Jason’s inspired trolling. She sent a text to Paul to keep his husband in line. It did make her think about Missy and Helen. They kept managing to do a lot of work together. Penny found them in the stables around dinner time.

‘I got invited to dinner with Prof. Bauschinger and his wife. Do you want to come or would you like to skip the table chat about the superiority of string theory over other cosmological descriptions of the known universe?’

‘We both know what Sheldon would say but I was hoping you wouldn’t mind going without me.’ Missy shrugged her shoulders and glanced at Helen but she was studiously occupied with checking one of the stall’s water and hay for the night.

‘I don’t mind at all,’ Penny lowered her voice, ‘not to sound like your mom but give me a call if you’re going to be ‘late’ tonight.’ Penny wiggled her eyebrows and chuckled at Missy’s blush and uncanny resemblance to Sheldon when he got nervous.

Missy got back late, or early for breakfast depending on your point of view, for the rest of the week. Helen came to see them off on the ferry they were taking up to Cologne. Missy waved to Helen on the pier side until she was out of sight. Penny put her arm around Missy’s waist and drew her close.

‘What am I supposed to do now, Penny?’

‘You haven’t seen the last of Helen if you’re wondering about her. She is tenacious toward anything she puts her mind to. What do you want to do about you?’

Missy watched the ship’s wake spread out behind stern. She leaned close into Penny and pondered Maleva’s tarot reading.

+++

The weeks passed too quickly for both travelers. Cologne and its awesome cathedral. They climbed the Lorelai Rock where the siren of the Rhine lured sailors to their deaths. They visited the Dreiländereck monument at Basel where the borders of France, Switzerland, and Germany intersect. Basel’s Old Town and the Mittlere Bridge made them properly annoying tourists with cameras. The horse academies and art shows along the river course south drew them on to Lake Constance where they made a point to see many lakeside sights like the Pile Dwelling Museum, a reconstruction of the prehistoric dwellings that once dotted the lake. They loved the 12th century castle and museum Burg Meersburg. The high country air of the mountain lake swept away any desire to think about home while they sailed from Switzerland to Austria. They made land in Bregenz, Austria. Missy made a special point to visit the Bregenz Forest Railway. An historic Austrian train museum she had heard Sheldon lament he never got the chance to visit. Penny didn’t have to imagine long what Sheldon’s reaction would be when he saw the video files she sent to Los Robles Cottage.

‘We are not spending the day here, Sheldon.’

‘But Penny, the chance to explore this exhibit should be savored. There are also several other museums related to locomotives nearby on the lake.‘

‘No, Sheldon, we are pushing on to Styria. Maleva’s cousins want to meet us so we are heading east. I bought some books and stuff from the museum and had them mail it to Los Robles. That should tide you over, honey.’

‘Very well, this is your vacation, I suppose. Thank you for visiting the railway museum for me.’

Penny said her goodbyes but she couldn’t help thinking Sheldon let the museum issue drop awfully fast for him.

‘What is up with you?’

‘What’s up with who?’

Missy pointed to the phone in curiosity. She offered Penny a coffee and sat down on the bench with her.

‘A friend back home is acting kind of strange over our vacation.’

‘Not someone you’re dating, I hope?’

‘No, nothing like that. He’s dead to the world most of the time and buried in textbooks, comics, and Sci-Fi TV.’

‘Lord that sounds like Sheldon!’ Missy laughed at the idea but she couldn’t help thinking about how much of Sheldon’s memory lingered around Penny.

‘Maybe, I’ve been thinking about the séance and what Maleva said about letting go of the past when she was reading your cards. I relived a lot of things while I was possessed in the séance, especially when Kurt died. I was holding on to so much anger because I couldn’t tell him what I felt.’

‘Is that bothering you, now?’

‘No, but I got to meet him just before he died again. I told him how I felt but mostly I just wanted to let all that go. What about you? Maleva was talking about your cards when she talked about letting the past go. What do you think she meant for you?’

‘Helen asked me something like that; she’s thinking of taking a job in Bavaria. She asked me if I’d think about getting back into horses. I was flattered as all get out but I’m not at her level. That’s all more hobby for me these days. The competitions were taking all the fun out of it. That’s why I gave up that circuit. I just like riding the horses. I did like your idea of getting back into TV production but I’m not ready for Hollywood work.’

‘Don’t cut yourself short, there. No one will expect you to know everything.’

‘We both know a couple of years odd jobbing around local Texas TV stations isn’t close to what you do. I can’t believe I’m saying this but schooling is what I need before I try your idea. Look at Connor and Sol, I am not much better than they are. Would your studio hire them for much more than janitors? Really, how many folks with samples like that video they made on the hunting trip ask you to look at something they filmed? How many show up at your studio with no better than some webseries they made in their garage or empty house next door?’ Missy looked thoughtfully at the railway rolling out with another group of tourists.

‘You should talk to Laura Karnstein about what to do. She teaches Media Studies at her college, I’m sure she has a broader idea about getting an education in media than I do.’

+++

Chapter Text

Penny called Laura before they left Breganze to say they’d visit her at her university the day after tomorrow. They wanted to take their time traveling. The steep hills and mountains of Austria were a world away from the flat lands of Galveston or Nebraska. Penny loved the hills of Pasadena but they were an arid country that was nothing like these thick forests of beech, hemlock, pine, and oak. Small waterfalls appeared like magic fountains from ledges hidden in the trees. The mountainous geography kept the towns small and the roads quiet compared to the Rhineland they’d started from weeks ago.

The Karnstein valley seemed like a rural oasis from a century ago compared to the route they’d been on from Lake Constance. They followed Laura’s directions as well as they could but with no Google Maps in Germany or Austria it had proven easy to get lost on the rural roadways. They stopped to get lunch in a small pub they’d seen three times, the Reinfeldthof. They were both frustrated from their circling meander through the valley.

‘Would you like rooms for the night?’ A tall middle aged and heavy set man came out from the kitchen to greet them at the bar.

‘Well, we stopped to get lunch but I guess it depends on how lost we are. Do you know how to get to Le Fanu University?’ Penny was tired from her turn at the wheel and more so from being so lost.

‘Of course, are you new students?’ He introduced himself as Lukas, the owner. He led them to the dining room and invited them to try the local beer since the day was hot and sunny.

‘No, we’re visiting friends at the university. We’re supposed to meet them soon but I don’t know if we’ll get there in time at this rate.’ Missy was embarrassed since the instructions had seemed easy to follow when they started out but the roads in the valley were strangely confusing.

‘I imagine the lack of road signs are your problem. We know the roads and the valley is not on the road to any big attractions in the region so travelers are always getting lost around here.’ He read through Laura’s instructions and added a few details about landmarks to help the women find their way.

They finished up their lunch and had coffee after their beers to take some time before driving again. Missy asked about Karnstein Castle and if it was nearby.

‘Yes, it is about a half hour drive from the university. It is a shame you didn’t visit during the winter. The Countess hosts our Facshing festival at the castle during the week of the Epiphany. All the breweries and wineries bring their latest creations for the festival and the Countess and her wife host a competition for the best wines and beers.’

‘If it’s anything like the beer you served us, we might just come back.’ Penny had loved the hops rich brew.

‘Ah, it was made by my wife, Lena. She makes it only for our restaurant. The Countess’s wife chose it as the winning beer at the last festival.’ He swept back to the bar and brought two more bottles as gifts for his lost guests.

Penny and Missy promised to stop on their way back to have some more of his wife’s excellent creation. The amended directions soon found them on the right track. Their proper road had been a turning which looked more like a forest pathway. It had been easy to miss so they’d kept circling back on themselves before. A half hour drive brought them to the gates of Laura’s university.

The entrance was made of four dark red granite pillars with wrought ironwork arches that supported the heavy gates in between the pillars. It gave the impression of a medieval fortress entrance rather than a university. The rode circled around a common that was planted with oak and beech trees that were large enough to be several centuries old at least. The buildings around the common were made of the same dark red granite in an ornate Gothic architecture. The granite was darkened with heavy moss and ivy climbing the buildings’ exteriors. The names of the buildings were carved in dark grey marble over the entrances. They found Laura’s building, Hisselius Hall set back from the other buildings. It was Gothic like the others with a crenelated roof top and central clock tower. The building seemed to brood over the campus.

‘This place looks like you’d find the vampires in your show hanging around here.’ Missy chuckled at Penny’s gawking.

‘We should just film here. It would save a mint on set design. Heck, folks would probably say we were overdoing it.’ Penny loved the look of the place. She could easily imagine Kaley casting some spell on the common under one of the sprawling ancient oak trees.

A young woman came out of the main door and hurried down the steps. Penny guessed she was about Bernadette’s height and had long unruly strawberry blonde hair. She was dressed in a pale blue blouse half tucked into black jeans and had dirty worn-looking Converse sneakers on. Penny guessed she might be a student when she started calling her name.

‘Penny, Penny Queen, I can’t believe you are here! I have been watching your show since day one. You’ve got to let me take a picture with you. You don’t mind do you?’

‘Sure, could you help us Missy?’ Penny laughed and posed for a few shots.

‘Do you know where we can find Prof. Laura Karnstein?’ Missy didn’t want to keep the woman waiting any longer.

‘I’m Laura. I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself, oh lord, I apologize for acting like such a fan girl. I just never thought I’d meet Kaley Jenkins in real life. I know why am I dressed like this? It’s reading week so we can let our hair down with the students away. Come on up to my rooms, I’ve got some chamomile brewing or would you like something else?’

Penny and Missy both said the tea was fine and followed her inside. Laura’s mile a minute delivery made the talking one sided but her energy was infectious so they soon forgot the long drive here.

‘You do look young to be a full professor.’ Penny was still surprised Laura was a teacher here.

‘Carmilla and I both get that when we travel. We still get carded in places which annoys her to no end.’

‘We thought your wife’s name was Mircalla. Her cousin Maleva called her that.’

‘Yeah, that’s her name but we were roommates here from freshman year. She didn’t want folks to know she was the Countess Mircalla Karnstein that owned the place so she switched the letters around, Carmilla Kranstien, like no one has ever heard of an anagram before. I guess it worked, though. I didn’t know who she was for months. Her parents sent her here out of family tradition. Let me give you a tour of the campus.’

Laura explained the history of the university while they toured the campus. ‘Count Johann Karnstein hired an Irish priest, Father Joseph Le Fanu to teach his daughters theology and topics appropriate to daughters of the aristocracy. He spent a year and a half teaching them religion and all the other virtues for ladies. You know, stuff like dancing, etiquette, and brainless simpering. I guess for the 17th century the guy was open minded, anyway he was so happy with Le Fanu’s results he founded the school in 1680 as a finishing school for daughters of the nobility. Le Fanu was the first and only male president of the school. The old count and the priest were pretty serious about the school’s purpose. The Karnsteins made it a tradition that all their daughters studied here for a year and a half, the term for those daughters of Count Joseph. They made it tuition free for the girls of the valley subject to the entrance exam and it still is to this day. Carm jokes about that all the time. It’s always been a women’s only school so that’s why the valley and her family got their evil reputation, giving the forbidden apple of knowledge to women all over again.’

Laura’s pride in her alma mater showed in her enthusiasm. The pride of the school was the library and museum complex. It drew researchers of medieval manuscripts from across Europe. The school was renowned for its philosophy department. The history and theater departments were also well respected in Austria. The media arts department that Laura was part of was a relatively new addition to the school and still finding its feet. She was also a great fan of the school’s kitchens.

‘You’re so lucky getting here this week. The chefs do some of the best meals when we aren’t in session because they aren’t rushing to feed a couple thousand people three times a day.’

Penny and Missy were ravenous from the trip so they were happy to trust Laura’s lead. They ate in the faculty club which was a second floor mezzanine above the main dining hall. A dark wood grating made the club room opaque to the grand hall below yet allowed the professors to keep an eye on the students below.

‘This place looks like Hogwarts.’ Penny gaped at the size of the grand hall. It felt cavernous and spooky with no one in it.

‘It’s a thing a lot of schools this old do in Europe. The students and teachers all eat together but we just do that with dinners.’ Laura led them up the stairs to the club. The room had a white vaulted ceiling and oak wood floors. Ornate 19th century style gas lamps lit the room. A sidebar was set up with a lunch buffet. The smell drew the visitors like bees to pollen.

‘Lord, no wonder Sheldon kept talking about the school food over here. This all looks and smells so wonderful.’ Missy forgot about the tedium of the drive with the aroma from the table.

The buffet was set with traditional Austrian dishes. Leberknödel and griessnockerl, veal dumpling and wheat dumpling soups, an Austrian style goulash, and tafelspitz, a boiled veal dish served with minced apple and horseradish, were the main entrée choices along with käsespätzle, a kind of pasta and cheese dish with baked onions on top. The desserts were Laura’s favorite dishes and Missy and Penny were just as sinfully indulgent once they sampled the fresh baked confections. Punschkrapfen, a rum cake was Penny’s favorite. They all loved the sachertorte, a dark chocolate cake with layers of tart apricot jam, Missy loved the kaiserschmarrn, a kind of shredded pancake dusted with powdered sugar and with applesauce on the side. Laura and her guests were especially happy with the Apfelstrudel, the famed apple pastry stuffed with cinnamon and served with a rich handmade vanilla ice cream.

They lingered over their coffees with occasional trips back to the desserts. The travelers agreed the university cooks had made some of the best food they’d had on this entire trip.

‘Like I said, the staff gets to relax and enjoy the job at times like this. They outdid themselves, today, though. Carmilla would never forgive me if I didn’t bring home any of that sachertorte.’ Laura called the steward over and asked if she could get another one boxed and sent up. Do you want to take any of the desserts? They make plenty.’

Missy asked for more of the strudel and kaiserschmarrn. Penny had to have more of the punschkrapfen. One of the kitchen staff came back with the pastries boxed and bagged for travel a few minutes later. They headed back to the rental car with their pastries. They waited for Laura to get her car to lead them on the right roads this time.

The road grew narrow and wound close and high to the mountain side. Ceder, hemlocks, and larch dominated the trees and the thickness made the road dark and hemmed in despite the bright summer afternoon sun. They drove for twenty minutes until they came out of the forest into dazzling sunlight. Laura pulled over to the side so Penny followed suit. Their guide got out of her car and waved to them to follow her across the road. They were on a hillside high above the valley floor. A river flowed down below and they could see farms and a village settled along the river course. They walked for about five minutes out into the field and then Laura pointed upriver.

‘Holy smokes!’ Penny thought the sight had materialized out of a fairytale.

‘That is fantastic’ Missy was enchanted. It was Maleva’s painting brought to life. Beautiful as it had been on canvas it didn’t compare to this sight. ‘Is this where you painted Maleva’s picture of the castle?'

‘Pretty much but that was in fall with all the fog and the colors of the forest. I’ve never been able to capture this summer light on the place just right, especially the forest greens.’ Laura shook her head and huffed with the impatience of an artist.

The river passed in front of the eminence the castle was built on. The road crossed a stone bridge below and went up towards the mountain and Karnstein and passed out of sight. Laura pointed out where the road disappeared and told them the eastern branch went through the forest to her family home about three miles to the east. The valley must never have been troubled by the conflicts of the 20th century. The drive through the village to the castle felt like driving into a fantasy of an antique Austria when the Sultan’s armies threatened the gates of Vienna instead of the 21st century. The castle did have concessions to the modern world that let them in easier than an invading army of old. A side road led up to the lower turret of the outer eastern wall. They drove in and the path wound around the outside of the castle’s inner garden and up into an actual garage where they could park. Besides their two cars there were seven different vintage motorcycles.

‘Who’s the bike rider?’ Missy walked over to the collection to get a better look.

‘Carmilla loves to collect them. She would rather ride a motorcycle in the worst weather than sit in a car. There’s an elevator up to the family quarters of the castle down that hall but we can walk up outside if you’d like the view. I wouldn’t mind pretending I’ve worked off some of that dessert.’

‘I’m for it, how about you, Missy.’

‘Sure.’ She took a last long look at the bikes and thought she might just be of the same mind as Carmilla.

They climbed up through the garden park. Missy and Penny snapped dozens of pictures of the magnificent view of the valley and the garden itself. Laura pointed out the fields far down river where she’d painted the castle from. She led them into a doorway on the eastern side of the fortress wall that looked daunting to climb.

‘Don’t worry, there’s another elevator in here that will get us upstairs the modern way.’

The elevator took them up to the central courtyard of the castle proper. The eastern side was a working area. It had a conveyor bridge to bring supplies up to the castle from the village far below. There were also storage rooms and work rooms for the staff that maintained the castle. The western side had an outdoor kitchen and storage rooms for the kitchen’s work. The south side was dominated by a tower on the eastern corner. The tower had a clockwork easily read by the village below and a massive bell that tolled the hours. The north side had a simple dining room and several smaller rooms that were used to entertain in the hot summer months.

‘Carmilla should be awake and wandering around by now, I hope.’ She led them downstairs to the next level and one of the castle’s large inner galleries. They started down to the western end where the family rooms were located away from a few tourists that were being guided through the castle until a young girl called out Penny’s character’s name. They stopped to say hello to the family touring from Italy. Laura and Missy played photographers for a moment with the excited girl and the mystified parents who had no idea who Penny was until their daughter told them about her show. She said she couldn’t wait to upload the pics to her blog if Penny didn’t mind.

‘I’ll bet that will make it to the Hexists.’ Laura chuckled and waved goodbye with Penny and Missy to the family after the picture taking was done.

‘The who?’

‘Those are the fans who think I’m really a witch. I live in a reputedly haunted house, been accused of being a witch in open court, and now I’m visiting an ancient European castle that is supposed to be home to immortal evil.’ Penny laughed looking forward to reading what they’d make of her this time.

‘I know their site. They will be frantic when they put you and this place’s reputation together. Don’t say anything to Carm. I get teased enough about me and the show already.’

‘Is it really as bad as immortal evil?’ Missy couldn’t imagine the place as anything but a wonderful fairy tale.

‘Maleva must have told you some of the stories about the place. The Karnstein family are all supposed to be in league with the devil and are all sorcerers and vampires.’

‘And they made that old Hammer film about them with Ingrid Pitt.’ Penny recalled just then.

‘Hah! She played ‘Carmilla’ I play that one for Carm every Valentines.’ Laura smirked and brought them over to the window to tell them some stories about the castle and pointed out areas of the garden and the valley that made up some of the lore about the Karnstein family that drew visitors to the castle.

‘Maleva made it sound like you never had any visitors here.’ Penny hadn’t expected such a chatterbox as Laura after her psychic said they were so reclusive.

‘She’s not wrong but it’s easy to never see anyone touring the place. It’s only the parts we came in through that are open to the tourists. The gardens, the upstairs, and the eastern galleries with all the paintings and the public displays of the castle antiques. Oh, and the dungeon. You’ve got to have wracks and thumbscrews and chains and all the other medieval bric-a-brac folks expect in a place like this. We hide out down here during the tourist times. Mal’s letter really struck a chord with Carmilla. She’s always trusted Mal’s opinions.’

They went down a short flight of stairs to another gallery that looked more like the proportions of a home instead of a castle. They went into a room on the north side, the family salon.

‘Good morning, you folks are up and around early.’ Countess Mircalla von Karnstein was pouring a cup of hot chocolate. She was slightly taller than her wife. She had tousled and uncombed jet black hair and was dressed in a white nightgown and black bathrobe and pink fluffy cat face slippers.

‘It’s three in the afternoon, Carm.’ Laura gave her a quick kiss and handed her the sachertorte.

‘You are so cranky in the morning. Welcome to Karnstein, Penny and Missy.’

‘Hi, I’m sorry if we are bothering you…’ Penny had no idea how to start with this woman nor did Missy.

‘Bothering?’ Carmilla looked at Laura in confusion.

‘It’s fine, don’t worry about Carm. I have never seen her up before noon and that included school. She went to classes all of five times in her three semesters there and only two of those were classes she was enrolled in.’

‘Come on over to the table and get comfortable before the truant officer hauls me in for a spanking. There’s coffee and hot chocolate ready. I am sorry, I don’t do breakfast so I hope the human equivalent of a hyper-caffeinated squirrel got you something to eat. It will take a while for the cook to get something more substantial up here if you want anything besides pastry and fruit.’

‘That’s the roommate I had for a year and a half, right there.’

Penny and Missy couldn’t help laughing at the bantering between the women. ‘Didn’t you like going to Le Fanu?’

‘I might have if it had been my choice, Penny, but I got pulled out of uni in Basel to fulfill family tradition. I can’t imagine why Laura put up with me through our first semester.’

‘Or the other two,’ Laura rolled her eyes and chortled, ‘but I wasn’t going to get forced out of my dorm room by a rude, pretentious, smug know-it-all.’

Penny and Missy laughed at the way Laura said it, it reminded them both so much of Sheldon.

‘I was the one that came close to moving out. I came up here to open up some rooms and ran into Laura in the upper gallery crying and talking to herself about her evil roommate. It was sobering hearing what a jerk I was in my own home. I went to talk to her but she spun around and almost hit me with a cricket bat she was carrying.’

Penny had to laugh at the home grown memories invoked by the story so far.

‘I was used to this side of the castle being empty. I’d been coming up here most of my life so the staff would let me wander around everywhere. I always came here to talk to my mom ever since she died. Carm scared the crap out of me that day but we finally talked to each other. I could have died when she told me she was the Countess Mircalla Karnstein. I’d been so used to coming here all my life I felt like it was like my second home so don’t think that revelation didn’t make me want to jump off one of the walls.’

The travelers asked some more questions about the castle and the Karnsteins. The guests shared their own family stories. The talk soon had an air that was nothing but shared homeliness between the women. Carmilla embraced the sachertorte like a lost child and poured a generous cup of coffee to go with it. The other women satisfied themselves with the apple, pear, and orange slices in the serving bowls. Missy and Penny joined Carmilla in the coffee while Laura chose the hot chocolate that was her favorite drink when she came home from the university.

The Karnsteins asked about Penny and her show but Maleva had been right about Carmilla’s greater interest in the physics and also her thoughts on the psychic world. She had been a philosophy major at the University of Basel so Penny’s ideas were eagerly explored in spite of Laura’s muttering to Missy about philosophy majors. ‘What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a philosopher? An offer you can’t understand.’

Missy and Laura giggled and shared a few more jokes on esoteric majors. Carmilla and Penny glanced over at the laughter. Carmilla looked at her wife with a wry quirk to her mouth. ‘What I never told Laura about that first day we had here, Penny, was that I had come here to get a tongue tearer from the dungeon, or a Pearl of Anguish. I hadn’t decided which at the time.’

‘I suppose both would have been savagery.’

‘Indeed, we Karnsteins have always stood for civilization. I do apologize for ignoring you, Missy. I heard you ask Laura about the motorcycles just before.’

Carmilla was overjoyed to have another motorcyclist in the house. They swapped some biking stories but they both had the same urge between them. ‘Do you feel up to riding them?’

‘Right now?’

‘That’s all we ever have.’

Laura’s head hit the table. ‘Philosophy majors, why did I marry a philosophy major?’

Missy seized Laura’s hand in sympathy and telling her physics majors were just as bad.

‘Et tu, Missy?’ Penny grinned turned to Carmilla. ‘I never learned to ride a motorcycle, horses sure, but not bikes.’

‘Carm, that’s perfect. Penny and I can hang on and we can go down to visit the horses. My horse just recovered from colic. She got ahold of too much new grass.’

Everyone seconded Laura’s idea to visit the mews so riding clothes were the next problem. Penny and Missy didn’t have anything for motorcycle riding and the Karnsteins had nothing in their sizes. They scoured the work rooms on the upper floor and found some heavy leather jackets the men used during autumn workdays and leather work gloves as well for the taller women.

‘They’re not perfect fits but they’re better than nothing if you have a slide.’ Missy thanked their friends for the find. She was eager to try the vintage bikes down stairs.

They hurried to the elevator down to the garage after Carmilla and Laura changed into their motorcycle wear. Once in the garage, Penny and Missy got their riding boots and some heavier jeans out of their luggage. Laura called for some staff to bring their luggage up to their rooms so they wouldn’t have to deal with it when they got back. Penny and Missy were embarrassed to take advantage of their hospitality.

‘I know we’ll be crowded in on top of each other here but we’ll muddle through somehow. There’s always space in the dungeon. The tourists would love a live re-enactment’ Carmilla waved off anymore protests and directed everyone to the bikes. She offered Missy the first choice.

She walked up and down the line chewing her lip in thought but she had to choose the one that had caught her eye from the start, the T120 Triumph Bonneville.

‘Smart choice; that was the first of the collection.’ Carmilla applauded and tossed the keys to her from the key cabinet and then got the ones for her ride tonight, the Norton 850 Commando.

Laura rode with her wife and Penny mounted up with Missy. Carmilla took the lead with an easy pace down from the castle height to let Missy get a feel for her ride. She signaled a turn off from the village road and then accelerated. Missy throttled up and Carmilla led a fast chase through the backroads of the farms and forest around the castle. The race slowed to a stop when they came to the Karnstein Mews.

‘Carmilla, you crazed loon! How could you do that to Missy and Penny!’ Laura slapped Carmilla’s helmeted head. She was familiar with Carmilla’s adrenaline junkie driving but she was afraid for her guests.

‘Yeah! That was epic Steve McQueen territory.’

‘I need to learn how to ride one of these.’

Laura got off the bike along with the others. She watched in bewilderment while the three women chattered over each other. That was a hell ride as far as she was concerned. ‘Carm, before you and your new Amazon biker gang get matching tattoos and swear a blood oath could we look at the horses.’ She stomped into the mews leaving silence in her wake.

‘She hates it when I drive like that. Hang back and give me a minute. I’m trusting you to bust me out of the dungeon later, just in case.’ Carmilla hurried after her unsettled wife.

Missy talked about the bikes they’d ridden and some of the films these models had been used in to cut the tension while they waited. Laura’s voice carried intermittently and they took the silences for Carmilla answering her wife’s anger. They kept a guarded eye on the door until Carmilla came to the entrance and waved an all clear. The travelers followed Carmilla in and Missy added her apology to Carmilla’s for going along with the race. Laura had a sheepish air after exploding in front of her guests and everyone passed mea culpas until they laughed at how foolish they were starting to sound.

Penny took in the size of the mews. ‘You could fit fifty horses in here and they’d feel lonely.’

‘Once upon a time, but now the village runs the mews for everyone. Our stalls are these four,’ the guests noted the Karnstein crest on the doors, ‘the rest are for people with sick or injured animals that need treatment or animals that are ready to foal. The vets can get to them easier here than running up and down the valley.’

Laura brought them over to one of the crested stalls. A chestnut colored true Thoroughbred came to the door snuffling for Laura’s familiar hand that always held some sugar cubes. ‘This one is my poor sickie, Hermione. You’re getting better, though, aren’t you honey?’

Carmilla rolled her eyes and steered the guests to the last of the four stalls where a pure black Arabian stallion stamped for attention. The horse nickered and refused to look at anyone but Carmilla. ‘That one is Draco Malfoy.’

‘His name is General Spielsdorf.’ Carmilla frowned and apologized for Laura’s rudeness to her proud friend. The horse leaned his head to her for a welcome scratch behind the ears.

‘You call him whatever you want but I will call him who he really is. That horse hates everyone on earth except Carmilla.’

Carmilla shrugged her shoulders and smirked with the laughs of the other three horsewomen. Horses were no different than people having those they liked, or disliked, or could do without. They had all known horses that could do without anyone except one rider for no reason anyone other than the horse could understand. Next to Carmilla’s horse was Snape, a sturdy black and white Morgan horse stallion that would bite and stamp on your feet but it never left its rider even if you dropped the reins when walking. And nothing ever spooked him. Last was another Thoroughbred mare, this one all white that Laura called Lily because Snape followed her everywhere and would never act up around her.

Penny and Missy had dozens of questions while they checked out the mews. The women inspected the whole place and talked to the people working there about their jobs and working with the animals. Carmilla and Laura took a keen interest in all the animals. They still owned the mews but the village ran the mews. Their particular concern was that the village council made sure the mews provided the stabling and medical services free to the poorer farm families since the expense of sick animals could break them in a bad year. They finished the tour by giving a couple more treats to the Karnstein horses. They went back to the bikes after deciding it was getting late to ride the horses but they were slow to get started.

‘You two want to ride more, don’t you? Just don’t drive like a couple of lunatics, please?’

Carmilla and Missy promised no more racing before they got back on their bikes. They headed out back toward the castle but Carmilla took the eastern road that led higher up the mountain and into the forestland behind the castle. The winding road followed the track of the mountain. The sun had fallen behind the hills to the west so the forest took on an eerie mood. They passed through several covered stone bridges that Missy wanted to return to with her camera when the light was better, tomorrow. The last one they crossed was older and more rickety than the others. They came to a stop in front of a decaying mansion overgrown with bracken. Moonlight glimmered on the broken window panes. The open field across the road glimmered with fireflies rising in the gloaming. The women got off their bikes to walk around.

‘It looks like a haunted house.’ Missy asked Carmilla and Laura about the place.

‘That’s my family’s house. My dad loved the seclusion here. It was his little bit of England but he died years ago. The property is so far out of the way no one wanted it. The road we took keeps too close to the mountain so its’s prone to avalanche and landslide. That’s why the road comes to an end here. The village decided to let the mountain and forest have their way. There are no ghosts here, except for me.’ Laura sighed and kicked at some rocks.

‘You get too maudlin when you come here, Laura.’ Carmilla hugged her wife from behind and drew her back from her melancholic reverie.

‘I can’t help it. You must understand, Penny. Don’t you miss your husband like that?’

‘No, can’t say I do.’ Penny huffed. She hadn’t thought of Kurt at all since the séance. This was the last place she expected any reminders.

‘I thought you were some super romantic couple? That’s what all the fansites say, anyway.’

‘Don’t believe everything you read online.’ Penny rolled her eyes and shook her head. She felt sorry to kill the happy mood so abruptly. ‘They don’t tell you everything.’ She sighed and walked off into the meadow not wanting to be reminded of him anymore.

Carmilla gripped her wife a little tighter and whispered a plea in her ear to not rush in trying to fix things right now. She glanced at Missy for some cue. Missy didn’t want to make the evening more awkward. Penny stood alone in the meadow staring at the crescent moon and she didn’t have a clue what to say. Penny had gotten moodier since the séance. She’d have these odd quiet moments that Missy had never seen before that haunted evening. Carmilla and Penny seemed to speak the same philosophy back in their coffee klatch so she thought Carmilla might coax something more out of Penny.

‘Do you want to try?’ She nodded her head toward Penny. Carmilla smirked and nodded.

Missy linked arms with Laura and started toward the mansion asking about Laura’s family and the house. Carmilla strolled out into the field and stopped next to Penny. They watched the moon in silence. Penny felt the silence of her host after a few minutes.

‘I’m sorry I got all… I’ll go talk to Laura.’

‘You don’t need to. It was your privacy intruded on.’ Carmilla was focused on the moonrise and her thoughts. ‘Mal said you love the moonlight.’

‘Yes, yes I do.’ Penny was caught off by the change of topic. Carmilla glanced at her with a quirked brow and waited quietly.

Penny breathed in the earth rich air. She stared across the meadow into the forest. The upper branches glowed in the moonlight. The depths were black. In those depths the fireflies winked and soared. Her eyes drifted up to the moon. ‘I’ve always felt another world was there in it. One without weight or confinement or limits. If you could take the right step at the right moment you could step through that light and into that other world.’

The silence sat comfortably between them. Penny felt that world she longed for just inches away. It hurt she couldn’t feel the next step to take.

‘I loved my father but he was always the terrible Count Karnstein. I wanted for nothing, except for him to be a father. I tried to be the perfect daughter and the perfect countess. He was never unkind but he wanted a son for an heir.’

Penny was intrigued by the story but she had no idea what it had to do with their moonlight conversation. Carmilla had given her silence to talk so she returned the kindness.

‘I was seventeen when my parents found someone as scandalously rich as we were for a husband.’ Carmilla smirked at Penny’s shocked glance, ‘You’ve got to keep that sweet dosh in the club. I didn’t understand any of that back then but I did know I didn’t want to meet him. I was the heir, I was the countess. I didn’t have any choice.’

Penny tried to imagine this woman with no choice and all the world. She and Kurt had nothing, nothing at all but all the choices they could want despite their parents.

‘Sheridan,’ Carmilla’s sigh was ragged. ‘I haven’t said that name in years. I didn’t want him but… he was kind, intelligent, and he listened to me. No one listened to me before not even my parents. Servants took orders, guests demurred to speak when I talked, and my parents gave me obligations. He was the first to listen and to hear ‘me’. I was undone by that. I thought I could do what my father asked. He announced our engagement on my eighteenth birthday. There was a grand ball. I found out how wrong I was about him that night. He stabbed me through the heart that night.’

Carmilla’s voice faded to a whisper. It carried a note that echoed true in Penny. She reached over to hold Carmilla’s hand. They drew closer. Their grip felt like hands reaching into a pool they were drowning in.

‘My family and I had been living overseas all my life. I ran away. I traveled. It was the first time I ever left my parents. I wasn’t a good traveler but I was adventurous. I ended up in university at Basel but I only got in because I was the countess Karnstein.’ Carmilla chuckled and told Penny about her first philosophy class with Professor Lake. He cared about what she thought. It had angered her he wouldn’t let her hide in her apathy. By the end of the first year she wasn’t angry in her classes, at least.

‘That was the closest I had ever known freedom so when the lawyers came I felt like I was going to be drowned in a coffin of Karnstein blood. My mother was dead and my father was dying. He wanted me to take up the title but I had to go to Le Fanu, tradition über alles. I went. I thought it would be the last duty and I could be rid of everything Karnstein.’

Carmilla drew Penny’s gaze back towards the crumbling mansion. Laura was bounding about reenacting some story for Missy like a ball of fire made flesh. ‘The first time I met her I thought I’d never known love, like I could never be in love again after knowing her. I did everything I could not to feel that, to drive it away. When I heard her telling the halls of my home how much I had hurt her, I knew, I knew I couldn’t protect myself from her anymore… and that was when she swung the cricket bat at me.’

Penny laughed hard and pure and Carmilla joined in with a new closeness forged with the actress.

‘It’s hard to take poets seriously about love. They’re all too pallid to capture love like that.’ Penny kept giggling at Carmilla’s story.

‘Oh, one managed that for me. ‘A fire that burns unseen, a wound that aches yet isn't felt-‘

‘An always discontent contentment, A pain that rages without hurting,’ Penny finished the stanza and pulled Carmilla close to gaze into her eyes with a wondrous recognition. Their smiles beamed in delight and they embraced like long lost sisters.

‘Mal was right. You are touched by that moonlight world, just be careful what love you find there. The love of that world is not of this world. The living are shaped by life, by living the life of this world. Those who love the creatures of that world are daring to love the sirens, the mermaids, and the Lorelei. They come to very bad ends if they are not careful when loving the beings of the other realms because they are not immortal like those beings. The creatures of that world have other ways to the living. Don’t lose yourself to them before your time sister soul.’

Penny pressed her forehead to Carmilla’s and started to cry. There was no lying to this woman any more than to Maleva. ‘I don’t want to. I don’t want to let him go.’

Carmilla pulled her tight and nestled her cheek against Penny’s ear. ‘Take this with you like Odysseus. If you are wrecked on that other shore, you will endure. Yes, and even grief can be turned to happiness when you remember all you have done and endured.’

Penny shivered with Carmilla’s words. She’d asked herself why Sheldon was still at Los Robles many times but she’d never cared about finding an answer. She thought of Mary carrying Sheldon’s death for years like a punishment. She thought of Bernadette begging her to get out of her splendid isolation. She looked at Carmilla. Her lips parted but the feelings couldn’t form into words.

‘Come home and rest.’ Carmilla led Penny back to the bikes.

‘Penny, I’m sorry. Missy told me about Kurt and I was stupid to go fan girling like I knew everything about you from some websites-’

Penny lifted Laura in a bear hug and plunked her down next to Carmilla. She cupped her face with her hands and grinned in delight at the manic chatter Laura was capable of. She looked at Carmilla and nodded.

‘You use the Pearl of Anguish and I’ll use the Tongue Tearer.’

‘Deal! Welcome to family Karnstein.’

Laura rolled her eyes and smacked both women for good measure. She asked Missy about going into the village to eat. It was late and she didn’t want the staff to have to wait up on them all night.

They all agreed it was a great idea. ‘I didn’t invite you reprobates.’

‘My castle, my valley, my rules.’ Carmilla stared at her wife with a wry smirk.

Laura smacked her lips and raised an eyebrow.

‘So, Laura was thinking we should all go into the village to eat. Sound good?’ Carmilla kissed her wife and handed over her helmet.

The bikes started to life and sped away leaving the meadow and the mansion and the echoes of ghosts behind.

Chapter Text

The mountain trails of Styria were a harder workout than the ones Penny was used to in Pasadena. The mountain air was cooler than home with a mist that dampened the ground and softened the sound of her steady pace. She heard something moving through the underbrush to her right but there was nothing she could see. She stopped to look but the early morning light was too dim to make out anything except the nearest undergrowth. She started jogging again toward the castle. The sound returned after another five minutes of her jog. Penny wondered if someone was following her now. She picked up a sturdy branch and slipped into the trees. The wet leaves let her move quietly so she nestled herself into a thick copse of hemlock. The sound started moving along the direction she would have been jogging. She let whatever it was get ahead of her position in the trees. She got back on the jogging trail and walked staying alert for sounds or tracks. She found something in the mud and leaves that looked like a very large cougar track but that was ridiculous for this part of the world. She wondered if some animal might have escaped a zoo because there were no cats this size in Austria.

Penny kept the branch while she walked and kept looking for more signs. If it was a big cat, running would just attract its attention. She found a few more prints that were just as large as the first. The prints weren't expanded by the wetness. This cat was huge. She heard the sound moving in the undergrowth again. The thing seemed to be following her. She walked loudly into the trees making a racket with the branch banging the branches and tree trunks. She saw something black and low to the ground slinking away into the deep undergrowth about twenty yards away. Her senses were keyed up and her curiosity pushed her to check the ground where she saw the thing but the place was too thickly covered with dead leaves to find clear tracks. The undergrowth showed signs of breakage and some stiff black animal hair. All the signs said it was a big cat so Penny kept up the noise to discourage it coming closer.

She got back to the trail and walked on toward the castle. She wanted to be able to hear anything following her and running could easily trigger a cat’s prey instincts. Penny wished she’d asked Missy to come but she hadn’t wanted to disturb her sleep. She and Laura had been up late talking about schools she might go to and what to prepare in a portfolio. Penny knew Missy wanted to go to a school in Europe for Helen. She thought about Helen saying she had a crush on her ever since Nebraska. She thought about that fight in North Platte, again. The shock she’d always thought was because she couldn’t believe Helen had done that to her. Penny asked herself if that shock was also because she had a crush on Helen, too. She thought about their dance in Aachen and wishing she’d felt free to follow that crush. She had felt her attachment to Sheldon too much to do anything more with her than dance. The waltzing with Sheldon in Vienna came to mind. The golden decked halls and gorgeous painted ceilings of the Hofburg were still fresh in her memory.

The prowling rustle in the brush shook Penny out of her reverie. She batted the brush and whooped a loud cry. The animal noises ran away from the trail. Penny kept up some noise while she followed the path. Sheldon had brought her to the Hofburg a few times, even with Missy once down in Texas. The dances were always the same. The people never varied even when Sheldon changed the clothes or time. She thought of Aachen and working with Helen’s team. Unbailing hay, rubbing down the horses, mucking the stalls, Sheldon had never gone near any of that in his time at the Festival. You’d never know it existed in his dreamscape. She thought about the last tour she had taken with Sheldon before this trip. He had shown her more about trains and engineering than she had thought possible. She was sure he had something on his mind fretting with the cutlery in the café. Her thoughts were broken by the slinking that returned in the brush. She shouted and rapped the branches overhead with her stick. The creature slunk away. Penny thought she saw a black animal skulking low to the ground about thirty yards into the trees. She rushed into the tree line smacking the wood loudly. The animal ran away from her into the deeper brush.

‘I’m sick of this cat and mouse game.’ Penny wished she had her bow or better a rifle with a big cat out in the woods slinking along with her. She hoped it was just curiosity but she’d feel better back at the castle. She wanted to explore the place if her hosts didn’t mind. She could take one of the guided tours, at least. She thought of that Italian family and young Luciana. She’d asked if the show was going to film at the castle or move to Europe from the US. Penny had to disappoint her, although the girl was right. Karnstein would be a marvelous filming location. She had enjoyed indulging Luciana’s enthusiasm. She loved meeting people who engaged the show creatively. Penny wanted to take a look whether Luciana’s blog photos had made it to the Hexist website with their weird interpretations of the cast’s real lives.

‘Kaley.’

Penny stopped in apprehension. That was no girl’s voice. It was a man’s voice, familiar but she couldn’t place it. She listened for movement but there was silence.

‘Come on, Kaley, you know we should be together.’

‘Jonas Twill! Where the hell are you?’ She was furious. They should have let her know that nut was on the loose. How could he have even found her here in Karnstein of all places unless he saw those damn blog pictures.

‘We’re soulmates, Kaley. We’ll be together forever.’

‘The hell we will. I am Penny Queen, asshole! I’m no one’s soulmate!’ She didn’t have Sheldon around but she didn’t need him this time. Penny gripped the branch and barged into the tree line where Jonas’s voice had come from. She heard running and saw a figure disappear into the brush. She halted when she heard a roar like a cougar and a man’s voice screaming for help. The screams ended. The forest was silent like it had been when her jog had begun. Penny guessed the running didn’t pay off for Jonas.

She had to tell someone and get the police here. She had to call someone but she didn’t have her cellphone. The horseflies were waking and beginning to look for a meal. They were a nuisance that Penny batted away. She grumbled about not thinking of a cap for her hair as she batted at a persistent pest.

+++

Penny woke up annoyed at the flies that weren’t there when she woke. She blinked in confusion and laughed. She was in the four poster bed she’d gone to sleep in and her phone was buzzing on the nightstand by her bed. Her alarm for 7am was demanding she leave the sumptuous warmth of the duvet that spread over her on the king sized bed. She turned off the phone and flumped back on the bed while dragging a pillow across her face. She closed her eyes and imagined life as an Austrian countess who didn’t think of waking before 3pm.

‘I’m just the guest of one.’ She tossed the pillow aside and abandoned her delightful linen nest. The setup of her suite was similar in size and design to her rooms in Pasadena. She padded into the bathroom to prepare for the day with a quick shower. She thought about the dream. Jonas had scared her more than anything in her life but she hadn’t been scared in the dream. She laughed at herself for lunatic courage walking in between a madman and a cougar armed only with a stick. She was happy that dream hadn’t scared her this time. She wondered what a cougar in a dream might mean though.

She went back into the bedroom when she was done showering and thought about diving back into her fortress of overstuffed pillows. Her grumbling stomach had other ideas so she gave in to hunger and went to dress. This place had a much better walk in closet than Los Robles though which saddened Penny to look at while she prepared for the day. Sheldon just did not appreciate closet space like the Karnsteins.

+++

Laura was already eating in the family salon when Penny came in. ‘Hey, good morning! Breakfast is served.’ She sprang up to bring Penny over to the sideboard where the trays, bowls, and tureens were laden with food that looked familiar. Sausages, scrambled eggs, bacon, and rolls were in abundance. Odder morning foods to Penny like baked beans, kippers, and marmite were plentiful.

‘Beans? Why baked beans?’

‘Carm doesn’t understand beans for breakfast, either. It’s just not an English breakfast without them. My dad was from England and he had to have at least one real English meal every day.’ Laura told Penny about her family. Her mother was Karnstein Valley Styrian but her father was from Kent and became more English with every day in Styria. Laura had never been there but she liked to keep some things alive for his sake like an English breakfast, a ritual that couldn’t be ignored.

Penny filled a plate and joined Laura. She looked closer at the Karnstein crest on the silverware and dishes after she sat down. There was a green shield on horizontal white and green stripes. The shield had a large ornate K for Karnstein on top instead of a crown like the duchy’s flag. Unlike the stylized white panther on the shield of the Styrian flag, this one had a black panther that looked just like the animal in her dream.

‘If you like it, I’m sure Carm will let you take a set home. She doesn’t put a lot of attachment onto family regalia.’

‘Thanks, but I was thinking of a dream I had last night. I was jogging in the forest somewhere around the castle. I kept hearing some animal following me. It looked a lot like the one on here.’

‘Did it just follow you?’

‘Yeah, mostly. I was jogging and daydreaming about the trip and other things. This cat thing would start following me and I’d make some noise and it would run away.’ Penny stared at the crest and coaxed the details of her dreams.

‘What do you think it means? Why was the cat following you, besides wanting to eat you?’

‘I’m not sure. I didn’t feel scared of it. It would run away, I’d start daydreaming, and then it would be back breaking my train of thought.’

‘Morning y’all! Did you sleep alright?’

‘Hi to you, too.’ Penny laughed at being broken out of thinking about being broken out of her train of thought.

Missy was introduced to the food and settled herself down with her friends.

‘I guess we’re not waiting for Carmilla, Laura?’

‘You see that bookcase to the right of the door? Those are some of the annals of the castle. The top right is always the current volume being written. If you ever see Carm before noon, write it down in there. It would be the biggest event since the Ottomans besieged the place in 1493. I wasn’t joking about her sleeping habits.’

The guests envied Carmilla’s sleep schedule but they did have things they wanted to do, today. Missy brought up to Laura her wanting to find a school for film and TV production. She was thinking of one in Europe because she was probably being a fool. Helen was going to be working in Bavaria so Missy wanted to be in the neighborhood as much as finding a decent school.

‘We can go to the school and look at what you can do. I have a couple of dissertation students coming to discuss their projects in the morning. We’ll have all afternoon to see what you can do. Do you have any film or art portfolios to look at?’

‘Not proper ones for a school, but I can show you a few of the TV projects I worked on that are online. Some advertisements, public relations work, a mix of things.’

‘That’s a start. What about you, Penny?

‘I wanted a better look at the castle. Are they doing any tours?’

‘Don’t do that unless you really want to. You're one of us here. Just ask Madame Perrodon to show you around, the housekeeper. She knows this place better than any tour guide.’

After breakfast, Laura made some suggestions about where to go, especially the library. There were a lot of folios of French and Italian plays that she would like as an actress. She did point out Carmilla’s rooms while they walked to the elevator so Penny didn’t barge in on her wife in her exploration. Penny went back to the salon after the elevator took them down to the garage. She got another coffee to think over a plan of action with.

A sixtyish, tall, heavyset woman came into the salon with a two other people. She stopped when she saw Penny sitting in a corner chair by the window.

‘Good morning, I am Madame Perrodon. You are Miss Penny Queen, yes?’

‘Yes, hi… I’m not in the way, am I?’

‘No, not at all, but we are cleaning the breakfast. You are finished, yes?’

Penny found Madame Perrodon was more comfortable with French than English or German but she was used to using a mix of languages with her employers. She was from Switzerland and had worked for Laura’s family since Laura was a baby. The woman reminded Penny of Connie so much that she had to make sure Missy met her. She gave Penny a rundown of the castle’s levels if she wished to explore. Penny opted for the library, first.

She stopped in amazement in the doorway. The library was a cavern the size of Los Robles Cottage from the look of it. Madame Perrodon pointed out the general layout of subject matter around the two stories of book cases. A mezzanine surrounded the room which had spiral stairways at the four corners of the library. The main floor had numerous couches and chairs for reading in front of the three large windows on the south side of the room. The mountains behind the castle made a meditative view for users of the room.

‘Miss Laura thought you might like the computer so it has been prepared for you and your friend.’ Madame Perrodon brought Penny over to the windows and the laptop. Laura had left instruction for setting up video calls if she wanted to call home.

Penny was grateful for her host’s thoughtfulness. The housekeeper made sure Penny was happy and pointed out the intercom if she needed anything. She chose a leather upholstered armchair and pulled the laptop closer. She checked the time and expected Bernadette might be home on a late Tuesday evening but she and Howard didn’t seem to be in. She left a video message for Bernadette and a special one for Halley. She hesitated before calling Sheldon. Her dreams from last night and that cat came to mind. It kept distracting her from her daydreams and always when they were about Sheldon.

Penny noticed some decanters and glasses on a desk between the windows. She opened one with a dark golden liquor inside. The aroma was very much like the Tokay Maleva had said could be found here. She poured a small glass and took a sip. She hummed in pleasure. It was Tokay. If anything, it was better than the wine she’d had at the séance. ‘No wonder your dad only drank this stuff, Maleva.’

She went back to her chair and took a deeper sip. She savored the taste and contemplated the mountains. She looked at the glass in her left hand and let her mind drift to coax back the dream of jogging, last night. The glass was etched with the Karnstein shield with its panther. ‘What are you trying to tell me, kitty?’

She remembered the difference between Sheldon’s Aachen and the real one. There was so much missing in his Aachen from the world of horses she knew. ‘What else have I missed in his dreams?’ Even her séance rodeo had the smells she knew. She even recalled the smell of barbecue on Helen’s breath when they argued back in Platte. Helen Geffin, she could still feel the gossamer softness of Helen’s hair on her cheek when they danced. She had wanted to go further with Helen but it would have felt like cheating. Cheating on a dead man. Alright, a ghost but dead none the less. She hadn’t really felt attracted to anyone since Elizabeth and Zane. She was acting like she was married. And the cat, always there, always following, always directing her thoughts from Sheldon. ‘Have I been up there in that study too long, kitty? Bernie would say I was, for sure.’

The films her agent had sent were all going to film overseas. They all excited her but she hadn’t thought about needing to leave Los Robles for months on end. There had even been a TV production in the UK sending feelers in regards to after her contract with The Coven concluded. That would mean even longer away than a film. Penny recalled Sheldon’s dismay at the white boards being taken over by her other life- her job. What did she want to do with the physics? She’d wanted to understand what was on those boards and she had. She thought of building the collector’s room and Sheldon daring her to use her mind instead of hiding it. She was grateful for that but now what? She’d gotten the acting on her own. It’s what she had wanted when she’d left Nebraska. Helen had wondered how she’d gotten so far from home. Penny found herself asking what was holding her back from going further. The crystal panther before her eyes begged her to answer.

She finished her wine. She thought about the end of her dream, running into Jonas Twill. She didn’t ever like to think about it but she couldn’t help it whenever some excited fan would surprise her from behind. She’d be there that night Jonas ambushed her for a second whenever that happened. She was glad Sheldon had been there that night and in the courtroom later but in the dream she’d felt she didn’t need Sheldon there. She wanted that feeling back before Jonas had ever jumped her. She felt like she should have handled it, could have handled it even if Sheldon hadn’t been there but she couldn’t know it like she did in her dream.

The library felt too silent for where her thoughts were going. ‘Let’s go see the sights, kitty.’

Penny set the glass down and turned off the computer. She wanted to lighten her mood so she started exploring the library. Madame Perradon’s layout led Penny to the mezzanine and the philosophy, spiritualism, and magic books. There were a lot that she heard of from Maleva and her own small collection. Aristotle, Heraclitus, Eratosthenes Constellation Myths, Cornelius Agrippa’s Books of Occult Philosophy, Livris Eibon and many more but they were in Latin and Greek to her disappointment. The poetry had better results. She discovered a 17th century English edition of Orlando Furioso translated by Sir John Harrington.

She was enchanted by the engravings of Bradamante Valorosa, armored and on her horse ready for battle. She would not marry anyone who could not defeat her at arms. Penny had never liked that part. That hit her all the more when she thought about Jonas and Sheldon’s help. She liked feeling ready to fight him without Sheldon's help in the dream. She’d been happy to scare the life out of Lynn with that power but Penny wondered if she was depending too much on Sheldon. She started a happy dance when she found The Lusiads, it was a 16th century edition and in Portuguese but it was familiar enough to find the lines she wanted. She read them aloud speaking to the hall and the mountains outside.

Amor é um fogo que arde sem se ver,

é ferida que dói, e não se sente;

é um contentamento descontente,

é dor que desatina sem doer.

Penny felt discontentment this morning. She needed fresh air. There was plenty of that in the Austrian mountains.

‘You sound more French than Portuguese.’

Penny jumped and spun around on Carmilla standing by the shelves of poetry. ‘Where did you come from, a secret passage?’

‘It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you but it’s not really a secret. There’s a doorway to my rooms behind that tapestry at the end of the mezzanine. The one with the constellations of Eratosthenes on it.’

‘Really? I’m sorry if I was too noisy reading out loud like that.’ Penny hadn’t thought about bedrooms being near the place.

‘You weren’t but I was wondering about you after last night.’

‘I’m fine just some strange dreams about giant mountain lions in Austria,’ Penny put the books away.

‘And how did that lead to Camoes?’

‘Nothing, I just wanted to look around the library. I wish I could speak all the languages here so I could read them.’ Penny showed Carmilla the books she’d taken special interest in.

‘Orlando, that was one of my father’s favorites. He might have been happier without a son if I had been more like Bradamante. He didn’t know what to do with a daughter except see she was married off.’

‘We have that in common, anyway, except my dad had me out hunting, riding, and the rest like a boy which drove my mom up the wall. A lot of mixed messages from that house.’ Penny didn’t want to go down a road that sounded like self-pity so she perused more of the books.

‘Where you on safari for big game in your dream, last night?’

‘No, I was jogging and some kind of black cat thing was following me. It was a lot bigger than any cat I ever heard of going from its paw prints. I think it was… you, I guess?’

‘You see me as a large predatory animal?’ Carmilla raised an eyebrow and smirked stepping closer to the taller Nebraskan actress.

‘No, although you sleep like a cat if Laura is anything to go by.’ Penny rolled her eyes and giggled. ‘I was looking at your family crest this morning and it looked a lot like the cat in my dream. I figure the cat was your advice on my mind in the dream.’

‘Dreams are a doorway into the soul. I hope the cat was helpful. What was this cat doing in your dream, dancing with a fiddle?’

‘I guess Maleva wrote to you about the last séance I had with her when she introduced Missy and me?’ Penny looked out the windows gathering her thoughts. Everyone saw Sheldon, Missy and I did, at any rate. The others said they only saw a grey mist. Sheldon jumped inside me, a spirit possession. That’s as far as they know, even Missy. Sheldon has been haunting my house, his house, anyway Los Robles Cottage used to be his house. His experiments were sabotaged. He died accidentally before he could solve it so his ghost was stuck there trying to finish the job. I helped finish it and he’s been there with me ever since.’

‘No one knows there’s a ghost there besides you?’

‘Sheldon kept the place well haunted. No one wanted it until Bernadette and I moved in there. Sheldon tried scaring us off but his ghost mojo never worked on me for some reason and he never tried it on Bernie, either come to think of it. You are right, no one knows Sheldon is there, well Bernadette’s daughter has been able to see him ever since she was born. I think it’s because she saw him when she was a newborn. Missy can sense what he’s thinking and I think she can feel when he’s around but she doesn’t know for sure. They are twins so it might be similar to Halley. You’re taking all this about Sheldon really well.’

‘My family has had a long association with the supernatural. Laura keeps asking why none of the Karnsteins have shown up on your show.’ Carmilla snorted and suggested they move to the couches downstairs. She draped herself across one and waved to the couch opposite where Penny lounged in kind. They were interrupted by Madame Perrodon before they could continue their talk.

‘Miss Carmilla, you are up! I came if Miss Penny wanted something. Do you both want anything?’

‘Hot chocolate, Penny?’ Carmilla made the order two after Penny nodded.

‘Laura wasn’t kidding about never seeing you before noon, I guess.’ Her voice was a mix of incredulity and laughter. ‘Wait a minute, I promised Laura this.’

Penny ran down the hallway to the salon and returned with the castle annals that Laura mentioned. Penny got a pen from one of the lecterns. She opened the book to the most recent entry and began writing the requested historical event. Carmilla glided over to sit by Penny and followed what she was writing. Carmilla made a few emendations and additions directed at her wife concerning the dungeon and witnessed the entry next to Penny’s signature.

‘Now Penny, you are one of us. You are a part of Karnstein history, and entitled to all the rights, privileges, and demonic curses that pertain there to.’

Madame Perrodon came back with the hot chocolate and the remains of yesterday’s sachertorte. Meanwhile, Penny and Carmilla got some very large plush pillows and blankets from Carmilla’s rooms to make their chat more civilized. They pushed the couches closer to the table and nested.

‘This is what Karnstein women get up to, is it?’ The hot chocolate was rich and velvety like nothing Penny had had before. This would be perfect if Bernie was here.

‘When at all possible, although horseback riding, reading obscure books, and murder are frequent alternatives between bouts of lurid waltzes and general mayhem.’

They savored the chocolate. Carmilla came back to Penny and Sheldon. ‘So, no one knows Sheldon is there, with exceptions, whose idea was that?’

‘I didn’t want Bernie getting frightened and later he didn’t want his family descending on him. It seemed easier to keep it secret after a while.’ Penny was tired of the secrecy. It would be nice not having people looking at her like a nutcase whenever Sheldon was yammering at her in public.

‘Is that fair to your Bernie, or to Missy and her family? Is it fair to you?’

Carmilla let the silence speak. They sipped their hot chocolates. Penny looked into the dark soulful eyes across the table but she could only let the silence answer.

+++

Missy helped Laura with the shopping bags of cookies and treats from the chocolatier in the village they’d stopped at on the way home.

‘You really should add the University of Music and Performing Arts to your applications list. It’s got everything you need and you can apply to the Film Academy there. That would really let you develop your production and directing interests.’

‘That would be great but you haven’t seen how embarrassing my high school and college grades were.’ The elevator let Missy and Laura off in the family wing after the morning at Le Fanu.

‘Art schools care a lot more about work in the portfolio than grades on math and science tests. Focus on what you’ve done and can do, especially get any letters of recommendation from directors and producers you’ve worked with. Don’t forget any art departments like those advertisers you interned with. Think like an artist, not like your brother and pure academics.’ They stopped in the kitchen to put some of the purchases away.

‘Miss Laura, your wife and Miss Penny are in the library.’ Madame Perrodon took their lunch requests before they left to find their missing halves.

‘Can’t wait to find out what they’re up to.’ Missy hadn’t seen the library yet so she was eager to see what would pass for one here. She wasn’t disappointed when Laura opened the double doors. She gaped in awe at the interior.

‘Great Stoker’s Ghost, she’s turned Penny into one of her.’ Laura waved to Missy and pointed out the couches with the bundled sleepers.

The women on the couches opened their eyes to peer at the intrusion on their nap. Laura and Missy pressed their invasion to the couches forcing their other halves to sit up grumbling in protest. Madame Perrodon entered with two of her staff and with her Swiss efficiency had lunch set up for the women and the linens that Carmilla and Penny used whisked away. The hot chocolate mollified the awakened pair. Missy’s bag of chocolate truffles succeeded in making peace in the library. Laura noted the volume of the annals while she poured her hot chocolate and Penny invited her to look at the newest entry.

‘I can’t believe you saw her awake at 10am and I missed it!’ Laura giggled her way through Penny’s description of the event. She added a few side notes to her wife’s added comments.

‘History recorded, we should take that horse ride you wanted, yesterday. You don’t think I got up just to sleep in the library, did you?’ Carmilla knew Laura missed spending more time with her horse so the motorbikes could be indulged, yesterday.

Laura kissed Carmilla for remembering. The women got clothes better suited for horse riding and met at the elevator to the garage. Laura insisted on taking everyone in her car so Carmilla couldn’t start another Grand Prix down the mountain. They arrived sooner than last night thanks to Laura’s direct route. The women brushed down their horses before putting saddling them up. Penny and Missy took extra time with Snape and Lily respectively to let the horses get familiar with their unfamiliar presence. The brought the horses out to the paddock to give them some stretching out and so Penny and Missy could get a feel for the horses they would be using. Laura and Carmilla gave the women some tips on peculiar things that could make their mounts skittish while they exercised their horses around the paddock.

They rode the trails up into the eastern hills of the valley. The trail was a commonly used forest track between the Karnstein valley and the Rittersburg valley. Carmilla and Laura rode a few horse lengths ahead giving Missy and Penny a chance to spend some time together, today.

‘Did you like experimenting with being a vampire, sleeping by day in a castle of immortal evil?’

‘I’ll need to try it out for a century or two but I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the blood sucking. The chocolate is better, though.’

‘How did you two end up conked out like that?

‘Like I put it in the annals, Carmilla found me reading poetry in the library. We got to talking about the séance and stuff last night out at Laura’s old house.’ Penny slipped into her pensive face.

‘What really happened with you and Sheldon at the séance?’ Missy still found it hard to believe they had talked to a real ghost that night but she had seen Sheldon clear as day. It was his voice coming out of Penny.

‘Have you ever felt Sheldon was around you, Missy? You said you thought you heard him talking to you while you were falling asleep a little after you came to Los Robles. Did you ever feel anything like that any other times like he was really there?’

‘You’re going to think it’s strange but yeah, when you’re around.’ Missy dismounted to give her horse a rest and to think for a minute. Penny followed suit and looked around for that cat for just a second.

‘I think the first time was when we went to Lynn’s place. I felt like he was standing just out of the corner of my eye. The séance, it felt just like Lynn’s house for a second just before Sheldon appeared in the séance. The funniest was dreaming the three of us were here in Austria. We were all in Vienna watching the Lipizzaners and Sheldon asked us to go waltzing at the Hofburg. I had to have made up the dancing but it seemed so real. I had the same kind of dreams before we left for Europe. He and I were horse backing in Texas. I keep getting stuff like that with you, feelings and dreams whenever you’re around, except here in Europe. There’s been nothing that felt like Sheldon since we got here. Have you been feeling like he was around?’

‘In a way, there’s more to it than the séance.’ Penny smiled. The day was a lot like she remembered at Los Robles the first time up on the hillside looking down at the valley. 'Los Robles was a troubled house, the whole property was notorious. That’s what made it so cheap. Howard tried talking us out of it every day we were there for more than a week.

‘Yeah, he warned me about your rooms at one point. He’s sure Sheldon’s never left.’

‘He’s not wrong. It is Sheldon haunting the place.’ Penny nodded in earnest while Missy just snickered.

‘Come on, Sheldon haunting Los Robles? The séance was amazing but a few creaking doors in an old house don’t make a place haunted.’ Missy wanted proof. Sheldon annoyed her to no end over science but he did teach her the worth of hard facts growing up.

‘Really, it’s more than creaking doors. He was obsessed with solving what went wrong in the arctic. That’s why his spirit never moved on from the house. He would never shut up about it. I got into studying it just to figure out what those white boards were saying. I kept on with an M.A. because we were having fun arguing about it all. You can really drive him up the wall with getting things wrong on purpose.’ Penny giggled at some of the arguments they’d had that came to mind.

‘Penny, are you sure you aren’t imagining it? I saw what happened at the séance but that could have been all imagination. I wanted to see something that night so I did. I have heard what you can do with your voice like you did at Lynn’s house. Maybe, you just hypnotized yourself in the séance?’

‘There’s no hypnosis. I know Howard is jumpy about the house but the guy is an astronaut. He doesn’t crack under pressure that would have you and me screaming like loons. He was terrified of the house before Bernie and I moved in. You heard him at dinner that night we finished the sale, he still wants nothing to do with the place. He’s afraid because the place really is haunted. Sheldon can scare the crap out of anyone. You felt that at Lynn’s house, even a little at the séance. That is literal death you’re feeling because he is dead. A ghost isn’t a presence. It’s an absence, an absence of all life, a black hole that feels like it’s sucking your life and soul into nothingness, a hole in living existence. Mostly, he’s just bumbling around and being an annoying geek in his haunting but when he’s angry or upset, I think he could truly scare someone to death like Lynn and Frank felt.’

‘Are you sure you just haven’t been playing Kaley Jenkins too long? That sounded more like a speech from your show than the real world.’

‘Career wise, I might be getting close to too long but Sheldon isn’t from getting buried in the role.’ Penny could get the proof right now easy enough outside this valley with a smartphone connection. She could borrow Laura’s computer again and let Missy see Sheldon that way but she would like to just be believed.

Penny noticed how far ahead their friends were getting. She pointed out the distance and then they remounted to catch up. They rode silently for a couple minutes letting the horses go at a quick trot. Laura and Carmilla reined in their horses when they heard the faster hoof beats behind them. Missy told them she and Penny were deep in family chat and fell behind again. Their hosts, satisfied all was well, told Missy and Penny the trail went on up about two more miles to a pond where they’d wait for them. They rode ahead understanding their guests wanted some privacy.

Penny leaned forward to breathe in Snape’s musky scent. The warm horse hair after a run brought Penny back to Nebraska. She could feel Chucky’s saddle and the scent of his mane. Her grandfather’s old horse. She was four and grampa had picked her up off the corral rail and sat her in front of him. Penny knew the poor thing was too old to do much more than a quick walk but at four it had felt like she was flying. She had felt like she could ride forever.

‘You remember that backpacking in Texas dream, right? What did it feel like, sounds, sights, all that?’

‘I don’t know, pretty much like I remember the trips. Sheldon complained about everything between moments of being something special like the séance.’ Missy remembered the advice and the kindness she’d never heard from him when he was alive. That had to be a dream.

‘The senses, though, what did you feel? How did it feel compared to what we’re doing right now?’

Missy looked around taking in the scenery. It wasn’t east Texas they were riding through so the air was alive with different smells and sounds from forest on their right than the woods of home. The Texas landscape had been flatter and not as dense but the dream forest didn’t carry the smells it should have. She loved the scent of the long leaf pines but she couldn’t remember that from the dream. She remembered the heat and the heavy humidity of the swamplands but there were no smells of the magnolias or the sweetgums which Missy loved when she went camping back home. ‘It’s weird but the smells were different. I remember passing a magnolia in bloom and I didn’t smell a thing from it. I couldn’t get it out of my mind because I love that smell, Sheldon couldn’t stand them, though.'

‘Sheldon remembers his dreams, his life, the way he wanted it. He edits it or forgets it, amounts to the same, so you don't sense what he would wish to not have in his dreams. I noticed that in Aachen. I have been there in Sheldon’s dreams, to the time you both went but when we got there this time it was a revelation. The horses, the stables, heck even the horse dung, I felt like I’d gone back home to Nebraska for a second. Sheldon’s dreams don’t have any of that so when you’re in one with him those smells are gone. I know it’s not just because of the dreams because in the séance I went back to that rodeo with Helen. All the smells and sounds and everything was there just like being in Aachen or right here. We love this stuff so it’s all there in our souls.’

Missy tried to recollect the dreams and think about what else might have been like the magnolias. The most obvious was the food. It was all Sheldon’s favorites. It was funny in her recollection how it’s cooking on the fires had almost no smell. He hated the smell of food cooking other than Meemaw’s pies and cakes. The grills were impossibly clean for camp grills. That was something Sheldon would put up no end of fuss about. It might have just been an ordinary dream but why would she make so much to Sheldon’s tastes in her own dreams?

‘I’ll give you there’s some strange goings on in Los Robles with the dreams. Let’s say Sheldon is haunting the place, why is he still there? You said it was because he couldn’t solve his arctic problem but why is he still there now that it is fixed?’

‘I couldn’t tell you. I have asked myself that or I used to. He’s been part of my life every day since we moved in. I got started on his work, I even buy him comics. I think somewhere I fell in love with him.’

‘You think he’s there because you fell in love with him? I do know my brother some. I love you Penny but I can’t imagine Sheldon being in love with you. He loved himself, Star Trek, and science. I never saw room in him to much care about anyone else except as a necessary evil other than Meemaw and Pop-Pop.’ Missy was back to worrying if Penny might be a little cracked.

‘He is that for sure. He doesn’t understand anyone’s feelings any more than a rock does, including his own. He does care in his whack-a-doodle way but he just has no idea how to say it. He sure doesn’t understand sex. The day he found my set of vibrators I thought he’d die… again. He said he hadn’t been so shocked since the night you tried sneaking Bruce Tague into the house.’ Penny chuckled at that but Missy looked shocked.

‘Did he write that down somewhere? He promised never to tell anyone. I had to… never mind. Sheldon would never break a promise.’

‘He was pretty shocked. He didn’t know what he was saying.’

‘He’s really there?’ Missy tried to put into words what it meant that her brother was still with them. ‘Why didn’t you say something before this?’

‘I didn’t want Bernie scared after we moved in. Howard was already creeped out about the house without knowing there were ghosts there. After a while, it was what we did. He really didn’t want your mom finding out or she’d move in with us. Probably, bring her church, too.’

‘Yeah, I’d avoid that, too but what are you going to do? Are you just going to keep living with Sheldon?’ Missy started wondering if she was going screwy taking this seriously, at all.

Penny told Missy about her dream last night with the cat. She was wondering if it really meant she should let the past go like Maleva advised. Carmilla had said much the same, especially about being in love with a ghost. She didn’t want Missy getting the idea she was trying to insert herself between Helen and her so she tried being as diplomatic as possible. She felt like a fool back in eighth grade.

‘Helen has a crush on you?’

I think she’d say it was more the TV star, now instead of that girl in the rodeos that kicked it off. I just wonder with everything, the dream, the séance, what am I missing out on? I would have gone with Helen if I didn’t feel so attached to Sheldon.’

They got to the pond where Carmilla and Laura had set up a small picnic. The arrivals tied up their horses and put their grazing muzzles on to keep them from over eating. Missy sat with their hosts but Penny excused herself to take a walk around the shore.

‘Did you talk about the séance?’

‘Yeah, how did you know?’ Missy hadn’t expected Carmilla to bring that up.

‘Maleva wrote about what happened. It interested us so we wanted to see you and Penny. Did she say much beyond what happened in the séance?’ The women watched Penny throwing stones in the water.

‘She said she’s been living with the ghost of my brother, Sheldon. I know that sounds crazy but I believe her. She’s feeling torn about what she’s been doing and how she’s been living. She loves him and she is starting to notice she’s missing out on life. I guess that’s why she gets so quiet these days. I sound nuts, don’t I?’

‘No, no you don’t. Carm and I have seen ghosts and many stranger things,’ Laura reassured Missy she wasn’t joking. Maleva was worried about Penny. She’d hoped her cousins could give Penny some perspective.

‘Thank you, both of you.’ Missy got up to bring Penny back from her brooding by the pond side. She was surprised when Penny wrapped her in a hug.

‘What are you crying for, Penny?’ Missy didn’t get an answer except for Penny’s arms engulfing her and the actress's ragged sighs so she held her and wished she could kick her brother’s skinny ass.

Chapter Text

Penny spent the picnic relieved to be able to talk about living with a ghost. She’d never considered how much energy had been going into keeping her life at Los Robles with Sheldon a secret. Missy did a double take when she came to understand how much Sheldon was still connected to her. She felt happy that he was a part of her in more than words but it was creepy that there was so much influence from beyond the grave. Neither woman had any idea what to do about any of this although they found a shared sense of affection in the knowledge they had shared.

‘Sheldon was making me interested in his work?’

‘No, not intentionally. He wasn’t aware he was having any effect on you or that you were both influencing each other.’

‘I hope he wasn’t picking up anything in Aachen.’ Missy shuddered and giggled with embarrassment.

‘Oh god, no, it isn’t anything like mind reading. It’s more subconscious and emotional. When one of you has been stressed out the other picked up on it. He was obsessed with the arctic and you kept feeling that stress.’

‘I used to wonder why I kept reading that stuff. I thought it was just from missing him.’

‘I’m sure that’s part of it, too. He does love you in his weird way but he can’t control what you do. You kept sensing his trouble but how you acted on it was all you. Are you sure you aren’t a physicist at heart?’ Penny couldn’t help the teasing note.

‘Get off it, you’re the physicist, little Miss Scientist.’

‘I wonder about that, sometimes.’

‘One can be many things in a lifetime, to oneself and to others. Why do you doubt being called a physicist?’ Carmilla’s philosophical nature couldn’t help but be intrigued by Penny’s mathematical work.

‘My job, for one thing.’ Penny snorted in a wry aside to Carmilla but she did see the answer wasn’t enough judging from the inquisitive arched eyebrow of the countess. The dream and the questions it had raised in Penny’s mind came back to her as did Carmilla’s question about keeping Sheldon a secret to everyone. She was sure the women watching her would know if she was being honest with herself and them.

‘A long time ago, something Sheldon said to me reminded me of how much I used to love working on cars and engines with my dad. I learned to hide that talent growing up since it wasn’t something girls did, especially when it showed up the guys. I might have been an engineer or physicist if I’d had different parents, something like how Howard and Bernie are with Halley. I guess learning to hide a lot about me is something that helped me become an actress.’

‘So, why hide what you are, anymore?’ Laura shook her head in confusion.

‘I’m not but going forward on what I’ve done so far would take a lot more time from my acting. It’s been fun up to now but it wouldn’t be so much fun if I had to scale back on the acting. I really would have to in order to keep up with the field.’

‘Sheldon would not understand that choice and you don’t want to have that conversation with him, do you?’ Missy chuckled with Penny’s nod and recalled more than a few arguments with Sheldon of her own about whose interest was more important.

The conversation wrapped up when the last of the coffee was finished. They rode back to the village after their picnic. The women saw to their horses unsaddling and care after the ride. None of them liked doing anything before the horses were settled in their stalls. Both guests wanted to do some shopping for gifts from the local craft shops in the village. The Karnstein valley prided itself on keeping alive many traditional crafts that were lost to modern Austria. Penny found a lovely matching dirndl for Halley and Bernadette. The traditional Austrian women’s dresses had deep red pleated skirts with a white apron festooned with hand woven roses. The top consisted of a white blouse and black silk vest and gold buttons tied together with red silk laces. The outfit came with chokers pinned together by hardwood cameos that had a prayer engraved in silver and gold on one side and a crucifix on the other. The language and script was in Hungarian so neither Penny nor Missy could read it.

‘What does it say?’ Penny was curious and wanted to make sure it wasn’t something embarrassing.

‘It is a prayer asking God to protect the wearer from strigoi, vampires, and things of the devil.’ Carmilla tried on the choker to check the comfort.

‘I figured you’d have to go to Transylvania for that.’ Missy laughed and examined the prayer more closely.

‘The legends and traditions are so intermixed here in the old Steiermark it’s almost impossible to say who or where the traditions came from.’ Laura showed them her keychain and the fob she’d had made of her mother’s gift to her when she was a baby. ‘They’ve always made these here in Karnstein as far as I know. Parents give them to their children on their first birthday. My father thought it was a silly custom but mom insisted I had to have one.’

‘Do they really work?’ Missy thought her mother might like one, she was sure meemaw would.

‘I wouldn’t count on it. Aarrgh!’ Carmilla grinned and vamped her best Christopher Lee. She took off the choker and handed it to Penny. She suggested looking at some shoes to go with the dresses. They visited several shops, both travelers were especially impressed with the leather goods. The travelers paid for the gifts and Laura drove everyone back to the castle.

+++

After dinner Laura and Carmilla gave their guests a special tour of the castle. They explored the whole of the fortress, in particular the dungeon where Missy and Penny tried out the torture devices for pictures to send home.

‘I don’t see any iron maidens.’ Missy thought every castle should have one.

‘Madame Perrodon is always telling us to get one to make the tourists happy but Carmilla says we’ll get one only if Madame P. agrees to be a victim for it.’

‘Don’t think I’m kidding. They were created in the nineteenth century as tourist kitsch. I hate stuff like that.’

The travelers took a few more pictures but Penny and Missy wanted to get to bed before it got too much later so they could get headed out towards Graz and on to Vienna. Carmilla insisted on one more stop before heading back upstairs. She brought them to the wine cellars. Both women were stunned by the size of the long gallery with racks from floor to ceiling. Carmilla led them to one rack in particular and asked each their birthday. She checked through the bottles and gave one to each of her guests.

‘Maleva wrote about how much you both enjoyed the Tokay, these are from your birthday years. Laura and I hope you’ll find them as sweet as the time we have had with you.’

The travelers were thrilled by the gifts but Madame Perrodon interrupted before anymore could be said and asked everyone to hurry upstairs to the family salon’s balcony. She wouldn’t say why, only that they had to come at once. She ushered everyone along with her anxious motherly insistence which Laura told her guests was impossible to resist, even for Carmilla. The balcony doors were closed in the family salon with the curtains drawn. That surprised Laura and Carmilla because the night wasn’t cold. The housekeeper swung the doors open and everyone gaped in awe. The sky was on fire with an aurora borealis. Rare at the best of times, so far south and still summer this was unheard of. Waves of red, green, yellow, and gold swept across the northern sky.

‘Here, c’est ici! Les aurores boréales, it was in 1859.’ Madame Perrodon got one of the annals to show everyone. She kept slipping between French and English in her excitement. She read from the account until Carmilla ordered the castle alarm rung right away while they all watched the heavenly wonder. M. Perrodon swept out to sound the alarm cursing that she hadn’t thought to do it earlier. Some minutes later, the alarm began ringing and it was answered by church bells and other civic alarms down the valley calling everyone out to see the once in a lifetime sight.

Missy took Penny’s hand and they smiled at each other briefly while they memorized everything they could about this moment. The look of the castle garden in the dim evening lights on the pathways below. The sounds of the church bells echoing up and down the valley answering the castle’s alarm. The lights of homes going on with people discovering what the bells were tolling for so late at night.

‘Some folks used to believe the aurora was the souls of the dead dancing in heaven. I can’t imagine Sheldon would be one of them, though.’ Missy remembered her first cotillion with her truculent twin.

‘Yeah, it’s next to impossible to get him onto any kind of dance floor.’ Penny thought of Vienna with Sheldon. Sheldon would do all sorts of things if she insisted enough but that was all in dreams.

‘Hey, you need to add your thoughts to the annals!’ Laura brought pens, paper, and the great book for everyone to put down their impressions of the celestial wonder for readers in the future.

They wrote impressions and poems. They talked and reminisced. Madame Perrodon read the 1859 history which the note said had been written where they were standing. They wondered who might read their notes one day when this sight might be seen again in some later century.

‘What is that bridge of time between then and now? The bridge we cross from birth to death,’ Penny spoke as she wrote. Sheldon had crossed that bridge that she was still somewhere on the span.
‘We are the bridge between birth and death and time is the illusion that we cross.
If time is an illusion, if there is only now what are yesterday and tomorrow?
They are the mirrors of the soul where the timid see regret from one and fear from the other,
But the bold see in their pair satisfaction and resolve.’

Penny signed the poem. She offered the pen to Carmilla but her host wanted to get something inside. She brought a book from the salon and gave it to Penny.

‘This seems the right time and the right gift for you.’ She smiled and refused Penny’s attempt to return the book.

‘I can’t take this. It’s the Harington.’ Penny opened the book and found Carmilla’s note.

“To my sister soul, Penny Bradamante Queen,
Look back in satisfaction,
Look ahead with resolve,
Never give up and never surrender.
Mircalla Karnstein”

Penny teared up and hugged Carmilla for the book. Her feelings were inexpressible but Carmilla could see all she needed in Penny’s gaze on the inscription.

Laura brought out two jewelry boxes for their friends. They found necklaces inside. They were fine gold chains with brilliant tear drop amethysts. ‘Amethysts will help clear your minds of anxiety and stress. You both have a strong connection with the other side through your ghost. I hope the stones will help you focus on what you choose to do in the future and make your choices with assurance.’

Penny and Missy let their hosts help them on with the necklaces. While they were admiring the gifts, Madame Perrodon brought some bottles of champagne to celebrate the aurora. The women toasted the skies and each other while the celestial lights flashed and flared.

+++

Penny and Missy had woken up later than they’d planned. The conversation and the champagne had kept the women up very late. They met in the hallway outside the salon with shrugs of embarrassment a little after noon. They found Carmilla already awake and reading out on the balcony.

‘Please, the breakfast can be brunch just as easily. There’s no need to wait.’ Carmilla joined them having just some tea.

‘It doesn’t feel right without Laura. Isn’t she eating?’

‘I expect she will but she doesn’t often drink as late as we did last night so she’s sleeping later than usual. She won’t mind.’

The women ate and chatted about the travel plans ahead. Penny and Missy were becoming keen to get to Vienna and The Spanish Riding School. Carmilla gave them some suggestions on what to look out for while they were there.

‘Laura and I go in winter for New Years. The riding school and the New Year’s Waltz at the Hofburg are something we both look forward to.’ Carmilla got one of Laura’s photo albums of their last trip there to show to their friends.

Laura arrived sleepy eyed and put out. She glared at the giggling threesome pouring over the photo albums. ‘You could have woken me, Carm, instead of letting me sleep the day away ignoring our guests.’

‘You two have to visit more, she’s finally starting to live like a Karnstein.’

‘Hardy, har, har, mistress of the snark.’ Laura plated up her breakfast and joined in the talk about the Riding School and sights to see in Vienna.

+++

It was after two before Penny and Missy were walked down to their car to get on the road to Graz and Vienna. The goodbyes were long and cheerful from Laura while Carmilla was more standoffish. Penny got her aside while Laura was going over a few last tips on preparing a portfolio for school admissions.

‘Happy to see the backside of us?’

‘I’m always happy seeing guests leave and few I care to see back but you both are always welcome. You need to learn to ride a motorcycle, first.’

‘I’ll get right on that. Heck the show might even write it in.’ Penny laughed at the eye roll from her host.

‘Are you going to start talking more about your ghost with Missy and the others?’

‘I don’t know. Sheldon is a pill and not just because he’s a ghost. I think Missy half felt him anyway and after the séance it was more of a confirmation than a shock. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to take the news half as well.’

‘Take care you aren’t reading into her reaction. You only opened a dialogue. Don’t let it die. You complement each other. Perhaps, that is why you get on so well with them both but only one is moving on with their life the other is beyond the turmoil and changes of this world. Ghosts will seek the purpose they had in life. That is their connection to this plane but that purpose is an obsession to pursue not a goal to reach. Be careful he isn’t acting out his obsession through you.’ Penny was preoccupied by those last words as she walked with Carmilla over to the car.

The women hugged and kissed once more. The travelers were packed away in their car at last and they started on the next leg of their trip with Missy at the wheel. They remembered their promise to visit the helpful pub that had directed them so well, the Reinfeldthof. They wanted to give the place a more thorough sampling. Lukas hadn’t forgot them and he was glad his directions proved helpful. Penny and Missy were both reluctant to drive all the way to Graz after the late lunch with Carmilla and Laura. Sampling his wife Lena’s latest beer that she was working on for the next Facshing festival convinced them to take a room for the night so they could enjoy more of her fine work. They felt like taking a walk after registering for the night so they got directions to an internet café in walking distance and went there to check with home after being out of touch for so long.

Penny got ahold of Bernadette and was happy to learn that the mojo spell had worked. Howard was out of the basement again and Halley was as happy as ever. They texted over messenger for a while and Penny sent several pictures of Karnstein castle that wowed Bernie. Missy added a hello to the family in Pasadena and kept on her messaging with Meemaw. Connie sussed out Missy had met someone in Austria so Missy was busy telling her grandmother about Helen and about her plans to go back to school. Meemaw was delighted and wanted to break the news to Mary. She thought it might be best to ease Mary into this so Missy let her be the first to bring the news to her mother. Penny sent a final message to Sheldon saying she wanted to do a skype chat when they got to Graz and had a better internet set up available. Sheldon did ask about Prof Bauschinger. He wanted to know about Penny’s plans going forward on her ideas about String Theory. He was keen to learn what she had discussed with the professor but Penny put him off saying messaging was a poor way to discuss a topic so complex.

‘I see you are talking to Sheldon. Why don’t you say hi for me?’

‘I want to do that when we have visual communication. I want to see his face when that happens.’

‘That is a good idea. Tell him you have a surprise for him, then.’ Missy chuckled at the image in her head.

Sheldon was frantic for clues to his surprise. They all revolved around trains and the Bregenz train museum so Penny was looking forward to their next video chat. Penny strung him along for a while and finished her session with him saying he’d just have to wait. The women went back to the Reinfeldthof and played some of the board games the pub had. They ate a dinner which made them wish they could stay longer. Lukas’s cooking was just as good as his wife’s beer making skill. Neither was ready for bed anytime soon so they tried a few of the other bar games. Penny was delighted to find she had such a challenging chess opponent.

‘I never had Sheldon’s obsession for the game so I used to act too bored to play against him. I did like puzzling out the chess problems when he wasn’t paying attention.’

‘You should surprise him with 3D chess.’

‘That game was why I couldn’t stand playing against him. He’d go non-stop at it. Sheldon never did much half way once he took an interest in it.’

Penny laughed in agreement about his one tracked nature. They accepted an invitation to try some darts with a few locals who wanted to meet the new strangers after their chess game was finished. They won a few rounds of beers from the challengers and returned a couple themselves. Around midnight, they went to bed looking forward to pushing on to Graz in the morning.

+++

Penny and Missy didn’t want to spend too much time in Graz beyond seeing the Old Town and the Schlossberg Park. The fortress hill that once guarded the city was popular for tourists from far and wide with its antique clock tower that gazed over the historic heart of the city with its red rooves protecting the colorful baroque buildings. Their keen attention was to head to the nearby town of Piber where the Lipizzaner Stud Farm was found. The farm was where the famed Austrian horses were bred and raised before the finest were chosen for The Spanish Riding School in Vienna. It was the heart of the Holy Grail to the horse women ever since they’d thought of this trip back in Texas.

Piber Castle drew them like a magnet when they arrived. The former abbey sat up on the lush green hill next to St Andrews Church. The mountains across the valley made the farm look like Shangri-La to Penny and Missy. The open walkways of the farm let them get up close to the horses everywhere from the stables to the outlying fields. This equestrian heaven was where the horses and their foals started out life.

They spent the day drinking in every sight on the farm. They started with a carriage tour. The early nineteenth century phaeton pulled by Lipizzaners delighted them both. The driver was almost as surprised by his tourists when he discovered they were American and not German. Both women laughed and thanked him for the compliment. They were proud of the improvement in their accents. They took the mountain tour to the high pastures where the young stallions were released to romp and race in their natural high spirited natures.

They decided they had to come back for a longer stay as soon as they could after they got back to the main farm area. They were keen to try the driving school but it was a week long course. They promised to get back once more so they could live with the horses for a week. They went out to the field area to watch the mares and their dark black and brown foals. The famous grey-white Lipizzaners began life in darker color only growing into their famed light coats between six and ten years old. That dramatic change had both women thinking about the turns their own lives had taken. There was no going back to who they were before they got to Europe.

‘Vienna and home for us, next, Pasadena for you anyway.’ Missy had her eyes on the mountains as much as the horses.

‘How about Texas, is that home just for now or longer?’

‘I want to try getting into a school here. Laura seemed to think I could do it.’

‘I think you can, too but is that all there is to Europe?’ Penny didn’t want to push anything too much but she had seen how blissful Missy looked back in Aachen.

‘Helen, that was just a few days. I doubt she’ll remember me next year.’ Missy shrugged her shoulders trying to look more interested in the horses than the memories of the Rhine wine and Helen’s hands pouring their drinks in the Aachen stables that they’d visited long after hours.

‘That’s up to the two of you but I have seen how tenacious she can be, even back when we were kids. I never saw her do anything by halves.’

‘That is true.’ Missy blushed and both women laughed. What about you? How does Sheldon fit into your future?’

‘You beat around the bush just like your grandmother. That is a good question. My contract for The Coven finishes after the coming season. I do think it’s time to move on from playing a witch. You remember Mira from the séance? She’s producing a movie, early stages at the moment, but if I’m lucky I could be filming down in Zagreb in a year or so. We could be back here before you know it.’

‘How do you think Sheldon is going to take that? He doesn’t do change well.’ Missy hoped her brother wouldn’t act up but he was Sheldon.

‘I guess he’ll be fine. He keeps saying I should look into this kind of stuff.’

‘I can tell you, Sheldon can be all kinds of helpful until he’s not. Trust me, he’s got more nots than a pine forest. Could that be why you didn’t do that Skype chat you promised him before we left the Reinfeldthof for Graz?’

‘I know he’s got his stubborn streak.’ Penny smirked but she just concentrated on the horses.

‘So why haven’t we had that Skype chat with him? Don’t you want him to know his secret’s out or is this really your secret?’

Penny looked sharply at Missy. The question cut to something she’d been trying to figure out about herself ever since the séance. Carmilla was right. She had only opened a dialogue with Missy about this but she wasn’t doing much to keep it open. Why was that? She had turned Helen down because it would have felt like cheating on Sheldon but they weren’t dating or married. He wasn’t even alive. Why was she clinging to a ghost?

‘Maybe, we should go see more of the farm.’ Missy turned to go back toward the stable area.

‘No, please.’ Penny reached for Missy’s hand and sighed. She had no idea how to make this sound coherent much less not crazy. ‘Bernie got married about two years after we moved into Los Robles. She had her reception out in the pavilion. That’s where I met Elizabeth Mailloux, the woman I said you should intern with. That’s how she started at the studio. She was just a photographer back then but she was brilliant at it. We spent the whole reception doing camera work together. It pissed Bernie off because I was her Maid of Honor. I just couldn’t spend time with anyone else. We stayed up for hours after the reception. I kept going on about the cameras and pictures and the post work so much she finally just went home. She… I… I knew why she was staying so late but I think I was getting attached to Sheldon even then. That was the first night we did one of those dream trips. We went waltzing at the Hofburg. It was wonderful.’

‘I can only guess Sheldon would do that because he thought a lot of you. He hates dancing like the plague. What endeared you to him?’ Missy led Penny over to the shade of some willows where they could sit and talk out of the hot sun.

‘I don’t know. His ghost mojo never worked on me. I must have threatened to throw out his models at least once a week for the first year there. I guess it might have been after I figured out Leonard’s backstabbing was what fouled up Sheldon before he died. It’s funny, Sheldon never cared who I dated, except for getting fussy about bringing dates home, at least before I figured the arctic out. After that, he could get jealous. He sure was jumpy whenever he heard Leonard was around me. The way Leonard, his best friend, did him dirty, that just reminded me so much of what Kurt did to me I think a lot of what we are started back then.’

‘We?’ Missy looked at Penny like she wasn’t hearing the real story.

‘I, yeah, what am I with him? They still call me ‘The Grieving Widow of Pasadena’ on the fan sites. Folks just eat up the story of me and Kurt. Half the time, I’m talking about me and Sheldon. I didn’t want to run Kurt down after he died. He was dead so there was no point. The closer I got to Sheldon the more I could talk about how much I loved my dead husband because I was talking about someone I did love. Sometimes, I think it was so easy to forgive Kurt in the séance because I had someone better.’

‘You traded a dead man who hurt you for a dead man that never could. How’s that working out for you?’

‘You know, Sheldon almost proposed to me once,’ Penny chuckled at Missy’s side eye and snort, ‘When your mom and meemaw visited, your mother didn’t like me or trust me. Long story short, she wanted all of us thrown out of Los Robles but Sheldon did one of his dream trips on us. He finally got us all together in Texas at some cotillion. He was going to propose to me there but I was so strung out from arguing with your mom and then that crazy dream tour I just wanted to kill him, at least until he got us alone back in the study. It wasn’t the money, I could buy two Los Robles and not notice but I felt like losing the house would be like ripping my heart out. I’d have been losing Sheldon and I couldn’t bear to think of that. I guess if things were different I would have said yes to him.’

‘How would you go about marrying a ghost, though? Are you looking for a safe replacement for Kurt?’

‘Bernie’s always asking me about why I haven’t gotten past Kurt. She was there for everything so I think she knew something wasn’t right when I stopped seeing folks. She brought it up just before Halley was born. We talked about our best dances. Mine was my first dance with Kurt. I’d never told anyone else about our song, ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’. I could never dance with anyone to that song, especially after Kurt died… until Helen. She must have thought I was crazy how hard I held on to her. I wanted to never think of Kurt again to that song, just her. But that’s all I could do, dance, because I kept thinking of Sheldon. I danced and tried to forget everything except her.’

‘Sounds to me like you might have been better off going with her.’

‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’

Missy pulled Penny close and she leaned back against the willow tree with Penny’s back against her chest. They watched the horses while they dove deep into their own thoughts.

+++

Penny woke the next morning in their room in the Palais-Hotel Erzherzog Johann. The day with the horses had been all they’d hoped it would be. They had an early dinner but they both had avoided talking any more about Sheldon, focusing instead on what they’d be doing in Vienna. She sat up and admired the Maximillian room in the early light. The pale green wallpaper gave the gilded black lacquered furniture a true 19th century mood. Missy had thought the price was ridiculous when they signed in but she changed her mind as soon as she tried the king sized canopy bed they shared. Penny had roughed it enough since Aachen and on top of that their friends in Karnstein had spoiled them rotten.

She checked her phone clock but rolled her eyes at how pointless it was to try and sleep in. Besides, ghosts didn’t need sleep. She got up softly so as not to wake Missy and ordered some coffee and grapefruit juice with some breakfast extras from room service.

‘Let’s do this.’ Penny answered the soft signal of room service with her order. She brought the waiting bed tray into the room and brought it over to her bedside table for easier access. She climbed back into bed with her laptop.

‘Missy, are you ready to wake up Sheldon?’

Missy started abruptly and then opened an eye with a disbelieving glare in the early morning light. She had discovered on the trip that while Penny did like to sleep in, when she made up her mind to do something in the morning it was about as subtle as opening a rodeo fence for a bull ride.

‘I’m not ready to wake me up, yet. Is there any coffee?’

Penny revealed the breakfast tray with a flourish and then helped her by getting a couple more pillows from the linen cabinet. After they were settled, Penny handed over the bed tray with the coffee and juice along with fresh blueberries and strawberries with yoghurt. There were some morning rolls as well as butter and honey all of which made Missy happier.

The laptop booted up. Penny sent a message to her study computer. It was a little after midnight in Pasadena so she expected the study to be empty, except for Sheldon. Sheldon’s grumpy face greeted her with alacrity.

‘I am glad I am at last worthy of notice, Penny.’

‘Excuse me? We were messaging just yesterday.’ Penny couldn’t imagine what had gotten into Sheldon this time.

‘I discovered your messages to Bernadette and Halley from that Dracula’s Castle in which you and my sister had taken up residence. Your fan sites have been having quite a field day speculating on your purpose there.’

‘Oh, good grief Sheldon. Missy and I have been on vacation. I am not ignoring you. I am sorry I didn’t think to send you a message. I was too excited exploring Carmilla’s library.’ Penny chewed her lip at the fib. Her second guessing contacting Sheldon had come back to mind as well as her dream from the night before.

‘Was it really so amazing that you could ignore the accepted social protocols when communicating with home?’

‘The Karnstein library is bigger than Los Robles Cottage, Sheldon. Carmilla has a first edition of Newton’s Principia.’ Penny smirked at Sheldon’s obvious longing to see that work for himself. Penny had been impressed, too, but she’d been more interested in his occult work like ‘The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms’, however she was glad it derailed Sheldon’s moodiness for the moment.

‘Do I hear someone else in the room clattering silverware?’

‘That would be my bedpartner here.’ Penny glanced at Missy and winked.

‘It’s bad enough you pay attention to everyone in the house besides me but to make calls while some stranger you picked up off the street for a sordid liaison rummages about is quite rude.’

‘I’m hardly a stranger or sordid, Shelly.’ Missy leaned into the camera’s view with a few more choice words on Sheldon’s prudishness.

‘You’ve been… a month…my sister?’

‘Yeah, a month, one room is cheaper than two.’ Penny rolled her eyes at where Sheldon’ thoughts were heading.

‘But one bed, it’s so unhygienic.’

‘Sheldon, we slept in the same room for years growing up.’ Missy couldn’t believe Sheldon would still be germ phobic as a ghost but this was her brother.

‘Don’t remind me of struggling to survive your early pigpen days. I’m already traumatized enough by the current situation.’

‘How would you be traumatized by talking to me, Sheldon?’

‘Penny and I have been keeping my presence a secret for the comfort of everyone in spite of the burden it puts on my solitude and work. I hope you won’t be broadcasting this to momma. I couldn’t stand having her descend on my afterlife.’

‘Because, everything is all about you. Sheldon, I’m your sister. Besides, I wouldn’t wish momma and her church group on you like that.’

‘Yes, that’s fine but you are sleeping with Penny. I trust that’s all you’re doing.’

‘What?’ Both women barked aloud, they both tensed up and they did a silent count to ten.

‘Missy can be a terrible influence, Penny. I could regale you with stories about her and cronies to make your head spin. Penny has valuable research to do, sister mine. I hope you are giving her time to do it while you are hunting down horse shows and every other kind of stud in Europe.’ Sheldon was exasperated Penny hadn’t said a word about her meeting with Professor Bauschinger.

‘I’m here on vacation, Sheldon. That means from physics as well as acting. Both of us are on vacation. It would be best if you didn’t continue making wisecracks about either of us or what we are doing on this trip.’ Penny talked fast and grabbed Missy’s hand hard before she could explode. They both had had enough of this call and Penny was growing sorrier with every second that she’d made it, at all.

‘Penny…, fine, I can see you are both too wrapped up in yourselves to see the greater issue of meeting some of the finest minds in the world of physics for what it is worth. I will bid you both a good day. Perhaps, we can speak when you are in a more civilized state.’ Sheldon closed the call leaving the women seething.

‘I’ve half a mind to go back there right now and kick him in his skinny ghost ass.’ Missy had heard too many cracks from Sheldon about her life growing up. Hearing them again was infuriating, especially after the kinder things he’d said back in Pasadena. It was all too bewildering and frustrating for Missy to take quietly.

‘I’ve never heard him be that insulting. Well, I have but not like… Lynn Howard.’ Penny had heard her share of comments when she was bringing dates back to Los Robles but that was so long ago she’d forgotten how priggish Sheldon could be.

‘Momma’s church group gets under your skin even if you don’t want them to. Sheldon could be just as judgmental as the worst of them but it was usually just about him being above us lowly humans and our hormones. Did he ever tell you about his stupid theory that he was some kind of new human species? He wouldn’t degrade himself by having sex with a lesser species. He was really just a bluenose prig like the worst of momma’s church, especially about women. Women were there to serve him like momma and meemaw did any time he so much as twitched. He was a prissy momma’s boy from head to toe all his life.’ Missy talked herself out until she mumbled half grunted memories of Sheldon. Finally, she just stewed in silence next to Penny.

Penny moved the computer and tray away to the bedside table and got her furious companion to scooch down on the bed to be more comfortable lying down. Missy closed her eyes and sniffled in vexation.

‘Are you thinking of Helen?’ Missy rolled on her side instead of answering but Penny was sure she was right. She spooned in tight with Missy and hugged her friend close. ‘He’s no new human. He’s just a Neanderthal jackass.’

Penny held on to her friend and cried with her. They slept in the morning instead of sightseeing more of Graz.

+++

They woke from their nap together holding hands and feeling better. They mumbled good mornings and chose to make a better start to their day.

‘I’d like to talk to Helen instead of going out, right now. You don’t mind, do you?’ Missy smirked at Penny’s sleepy face and their intertwined fingers brought her first morning with Helen to mind.

‘Of course not, I wouldn’t mind reading downstairs in the café for a while.’ Penny hugged her friend warmly and then got up to dress while Missy went to put the remains of their breakfast outside for cleanup. Penny waived to her Texan friend on her way out while she was getting ahold of Helen on skype.

Penny went to the café with her antique Orlando Furioso. The café was open to the skylight roof several floors above. The mezzanine levels were lined with greenery growing in abundance along the wrought ironwork railings. Chandeliers of gold and crystal hung above the café. The parquet wood floor made Penny feel like she was walking on stacks of books as she let her imagination fill with images prompted by the floor’s design. The café was quiet in the early afternoon after lunch. She sat in a corner table where the light and view made for pleasant reading. The challenge was reading late 16th century English but the poetry and passion of the epic was all there so a few odd words needing a Google search were just as much fun as the story.

The early lines of the first canto enraptured her as they always had, especially the lines about Orlando:

I will no lesse Orlandos acts declare,
(A tale in prose ne verse yet sung or sayd)
Who fell bestraught with loue, a hap most rare,
To one that earst was counted wise and stayd:

She wasn’t sure she could ever have been called wise or staid but she had never been as aware of her attachment to Kurt as she was of hers with Sheldon. She had to ask herself if she might not be as mad as Charlemagne’s Paladin. She got so absorbed in her reading she didn’t notice Missy sitting down next to her.

‘Is the book that good?’

‘Woah, scared me there. Yeah, it is. I love this story and some of it reminded me of everything since we got here.’

‘How so?’

‘The main part is about the Paladin Orlando. He’s sworn to defend the Emperor Charlemagne but he falls in love with a pagan princess and pursues her, instead. He ends up going mad in the pursuit of this love and rampages through Europe. Another knight, Astolfo, has to travel to the Moon to find Orlando’s lost wits. I loved the crazy fantasy of it all when I was growing up. You’d hardly think it was written in the 16th century.’

‘How did it make you think of us here in Europe? I haven’t seen you go on any rampages, yet.’

‘It made me think about acting and all the physics I’ve studied. Sheldon carrying on about the physics made me think about Orlando’s story like maybe I’ve been pursuing the wrong thing too long. Much as I loved getting the M.A., I could give it up right now and never be bothered like I would if I tried giving up acting. The physics is just like that princess, I guess. Meeting Prof. Bauschinger back in Aachen made some real connections and insights for me in the research I’ve been doing but I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with it ever since we left Aachen. I’m not the one to pull it off.’ Penny put the book down and drummed her fingers on the cover. Missy smiled at how much the simple act reminded her of her mother and her Bible.

‘Wouldn’t you be giving up on something important to you? I was interested in Shelly’s work but nothing like you.’

‘I wanted to figure out what Sheldon was working on and I did. I could go on with it but that’s a full time job staying up with a field like String Theory. The best I could do would be a constant game of catch up trying to publish regularly unless I pulled back from acting full time. I can’t do that, especially when I want to try directing or producing something someday. Physics doesn’t have that hold on me. It’s not my Charlemagne.’ Penny snorted and recalled sitting on his throne in Sheldon’s dreamscape.

‘It sounds to me you wouldn’t be happy dropping it altogether, either. Why put so much effort in seeing that professor in Aachen if it’s that easy to drop?’

‘I have some ideas I wanted to run past him. He is one of the leading authorities on String Theory so I couldn’t pass up meeting him. I just realized after that meeting what it would take to really make pursuing those ideas worthwhile. I don’t have the time to keep up with the field but I know folks who do. I doubt Sheldon is going to like them working on his theories, though.’

‘Well, if my fool of a brother gives you any trouble, just give me a call and I’ll straighten him out. Besides, he’s been dead for years. He’s not going to be publishing anything again. That work is just as much yours, more so now since he is a ghost.’

‘Thanks, how did your call with Helen go?’ Penny looked with interest at Missy. She held her breath a pause and the sigh Missy gave out said more than words.

‘I know you wanted to see Graz for a couple of days but how would you like to leave for Vienna today. We could be there in a couple of hours on the train.’

‘It’s only a couple of hours from Passau to Vienna, too.’ Penny laughed. She knew Helen had plans to visit some of the job offers. Passau was right on the border with Austria and Bavaria where Helen had one of those job offers.

‘If you’ve got your wits back, the three of us can storm the gates of Vienna. How about it?’

‘Let’s do it, right now. Get packed if you haven’t already.’

‘I got us both packed. I figured you wouldn’t take long making up your mind.’ Missy chuckled and shrugged her shoulders.

‘Sheldon still can’t get used to that about me.’ Penny rolled her eyes and snorted at how well Missy had gotten used to her way of carrying out decisions.

‘Sheldon doesn’t get used to a lot of things.’ The travelers laughed together on their way up to the room to get ready to check out and head to Vienna.

+++

The concierge was very obliging with the checkout since he was concerned about any guests leaving early and unsatisfied. The women assured him they loved the room and hotel but that they were just taking advantage of meeting American friends early in Vienna. The concierge booked their train tickets from the hotel and contacted their hotel in Vienna about arriving earlier than their reservation at the Hotel Sacher Wien which made the travelers grateful. They got a taxi to the Graz Hauptbahnhof and a train to the Vienna Hauptbahnhof. They spent two and a half hour trip looking through their photos and deciding what to do with the extra time in Vienna.

Missy had let Penny handle paying for the hotels in Graz and Vienna so she didn’t know what to expect when they arrived at the Hotel Sacher. The hotel was like walking into the 19th century from the footman outside welcoming them to the ornate marble lobby within made her fearful for the price.

‘Don’t you start worrying about the cost, I planned for this place. The State Opera house is right outside. It’s near the Riding School and just about everything else we want in Vienna. Heck, this is where Sacher tortes started.’ Penny spoke entranced by the marble work of the lobby. The lounge with its dark wood paneling and 19th century furnishings and air made her feel like she’d traveled back in time. She chuckled at the screaming three year old boy running through the lounge and his harried mother pursuing him. It was a real thing she’d never seen in Sheldon’s dreams of Vienna.

The concierge called a porter to help Missy and Penny to the Signature suite and the start of their stay in Vienna. The décor of the hotel made Missy uneasy on the way up to their floor. She could tell this place was much more expensive than their last hotel. The entrance to the suite capped it all.

‘Penny, this is ridiculous.’ Missy stood gaping in the entranceway. The pale pastels of the living room that looked out over the back stage doors of the State Opera House invited her in to relax but Missy felt far out of place. Karnstein Castle was almost like Disney Land in its excess so it hadn’t made her feel out of place but this was intimidating opulence for being on a tangible scale.

‘What do you mean? It’s wonderful.’ Penny asked the porters to put their things down in the master bedroom while she opened the balcony window to view the sights around the hotel.

‘The Erzherzog was an arm and a leg. Don’t even tell me what all this costs.’ Missy looked at the oil paintings that she hoped were reproductions.

Penney came back inside to talk to the porter before he left. She asked his name and his duty hours while she gave him a generous tip.

‘I’ll be sure to ask for you if we need anything, Albert.’ The porter thanked Penny again and left the women to the suite.

‘It’s still just a hotel. Come one out here.’ Penny grabbed her friend’s hand and tugged her out onto the balcony. ‘Everything we came to see in Vienna ever since we left California. It’s all right here. The Spanish Riding School is a five minute walk right up that street there! If it will make you feel more comfortable we can go somewhere else but you deserve this, Missy. Do you feel like you’re taking advantage of me?’

‘Look at all this, I don’t belong here.’

‘Why not?’ The show had put Penny up in a lot of places like this when the cast went on promotional trips. She’d forgotten the early days when she would have felt just as overwhelmed by a suite like this.

‘Penny, we said we’d go half and half on this trip but you are taking care of two hotels that probably cost what we’ve spent all the way from Amsterdam to the Austrian border. I can’t let you just start paying for everything like that.’

‘Come on.’ Penny put her arm around Missy’s waist and they walked the suite together. Penny listened to Missy’s disquiet about the money. She hugged her when they walked into the large main bathroom. The inlaid marble and porcelain tub was big enough for the tall Texan to lie down in comfortably. It looked at least as big as hers back in Pasadena. Penny turned on the water and added some of the oils and bath scents which the hotel provided at her request when the Graz concierge had taken care of their reservations. The room filled with the scent of magnolias.

‘Why don’t you take those clothes off and lie down in that bath for a while before you make any decisions. I hear you about the money but I’d be staying here even if I was on my own. You are not taking advantage of me in any way, Missy. Don’t think about anything except what’s going to make you feel comfortable. I remember you saying how your mom spent so much on Sheldon, especially his coming here to Europe. I’m not your mom but I am your friend. Your friend is saying get in the damn tub and enjoy yourself.’ Penny hugged Missy tight and pushed her toward the inviting warmth.

‘You don’t fight fair.’ Missy started undressing while Penny took her clothes with a smug grin.

+++

Penny lay on the king sized bed dressed in one of the hotel’s long and thick terry cloth bathrobes. She stared at the chandelier above the center of the room. The pale green window curtains matched the wall paper and offset the light blue grey of the bed’s duvet with a meditative calm. She’d finished putting her things away and taken a quick shower in the suite’s second bathroom. Now, she wanted to float here on this wonderful piece of furnishing. She closed her eyes and dozed off until she felt Missy lie down beside her.

‘I made a new tub for you if you want to have a soak, too.’

‘That sounds wonderful and this place has a glorious spa we can try, tomorrow. Check out the brochure, it opens at ten. We should have dinner downstairs. Have a look at the menu for the Rote Bar and tell me what you think.’ Penny wiggled her eyebrows at her similarly dressed bedmate and got up to go have a soak, too.

‘I hate you.’ Missy gazed at the pictures of the deep scarlet red room with its 19th century furnishings and fixtures. It was like time traveling just looking at it. The menu was a gourmand’s delight with wild boar, truffles, caviar, and a dozen more choices she’d longed to try in a place like this. ‘You only live once even if there is an afterlife.’ She made reservations for them at eight pm.

+++

The Maître D’ greeted Penny and Missy warmly and seated them near the window where they could see the State Opera House across the street. They were charmed by the room. Missy couldn’t help feeling like she’d walked into one of the rooms in the Coven’s mansion on Penny’s show. The ornate red wallpaper and gold fixtures reminded Missy of the season finale where Kaley and the other witches had celebrated the end of their war with Cristoph’s vampire family. The Maître D’ brought a complementary bottle of champagne to welcome one of The Coven stars to the hotel.

‘Oh, thank you. I never expected anyone to know the show much less think it was this special.’

‘You may thank Albert. He has been very enthusiastic since you arrived. Many of us at the hotel enjoy your show, Ms. Queen but we do pride ourselves on discretion with all our guests.’

‘You need Jason here to serve the champagne.’ Missy grinned and told Penny about Meemaw’s excitement over the finale.

‘Oh lord, the shippers have been inundating both of us after that kiss on the balcony.’ Penny talked more generally about the show and some of the ideas floating around for the final season while they read their menus.

They both wanted the wild boar with black pudding and potatoes. Penny got a small bouillabaisse soup to start and Missy got a sweet potato soup with citrus caviar to begin before the entrée. They finished their dinner with assorted Austrian Cheeses and espresso with some Lagavulin 16 on the side.

‘Alright, this place is perfect. It’s still too expensive but I’m glad you insisted.’

‘I’m glad you decided to stay. We’ve got a couple of extra days in Vienna, what do you want to do with them?’

‘I haven’t even thought about it, really.’ Missy rolled her whisky glass and sniffed the aroma from the scotch.

‘What’s bothering you?’ Missy had grown quieter as their dinner had gone on.

‘I’m just feeling…’ Missy took another sniff of her whisky followed by a sizeable sip.

‘Are you missing Helen?’

Missy just nodded and finished her whisky. Penny wanted to reassure Missy but she didn’t really know what the women had talked about earlier today. ‘What did Helen say about coming to Vienna, I’m assuming she said she’d come.’

‘She said she was in Munich and she’d be going to Passau to look into one of the job offers she had. She figured she’d be finished up there by six. I thought she might show up, tonight.’

‘You must have told her where we are staying, why don’t you call her and see what’s up?’ Penny remembered Missy’s goodbye to Helen back on the pier in Aachen. It seemed so long ago but the feelings were still fresh for her friend. She was sure Sheldon’s ridiculous comments were no help, either.

‘I’d sound like a desperate loon. I couldn’t call her like that.’

‘I’ll call her then.’ Penny started for her phone but Missy looked alarmed.

‘No, no, don’t do that. I mean, she’s got to be busy looking at her job offers. She’s probably too busy in Bavaria to come to Vienna just to prance around the city with a one night stand.’

‘Don’t say that, Missy. If Helen said she was coming, I’m sure that’s what she’s going to do. You are probably right. She could just have gotten tied up with questions about the places she was looking at or just had trouble with train connections getting to Vienna, today. Let’s change the mood and move this show to the Blue Bar. It’s cozy and next to the lobby in case Helen does show up.’ Penny had the bill put on the room and asked the waiter to send a note to the concierge about their expecting a guest and to tell Helen where they’d be.

‘You’re an optimist, tonight.’

‘You’re starting to sound like your brother, stop that.’ Penny linked arms with her friend and they stepped outside to have a little walk outside around the hotel before going to the Blue Bar. They took a turn around the State Opera House to see the audience members coming out during an intermission of Camille Saint-Saëns, ‘Samson et Dalila’. They were eager to see Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’, tomorrow.

‘While we wander the streets of Vienna where I’ve never been waiting for someone to show up, what about you? You’ve wandered the streets of Vienna before ever getting here with my brother who won’t be coming because he’s dead. What are you going to do? That call with Sheldon this morning is still pissing me off.’

‘Me, too.’ Penny and Missy headed back inside to go to the Blue Bar. The bar’s décor was done in blue with gold trim. A central chandelier lit the room. The oil paintings gave the cozy room the feeling of a home. There were plush couches open in the back corner so the women chose the quietest nook to talk more. They both got Wiener Madls, a Viennese gin cocktail made with rose lemonade, orange, and spiced with pink pepper.

‘I’ve had my share of arguments with Sheldon but I never heard anything like that.’ Penny took a sip of her cocktail and hummed in approval.

‘I heard plenty of comments like that from him growing up. He always had hang ups about sex but it was usually just about how he was above things like sex and relationships. The last time I heard anything like that talk this morning was in his old apartment before he got the cottage. I went to visit him over some paperwork, it had to do with our momma’s old house. That was when I first met Leonard and his other pals. They were all kind of strange but Leonard took the cake. He even tried telling them all he had dibs on me. That was one of the few times I ever saw Shelly get red faced mad at someone. Of course, his thinking was because none of them were suitable breeding material like I was supposed to be some broodmare for a Sheldon 2.0 or some stupid thing in his head. He was always saying since he wasn’t going to breed with lesser humans it was my responsibility, being his twin, to carry on the genetic superiority we shared.’

‘Wow, that’s fucked up. He talked to you like that all the time?’ Penny couldn’t imagine living with that craziness in her ear growing up.

‘Not in so many words, usually, it was mostly cracks like this morning. You’ve got a brother, didn’t he hate anyone you were seeing?’

‘Not mine, he was an idiot that ended up in jail for cooking meth. He even tried to get me to help him. I never had a brother that acted like yours.’

‘I had two and it was no picnic.’ They talked a bit more about their families although Missy wanted to find out more of Penny’s feelings about Sheldon and what she was going to do after she got back to Pasadena.

‘I have to decide what I’m going to do after The Coven finishes up next season. I’ve got movie and TV offers, the most interesting ones are overseas.’ Penny described a few of the offers but Missy was sure her advice wouldn’t be useful on that score since Penny sounded like she had a good idea which ones she wanted to explore. Missy was more concerned about things closer to home.

‘That’s not going to leave any time for physics judging by the sound of it.’

‘Yeah, but Raj and Howard would be better at carrying on that work. They stay current in the field, it’s their job to follow this kind of stuff. I sent a few things to Raj, already. He sounded pretty excited by it.’

‘How do you think Sheldon’s going to take that because I’m thinking not well?’

‘I’m sure it will be fine. He’s got to understand I’m an actress not a physicist.’

‘Have you met my brother? He doesn’t do sharing.’

Their conversation was broken off by Helen’s arrival from Bavaria at long last. She looked disheveled in her old faded jeans and torn leather jacket and hiking boots that were great for touring a farm or traveling but looked wildly out of place in the hotel bar. She had a medium sized backpack that had seen better days slung over her shoulder. Patches from horse shows on every continent showed the bag had earned its wear and tear.

‘You two have upgraded your lives since Aachen. I didn’t think they’d let me in the door.’ Helen was surprise by Missy’s leap from the table. She laughed and hugged her with glee.

‘I told her the same thing.’ Missy laughed, relief that Helen had shown up beamed from her face.

Helen gave them a quick rundown of her time since Aachen and especially today’s hectic events. She wanted to talk more but she did feel out of place in the bar looking the way she did so Missy brought her up to their suite where she could change and freshen up before settling down to a real conversation.

The bar’s ambience had Penny thinking about Karnstein and her talks with Carmilla. She’d been right about opening up more to Missy. Missy did know Sheldon in ways she simply didn’t in spite of living with him for the last six years. Sheldon was obsessive. Death hadn’t been able to stop him from trying to figure out what went wrong in the arctic. She had assumed that was the thing holding him in Los Robles. She had often wondered why he hadn’t moved on after he had his answer. She had flattered herself that he liked being with her as much as she loved her time with him but ever since the séance she’d had to ask if there was more to it. Maleva and Carmilla had said a ghost was pursuing a purpose; it was their obsession that kept them in this world. If the arctic wasn’t the real obsession keeping Sheldon in Los Robles, what was his purpose? What if Missy was right about Sheldon not liking to share when it came to his work? Howard had said Sheldon didn’t share well with just as much conviction. Penny had to imagine Howard had his own insights on Sheldon that she wasn’t aware of so why was Sheldon so willing to share his work with her? He had encouraged her almost from the beginning when she thought his white boards looked more like a wizard’s incantations than anything else.

‘Earth to Penny, come in, Penny.’ Missy chuckled and asked again if Penny wanted another drink.

‘I’m sorry, I was in another world thinking about Sheldon. How’s Helen getting along?’

‘She’s taking a quick shower and changing, she’ll be down in a bit. What had you so far away about Sheldon you didn’t see me right in front of you?’

‘I was going back over what you were talking about him not sharing well, about his theories and why he’s still haunting Los Robles Cottage. Carmilla and Maleva talked about ghosts acting out their obsessions through people. He was so helpful about me coming to Europe. I don’t think that was any kind of obsession. He said it would be great for my career to come over here.’

‘Sheldon was always keen on winning a Nobel for Physics. I would stake my life on that being his greatest obsession outside of some nerdy Star Trek thing.’ Missy wanted to try the Sacher Kaffee and suggested they try the dark coffee and house liqueur concoction.

‘He’s talked about winning a Nobel in the past but he can’t win it now that he’s dead. I would expect him to want his name on it if his work ever earned one.’ Penny seconded the getting hotel’s specialty coffee.

‘He would want that but he might just be happy enough seeing you win it with his work.’

‘Please, I am nowhere near to being that kind of scientist. I can’t imagine he thinks I’d ever be close to that level even with the amount of encouragement he’s given me.’

‘I hope you’re right but watch out thinking you know what’s on Shelly’s mind. Everything took a backseat to whatever he thought was best and there was nothing better than physics to Sheldon.’

They broke off any more talk about their ghostly connection when Helen came back to the bar. The conversation turned to horses and travel for all three women. Helen had narrowed her job choices to three farms around Passau but she wanted to take some more time looking over the prospects before she chose one. She asked if Penny and Missy had the time to come look at the places with her.

‘I’d love to look at them with you!’ Missy checked her cry with an abashed glance at Penny.

‘You should go, Missy, but I want to see Vienna, first. Besides, three’s a crowd, even looking at ranches from time to time.’ Penny laughed at the blushes and guilty looks shared between her friends.

‘I don’t want to break up your trip, Penny. It would really be a big help if you came with Missy, too.’

‘I’ve been away from horses so long, I couldn’t help half as much as Missy,’ Penny cut Missy’s protest short, ‘don’t shake your head, I heard you holding your own in Aachen with the trainers. I used to ride horses, I don’t have half the knowhow you do about breeding, and ancestry and all the rest. Besides, I don’t expect Helen will keep you in Germany forever. We have tickets to Mozart, tomorrow night, Helen. You should come with us. I could try to get you one for the box we’re in.’

The women agreed to Penny’s idea for tomorrow. Penny suggested that Helen should stay with Missy and her in Vienna if she didn’t have other plans after they were done in Bavaria, tomorrow. ‘I am keeping the big bedroom, though.’ Penny chuckled at their wry snorts and muttered asides about diva actresses.

+++

Chapter Text

In the morning, Penny took care of adding Helen’s name to their suite and saw her friends off on their way to Bavaria. She didn’t mind seeing Vienna on her own although there were some sights that she wanted to see with Missy, The Spanish Riding School topping the list. She asked the concierge if Albert was on duty yet because she wanted his help handling some errands and she wanted him to take care of her deliveries, today. She also asked the concierge about clothing stores that would have something for the Opera House this evening. He recommended the Sisi Vienna – Damenmodesalon just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel. Bearing the nickname of Empress Elisabeth, it was a well-regarded Austrian fashion shop that would be sure to have clothes fit for the opera. He also suggested several department stores that would have a wider price range if she wanted some more general fashion choices. Penny wanted to start with Sisi Vienna as soon as she browsed its webpage.

Penny texted Missy and Helen about the store and offered to be their virtual shopper for something to wear, tonight. Their scathing comments about finding the store without them put a grin on her face along the short walk to the salon while texting responses back at them. Annagasse street looked more like an ally to Penny. She checked her dictionary and snorted to find gasse meant ally in German. She decided she should trust her phone map and the hotel’s directions. She came to a small church side door, Annakirche, the church the street was named for. Above the heavy wood door a glass enclosed statue of Anna gazed down on the Nebraskan passersby.

The church was hosting a classical music concert that evening according to the small banners posted outside. Thinking of Bernadette, Penny went for a look inside. The ceiling frescoes were breathtaking. They depicted the lives of the saints in heaven in fabulous explosions of color. The small size of the building vanished from thought while trying to take in the splendor of the artwork. The walls were gilded and filled with religious iconography and statues of innumerable saints and angels who contemplated the parishioners in the pews. She approached a cleaning lady to ask if she could take some pictures around the church which the woman assured Penny was alright. She took a few snaps and did a quick walk around video that she sent to Bernie after going outside and continuing on to the clothes shopping.

The Sisi Vienna Lady’s Salon was less than a minute further down the little road right across from The House of Music, a museum of contemporary music technology.

‘I can guess which one Sheldon would pick.’ She rolled her eyes and skipped through the salon doors. She thought about the walk in closet she had enjoyed at Karnstein when she saw the first sets of clothes in the salon. She started thinking about remodeling the closet space that Sheldon had turned over to old files. The clothes were gorgeous and she was going to need the extra space.

A deep scarlet two piece dress called out to her from its display. The rose patterned cotton was impossibly soft. The top piece with its silver buttons and the pleated skirt that went with it left her smiling and looking for someone to help her. A sales clerk was quick to appear since the store was quiet in the morning. She suggested some additions while Penny considered shoes to go with the dress. Buying it was a foregone conclusion but it wasn’t what she wanted for the Opera House, this evening.

Helen and Missy were easily drawn into having a personal shopper even though they did want to be there after seeing some of the selections Penny had in mind for them. Helen was keen on a green silk jacket and skirt with a black rose pattern on the skirt. Missy was especially in love with a one piece dress, white with an ornate black paisley pattern. Penny finally found her opera wear, a dark purple jacket with black trim and white skirt with red roses. She found a perfect pair of black pumps to go with the dress. She also found a lovely dark purple dress with green shoulder straps and matching purse that she was sure Bernadette would love so she sent pictures of the dress being modeled for Bernadette to wake up to.

+++

Penny finished up her shopping spree and wanted to get a coffee. The Sisi staff recommended the Ferrari café next door to the Anna kirche so it was there where she got a call from Bernadette which surprised her. It was well after 3am in Pasadena so Penny hoped there wasn’t some emergency back in California.

‘Bernie, honey, what are you doing up? Is everything alright?’ Penny hoped it wasn’t Sheldon acting up somehow.

‘Halley came down with a cold a couple of days ago. The doctor says it’s nothing serious, but she can’t sleep comfortably.’

‘I’m so sorry. I wish I was there to help you guys out.’ Penny felt guilty about the shopping and sending off the pictures of the clothes so nonchalantly. She was having fun while Bernie and Halley were dealing with being sick.

‘That’s alright, kochanie. I guess you could’ve helped with Howard if you were here. He got it first. He ended up failing his flight physical because of it. He’s been a nuisance ever since but I have to admit I don’t mind. I hate those space missions of his.’

Bernie’s rundown of life at Los Robles gave Penny an earful. Howard was patient zero which Bernie enjoyed reminding him of. He had managed to give the cold to Raj and Lalita, too. They’d come over for a pavilion party along with Lal’s parents to celebrate their son Dev’s second birthday. Fortunately, Lalita’s parents hadn’t caught it with them so they had Dev at their hotel for a week of pampering. Bernie was grateful she hadn’t come down with it or she might have had to do away with Howard.

‘I hope I haven’t cursed you with this call, kochanie.’

‘If I do come down with this bug, you can just go back to that high-end store you found and get me something for work.’

That was an easy promise for Penny to make. She got Bernie’s measurements so she could go back to the shop to have any adjustments made. She also got her to tell her what else she’d fancy from the catalogue since she was right by the store.

‘You sound like you’ve gone native over there, honey.’

‘I could get used to Austria. It’s been wonderful ever since we got to Europe.’ Bernie’s warm chuckle over the phone brought back the feelings Penny had felt for Bernie after the séance.

‘Does this mean you’re ready to get out of that study? Mira called a few days ago wondering when you’d get back. She said she wanted to talk some more about a project you two talked about just before you left for Europe.’

Penny was ecstatic about Bernie’s news. She knew the film was still in its planning stages so it would be at least a year before casting happened but knowing Mira was checking up on her interest was a definite plus.

‘I’m glad it’s something that will get you out of that study. Speaking of, have you tried seeing anyone while you are there? A little summertime fling wouldn’t hurt you, either. You spend too much time working, Penny.’

‘You just want Los Robles for yourself, go on and admit it.’ Penny laughed and told Bernie about meeting Helen the first week they were in Europe.

‘What did you tell her that for? You can’t be serious about your heart being stuck up in that study working on physics. I will go up there and burn everything in that room if you do.’ The acting Bernie understood but she had never thought of Penny as a scientist. She couldn’t deny Penny’s ability with the math and physics. She could read those white boards so she knew how advanced the stuff was that Penny was working on but it had come out of the blue after they’d moved in. Penny had never shown any real interest in the sciences before they’d moved to Los Robles Cottage. It was uncanny and Penny’s attachment to the study was even more so to Bernadette.

‘Missy’s said kind of the same thing.’ She skipped over Sheldon and focused on the physics and dancing with Helen in Aachen to ‘Can’t fight the Moonlight’.

‘At least you’re dancing with someone else to that song, honey. Howard says I should stop pushing you so much to start dating but I don’t want life passing you by while you sit up there all alone. I know how much you love it up there but don’t miss out on what’s going on outside.’

‘You’re right, Bernie. I should get out of there more. I’ll get a hold of Mira and talk to her. And, we’ll talk more about getting out of the study. I promise.’ It wasn’t what Penny wanted but there were too many signs that it was what she needed to do.

‘That’s great, kochanie. I hear Halley crying again so I’m going to let you go while I take care of her.’

‘Let me switch the call to video and I can sing ‘Soft Kitty’ for her.’

‘That would be a big help. She’s been missing you and she says her Showden bear has been missing you, too.’

‘I’ll bet.’ Penny got on the video with Halley when Bernie got upstairs from the library. Halley perked up a lot seeing her Aunt Penny and hearing her voice live over the phone. Bernie perked up seeing how happy Penny was in Europe and she hoped her friend really was ready to make a break from her hermitage down the hall.

+++

Penny finished her call, and then she dropped by the Sisi salon again to get some adjustments done on Bernadette’s gift and got the other things she’d asked about from the catalogue. Her next stop was the Sacher Hotel to drop off her shopping. The conversations of the last few days ran through her mind while she strolled back. Austria was a focal point for a lot of her feelings for Sheldon. This was where they’d had their first date. It was the only word that expressed her emotions. She dropped the bags off in her suite and made up her mind to see the Hofburg where Sheldon had taken her dancing all those years ago. She changed into a white two piece dress she’d bought at the salon so she could slip into Viennese life as much as possible.

The imperial palace had been on her mind since they left Graz but there was one more place just as important to her. She wanted to see the sights with Missy but this first visit was something that she decided she wanted to do alone. The Rhine valley had been a tour of her fantasy Europe. The land of knights, and castles, and legendary that she’d read about for years. The home of Roland and Charlemagne. Vienna was something else. This was a city of theater and music. She stepped out of the Sacher and stared at the Opera House in the light of day. The hotel was facing the back side of the building with its great red wooden backstage doors. This was the business side to the actress. The side used by the cast and crew who made the productions inside. The building’s neo-Renaissance architecture by Czech architect Josef Hlavca inspired the performer in her.

Television had given her so much and now she had the chance to move into film which was her career’s next logical step. She felt confident of that but she had started on the boards of the stage. Nothing in her career on TV held the same pull on her heartstrings that came from theater. The thrill of hearing an audience on the other side of the curtain waiting to experience the play with you while you act. Acting without the safety net of re-shooting mistakes. Everything right or wrong was all hanging out in front of the audience in that living moment. ‘Maybe, my time with Sheldon is a little like that.’ Penny mulled over her feelings. His dreams were like TV or a movie, always the same, edited to the director’s whim, and always without the immediacy of the moment. Theater was live performance. Anything could happen in spite of all the rehearsal and repetition and sometimes it did. And when you could improvise and save that moment it was a giddy triumph lived in front of a thousand or more eyes.

She rounded the theater and went across the street to take in the full effect of the front of the State Opera House. The statues mounted on the upper floors captivated Penny. The second level had personifications of the heart of theater’s purpose- Heroism, Fantasy, Lorelei whose beauty lures all to her, Love with her roses and Mourning with her sadness, and Wild Revenge with her dagger. Surmounting the top, the Muses each riding a Pegasus. Penny imagined hearing the stage hands in their last minute rushing to make the final checks before the curtain went up. The dressing rooms where those last minute details mounted up and made you wonder why you ever took up this career. The calls for the actors to get up to their places that answered that question with the thrill of walking into another world that the audience took part in with you. Physics didn’t speak to her like that.

Penny hurried across the street to take the guided tour of the Opera House. She stood in line with the other tourists feeling like it was a first night performance. The opulence of the grand foyer dazzled her eyes as soon as she walked in. Sumptuous paintings of muses that were bursting with color nestled amid the great marble pillars of the foyer. Statues and busts of the great composers of history lined the gilded walls. This place was Penny’s true church.

‘Is everything alright, miss?’ The tour guide was used to overwhelmed first time visitors but she still loved seeing that delight in their eyes.

‘Oh yes, I never imagined… I’ve seen pictures…’ Penny laughed and apologized in embarrassment.

The tour was everything Penny hoped for, especially the true heart of the Opera House, the back stage part of the tour. Penny longed to wander off through the vast cavern of metal, rope, and wood that changed this place that looked like a construction site into anything the audience could imagine. The cavernous stage could easily hold six complete sets ready to be moved into place in minutes with still more sets down below the stage floor from where the elevators could bring them up to the performance area. Penny had several technical questions that made the guide certain that she was talking to a thespian.

‘Have you worked in theater?’

‘I started in theater and I try to get back to it whenever I can. I can’t imagine playing someplace like this’

The guide nodded in appreciation for the complement to the Opera and continued the tour. One of the other people on the tour was a Canadian woman who had thought she had recognized Penny, especially after her theater questions. She approached her after the tour to say hello.

‘Aren’t you Penny Queen?’ She was delighted she was right and introduced herself as Evelyn Moreau. She had friends who watched Penny’s show so she asked for a selfie to show them who she’d run into. Penny indulged Evelyn and they chatted about their travels in Europe.

‘Are those selfie-friends traveling with you?’ Penny was curious about Evelyn since she had asked as many inside theater questions as the Nebraskan actress had. She suggested they try the Opera House Café in the building.

The café’s white vaulted ceiling made the space look like a cathedral to conversation. The high roof and floor to ceiling windows made Penny feel elated. Evelyn suggested a booth along the side so they could take in the view outside. They marveled at the charm and elegance of the atmosphere in unabashed tourist delight.

‘Yes, but they wanted to go shopping. They weren’t as interested in the tour as I was. I produce plays in Toronto so I had to visit here. I’m surprised you’re so star struck by all this. Hollywood must have gotten you used to places like this.’

‘Cinema is a different kettle of fish from theater. This place is magnificent. I started in theater, like I told the guide. I would love to have the chance to perform on that stage and be part of this place just once.’

‘Do you still do any theater?’

‘The Coven takes up a lot of time but I still do short runs when I can.’ Penny went into more detail about her theater experience. They were delighted to find they shared a great love of experimental theater and Penny was intrigued by Evelyn’s work with translating European Absurdist works to Canadian theater.

Evelyn was eager to continue the talk but she noticed her phone had several messages waiting for her. Her friends had been calling to find out where she’d gotten off to after her opera tour. The speaker at the other end buzzed with concern. They were put out she hadn’t met them or called after the tour was supposed to have finished. Evelyn told them she was having coffee with one of the people that had been on the tour she’d taken but left out who for the sake of Penny’s privacy.

‘I can’t believe I’ve kept you here two hours. I’m sorry I took up so much of your time, Penny.’ Evelyn looked abashed by the volume of the call.

‘I haven’t had so much fun talking theater in ages. I hope I didn’t bore you like some self-important diva.’ Penny was every bit as surprised so much time had passed.

‘I loved every minute of it. You could make it up to me by giving me your agent’s contact information. Maybe, you’d like to try your talents out up north, sometime?’

‘I hope your friends weren’t too put out by my keeping you here.’ Penny gave her new friend the details of her agent. She wasn’t sure when she might be able to work in Canada but it was another sign post away from Pasadena. She couldn’t help feeling the universe was telling her something.

‘No, it’s my fault for forgetting I turned the phone off for the tour. We’ve all been on our guard the last few days. We went to a club in Berlin and some guy tried slipping something in my friend Natasha’s drink. She was the one on the phone. We were lucky the bartender caught sight of him and they had a good shot on camera of him at it too so that guy will be with the police and courts for a while. We’ve been twice as cautious ever since but I guess we lost half the fun we were having, too.’

‘Where are you meeting up with them?’

‘They’re already on their way here.’ Evelyn looked sheepish with that admission.

‘How about we meet them together? I’d like to take some of the edge off their worry if I can.’ Penny empathized with Evelyn’s friends. She’d choked down plenty of anxieties for weeks after Jonas had attacked her.

‘Thanks, but you really don’t have to do that.’

‘It’s my pleasure. I’ve had my own troubles like that. My friend Bernie was a life saver after one bad one.’ Penny recounted the events with Jonas Twill and her disquiet afterwards that Bernadette had helped her through. She was in the middle of describing the finale in the courthouse when Evelyn’s friends arrived.

‘Evy, you had us so worried when you didn’t- Oh. My. God.’ Evelyn’s friend Natasha stood gaping like a fish out of water not knowing what to say at the sight of Penny Queen sitting in front of her. Her other half, Annie, was brought up just as short by Natasha’s discovery. Evelyn’s silent phone was soon forgiven and forgotten by her friends. The two Coven fans flung a half dozen questions to Penny about the show and why she was in Vienna before they caught a hold of themselves. They bombarded Evelyn with just as many about how she’d met Penny and why she hadn’t called them to tell them who she’d met.

‘Why don’t you two have a seat and I’ll get us some coffee.’ Evelyn left her friends to talk with Penny while she got the drinks and some of the pastries she was tempted to try.

Penny danced around any spoilers about the show but she had to chuckle at the questions about Castle Karnstein. She had to disappoint them that the show wasn’t planning to film there. They shared some of their vacation stories while Evelyn came back with the coffees. Annie was especially interested in the Equestrian Festival. Their group had been there for a couple of days. She was thrilled to learn about Penny’s rodeo past before she got into acting.

‘You know Helen Geffin?’ Annie had insisted on going to the Festival just to see Helen’s performance.

‘Please, don’t make Penny sorry she met us, Annie.’ Natasha didn’t want to intrude on Penny and her friends since she knew how fanatical Annie was about horses.

‘You’re right, Nat, I’m sorry to be so intrusive on your trip, Penny.’

‘That’s alright. It’s nice to meet folks who want to talk about more than the show.’ Penny reminisced about Nebraska which recalled a lot of memories for Annie. Her family home was in Saskatchewan with its rodeo season that Annie adored. She’d started following Helen’s career when she’d seen her perform in Canada.

Penny finished up the wonderful get-together with the Canadian women. They were leaving for Toronto, tomorrow so Penny made sure to get Evelyn’s contact details. After leaving her new friends, Penny looked up Evelyn’s productions. Avant-Garde and Absurdist Theater predominated and she specialized in Ionesco, Artaud, and Fernando Arrabal more than the actress had expected. The productions were well reviewed and Penny was personally acquainted with some of the actors that had worked with Evelyn. She sent a text to Sharon about Evelyn’s work and asked her agent to look into the productions in planning to see if they sounded promising.

+++

The full heat of summer brought picnicking families and friends to the Burggarten, the palace garden of the Hofburg. Penny loved the mildness of the summer compared to Pasadena’s arid summertime. She strolled through the laughter and games enjoyed around her with daydreams of being onstage at the Opera House on her mind’s eye. She missed the theater. Recollecting her theater days with Evelyn had made her feel that lack of stage work acutely. She had spent her last long break from The Coven working on her M.A. instead of doing any productions. Penny had to call it a sign to have run into Evelyn where she did. She hadn’t really been able to do much more than teach some acting classes for the last couple of seasons. She was still glad of the accomplishment of the physics degree. String Theory was fascinating and Raj sounded excited by the ideas she’d formulated since she’d finished her degree and met with Professor Bauschinger. She did want to contribute more to it with him but after beholding the backstage of the Opera a sleeping part of her soul woke. That longing part of her that wanted to bolt like a wild horse toward a new horizon.

She left the park and walked along the Ringstrasse deep in thought. The monument to Empress Maria Teresa beckoned her over from the Hofburg so she toured the plaza around the statue to the empress. She resisted going into the Museum of Art History. It was one of the places she and Missy wanted to see together so it was a struggle to not take a quick peek inside the palatial museum commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph I to house some of the Habsburg’s incredible art collection. She huffed a wry snort of frustration but it would be worth the wait. She couldn’t help but be aware of the other museum across the plaza, the Natural History Museum of Vienna. It was the sister gallery to the Art Museum. The dichotomy of the two museums was a little like her mind these days, a little like Sheldon and her. His world of science across the way from hers of art.

She gazed at the gates to the Hofburg’s Heldenplatz across the street. She recalled her first visit, the dream visit with Sheldon. That had been at night. He’d decorated it like the nineteenth century. The evening dancing to Strauss waltzes had fired her imagination about the music and life of Vienna. The music felt a part of her when they danced. She thought of Miklos Banffy’s trilogy of Transylvanian novels, ‘The Writing on the Wall’. It was set in the years just before the First World War. A time when Austria ruled most of Eastern Europe and the seat of all that power was just beyond those gates. She had thought the story was wonderful. A romance of a doomed love affair that paralleled the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of war. Sheldon had thought it a silly affectation for a moribund aristocracy that paled to insignificance when at the same time Einstein and Neils Bohr were opening up the wonders of the universe for all to see. She had thought he was just too nerdy to get the tragic beauty of the story but her time getting an M.A. had given her some insight into Sheldon’s point even if she still didn’t agree with him. The argument she had with Sheldon over the novel brought a chuckle to the back of her throat that was cut off by the feelings she had stirred today mulling over her life that seemed poised like the space between these two museums.

‘I can’t go calling myself Empress of Pasadena, I suppose.’ She waved a small farewell to the famed Austrian empress before leaving to do more sightseeing.

She crossed the Ringstrasse and walked through the outer palace gate of the Hofburg into the vast Heldenplatz with the statures of Prince Eugene and Archduke Charles that dominated the plaza. Penny chuckled over her quandary in the dream visit with Sheldon. She’d seen photos of this plaza a hundred times or more in film and history books but standing there next to the towering statue of Archduke Charles she’d no idea where she was. That had been a fanciful night, a magical one she’d savored many times before she got here. She was seeing the place of her dreams in a panorama of memory underlying the reality of day and the flocks of tourists and their cars with arguing families tumbling out into the parking area instead of the coaches and elegant guests in Sheldon’s fantasy visit. She circled the plaza saying hello and signing autographs for people, mostly North American, who recognized her. She was coming to appreciate the Austrian reserve that let her walk around so freely. She’d missed the attention at first but she’d become aware that more people recognized her than she’d thought would happen before she left California. The Austrian respect for privacy meant she’d hear excited murmurs that let her say hello if she wanted to meet fans here or allowed her to smile and nod and remain alone if she wanted some peace. Usually.

Penny smiled at the girls that rushed up to her. Teenagers seemed a universal constant of exuberance in any country and these teens, one platinum blonde and the other strawberry blonde, both lanky and athletic, and sporting Coven T-shirts spilled out a torrent of enthusiastic questions to compete with the most ardent fans back in California.

‘You’re her!-Kaley-Penny-Miss Queen-been following your trip online!-What was Schloss Karnstein about?-Are you filming there?’

‘Hello, one at a time is much easier to understand.’ Penny grinned at the blushing hesitance once the girls reined in their exuberance.

‘We’re sorry. I am Maria Schiffer and this is my sister Teresa. We couldn’t believe you were here.’ The lighter haired of the girls spoke with embarrassment at the way they had ambushed Penny with their questions.

‘We’ve been following your trip on your social media. I didn’t know you were still so interested in horses. I’ve watched all your rodeo events online.’ Teresa asked about Aachen since she and her family had been at the Equestrian Festival. She and her sister had hoped to see Penny somewhere in the crowd.

‘Horses, always horses, ask about the show. Were you visiting Schloss Karnstein for the show? The stories about the Karnsteins would be a fantastic addition.’

‘Girls, you’re going to make Miss Queen sorry she ever visited Austria.’ The two teens turned to the older woman dressed in a quixotic Hawaiian themed tourist shirt and huffed in annoyance.

‘Mama, this is Kaley Jenkins. We had to meet her.’

‘Yes, always The Coven. You should put as much time and energy into your school work.’

‘I don’t recall such studiousness when you were at university, Annettechen.’ The woman rolled her eyes at the jocular tone of the tall, blonde man in matching Hawaiian gaudiness who joined in on the commentary.

‘That’s because you were always distracting me with your latest hobby, Gustl.’

‘Science experiments are not hobbies, my dear. Besides, Ms. Queen is no stranger to such hobbies, I believe.’ The man nodded to Penny with curiosity.

‘Papa, please, no lectures on physics.’

‘Teresa, do not hector your father about physics until your grades in the subject have improved. I must apologize for my family interrupting your time, Ms. Queen. You’ve met my daughters, Teresa and Maria.’ The woman’s authoritative tone brooked no more antics from her children. ‘I am Annette Schiffer and this is my husband, Prof. Gustav Schiffer.’

‘Gustav Schiffer doing the work on M-Theory at CERN?’ Penny had a volley of exuberant praise for the professor’s work. It was an important catalyst to her own ideas.

‘Ja, thank you. I have heard of your recent work through Prof. Bauschinger. He spoke highly of your ideas, Ms. Queen.’

Penny was at a loss for words. She hadn’t expected to run into the famed researcher much less find out her work was known to him. She launched into an exuberant volley of praise for the professor’s work and how it was a catalyst to her own ideas. They started swapping progressively abstruse theoretical ideas in sounds of excitement Annette and the girls knew all too well.

‘Gustl, I was just berating the girls on respecting people’s time and privacy.’ His wife’s laughter had everyone giggling at the distraction he and Penny had fallen into.

‘Yes, you are right, Annettechen, forgive me Ms. Queen but your ideas are quite extraordinary.’

‘I… thank you… but I am an actress more than anything else.’ The idea that someone like Gustav Schiffer would be impressed by her physics work had never crossed Penny’s mind.

‘So was Hedwig Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr but I prefer her real Austrian name. She was a scientist as well as an actress.’ Annette’s warmth of expression about the golden age actress touched Penny.

‘I doubt I’ll ever be as famous an actress or make any scientific innovations like she did.’ Penny chortled at the thought even though she was flattered by the kindness of the Schiffers.

‘She didn’t set out to be those things, either.’ Annette was ready to dive into the history of the Austrian film star but her family’s giggles drew her attention.

‘What were you telling Papa and Teresa, and me about privacy and boundaries, mama?’ Maria’s smirk set off more laughter.

‘Are you a fan of Hedy Lamarr, Annette?’

‘I teach film history at the University of Music and Performing Arts. Austrian film and theater of the early 20th century is my field of interest.’

‘My friend Missy is putting together applications for film schools. Your university is one she’s applying to.’ The synchronicity of today’s meetings with the questions in her head struck Penny deeply.

‘How marvelous the world is. Is she an actress like you?’ Annette’s curiosity had been peeked by Penny’s background. She wondered if Missy was of a similar kind to the American actress.

Penny shared some thoughts about her Texas friend’s intentions. Annette grew curious to learn more about Missy after hearing Penny’s opinion of her work as well as learning of Laura Karnstein’s support. Annette had collaborated on several papers with Laura so she respected her judgements on media work and promising students. They spoke more about Penny’s plans in Vienna so the discovery that the Schiffers were going to the Mozart concert this evening was a delight to everyone except the Schiffer daughters.

‘You can’t go without us!’ The girls were dismayed that their parents would be spending the evening with Kaley Jenkins.

‘You girls said you didn’t want to waste your time on ‘boring old Mozart’ and that you had a Coven Binge you had planned before the new season began.’ The fatherly teasing brought shrieks from his daughters.

‘Quite right, Gustl, the girls should be encouraged to explore their interests instead of following lockstep with their parents. You should enjoy your TV show without regrets, my darlings.’

Penny chuckled at the game of family brinkmanship and suggested having dinner together before the opera. The Schiffers were glad to agree. Gustav was eager to talk more with Penny about her physics work. Annette chided them both with a plea to not turn the evening into a symposium on cosmology and quantum mechanics. She did hope that Missy would be coming. Penny was reluctant to speak for her friend, especially since she didn’t want to get in the way of any plans she might have already made with Helen. She felt for the sisters since they were frustrated to miss going to the opera, tonight. She suggested an early dinner and let the girls decide the restaurant. They wanted to go to Veggiezz, a vegan restaurant near the opera house. Penny had seen the restaurant with its airy décor, plain woodwork interior and unpretentious atmosphere after she’d left the opera house. It was a great idea since it was right next door to the opera and they could eat and easily go back to their hotels to change for the performance after they ate.

‘You do like vegan food, don’t you? We know you’re not vegan like the witches on the show but…’ The girls were transparent in wanting to pick someplace Penny would like.

‘That will be fine.’ Penny figured they wouldn’t want to know what she was up to in Texas last summer. She had no idea about Missy or Helen’s feelings on the cuisine but she guessed from Missy and her family’s eating habits, getting her Texan friend there might be like trying to get a vampire to go to a church. She settled on a time to meet at the restaurant and wished the Schiffers a happy day out.

She waved to Maria and Teresa one more time and then contemplated the statue of Archduke Charles. She recalled her trip here with Sheldon. That evening dancing had moved her. She recalled her musings in the Karnstein library in the light of day here with the Schiffers and the bustle of this modern city around her. She was grateful for the world Sheldon had opened up for her but ever since her dreams in Karnstein she kept pondering her independence.

It was a strange thing to think about because no one would have called her dependent on anyone these days. Penny would never have considered the question before coming to Austria. She strolled over to the statue of Prince Eugene while she contemplated. This place was where her relationship with Sheldon had taken on a new level but it wasn’t where that relationship had started. It had started while she was building the collector’s room. She still felt overwhelmed from Sheldon noticing how adept she was with the construction and encouraging her talent. That was something few people ever did, not even Kurt.

She had loved any chance to do things with her father when she was growing up but her mother was always telling her she shouldn’t be playing with tools, shouldn’t be out hunting, shouldn’t be trying to get herself killed in rodeos. She wouldn’t have cared about that if her dad had ever stood up for her but it was always listen to your mother. She always had to sideline or hide what she wanted but what she really wanted was her dad’s appreciation and there wasn’t much appreciation from him for anything girly. She supposed that had made Kurt so special at that prom. He had listened to her. Penny chuckled since Carmilla had said the same thing about her past. Rushing into that marriage had been impulsive and inevitable. Kurt had listened to her, supported her acting, and encouraged it. He had also used it as a cover to cheat but it wasn’t the cheating that hurt so much. If they’d never married, she’d have forgotten the cheating long ago. It was the broken vows that galled her.

‘Maybe, Missy was right. I fell in love with someone who couldn’t betray me.’

Having thought of her friend, she called Missy to tell her about dinner with the Schiffers. Missy and Helen were fine with missing the restaurant. Penny had been right on their reactions to the cuisine there. Also, it would be easier for them coming back from Bavaria to meet up with Penny at the hotel where they could change from clothes made for touring ranches to their new clothes Penny had bought. They were eager to give the new outfits a try. The Texan was curious to meet Annette. She agreed with Penny about what a lucky coincidence it was.

Penny went back to contemplating her growing reliance on Sheldon after she said goodbye to Missy. Her dream the other night at Karnstein had unsettled her complaisance about the time she’d been spending with her spectral friend. She downloaded an audio tour of the palace but in her mind a running comparison of the opulent but hurried reality of the tourist filled landmark kept tally with the romantic glamour of Sheldon’s version. She was amazed by how much she hadn’t seen on her spectral wanderings. The Sisi Museum thrilled Penny. The gowns of the fabled empress were the stuff of fairytale. It didn’t surprise her that Sheldon had never ventured there. The grand gallery where she’d waltzed at the winter ball was every bit as beautiful in the light of day as it had been in her dream trips here.

She paused the audio tour and switched to her music list to pull up the Strauss waltzes that she wanted to hear while she gazed on this magnificent gallery. She swayed gently to the opening notes of the Blood Waltz. The music swept her mind back to that night. The ceiling’s murals recalled Bernadette’s reception and the first dances. Bernie and Howard had been transported by joy to another world, especially Howard. Debbie wept for happiness at Howard’s smile. One she hadn’t seen the like of since before Sheldon had died. Penny had danced with Carl Parda but seeing Elizabeth struggling with some cameras had diverted her from the dance floor. Elizabeth’s assistant hadn’t shown up so Penny had offered to help the new studio intern.

Their camaraderie had grown quickly that night. Elizabeth was still getting used to meeting actors from the shows at the studio so Penny’s help had her fumbling at first. Elizabeth’s fascination at the studio was for the directors and cinematographers so explaining the camera work to Penny broke the ice between them. Penny chuckled at the recollection of Bernie’s snit when she found Penny dressed down to help with the photography. Talking with Elizabeth had felt like her prom night with Kurt. She would have spent the night with Elizabeth but she’d held back just like she’d told Missy. She had cared that Sheldon was there. She hadn’t thought about it like she’d have been cheating, not at the time, but now she shook her head in consternation. She’d never dwelt on the why before until she’d talked to Missy about Helen. She had gotten caught up in ‘the grieving widow’ routine. The press and her fans ate it up. She laughed at the ridiculousness of it often enough but she had taken advantage of it when it suited her. It let her make a safe romance of her time with Sheldon.

Penny switched the music from Strauss to ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’. The first notes made her gasp from the roiling emotions that welled up in her. The song didn’t belong here. The gallery felt too much like Sheldon and this song didn’t belong with him like it did with Helen. She’d admired Helen from the first time they’d met. Rodeo competitions had defined them since they went to different schools and the competitions were their only place to meet. They’d always looked for each other like Snoopy and The Red Baron until that day in North Platte. Penny had never realized how deeply that day had cut into her heart. She’d avoided getting attached to anyone when she started dating. Make out and be done with it had been her way until she met Kurt.

She had kept gnawing at Kurt’s getting away with hurting her for years. She realized the reasons why were older than she had thought. She’d avoided serious feelings for anyone she’d gone out with before him. A couple of dates at most and be done with it had earned her a reputation in school. She hadn’t cared. She wondered how much of that was because of how much that fight with Helen had hurt. She’d seldom thought of that fight after that summer, had put it out of her mind until the séance. She had to ask if putting it out of her mind had been so she didn’t have to deal with how much the idea Helen had cheated against her had hurt.

‘Are you alright, miss?’ Penny shook herself out of her reverie and felt how wet her face was from tears.

‘Oh, yes. I was listening to my music and admiring everything here. It’s overwhelming all of this at once.’ Penny felt the ragged notes in her voice. The woman seemed satisfied with the answer by her smile but the polite glance away to the ceiling with Penny spoke of her awareness that the answer wasn’t the whole truth.

‘Yes, it can be, although I prefer the Schönbrunn Palace. I love the gardens. It is also airier since it was the summer palace.’

‘My friends and I plan to visit there after they get back from Bavaria this afternoon.’ Penny wiped her face with a tissue the woman offered her and smiled with some dismay for what else to say.

‘Excuse me for asking, but aren’t you Penny Queen?’

‘Yes, I am. Are you a fan of The Coven, miss…?’

‘Oh, I’m Elsa Reh, an assistant curator here. Yes, I do watch the show, but I love your theater work much more. I saw you on stage many times when I was studying at UCLA. I loved your performance as Martha in Camus’s Cross Purposes. It was chilling how you played her revealing the way she’d murdered her brother to his wife like she was recalling things from a ’to do’ list. The indifferent way you told Maria to turn her heart into stone to survive in the real world still haunts me.’ The young woman flushed with embarrassment recognizing how she was forgetting herself in her admiration for Penny’s work.

‘Thank you, I love Camus’s plays. No one ever brings up my theater work anymore, thank you.’ Penny felt thrilled by this coincidence. She lingered with Elsa over talk of theater and of the Hofburg. Elsa had a lot of helpful hints for Penny about what to do in Vienna that tourists seldom found. Penny was so happy with talking to Elsa that she decided to set up her return visit to Vienna for the winter celebrations at the Hofburg with Elsa’s help. She thanked Elsa again after they had finished reserving tickets for the winter ball. She wanted to see more of the palace so before she could start ruminating she switched back to the audio tour choosing the German language version. Concentrating on that would give her some peace from doing any more armchair psychoanalyzing her past.

+++

Penny went to a nearby sausage shop, the Hofburgstüberl, after she was done sightseeing. It was in a small passageway that she never would have noticed without Elsa’s directions. The white vaulted roof made the tunnel bright and inviting in spite of the steady stream of tourists visiting the shops along the tunnel. The cozy shop had three small tables outside and just as few within but it was quiet in the early afternoon after lunchtime. Penny ordered a waldviertler, a smoked sausage and a Kaiser roll along with a cappuccino. She didn’t mind the idea of the vegan restaurant but she wasn’t going to kid herself about craving something meat related if Veggiez cuisine was all she had with the Schiffers. She sat in the corner with her order and admired the white wood trimming that accentuated the soft pale turquoise of the walls. There were pictures of the neighborhood around the Hofburg from the nineteenth century up to today. It was a micro-history of the palace surrounding a painting of ‘der alte Herr’ Emperor Franz Joseph I. Penny was charmed by the ambience. She closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma of the steaming sausages while she enjoyed they hum of people wandering outside the shop and occasionally coming in for an order to go. Sheldon would be appalled by the informal traffic so close to food being prepared. He would never have let her enjoy this place in peace.

Penny felt the kismet of the conversation she had in the Hofburg with Elsa once again. ‘Cross Purposes’ had been one of her first forays into Absurdist Theater. She had relished the bleak nihilism of the world that the characters struggled through. It stirred her psychic beliefs to have the part of Martha brought up on the heels of her thoughts about relationships in school. She had turned her heart to stone in many ways after Helen so she wouldn’t get hurt like that again. Kurt had gotten through her stone walls. Her anger wasn’t simply the cheating or old memories of Helen. It had also been anger at herself for having trusted Kurt. Was she making sure no one else could get through by making Sheldon her ersatz boyfriend? She didn’t have to trust Sheldon not to hurt her by cheating. He was dead, after all. She munched her roll and sausages meditatively.

‘Bernie’s right to be worried about you, Slugger. You are a mess.’ Penny frowned at her reflection in her phone. She pondered the pictures of the palace neighborhood. It had seen a thousand changes over the century pictured in images on the wall. She had felt a lot of changes in her life since she had moved into Los Robles.

‘Those changes aren’t going to stop, like it or not.’ She picked up her phone and paused. She made up her mind to take charge of that change. Elizabeth was in charge of the studio’s cast updates on The Coven. She was also handling Penny’s social messaging about the vacation. She had made Penny’s vacations over the years a much easier get away than she could thank the publicist for. Elizabeth had a wonderful sense for how much to put online that Penny had come to trust her implicitly with her social messaging persona.

“To LizEye:
In Vienna at last. Will send pics and comments for next vacay update, tomorrow.
Will be back in Pasadena next week, Thursday.
How about dinner on Friday?
QueenP”

Penny sent the message and put the phone down next to the now empty plate. She took a breath, picked up her coffee, and stared at the screen while she sipped her drink.

+++

Missy and Helen got back to the Sacher at 4pm which gave them plenty of free time before Mozart at 8. They went up to the suite to see if Penny was back from her sightseeing but she had yet to come back. They tossed their travel bags down near the door after which Helen opened the balcony window to enjoy the view outside. Missy joined her to take in the sight with her.

‘Do you think Penny ought to have gotten back yet?’

‘No, there’s a lot to see out there. We’ve gotten used to exploring on our own over the last month. I expect she’s alright but I want to give her a ring to let her know we’re back.’

‘While you do that, I want to take a shower after all that traveling, today.’ Helen went back inside to get her bag.

‘That sounds like a fine idea. I want to take a look at the clothes Penny got for us at that Sisi Salon.’ Missy curled up on the couch to call Penny.

‘Don’t you go digging into those new clothes without me?’ Helen dropped down on the couch with a rueful glare at the grinning Texan.

‘I wouldn’t think of it. I’m waiting to see what you look like in your new things.’ Missy raised an eyebrow with a smirk and then kissed Helen.

‘You could help me get ready in the shower. It would speed things up, you know.’

‘It don’t sound to me like showering’s going to go any faster that way. Go get ready.’ Missy gave Helen a friendly shove.

‘Bored with me already, what a character you are.’ Helen shook her head and chuckled dryly. She took Missy’s hand and feather kissed her fingers.

‘Get along with you while I call Penny. I’ll be along, afterward.’ Missy gave her girlfriend a kiss and then a gentle push off the couch toward the shower. She got her phone out of her jacket while she watched Helen sauntering down the hall to the bathroom. She hoped Penny was having just as good a time.

‘Missy, how’s it going with Helen’s job search?’

‘She’s ready to choose one of the offers but she wants to talk some things over with her riding team before she agrees. She’s part of some shows coming up and she wants to work out the timing with the job she wants if she can. Where are you?’

‘I’m still at the Hofburg. It’s wonderful here. I’m sneaking some sausages at a little café before dinner with the Schiffers.

‘Texas sends its condolences.’ They shared a wry chuckle over their mutual feelings about the cuisine. ‘Is the whole family vegan?’

‘I think it’s just the daughters. I had a vegan phase for a week back when I was fourteen. Helen put an end to that at the barbecue pit when we were competing in the Sutherland Junior Queen Rodeo. I wanted to do something with the Schiffer girls because they are fans of the show. They didn’t want to go to the opera with their parents until we ran into each other at the Heldenplatz.’

‘When you say it like that, I wonder if we should go since Annette is at University of Music and Performing Arts like you said. I would really like to get in there.’

‘No, we’ll be meeting them at the opera and probably coffee or drinks afterwards. We’ll have plenty of time to talk, then. This whole meeting was pure luck so they won’t be expecting you of the blue.’

‘I guess you’re right. Besides, we want to try out the clothes you got us this morning. I was even thinking of looking at that clothes shop you got them from before we have dinner.’

‘That sounds like fun. The Sisi Salon is about a five minute walk from the hotel on Annagasse. There’s a couple of nice Italian restaurants next to the Sisi. The Trattoria La No looks charming and it is right nearby.’

‘I could do with some Italian food to go with The Marriage of Figaro’. I’ll ask Helen if she likes Italian. Do you want to meet here before the opera?’

‘Yeah, I’ll change into the dress I got for the opera after dinner and we can all go together, say leave around 7:30?’ The friends agreed to meet at the hotel and said goodbye.

+++

Penny checked the time to make sure she wasn’t running late to get to dinner with the Schiffers. She twitched in surprise when her phone rang before she could put it down. She pulled a wry smirk since Sheldon was calling. She hoped this wouldn’t be a repeat of their last conversation. She was glad Missy wouldn’t have to hear it in case it was.

‘Hey, Sheldon, how’s the times in Specter-heim?’

‘Hello, Penny. I was hoping you were in a better state to discuss your meeting with Prof. Bauschinger. It’s been a month with hardly a word about such an important subject but I suppose the bacchanalia hangovers have inhibited that.’

‘Oh, Vienna has been fantastic. What? Oh, we wanted to move on from Graz after a rough morning there the other day.’ Penny bit her tongue before she let her lingering annoyance from that call get any more fuel.

‘What does travel from Graz to Vienna have to do with Prof. Bauschinger?’

Penny shook her head with a sigh at the confusion in Sheldon’s voice. She brought her tray over to the counter and ordered a bottle of the Wieselburger Schwarzer beer. She checked the time once more while she went back to the table with her beer. She didn’t have the time for a row with her socially maladjusted ghost-friend so she took a deep slug of her drink before starting. The rich taste calmed her down. She hated wasting good beer on arguments. She shouldn’t have thought an apology for the other day was going to come out of nowhere, not from Sheldon, not after six years of living with him.

‘The meeting went great but I don’t have time to get into details. We’re going to the opera and I need to get showered and changed for the evening.’

‘What is so special about opera after you’ve been able to confer with one of the finest physicists on Earth?’

‘Going to the opera is the kind of thing you do when you’re on vacation in Vienna, Sheldon. If you’re so anxious to find out about what I’ve been up to after meeting Prof. Bauschinger, you can take a look in my cloud folder. I’ve been uploading some proposals I whipped up while we were in the Rhineland. Look for the folder ‘Super Asymmetry’, everything’s in there.’

‘I am glad you haven’t turned the entire trip over to female hedonism. Missy is a terrible influence where hormones are concerned.’

‘I suppose I should turn any free time over to nerd memorabilia like just hop over to Boston and take pictures of Leonard Nimoy’s birthplace?’ Penny took a deeper drink of her beer and grimaced at the half empty bottle. She was thankful Missy didn’t have to hear that kind talk again.

‘You could have taken a local train that runs to Boston in less than an hour. A train which stops at North Station, just a few minutes’ walk from Leonard Nimoy’s place of birth. You could have made the trip with little effort and been able to appreciate the life and origins of a cultural icon.’

‘Sheldon, I was in the middle of filming my show. I couldn’t just-‘ A polite cough from the table next to her cut off Penny’s building tirade. She squeaked out an embarrassed wheeze and blushed to her toes.

‘Guy trouble with Sheldon, miss? Don’t let it distress you too much. My husband had me going that loud this morning.’ The woman half of the elderly Asian couple at the next table introduced themselves as tourists from South Korea.

‘I apologized for that mistake.’ The husband grumbled with a chuckle.

‘You can go on apologizing with some new earrings for the opera, tonight.’

Penny laughed and relaxed after causing a scene in her ire at Sheldon’s obtuseness. She apologized to the couple again and then turned her attention back to her ghost.

‘Sheldon, sweetie, let’s not argue about our interests. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you wanting me to see Captain Kirk’s hometown.’

‘Mr. Spock, Penny, Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock. Captain Kirk was played by William Shatner whose hometown is Montreal, Canada.’

‘Thanks, sweetie.’ Penny downed another sizeable gulp of her beer. She grinned and rolled her eyes at the knowing grins from the elderly couple. It helped remind her to keep the conversation on topic.

‘Like I was saying, my cloud folder has the outlines of the hypothesis I’ve been developing after meeting with Prof. Bauschinger. I just found out he brought up my ideas with Gustav Schiffer.’ Penny looked at her phone after a minute of silence from the other end to make sure it was still working.

‘Still there, Sheldon?’

‘Professor Gustav Schiffer at the CERN Institute? Bauschinger discussed your ideas with him?’

‘Yeah, I just met Herr Schiffer a couple of hours ago here at the Hofburg. He is on vacation with his family. He sounded pretty impressed.’

‘Penny, wemustdiscussthis-… no, youhavetofindhim… no, weshould-‘

‘Calm down, Moonpie. I’m having dinner with him and his family in a little over a half hour. I really have to go, Talk to you later, sweetie.’

‘What? Dinner? Penny!’

‘That will fix you.’ She hung up with a loud cackle. She finished her beer and said goodbye to the Korean couple wishing them a good time at the opera telling them she was going tonight, as well.

Penny hurried back to the Sacher to drop off her souvenirs. She found a note from her suite mates saying hello and reiterating their pre-opera plans. She jumped in the shower with a shower cap since there wasn’t time to deal with her hair, anymore. She was grateful everything was so close so she didn’t have to be in a complete tizzy. She dressed quickly but a text came to her phone that gave her stomach a different kind of flip.

“T